Saturday, July 19, 2008

Wolf Protections Reinstated!

With over 108 wolves killed since Endangered Species Act protections were lifted in March, they are now protected again. The Idaho Statesman and other sources are reporting that the Federal judge has restored protection for northern Rocky Mountain wolves. The judge has ruled that the Fish and Wildlife Service violated their own rules and criteria in allowing the delisting. The order is a temporary order but it indicates that the final ruling is expected to be consistent.

This lawsuit makes a few very important points. The Fish and Wildlife service determined what would be required to have a sustainable and healthy wolf population in the future. This criteria included maintaining minimum populations in the three primary states of Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana.  The Wyoming wolf management plan was eventually adopted without this guarantee. Second, the Fish and Wildlife Service determined that genetic exchange between the three core populations would also be required. Delisting occurred before this criteria was met. These issues were the basis of the ruling.

In my previous feedback to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and to the Idaho Fish and Game, I have emphasized both of these issues. That minimum populations must be maintained and that those populations must be sufficiently large to benefit our ecosystems and cause wolf dispersals.  These dispersals will be to other locations which do not have wolves today (wolves from Idaho have dispersed to both Oregon and Washington). but also between populations to keep genetic diversity strong. I do believe that wolves should be delisted but only if we have processes in place to ensure that they don't return to the list through our mismanagement.

Defenders of Wildlife and the other conservation organizations need to be commended on their work here.  I have been a financial supporter of Defenders of Wildlife since they established the critical reimbursement fund for any wolf depredations. They were willing to put their money to work to make the wolf reintroduction happen.

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Thursday, July 17, 2008

Scientific Study Provides New Hope for Leatherback Turtle

It's a sciencey week here on this blog. A few days ago I discovered another very interesting scientific paper that I just had to report on. This paper, as with the last one I reviewed, was also published in the Public Library of Science (PLoS) Biology Journal.

This particular article deals with Leatherback Sea Turtles. For long time readers you will remember a post here back in May of 2006 titled Saving the Leatherback Turtle. This post was a summary of Karyn and I's experience on an Earthwatch Institute trip to work with endangered Leatherback Sea Turtles in St Croix. This was a fabulous experience which I still cherish to this day. The result is that I do know a bit about Leatherback Turtles and have taken a closer interest ever since. We even helped attach GPS tracking harnesses to a few of the female turtles in conjunction with NOAA. I still remember laying in the sand near the surf reaching under this 800 pound monster to help attach the harness. This experience was a major factor in my eventual decision to return to school. I assume the harnesses that we attached to be very similar to those used in the study.

Lets get on to the article:

Persistent Leatherback Turtle Migrations Present Opportunities for Conservation Shillinger GL, Palacios DM, Bailey H, Bograd SJ, Swithenbank AM, et al. PLoS Biology Vol. 6, No. 7, e171 doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.0060171

The paper describes a large multi-year study of the migration routes of female Leatherback Turtles after they leave the nesting area. The hope of the study was to find if common patterns could be identified that could be used in targeted conservation programs. The result is that they did identify two specific areas in the Pacific Ocean that if protected for part of the year could have a large impact on reducing bycatch and death of Leatherback Turtles.

It's important to note that the Leatherback Sea Turtle is listed as critically endangered by the IUCN. This is the highest classification of endangered species before "Extinct in the Wild". The Eastern Pacific Ocean population studied in the paper has decreased by greater than 90% in the last two decades. This has happened with strong conservation programs in place on the nesting beaches. The problem is in the oceans.

The study attached GPS tracking units that report locations back through satellites to an impressive 46 different female turtles in three different nesting years (27 units in 2004, 8 in 2005, and 11 in 2007). The result is that within a given year the vast majority of females leaving the nesting area followed roughly the same path to the feeding grounds even though they did not all travel together. When compensating for variable currents, the paths became even more consistent and were more consistent from year to year.

This consistent path concentrates individuals in a few key areas at similar times. By protecting these areas during those time windows conservation could be greatly enhanced.

It is noted in the study that this population of turtles may be unique in its focused path to its feeding grounds. Some of the other world populations tend to rely more on the currents. The potential hypothesis for this were quite interesting. One was that this population might have a more organized feeding ground. That the demands of egg production might cause a more urgent need to get to those feeding grounds. A much more depressing hypothesis is that through our fishing practices we might have already extirpated the phenotypes which would travel elsewhere.

I found this a very compelling and impactful article personally, possibly due to my emotional attachments to Leatherback Turtles. The experience of acting as a Leatherback mid-wife can have that effect. Regardless, the data demonstrates specific, fairly low cost conservation efforts which could have a significant impact on the reduction of Turtle bycatch and thus provide hope for their survival. Tactically it has also broadened my perspective on approaches of conservation sciences.

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Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Predicting Ecosystem Invasibility

I Support the Public Library of Science I have recently registered for the Public Library of Science's Biology feed alerting me to new articles of interest. I have chosen to focus on PLOS as they provide the full content of the published scientific papers to the public. The other science journals restrict public access to the material for some period of time, unless you pay to be a member. Since I am not ready to take that step yet, I have been watching PLOS instead. You might have noticed that it was impossible to get at the original articles referenced in some of my recent favorite science stories of the week.

A recent article that caught my attention was:

Bulleri, F., Bruno, J.F., Benedetti-Cecchi, L. (2008). Beyond Competition: Incorporating Positive Interactions between Species to Predict Ecosystem Invasibility. PLoS Biology, 6(6), e162. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.0060162

The paper is a theoretical paper exploring an alternative model for looking at ecosystem invasion than is in common use today. According to the paper, most studies of invasive species are focusing on the resource availability or species diversity within the ecosystem as a predictors for invasibility.

The paper argues that facilitation of the invasive species by native or other non-native species could have a much larger impact on potential invasibility than pure resource availability. They argue that facilitation can counter balance the effects of competition. This aspect could explain the conflicting results of small scale experimental studies showing that high native species diversity is a deterrent to invasibility and large scale observational studies which often shows the opposite.

The paper provides a compelling argument for the theory which has broadened my understanding of the interaction between an invasive species and the ecosystem. While no direct experimental results were presented, the theory seems intuitive enough that it warrants consideration in invasive species analysis. I would have preferred to see more observational examples of the concept in action to illustrate that facilitation is more than a minor impact in the overall equation.

This paper further supports one of my complaints about most ecosystem intervention. We too often believe we understand all of the intricate interactions of wild systems, but once we intervene, we realize that we don't.

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Monday, July 14, 2008

Getting Published

This past week I expanded my publishing repertoire. In addition to this blog, I have now published my first contribution to the Wikipedia online encyclopedia.

In The Null Survey, I incorrectly referred to hearing Boreal Owls in the distance while on a Nightjar survey. I had originally considered that the sound I was hearing was instead a Wilson's Snipe. I searched four sources looking for any reference of Wilson's Snipe being active long after dark including two traditional field guides and two online sources. This included Wikipedia. None of the four sources made any reference to Wilson's Snipe winnowing after dark. I therefore concluded that I was hearing Boreal Owls.

In Snipe Hunt, I describe my return to the area to validate if I was hearing Wilson's Snipe or Boreal Owls. I was hearing Wilson's Snipe.

The question is how can I share my experience with others so that they might avoid making the same embarrassing mistake. For three of the sources it would require contacting the authors and convincing them that the change would be valuable, then waiting for the next edition. I already know that further clarification of the possible confusion would have helped me. The great aspect of the Wikipedia project is that as a public resource it can be enhanced and improved by the public. I can use my personal experience to help educate others to avoid making a similar mistake.

I invested a few minutes, which is all it took, to improve the Wilson's Snipe and Boreal Owl pages of Wikipedia. They now cross reference the similarities of sounds between the two species and the fact that the Snipe is active after dark. If these clarifications were to help a single individual, then it was worth my time.

Wikipedia is an excellent project which I am using more and more. As such I expect that this will not be my last contribution. My experience has proven that you don't have to be an expert to make a valuable contribution.

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Sunday, July 13, 2008

Volunteering Change-Up

It seems that many of my posts recently somehow relate directly or indirectly to my pending reintroduction to the college life. I am just 5 weeks away from the first day of classes in my "encore career" degree program (see Mid-life Crisis for the details).

In preparation for the significant time investment I will be making (two classes while working full time), I have reduced some of my volunteer activities.

Effective after our upcoming August meeting, I have resigned from the Community Planning Association of Southwest Idaho's (COMPASS) Public Participation Committee (PPC) and Transportation Modeling Advisory Committee (TMAC). I have served 2.5 years on each of these committees. I have the utmost respect for the people working in these organizations. Compass has the legal responsibility to create a long term transportation plan for the Treasure Valley, which they have delivered upon - Communities in Motion. Unfortunately our public officials have significantly ignored this plan and pushed on the status quo of more and more sprawl. This doesn't imply that there has been no value out of the plan, it has had an impact and will continue to be relevant. With higher gas prices and a downturn in the economy, this plan may become more relevant than ever. I am pleased with my contributions in this area and will continue to be a strong proponent of Compass and the long range plan.

I have also resigned from the Steering/Technical Committee of Blueprint for Good Growth. I have only participated on this committee for the past year. The Blueprint team is an Ada County activity focus on putting the toolkit together to enable better planning and execution of growth. For example, a major work product of the team is the adequate public facilities ordinance. This proposed ordinance is intended to ensure that there is a plan to fund the public facilities required by new development before the new development is approved. Hmm, seems kind of obvious but unfortunately no such requirement exists in any of our cities or in the county. Other activities of the group include the open space plan, work on transit ready development, and a coordination process for areas of impact planning. All items that need a great deal of attention for the health of our community. I found my role in this group much more difficult as I had little to offer. Most of the work was in the details of how planning takes place within our cities. Being an outsider to city government, I just didn't find many ways to contribute. I did find it a valuable and interesting process personally. This group is currently in transition as the contract for the lead program manager has expired. The activity is likely to move over to Compass.

Just as I reduced my activities in the above three committees, my boss brought a new community opportunity to me. This opportunity was for Valley Regional Transit's Regional Coordination Council.

The Regional Coordination Council (RCC) is a group of Treasure Valley public transportation stakeholders who are meeting to:
• Develop a Transportation Service Coordination Plan on behalf of local stakeholders within the service area of Ada and Canyon counties and the greater Boise, Idaho metropolitan area
• To respond to a federal requirement established with the passage of the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU) which mandates the development of a coordination human services plan in order to access applicable federal funds
• To examine the potential to complement, through coordination activities, existing public services provided within its core service area of Ada and Canyon counties

Based on the fact that my employer would support me in this activity, I agreed to join the group. The group is made up of a variety of stakeholders representing key transportation users. I will be representing large businesses within the committee, although I also qualify for a transit user but there is another user fulfilling that official role. I showed up late to the first meeting, so the group elected me chair of the committee. Actually, no one would volunteer so the Valley Regional Transit representative asked me if I would be the chair. I agreed. Since no one else wanted to do it, I was unanimously voted into the position.

Even though I have added this additional committee, dropping the other three should significantly reduce my workload on transportation issues.

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Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Birds, Frogs, and Storms

click images to enlarge

This story is a continuation of my previous post called Snipe Hunt, regarding our weeklong vacation to central Idaho to celebrate our anniversary, 14 years! Our camping visitors all left leaving Karyn and I to spend the final 4 days by ourselves.

First up on the agenda was a rest day, at least from the bike. We decided instead to go search for wildlife and maybe take in some swimming in the afternoon. We lathered up with sunscreen and bug repellent and set out into some marshy meadows to explore. The mosquitos were particularly thick after our cool wet spring. Near a series of ponds in an old mining area we scared a Sandhill Crane off of his/her nest. We moved back a little hoping that he/she would come back, but it was still unsettled by our presence.

The ponds had quite a few of what we believe to be Northern Leopard Frogs.

We wanted to spend more time, but the Sandhill Crane was intent on getting us out of there. We moved out of the area to leave him/her in peace. We visited some other meadows before heading out for our swim.

The swim plans changed as we approached Redfish Lake, the best swimming lake in the area, although usually overrun with people. There had been a sudden storm the night before in the area, one that folded up our bug tent breaking one of the poles, but didn't seem too bad overall. Apparently the Redfish Lake area was much harder hit. The Forest Service was turning people away at the entrance road. We would visit a few days later to see thousands of trees broken off on the East end of the lake near the lodge. Apparently a wind shear hit that particular area and created a horrible mess. Winds in excess of 60 mph. We returned to our camp and played in the river instead.

We finally gave up the mountain tandem for a day and took out our single mountain bikes. We have had great luck finding great trails by just choosing a random forest trail on the map and trying it out. Of course, we have also found some unridable trails as well. Our adventure today took us up Peach Creek. A beautiful 4x4 road which I was hoping would allow us to connect to some great downhill trails. We reached the trailhead at about 8 miles in. Straight up. We pushed our bikes for a while, but there was no sign the steepness would relent. We turned back and took another spur of the road which later deteriorated into a path and then to nothing but brush. We decided to give up exploring for the day. On our way back down we met a local on a four wheeler. He said that if we had bushwhacked for a quarter mile further we would have gotten onto a good trail. He advised us where to begin on the better trail, which we plan to do at a later date.

The last two days we returned to the mountain tandem riding the Elk Meadows trail and a repeat on the Fisher Creek trail, which is our favorite. We were married on the Fisher Creek trail 14 years ago this month. Elk Meadows was beautiful, filled with wildflowers, winnowing snipes, and lots and lots of mosquitos.

On our final night we chose to have dinner and spend the evening overlooking a beaver marsh in the Valley Creek area. Lots of birds, muskrat, and two frolicking beavers. It was a great night and a great end to the trip.

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Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Snipe Hunt

I don't know the entire history of the Snipe hunt, but as I understand it is an old practical joke that is played while camping. The group convinces a newcomer to go on a Snipe Hunt. The newcomer is given a bag to catch the birds while the others supposedly circle around to chase the birds so he/she can catch them in the bag. Once the bag holder is in position, the others leave. Instead of circling around, they simply go back to camp, leaving the newcomer waiting. I have been told that this is where our saying "left holding the bag" comes from.

The 4th of July week brings our annual trip into the mountains near Stanley Idaho, the place where we were married. In celebration of our anniversary, we hike, mountain bike, bird watch, etc. Basically just enjoy the great outdoors.

This trip also had some new activities. Two weeks ago we had visited Stanley to perform a NightJar Survey for a research project at the College of William and Mary. I wrote about it in the article - The Null Survey. In the article I mentioned that we heard what we thought were Boreal Owls in the distance. After returning home and consulting with some of Idaho's most knowledgeable bird experts, they informed me that it was unlikely that they were Boreal Owls we were hearing and more likely Wilson's Snipe. While it was not an impossibility, they asked for more evidence before accepting my report. My description of what we heard led them to further question the possibility of owls. Anyway, I just had to go back try and prove it one way or another. I once again recruited Karyn and her parents to go along on my quest. We left in late evening to follow some of the same route we surveyed. Traveling the route in reverse just before dark we found at least 10 Sandhill Cranes, lots of Elk, and a few deer. We even found a beaver in one of the wetlands. It was a beautiful sunset. Then just after dark we approached one of the areas we had heard the owl/snipe. We moved in closer and closer still. At that point it was obvious. What we were currently hearing was a Wilson's Snipe with another in the distance. Our hunt was successful. While I would have preferred the opposite result, to find a Boreal Owl and prove it, I am glad that I put forth the effort to correct what I now know to be a mistake.

One day our friend Julie came to camp with us over night. We took her on a hike up to Lookout Peak Lookout.

Karyn on the left, Julie on the right

Its a 10 mile round trip with about 2000 feet of climbing. It was raining in the morning when we left, but we hoped that it would clear for our visit to the top. At about 3 miles in it looked to be doing just that. We were down to shorts an tee shirts. At mile 4 we acquired the ridge, the wind picked up and there was a nasty dark thundercloud on the horizon, we pushed on a little closer. At about a half mile form the lookout, we decided to stop for lunch and try to wait out the storm. After lunch the conditions continued to degrade with the sound of thunder roaring in our ears. We decided on the safe route and retreated down the mountain. The sun finally came out as we arrived back at the trailhead. It would seem a later hike would have been the wise choice. The mountains usually require the opposite, early hikes due to late afternoon thunder storms. The good news is that the mountains seem to have taken back their unpredictable nature. Last year we spent 10 days here and it was crystal clear and hot the entire time. Its great to have summer storms and rain come through.

Yesterday we rode our mountain tandem on the Fisher Creek trail. This is the trail on which we were married. The two of us were in sync as we rode well on the climbs and the descents. There were a few trees down blocking the trail, but luckily they were in places with good advanced visibility. Today's route took us on the Knapp Creek-Valley Creek loop. This is a three hour ride mostly easy with a few very technical places. At one point we were riding near a meadow. There was a heard of about 30-40 elk. While we were a good distance from them, they started running in the same direction that we were headed. We entered the trees and hoped to get around them. All of the sudden they crossed our path about 30-50 feet in front of us running at full speed through the trees. Yikes. Its a good thing that we weren't trampled. It's too bad that we spooked them from the best grazing grass. Based on their reaction, they had to be on edge before our arrival. Maybe they were chased by predators during the night. Another theory of mine is that they seek protection in the trees. While we were mostly passed them when they started running, we were headed into the trees partially blocking their route to what they must have viewed as their safety zone. It could also be that one of them started to run so they all did. Such is the way of herd animals. It was a fascinating experience.

Our camp is teaming with bird life. We have found a number of active nests. Ospreys fly by the river fishing most of the day. Some are returning to the nest just up the road with fresh fish. My bird book says that a Osprey brood requires 6 pounds of fish per day! Yellow Warblers flit by. We can see a nest of Red-tailed Hawks with at least 2 large chicks across the river high on the ridge. Elk visited the meadow across the river two nights ago during dinner. Each evening the Common Nighthawks arrive flying for insects overhead. This is why we were married in the area and return each year.

These two pictures were taken from the same chair in our camp.

Osprey taking flight.
Yellow Warbler.

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Monday, July 07, 2008

ARRL Field Day

Once a year I let my more geekish nature take over. Ok, actually much more often than once a year! Anyway, the fourth weekend in June brought the annual American Radio Relay League's field day amateur radio contest.  This annual event is a 24 hour contest for amateur radio operators to demonstrate their emergency preparedness by setting up communication operations and trying to make as many unique contacts in a single day as possible. Additional points are available for using emergency power, receiving press coverage, having an elected official show up, etc. I participated as part of the HP Boise Amateur Radio Club's operations.

A team or individual can choose which class to participate in.  The classes are determined by how many radio stations you have on the air and what type of operation it is.  For example, we participated as a 3A club.  This means we were operating three primary radios on alternative power. Other classes would be for mobile operations, home operation, or participating from an emergency management office.  You can score contacts from any class, but your point totals are only compared to teams operating in the same class.  The most ridiculous club I connected to was operating as a 23A. Twenty three transmitters all on emergency power.  I am sure they won their class (probably the only competitor).

The Bureau of Land Management was kind enough to allow us to operate from Bonneville Point near Boise.  The park is usually closed after dark, but they wrote us an exception letter. Our primary power supply was a solar/battery trailer borrowed from Idaho Power. Much thanks to them as well. This was augmented with solar capacity from my van and some other portable solar panels as well. We were allowed to operate lights and computers on generator power, but the radios themselves could not be. In addition to the three primary operating station we were allowed to have an additional station to get non-licensed individuals on the air.  Contacts on this station count for double points. It was a good thing that we had lots of scouts and other visitors to help on these points.

It ended up being a fairly elaborate setup.  We raised two portable towers and also used a number of wire antennas. In all, about 20-30 people participated. I operated one station from noon until 4pm, making radio contacts to California, Nevada, Utah, Texas, Missouri, Minnesota, Virginia, Florida, Tennessee, and Hawaii.  I would operate more later in the evening.  Being a morning person, I decided to sleep early and take the morning shift. I slept from 10pm-4am and then got back on the air operating until 8:30 in the morning.  It was a beautiful morning sitting high on Bonneville point and watching the sun rise over the mountains. Most everyone else had stayed up late and slept through the sunrise.

In the end, the event was very successful.  We won't know how we really did until later when all of the results are in.  We usually end up in the middle of the pack. Most importantly we all practiced our emergency communication and proved our various equipment was up to the task.

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