Category: wilderness protection


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People would feel foolish standing on the deck of a boat looking out over the ocean and declaring that nothing could be living underneath the water simply because they couldn’t see it.  Yet the same people drive past expansive grasslands and open country saying that “nothing’s out there” because they can’t see it.

Grasslands are like the ocean, with a sea of life swimming past.  The land undulates like waves, hiding animals from view. The frothy grass heads washed windward mask a multitude of little things.  You just have to wade through the grass and find these things.

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The easiest to find are the birds because they will rise above the waves of grass.  Harriers swoop low over the land, trying to scare up rodents. Falcons, hawks and owls perch on fenceposts and  in trees by creeks to scan for meals.  Even doves and meadowlarks use whatever they can find as a singing platform.

Then there are the mammals that can move through the grass, but use it for shade and cover.  Deer, pronghorns, bison all eat the grass, bed down in it, move through it.  Deer have a way of appearing suddenly out of grasslands, invisible until you get a white flag flipped in your face and see slender legs bounding away from you.

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Prairie dogs live under the sea bottom, and coyotes hunt at the bottom.  Black footed ferrets, rabbits and badgers keep the dogs company, while the real canids sniff around looking for a rodent, berry, or insect meal.

And then there are the really little things- bugs and bones, plants and fungi, rocks and flowers.  Even geologic monuments installed long, long ago. Finding all the interesting living and non-living things in a grassland sea even a mile square can take you hours, from dawn to dusk to catch them all.

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aprbuffalocampIt’s cold.  A thick layer of sparkly white frosting coats the tent like a muffin.  I’d say the temperature is somewhere in the 20’s.  It’s fall, so I expected this. I’m swaddled in synthetic puffy fabric and fleece, with rain jacket and pants to keep the slightest breeze from stealing heat. I brush most of the frost off the tent and then make coffee and read maps.

I’m at the Sun Prairie unit of the American Prairie Reserve, a privately funded island in an ocean of ranchland.  A place where people are working to put back on the land what we took away over a hundred years ago.

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Bison skulls awaiting processing for fertilizer. Unknown photograper, public domain, Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library.

The bison, a keystone species and our new national mammal was almost exterminated forever by the early 1900’s.  Mass kills were followed by mass efforts to pick the prairies clean of bones for fertilizer.

Everything changed with the death of bison and arrival of people determined to completely alter the landscape.  Wolves and bears feasted on bison carcasses, then were themselves shot, trapped, and poisoned.  We eradicated prairie dogs, hawks, snakes, anything that got in the way of our cattle, sheep, and chickens. Where there was water for cultivation, native flora gave way to the plow.

Now temperate grasslands are considered the most threatened communities of plants and animals on earth. Internationally, we’re recognizing that grasslands have been “cradling the needs of humans for millenia“.  We’re working to correct the past with more than a national designation for an animal.

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If this late-born red calf survives the winter, it will represent another hope for the future of bison. Yellowstone National Park, Sept 2016

Northeastern Montana is an area where large scale grassland preservation can be meaningful. Although the land has been changed at the surface, it hasn’t been plowed extensively.  Public lands can be bridged to provide large scale habitat.  The Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge spans 1.1 million acres of land along 125 air miles of the Missouri River. Enter APR, first a foundation, now a place, buying ranches from willing sellers, building fence, and trying to restore the prairie landscape.

aprlocalwelcomeIt won’t be easy, mostly because of people,  past as well as present. I pass signs on the road protesting the Reserve. Ranchers worry about their way of life, though farm radio news indicates  the economy and ranch debt is more threatening than conservation. People have introduced diseases like sylvatic plague that kills prairie dogs and black-footed ferrets alike. And we all know what weeds are like:  psychotically clingy stalkers that reappear at every turn no matter how you try to ditch them.

But there is hope.

The BLM has introduced the Undaunted Stewardship program to help ranchers protect natural and historic resources; the video below shows how people are working to make ranching more friendly. APR is also promoting ranches that protect wildlife with the Wild Sky beef program.

Promoting responsible ranches is commendable, but cows are not bison. Using private funds, APR is piecing together land, and retiring grazing rights to Russell NWR where it can. They are restoring grasslands and streambanks. They’re growing a bison herd that can help restore the natural grassland processes. As a privately funded organization, APR can be creative because they’re not beholden to politically-influenced federal land management practices. And very creative people are at work even in the government: the USFWS has plans to use drones and candy to vaccinate ferrets against the plague.

As I sit and drink my coffee, waiting for the sun to dry my tent, I try to get into the minds of settlers.  Why did we needlessly slaughter 65 million animals that took care of themselves and provided healthier meat than we can raise even with intensive management?  Why did we start this endless effort to manage the land for animals that can’t thrive here without protection and help? Why did we make it so hard for ourselves?

I imagine the mass migrations of bison Lewis and Clark saw: the grasslands teeming with bison, deer, pronghorn antelopes, birds, punctuated with the warning yips and yelps of prairie dogs.  I’ve heard the low, rumbling sound of a bison herd moving through Slough Creek Valley below my camp, grunting and murmuring drifting up the hill. But that herd was over a hundred, not tens of thousands. I wonder which future generation will hear those sounds again; when we’ll again see the abundance we’ve lost.

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After speeding away to a special assignment that includes social media, my life and my blog have been left in a dust cloud, pressed flat in the gravel like dehydrated roadkill. I worked my old job and my new job for five weeks until my work got transferred. Days never really ended. I forgot things. I needed everything to slow down.  I needed a break.

And there is the crazy, polarizing presidential campaign, the racism nightmare, terrorism. The national stress level is crushing on top of too little sleep/too much work.

Thankfully, I had long ago set up a trip to Montana to visit American Prairie Reserve and Yellowstone National Park.  After the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge occupation, I wanted to visit some refuges to – you know, take public land back.  Back from those cowboy hat Trojan horses funded by the resource extraction industries. The next few posts are about this trip.

What with my work-squashed neurons, I did a marginal job packing, and had to fill in a few things at Missoula.  Mostly, I had enough or maybe a little much.  Why I brought 3 pounds of cheese is a mystery. Simple math and consideration of cheese’s gastrointestinal effects would have fixed that.

I relax driving long distances and watching scenery slide by.  It’s meditation for a former Midwestern road tripper. By the time I reached Buffalo Camp at APR’s Sun Prairie unit, my brain had emptied, and I’d heard enough farm radio to forget about the world.  And I agreed with the greeting on the sign.  It was good.

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On cue, the Welcome Wagon bison showed me the location of my tent platform.  I didn’t ask him to stay and fluff my camp pillow, but he seemed willing to linger.

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Don’t worry- the deepest part is hidden on the left.

Of course, the first thing I decided to do was to cut my wrist with a knife.  Because too much crazy going on. For the first time in my knife-wielding life, I reached one hand over the other to grab something and neatly sliced my skin with the upward pointed tip.

The wound wasn’t terrible, though it was a bloody mess and will leave a scar.  It doesn’t really look like I tried to off myself:  I would get a D- for the effort. But if that tip had been 1/4 inch lower and an inch to the right- well, that would have been pretty dicey so far away from help. I’ve been there, long ago in northern Minnesota, with knee slices, broken ankle, appendicitis, and nearest medical care 45 miles away.  This one was easy, something pressure and gauze could fix once I decided to quit dripping blood on the tent and do something about it.

bridgebuffalocamptrailFinally, after setting up my temporary abode, I could stretch my legs walking out to the prairie dog town across the creek.  I could watch the prairie sunset and moonrise and curl up well-insulated in my sleeping bag, ready to start exploring the next day.

 

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The Harvest Moon is almost upon us…

 

 

 

 

 

Over increasingly large areas of the United States, spring now comes unheralded by the return of the birds, and the early mornings are strangely silent where once they were filled with the beauty of bird song.
Rachel Carson

 

This was true in Rachel Carson’s United States after people annihilated bird populations with DDT and other pesticides meant to protect us from pests.  New Zealand’s birds have been silenced by another human behavior: bringing the world of pests with us when we travel.

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Takahe on Kapiti Island. The North Island takahe went extinct.  The South Island takahe seen here was thought to be extinct until a small population was discovered.

New Zealand floated alone in the Pacific for 80+ million years, far away from Australia, Tonga, Fiji.  Like a person spending a lot of time alone, it developed some interesting features. In the beginning, there were only birds, and perhaps a bat species or two.  No mammals at all to scavenge nutritious eggs and snatch fledglings.  The birds didn’t need to go far, so flight fell by the wayside for some birds, and others are weak fliers.Giant moas grew to 8 feet tall at the shoulder; their only predator, the Haast’s eagle, weighed 30+ lbs.

And then it all changed 800 some years ago when the Maori arrived hungry, and accompanied by kiore, Polynesian rats. Then came stoats, cats, wasps, goats, deer, sheep, cows, dogs, red tailed oppossums, ship rats, Norway rats and so on.  Man is often called the worst pest because we hunt animals to extinction, burn down forests for pasture and farmland, and point skyward to justify our destruction.KiwiZoneSign

Today, we continue to bring pests, some too small to be seen.  On my recent trip to New Zealand, we were scrubbing and disinfecting shoes to prevent the spread of kauri dieback disease, a fungus. Then, we were picking through packs for plant material and small rodents before going to Kapiti Island sanctuaryKapiti-IslandWoodSign

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Around the world, concern about vanishing nature has occurred in waves throughout history.  We’re at a sort of end time in some places like New Zealand, where it’s an all-out war on pests to keep what’s left alive.  Sanctuaries are established offshore or behind fences, and then pests are poisoned, shot, trapped, lured to their deaths with Judas animals. The Goat Musterer has removed 20,000+ feral goats for food use. There are still a lot to go.

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It’s not a pretty approach, and intolerable to people with softer sensibilities living in sprawling countries like America.  We think there’s enough space, another way to do this. On the other side, some folks believe wiping out the indigenous flora, fauna (and sometimes people that were not considered to be such) is evidence of humans’ entitled dominion over the earth. On the other side, some believe we deserve Zika, Ebola, terrible influenzas.

I believe in balance.DangerTrapInside

In New Zealand, I found it strange to be in lush native bush with no birdsong. Protected sanctuaries immediately stand out for the melodic songs of tui and bellbirds. It’s taken years to bring them back, and constant vigilance to keep them that way, free of pests that overwhelm birds with no ability to adapt. People can live among the wild peacably:the Barrett family of Kapiti Island, holdouts who refused to sell their land for a sanctuary, are perfect examples of this.

When I came home to my postage stamp of a restoration project, rich with birdsong, bees, frogs, and butterflies, I realized we don’t have to take a bow and leave.  Sixteen years ago, I moved in to acres of invasive foreign grass on a horse property barren of life.  Sixteen years later, I come home to a wildlife sanctuary.  If we have courage, it can work.

ShortieRoots2The short-eared owls aren’t yet rare, but we still stand breathless waiting for them to fly moth-like as they hunt at sundown.  We listen for their raspy barks in flight, watch for them to land on a post, rootwad, or elderberry stem,  then their heads to wither us with the piercing owl stare.  I know they are reliable here at the Welts-Samish restoration area, overwintering before returning to northern breeding grounds.ShortieSunset

On a cold, sunny afternoon, we are all here chasing nature:  the duck hunters, the bird watchers, people taking kids for a walk, wildlife photographers, and me.

It dawns on me that nature used to chase us, and if we were chasing nature, it was just to get a meal.  Now, we chase what’s left of nature just for the experience.  Big game hunters spend tens of thousands of dollars on multi-day journeys to go on safari far away.  People fly to remote Churchill, Manitoba to view polar bears from the safety of lodges and snow buggies. Big Year birders look plain crazy to me, burning fossil fuels to tear around the world just to sight as many bird species as possible in a sort of manic stamp-collecting competition.

But I’m just as guilty of leaving a trail of carbon as I chase nature: flying to Costa Rica and driving from the Cloud Forest where the vanishing resplendent quetzal lives to the Osa Pensinsula to find the engandered Baird’s tapir.  I will be flying to Whitehorse in the Yukon to see the Northern Lights.  I’ve driven several times to Montana to hike and camp where grizzlies and bison roam. This year, I took three flights on my first trip to the barren and beautiful Canadian Arctic.

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I’d rather walk out the back door and see nature, so I’m doing as much restoration as I can. A long-eared owl stopped by for a couple weeks in 2012. Shorties stop by my property  every year in the fall, but they never stay. This fall, one landed in my pasture to snatch up a rodent, and did fly-overs for about a week.  I was hopeful for a winter resident, but it eventually flew away.  The hoots of great horned owls and screeches of barn owls in our fields at night don’t bode well for the long-eared owls and shorties.

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Long-eared owl at my house; attention posture

Highly nomadic and migratory, short-eared look for open grasslands where ground shelter is decent and rodent hunting is good.  Samish Flats makes good overwintering ground for a number of raptors even with duck hunters lurking in blinds around the area.

I’ll keep working on my habitat so I don’t have to wander far to see owls.  I’ll not put up farm lights that pollute the night sky with glare and make it impossible to see blood moons and northern lights on the rare occasions we see them. But I’ll still have to get on a plane to visit polar bears and tapirs, and will have to road trip to see bison and grizzlies, long gone from most Western landscapes. Like everyone else in this changing world, I will chase nature.

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My fuzzy picture of the September 27 blood moon, from my pasture

 

 

 

Garden on the Skyline Divide Trail. More pictures below!

Garden on the Skyline Divide Trail. More pictures below!

The day hike is a modern convention, dependent on the automobile and decent roads that allow us to leave our homes and return the same day, with a walk in between. If the trail is close, the roads are good, and the journey is easy enough for us to tackle, we can day hike and still have plans for the evening.  We all complain sometimes: “I drove six hours to hike six hours”.  By saying this, we forget that once, before modern cars or roads, we might have journeyed a week to our hiking destination and then had to stay while to make it worthwhile.

I prefer to camp outdoors over day hiking, making up a fraction of hikers.  It’s not the drive vs. hiking time that drives this preference. In fact, I sleep better in a tent with natural sounds than in a bed where my thoughts may become too noisy for sleep.  When life and work deny me sleep at home, I sometimes pitch a tent in the yard, which is beyond my neighbors’ worried eyes. I sometimes wonder how long it takes in the outdoors to replace dreams of being late for crucial meetings with dreams of raptors soaring on thermals.

But day hike we do, to get a break, to get some exercise, or to introduce our lovely natural areas to our friends, or visitors from afar.

Mt. Baker from Skyline Divide

Mt. Baker from Skyline Divide

In my case, I’m hiking this summer to get ready for a trip to the Canadian Arctic in late July and can’t always stay out overnight due to those obligations that haunt my dreams.  Washington State offers lovely day hikes for all sorts, and they have magical moments along with grand views. Two hikes that held something new for me are Lake Valhalla and Skyline Divide.  I have traveled to Lake Valhalla only in winter, when the avalanche conditions in Stevens Pass allow.  Summer is a new experience for me on that trail. I have never been to Skyline Divide due to its reputation for crowds. I hiked both during the week and enjoyed limited crowds of really nice folks, young and not so much so, clearly dedicated to relaxation and peace.

Anise Swallowtail at Skyline Divide

Anise Swallowtail at Skyline Divide

Both trails sparkled with butterflies, though the historic heat this summer has wilted the most exposed flowers early in the season.  I perched on the Skyline Divide ridge to catch a refreshing breeze coming up from the valley below while I ate lunch.  From my perch, I watched swarms of butterflies over a still-fresh meadow, chasing each other in multi-colored tornadoes when too many occupied the same verdant space.  At Lake Valhalla, I rested in the sand by the lake for lunch and watched many butterflies puddling, taking up mineral from the moist soils.  Before I even left the trailhead, I saw my first Parnassian

Believe this is Clodius Parnassian

Believe this is Clodius Parnassian

On both trails, I met a diversity of people that we never used to see 20 years ago outside of the national parks:  all skin colors, all ages, all walks of life.  Gone is the monotony of urgent looking white people ( the majority male) pounding down the trail in long johns with shorts over the top, bent on a destination.  Not only the car, but the guidebook and the gear store have made hiking accessible to a variety of people who come for the day, but may help to protect our natural areas forever.  This is not a bad thing- there will always be solitude to find, but unless a lot of people care about the outdoors, there will be no outdoors to celebrate.  Viva the day hike!

For an amazing variety of hikes throughout Washington State, along with trip reports, visit Washington Trails Association at www.wta.org/go-hiking/hikes.