Posted tagged ‘endangered’

ROUND ISLAND: Walrus Sanctuary in Peril

April 22, 2014

Pacific Walrus male portrait showing tusks and nodulesPacific Walrus male

Horned Puffin on cliffHorned Puffin near our campsite

There are times that remain hazy and golden in my memories; times when life came to a peak of wonder that is only rarely experienced. Five days on Round Island was one of those defining times in my life.

In 2009 my wife and I flew to Alaska, then took a second flight to Dillingham on the west coast, then boarded a beat-up puddle jumper to the Yup’ik Eskimo village of Togiak, then sped by tiny boat, piloted by a man of that Eskimo village, across part of Bristol Bay to Round Island, where we were greeted by Alaska Fish and Game staff. We set up camp on the small island, on platforms erected atop campsites used by ancient peoples, then set off exploring the island. Within a minute we were watching a Horned Puffin about 50 feet away standing atop a rock jutting out over the ocean. Later that day we watched half a dozen Pacific Walrus stretched out, resting atop a flat rock near shore.

Walruses and Dragon's Tail on Round IslandFlat Rock with first view of walruses, with Dragon’s Tail in the distance

Windy day in camp, Round Island, AlaskaOur expedition tent enduring high winds

Headlands Trail on Round Island on windy dayTrail along the grassy headlands near camp

Sanctuary Office on Round IslandStaff quarters and sanctuary headquarters

As the days went by, we listened to giant blubbery walruses singing sweetly. Endangered Steller Sea Lions performed synchronized swimming as their “Jabba the Hutt” harem defender gazed out imperiously. Wildflowers were at their peak, including the bright yellow Alaska Poppy. Red Foxes trotted around the island unseen by us, like ghosts of the landscape. Beaches were entirely filled with pink walruses resting after days of diving deep into the ocean. A high wind came up and rattled the tent with its terror all night. Parakeet Auklets gossiped constantly on the rocks below. A Tufted Puffin watched us watching him, and only snuck into his burrow when we glanced away briefly.

Pacific Walrus haulout along Dragon's TailDragon’s Tail and its walruses from the top of the island

Pacific Walrus males on haulout at Dragon's TailTide’s coming in!

Castle-like formation on Round IslandJagged rock formations atop Round Island’s peak

As I said, it was a peak experience, but those of you who are long-time readers of my blog know that I have already written at length about our Round Island experiences in these blogs:

Experiencing the Walruses of Round Island, Alaska

I Am the Walrus

Puffins and Auklets and Murres, Oh My!

So, why am I returning to Round Island in this blog? Because I passionately love this place and I believe that it is in danger.

Pacific Walrus threat postures in a haulout

Pacific Walrus tusk and shadow

Pacific Walruses sparring in the waters off Round Island

Pacific Walrus male pale from deep ocean diveWatching the walruses basking and sparring and emerging from the depths is always entertaining

Alaska’s Department of Fish and Game, in a misguided attempt to save a few bucks, has decided to close the camp on Round Island after this year. There will be no seasonal staff to serve as island stewards, and the important work they’ve done in scientifically monitoring walrus and sea lion numbers will be abandoned. The campsites will be abandoned, and tourism to Togiak and Round Island will become a distant memory.

Why do I care? Because this is one of the greatest places in the world to experience wildlife that is not behind bars. Yes, there are a few walruses protected in zoos. After returning from Round Island, we went to see walruses in the Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium in Tacoma, Washingon. It was a profoundly sad experience. The walruses had lost their tusks completely, as they often do in captivity. They were trained to open their mouths to have their teeth brushed and to take a fish on command, then they would swim a pattern back and forth, back and forth, in the big tank lined with fake rock. This is not how sentient creatures should live.

Swimming Steller Sea LionsSteller Sea Lion harem and young out for a swim

Pacific Walrus exhalingWe could often hear the walruses coming up for a deep breath

Pacific Walrus portrait

People need to see wild creatures in wild places, and that’s where Round Island shines. After we left the island, the next visitors coming were high school students from all over Alaska, camping on the island for days to study the wildlife of that magnificent place. The memories of that experience will remain with them for their entire lives. When we were there, the other visitors were two men from Manhattan, making their second trip to Round Island. Photographers and videographers from all over the world have come here to create a record of walrus behavior. Including me.

Alaska PoppyDelicate Alaska Poppies, one of scores of kinds of wildflowers at the height of summer blooming during our visit

Tufted Puffin at burrow entranceWary Tufted Puffin

Pacific Walrus exhaling with a cloud of sprayBlowing bubbles while surfacing

Cook tent on Round IslandShelter provided for campers to eat and hang out during times of high winds and rain

Dramatic clouds over Round Island summitLooking up at the top of the mountain during a morning of unsettled weather

Alaska Fish and Game claims that they might still issue some permits to visit the island, but I suspect those will be few and far between. Instead, we are more likely to have surreptitious visitors shooting walruses for the ivory, and boats and planes buzzing the walruses and creating panicked stampedes that will trample and kill individuals. People will be able to land on the island with nobody knowing, and will undoubtedly force walruses away from the beaches. The island will no longer be a sanctuary.

Is this speculation on my part? Of course, but it is informed speculation based upon my experience on the island. When we were there, we felt that the two staff members were extremely serious about their jobs, and that their first priority was to protect the walruses. When we were seen by the refuge manager watching walruses from atop a cliff, we were told in no uncertain terms to crouch down so that our silhouettes wouldn’t scare the walruses off their rock. I felt bad at violating the rules, and in retrospect I’m glad that someone was there to keep protection of the walruses as top priority.

Abandoning the camp on Round Island would save $95,000 per year, which I think is a drop in the bucket compared to the lost opportunities for environmental education and tourism in the region, which bring far more dollars than that to the Alaskan economy (our trip alone added $5,000 to the Alaska economy–it isn’t cheap to get to remote places!).

Can this decision be modified or reversed? Who knows? All we can do is try. If Alaska Fish and Game is adamant that they are going to save money this way, perhaps they could come up with a Memorandum of Understanding with The Nature Conservancy or another not-for-profit to operate the island as a sanctuary with a provision for allowing visitors to come and camp. Perhaps the National Park Service should buy it from Alaska and operate it as a national park unit, similar to the manner in which Channel Islands National Park off the California coast in operated. Perhaps an Eskimo corporation could run it. Maybe volunteers could assist a paid staff member. Perhaps the University of Alaska could run the visitor operations in conjunction with research. Since the infrastructure is already there, it would be obscene to just abandon it, and it seems that the state has not explored these and other avenues for protecting the sanctuary.

In the meantime, if you would like to write a rational and passionate letter supporting the continued use of Round Island as a place to view Alaska’s native wildlife, please contact:

Alaska Department of

Fish and Game

P.O. Box 115526

1255 W. 8th Street

Juneau, AK 99811-5526

Or email them from their website: http://www.adfg.alaska.gov/index.cfm?adfg=contacts.emailus

Leaving Round Island, AlaskaSadly leaving the island

Charter boat loading passengers for trip back to TogiakFerrying gear to the small boat just prior to departure

Karen Rentz and PiperThe small plane we arrived on in the Eskimo village of Togiak

Laundry on the line, Togiak, AlaskaDaily scene in Togiak

Air drying Sockeye SalmonSome of the Sockeye Salmon from Bristol Bay smoking at an Eskimo smokehouse in Togiak; the Sockeye Salmon fishery here is called the most sustainable fishery in the world, but the Pebble Mine proposed in the watershed could change that. That is another important environmental issue facing the region (see below for a link to more information).

 

For what could be your last chance to visit this enchanting isle, go to http://www.wildlife.alaska.gov/index.cfm?adfg=refuge.rnd_is

To read the article that announced the closure of Round Island, go to Round Island Closure

To read what Trout Unlimited has to say about the Pebble Mine, go to Save Bristol Bay

To see my photography, go to Lee Rentz Photography

 

 

 

HAWAII: The Grace of Sea Turtles

June 18, 2013

Green Sea Turtle Swimming among Coral Reefs off Big Island of HaA Green Sea Turtle swims over a shallow coral reef using its powerful front legs for propulsion

Karen and I were snorkling in a coral reef area south of Kona, working hard to stay together despite all the distractions of colorful fish everywhere among coral canyons. When I looked toward her, I was astonished to see a Green Sea Turtle swimming right between Karen and me, about five feet away from each of us. I couldn’t shout with glee without drowning, so instead I took pictures as we swam parallel to the turtle through the tropical aqua sea. It was enchanting.

 The music for this video is from the song Silver Creek, by the German duo DOKAPI. More information and a link to their website is at the end of this article.

Pacific Green Sea Turtle and Snorkeler Swimming off the Big Isla

This was the third sea turtle I had seen on this trip. The day before, both of us had observed one basking on a narrow strip of sand beach, where it shared the space with scores of humans. It seemed content to be there, and even used its flippers to toss sand onto its back.

Pacific Green Sea Turtle Swimming off the Big Island of Hawaii

The endearing thing about sea turtles is their grace. Most of us humans are water nerds, graceless and gangly and splashing. In contrast, the sea turtle moves with the cadence of time itself. The swimming is slow and graceful, as if it got extra points for style and poetry of motion.

Pacific Green Sea Turtle Swimming off the Big Island of Hawaii

This swimming sea turtle was covered with green algae. It looked like it needed to go to one of the natural cleaning stations that certain fish have set up in the sea. These sea salons are known to turtles and fish as places where they can go for a good grooming to have parasites and algae removed and gobbled down by specialized species of fish.

Pacific Green Sea Turtle Swimming off the Big Island of Hawaii

Pacific Green Sea Turtle Swimming off the Big Island of Hawaii

Pacific Green Sea Turtle Swimming off the Big Island of Hawaii

Pacific Green Sea Turtle Swimming off the Big Island of Hawaii

In contrast, the Green Sea Turtle I had photographed several days before looked like it had just come out of the turtle wash and had been waxed afterward. There was not a speck of visible algae on it; in fact, each plate on its back sported lines of subtle color that looked for all the world like soft brushstrokes in a watercolor painting. Against the aqua color of the sea, it was stunning.

Green Sea Turtle Swimming among Coral Reefs off Big Island of Ha

Green Sea Turtle Swimming among Coral Reefs off Big Island of Ha

Green Sea Turtle Swimming among Coral Reefs off Big Island of Ha

Green Sea Turtle Swimming among Coral Reefs off Big Island of Ha

The Green Sea Turtle lives around the world in the tropics, and is endangered. It gets caught accidentally in nets and is killed for its meat and shell. Fortunately, in Hawai‘i the sea turtles are revered, and everyone is ecstatic to see them. They have special beaches where they go to lay eggs, and it would be wonderful to see the hatchlings emerging and heading for the sea, but that will have to wait for another trip.

Green Sea Turtle Swimming among Coral Reefs off Big Island of Ha

Green Sea Turtle Swimming among Coral Reefs off Big Island of Ha

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com (just ask me to email you a small version of a particular photograph you like if you can’t find it on the site; my website is not up to date). 

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my PhotoShelter Website.

Music for the video in this article was created by the German duo DOKAPI. It was licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution–ShareAlike 2.5; go to opsound.org/info/license/ for more information. DOKAPI has a website at dokapi.de where you can find out more about their excellent music. Our video, Dream of the Sea Turtles, is available for use under the same terms of the ShareAlike 2.5 license. Contact us at lee@leerentz.com for information.

CHANNEL ISLANDS RESTORATION: We are as Gods

June 3, 2012

We almost lost the Island Fox, whose numbers plummeted from over 2,000 to under 100 in a few short years on Santa Cruz Island, due to a complex chain of events set in motion decades ago. This blog describes the ways that people affected the wildlife and plants of Channel Islands National Park, and how the National Park Service and its allies in conservation have attempted to rescue some of the iconic native creatures and restore the fragile ecosystems of these islands located so close to the millions of people living along the southern California coast.

The rat’s dark eyes reflected the full moon as it twitched its whiskers, sniffing the air. Nearby, a newly-hatched seabird, fluffy and vulnerable, scrambled around its mother as she waited patiently for others to hatch. The rat, sensing the vulnerability of a baby, dashed in for a quick take, grabbing the tiny chick and then rushing up through the rock crevice, its naked rat tail trailing like a snake. 

The next morning, two fox kits played by their den, tugging on a fallen eucalyptus branch and wrestling together in the dusty earth. High above, a predator watched with eagle eyes as it floated on currents of warm air. An ache of hunger stirred in its cells, an ache that two days ago was satisfied by zooming down on a squealing piglet. Adjusting its wings, the Golden Eagle plunged at dizzying speed, opened its talons, and snatched the tiny fox. The kit never saw it coming, but his sister did, and she learned a lesson in horror that arrives unexpectedly from the sky.

When I visited Channel Islands National Park in April 2012, it struck me that the Channel Islands are a virtual laboratory for many of the great conservation disasters and subsequent restoration stories of the last 50 years. These rocky outcrops and their creatures have endured DDT poisoning, a major oil spill, overgrazing, overharvesting, invasions of alien animals and plants, endangered species, and now the threat of ocean acidification.

The National Park Service is steward of land on five of the Channel Islands, and has made a heroic effort to restore the islands to something closer to their historic natural state. This effort has come at the cost of controversy and lawsuits, but the National Park Service has stayed the course; the islands and their native plants and animals are better for the effort.

Santa Cruz Island has a long history of ranching and farming, but it has also supported endemic animals and plants in wild ecosystems–creatures found nowhere else on earth. 

Santa Cruz Island

Some 10,000 years ago, Earth was emerging from an ice age and the Channel Islands were experiencing monumental changes. At that time, so much of the earth’s water was locked up in glacial ice that the vast oceans were lower, exposing more of the coastline. Four of today’s islands–Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, and San Miguel–were combined into one large island known as Santarosae. With the sea level 300 feet below today’s level, the island was much larger than the four remnant islands of today.

The prime herbivore of the islands, the Channel Islands Pygmy Mammoth (the mother of all oxymorons–but the pygmy mammoth indeed weighed only 10% as much as its mainland ancestors), which had grazed these windswept landscapes for eons, suddenly disappeared. Forever. Did it have something to do with the arrival of people at roughly the same time? Perhaps. From the admittedly spotty, pieced-together timeline that scientists have constructed based upon remains of mammoths and people, it appears that the mammoths disappeared shortly after the arrival of the first humans. Did these Chumash people ram spearpoints into the last 2,000 lb. beast of its kind? We may never know, but I’m placing my bet on a simple “yes.”

But enough of ancient history; the Chumash people came to a rough balance with the other island inhabitants for the next 10,000 years, so we’ll cut them some slack for the vanishing mammoths. Especially since they themselves disappeared from the islands in historical time, coinciding with the invasion of the Europeans, and all the cultural changes and diseases and opportunities that made for huge societal changes in native peoples across the continents.

People have been a part of Santa Cruz Island for some 10,000 years

The Chumash did manage to live in harmony with the little Island Foxes and the strikingly blue Island Scrub Jays. As well as the Sea Otters that fur traders eliminated from the Channel Islands, and the abalones that have become so scarce due to overharvesting and poaching that they have largely disappeared from California dinner tables.

Next on the scene were ranchers. Santa Cruz still has historic ranch buildings, roads, orchards, stone piles, and other artifacts that represent some 150 years of agricultural operations. Generations of ranchers carved a living out of this island. With the island’s Mediterranean climate, olive groves and vineyards prospered; the latter until Prohibition. Sheep grazed the hillsides. Pigs and other farm animals became a common sight and smell on the island. Eventually, pigs escaped and sheep ventured into inaccessible places, so the island had some new creatures enjoying their newfound freedom.

An old fence in Scorpion Canyon speaks of the ranching that occurred here for over 100 years

As agriculture thrived on Santa Cruz, the California mainland was becoming a bleeding edge of industrial America. By the 1950s, Bald Eagle nests had completely disappeared from the Channel Islands, where there were previously two dozen. The culprit? DDT. The industrial strength pesticide, sprayed nearly everywhere in the world where mosquitoes were a problem, had side effects. Yes, a DDT scientist claimed that the chemical was perfectly safe, each year shocking the students in his classroom by eating a spoonful of the stuff. And, yes, like many baby boomers who camped in the late 1950s in state parks, I inhaled big gulps of the chokingly thick DDT fog that park staff sprayed through the campgrounds, and I’m still alive. So far.

Birds weren’t so lucky. DDT thinned their eggshells, especially the eggshells of birds higher on the food chain; when a Bald Eagle or a Peregrine Falcon or a Brown Pelican would sit on the eggs, the thin shells would crush under her weight. This was a problem across North America, but the Channel Islands had a special problem: they lay just offshore from a major DDT manufacturer. The Montrose Chemical Corporation had its DDT plant in the Los Angeles area, which EPA estimates dumped 1,700 tons of DDT into the sewer system and subsequently into the Pacific Ocean before the plant closed in 1983. Over the decades, that DDT, residing on the bottom sediments of the Continental Shelf, made it into the food chain, contaminating fish and the creatures that eat the fish–including the Bald Eagles, Brown Pelicans, and Peregrine Falcons that nested in the Channel Islands.

By sometime in the 1950s to 1960s, all the Bald Eagles were gone from the islands. Fish and small ducks breathed a sigh of relief and perhaps the sharks ate better than they used to, but those of us who loved our national bird were in shock. The Endangered Species Act, created during the Nixon administration, was a response to seeing such a rapid decline in some of America’s most charismatic creatures.

The late 1960s were a time of budding consciousness for the environmental movement. I was taking Introduction to Ecology 301 at the University of Michigan in 1969, and I remember coming into the classroom and hearing about the Santa Barbara oil spill that had just happened. An offshore oil well had blown out, allowing millions of gallons of oil to float atop the Santa Barbara Channel, killing thousands of seabirds and marine mammals. This sad event spurred the movement tremendously with the clear and present danger of careless drilling. When the spill occurred, oil-soaked birds and marine mammals were shown nightly on national news as they washed up on once-pristine California beaches, feathers saturated with black oil. It was a sight that many never forgot, and thousands of Channel Islands birds and marine mammals were affected. Volunteers worked tirelessly to clean feathers of birds coated with petrogoo–an effort that unified environmentalists and animal lovers in an emotional and physical struggle to reverse the damage. Tragic oil spills have occurred since then in Alaska and the Gulf of Mexico, and the terrible results have been similar. At least we now have protocols for attempting to clean up the mess, for which we can thank the Santa Barbara spill.

Meanwhile, island pigs were multiplying like rabbits (though the island had no rabbits). When conniving pigs escaped their fences, they took off squealing with the glee of freedom, heading into the mountains of Santa Cruz. In their happiness, they enjoyed sex in the wilderness, and made lots of little piglets to root around among rare plants, dig holes in old Indian camps, and generally make a mess of the island. This might sound cute enough, but the spectre of a 400 lb. boar surprising a hiker on a trail is enough to send a mental warning of what a big pig can do.

The little pigs rooting everywhere on Santa Cruz then attracted a predator, the magestic Golden Eagle, that had only occasionally visited the island in the past. When the Bald Eagles nested on Santa Cruz, they ruled the skies with shows of aerial strength, and kept away the Golden Eagles. But when the Bald Eagles disappeared, the Golden Eagles sensed a vacuum and moved in for the kill … of piglets. There was so much pork that the Golden Eagles decided to nest on Santa Cruz.

All would have been wonderful had the Golden Eagles eaten a strict diet of pork, but in eagle fashion they decided that the tiny Island Fox also made a delightful meal. As a result, the Island Fox population on Santa Cruz plummeted from about two thousand in 1994 to under a hundred some seven years later, and the very survival of the species was at stake. The National Park Service had a choice: they could let nature take its course, in which case an entire charismatic species would disappear; or they could take action to save the Island Fox.

Two Island Foxes greet each other affectionately

It was not only the survival of the Island Fox that was at stake: there were also Chumash archeological sites and a wealth of endemic plants–plants found nowhere else on earth–that were being absolutely hammered by the pigs and sheep. The National Park Service has a mandate to preserve the landscape and its wild creatures, so they had to come up with a comprehensive plan. This was to be done in coordination with The Nature Conservancy, which owns and manages well over half of Santa Cruz Island.

Nothing is ever easy these days, when so many interest groups and individuals believe that they truly represent nature, or wildlife, or common sense, or industry, or …

One of the first steps the National Park Service took was to remove 16 wild horses, or more properly, “horses gone wild,” from the island. Had the horses remained, they would have gone forth and multiplied, and added even more pressure on the island’s natural inhabitants. But, for every bureaucratic action, there is a reaction. The National Park Service was sued by the Foundation for Horses and Other Animals Inc., a group that wanted the horses to remain. After the group lost its initial court battle and subsequent appeal, the way was clear for the NPS to remove the horses. They did it in the face of last minute pressure from the local congresswoman, but all 16 horses were removed, alive and kicking, and placed in a mainland sanctuary.

Next, the 2,000 sheep on the island were removed and transported to the mainland. Sheep are not as charismatic as horses, so there was much less controversy about this removal.

Skull of a sheep that died on Santa Cruz Island; at one time there were 2,000 sheep grazing on the island

Pigs were another matter. The National Park Service and The Nature Conservancy decided that the pigs had to be killed rather than live-trapped. The now-wild pigs had diseases such as cholera and pseudorabies that meant they could not be safely transplanted to the mainland.

Dramatic clouds over the hills of Santa Cruz Island

The plan was to construct electric fences to contain the pigs, then shoot them from helicopters and use a defoliant to kill a favorite pig food, the invasive Fennel. A group sprang up to oppose pig removal, the Channel Islands Animal Protection Association (CHIAPA), and held several raucously emotional public meetings to discuss the proposal. A journalist for the student newspaper of the University of California, Santa Barbara, reported on the first meeting, quoting a spokesman of CHIAPA as saying “The pigs have been demonized and accused of imaginary crimes.” A colleague opined that “The Island Fox population was robust until The Nature Conservancy took over the island … the finger goes right to The Nature Conservancy for causing the near extinction of the Island Fox (this person claimed that the Golden Eagles were drawn to the island by rotting sheep carcasses when the sheep were removed). The latter spokeswoman also said that “This is literal warfare. They are defoliating the land so they can gun down the enemy.”

Despite the controversy, a company from New Zealand indeed executed the pigs–all 5,000+ of them–in 2005. That action meant that the island’s native plants and foxes had a better chance of surviving.

The next step was to relocate the Golden Eagles, in order to preserve the Island Foxes, whose numbers were now far less than 10% of what they were just a decade before. An elaborate plan was devised to live trap the eagles, then move them back to a distant place on the mainland. This effort went well, and over 40 Goldens were trapped and transplanted. They have not returned.

Ravens are part of the native fauna of the Channel Islands

At about the same time, ten pairs of the increasingly scarce Island Foxes were rounded up and moved to a captive breeding center, in order to try and give the fox population a jump start. Fortunately, it worked wonderfully, and in a few short years the fox population is back to its natural levels.

Island Foxes are tiny; only about a quarter of the size of their mainland ancestors, and about the size of a typical house cat

Meanwhile, Bald Eagles have been reintroduced to the islands and have started nesting again, as have the Peregrine Falcons that went through a captive breeding and reintroduction program starting in the late 1970s.

So, Santa Cruz has gone from an island with a dozen species in danger, to an island that is recovering nicely. On my trip to the island, I saw about two dozen Island Foxes in three days, as well as a Peregrine Falcon and some of the endangered plants that are returning from the brink of extinction. The slopes no longer have the denuded look that the sheep brought, and the diggings of pigs no longer threaten archaeological sites and native plants. Island Foxes no longer have to worry about death diving from the sky. All is well …

Greene’s Liveforever and several of its island relatives were negatively affected by the 5,000+ pigs running wild on the island

Anacapa Island

Anacapa Island is far smaller than Santa Cruz Island, and the challenges have been different. There are no foxes on Anacapa, as it is too small to support a fox population. It does have major populations of nesting seabirds that have faced tremendous challenges.

Anacapa supports one of the two American breeding colonies of California Brown Pelicans, but DDT poisoning had the same effect on their eggshells as it had on Bald Eagles. In 1970, only ONE pelican chick hatched and survived in the entire colony. Recovery began soon after DDT was banned, and there are now about 4,600 pelican nests on West Anacapa–a remarkable recovery from the brink of extinction. There are still challenges: nighttime squid fishing disturbed the birds and led to some nest abandonment a decade or so ago, but now there is a buffer zone. Hikers are not allowed close to the colony.

View west from Inspiration Point along Anacapa Island and toward Santa Cruz Island

Another major challenge came to the islands earlier. About 150 years ago, a ship named after Mexican-American War hero Winfield Scott ran aground on the rocks just off Anacapa Island. Everyone aboard was eventually rescued, but the Black Rats on board decided to rescue themselves, and many swam successfully to shore, where they colonized the island and found a rich food source in the seabirds that called Anacapa home. They devoured eggs and chicks of such rare and threatened species as the Xantus’s Murrelet. They bred like rats, of course, and soon thousands of them were swarming over the tablelands and cliffs of this small island. A few years ago, the National Park Service mounted an all-out assault on the rats, completely eliminating the creepy creatures using poison, some of it spread on the cliff faces by helicopter. Of course, groups of animal rights advocates spoke up for the rights of rats, but the National Park Service did the right thing and eliminated the rats, thus saving untold native birds and a native island mouse from elimination.

Giant Coreopsis, one of the fascinating and unusual plants on Anacapa Island, was threatened by the encroachment of introduced, invasive plants

In the 1950s, the US Coast Guard staff on Anacapa decided to introduce Ice Plant to the island. This attractive plant is good for erosion control, and had already established a foothold along the central and southern California coasts. Unfortunately, the Ice Plant spread quickly over much of the island, displacing native plants in its march to utter domination. The National Park Service inherited the Ice Plant when it took over the island, and decided that the invader had to go. Volunteers and staff have tried various methods of eradication, including pulling it up and applying herbicides, and are finally winning the battle.

About a year ago, the National Park Service set up a greenhouse on Anacapa, and is growing native plants from seeds collected on the island. The goal is to jump start the revegetation of Anacapa with native plants. Based on what I saw, the newly growing natives are doing really well.

We are as Gods

Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalogues of the 1960s and beyond were the Google of their day, but with a sustainable living emphasis. The eminently browsable pages skipped from resources for raising chickens to building a windmill to understanding deep ecology to printing on a small press. It lent itself to dreams, and to a feeling of responsibility toward Planet Earth.

I recall a statement by Stewart Brand–it may have been on the cover of one of the catalogues along with a photo of Earth from space taken by one of the Apollo missions–in which he said “We are as gods, we might as well get good at it.” Meaning, that we have such an overwhelming presence on Earth, that we had better learn how to responsibly guide the impact of people upon the natural systems we depend on. It is an obvious statement, yet extremely profound in its implication that we cannot continue soiling the nest, or we will all get sick.

Recently, Stewart Brand revisited and revised his classic statement to “We are as gods, and HAVE to get good at it.” Again, an obvious statement, but one that flies in the face of those who think we can drill our way to sustainability in an era when over seven billion of us demand and deserve better lifestyles and lifespans. How do we get to the point of sustaining all those souls without ruining the planet so it no longer can support us?

That brings me to back to Channel Islands National Park, where the National Park Service and The Nature Conservancy are playing the role of being the good Gods of ecological restoration and sustainability–not an easy task and often a controversial one.

Arch Rock at the eastern point of Anacapa Island

As a naturalist, I have always loved wild creatures of every kind, with the certain exceptions of ticks and mosquitoes and some kinds of spiders. But, just as there are the good gods of restoration, there are the bad gods of invasion and elimination. Is it right that an accidental introduction of pigs threatened the very survival of the Island Fox? I think the clear answer is “NO!”  The National Park Service did what it had to do to protect the wild and natural inhabitants of these islands, rather than reserving them for rats and pigs.

I have witnessed the result of these restoration efforts, and it is good. We are indeed as Gods.

The National Park Service and its allies in conservation saved the Island Fox from extinction.

Further Reading and References:

Restoring Santa Cruz Island

Restoring Anacapa Island’s Seabird Habitat

Restoring Anacapa’s Native Vegetation

Pig Eradication Completed

Animal People News (point of view of animal rights advocates)

Yet More Killings

When the Killing’s Done (T.C. Boyle’s novel about the Channel Islands killing controversies)

National Geographic News reports on pig killing controversy

The Daily Nexus article about pig killing

Blog about Anacapa Island Restoration

BANFF NATIONAL PARK: Friendly Relations Between Clark’s Nutcracker and Whitebark Pine

October 30, 2010

A Clark’s Nutcracker, face stained red (I’m not sure why), using its sharp bill to probe between the pine cone scales of Whitebark Pine for pine nuts

We hiked along the shore of turquoise Bow Lake, then up through the conifer forest to timberline, where there was a dense stand of Whitebark Pines. We paused at a viewpoint, looking out over a barren and rocky basin that looked as if a glacier had just left. The silence of the place was loudly interrupted by the arrival of a gray, black, and white bird yelling “khaa-khaa-khaa!” The Clark’s Nutcracker completely ignored us, and immediately begain feeding on the Whitebark Pine cones, prying open the scales and extracting the big pine nuts within. We didn’t realize it at the time, but what we were witnessing was one of the great ecological stories of the Rocky Mountains.

I love pine nuts. Their resinous flavor is a great addition to salads, especially when they are toasted in olive oil with salt and fresh-ground pepper in a hot pan. Our pine nuts come from Costco, already shelled and in small bags imported from Asia (nuts which gourmets consider inferior to those imported from Spain and Portugal). Lord knows we don’t need the calories, but the nuts sure are good. In nature, the calories in Whitebark Pine nuts are crucial to wildlife, including Clark’s Nutcrackers, Red Squirrels, Black Bears, and Grizzly Bears. Since the nuts are 52% fat and 21% protein, they give bears the energy for a long winter and birds and squirrels a lot of energy in one big (compared to most seeds) package.

A 55 second video of a Clark’s Nutcracker calling and extracting a pine nut from a Whitebark Pine cone

Scientists have studied Clark’s Nutcrackers extensively, because these birds have coevolved with Whitebark Pine–each becoming dependent upon the other. The nutcrackers get the nuts, of course, which are vitally important as food for adults and young. The pine, as well, has become dependent on the birds for spreading its seeds around. This is because the nutcracker caches most of its seeds, rather than consuming them immediately. The birds cache from one to 30 seeds–but typically three to five–burying them under about an inch of gravelly soil. Some caches are forgotten: after all, who can possibly remember the location of the 9,500 to 30,000 small caches that each bird makes? Those forgotten caches, wetted by the rains and snows of the high country, will often sprout new seedlings that hope to become the forests of tomorrow.

Balancing high on cones and twigs in a high wind sometimes requires using wings for balance

What is remarkable is how effective a bird is at remembering most of its caches. Clark’s Nutcrackers are related to ravens, jays, and crows, a group of birds that goes far beyond the label of “bird brains.” Ravens play like humans do, sliding down snowy slopes and cackling with glee. Crows are smart enough to remember individual human faces. Jays, such as the Steller’s Jays at my feeder, certainly know me as the source of their whole peanuts. Clark’s Nutcrackers, like their relatives, are intelligent and have good spacial mapping abilities, so that they can find the nuts they’ve stored.

Their acrobatic abilities are also well developed, with the ability to balance on cones and branches, in windy conditions, while opening cones with the long, strong bill. When they extract a seed, they first hold it in the bill, then deftly store it in a pouch under the tongue. When the pouch is full, they fly off to a suitable spot on the ground and create a cache for the stored nuts.

Clark’s Nutcrackers harvest the pine nuts from mid-summer until sometime in October. They use the caches during the season when seeds are unavailable–especially for feeding the young. During the nut harvest season, they compete with Red Squirrels for the nuts, and sometimes with Black Bears who climb the trees to get at the cones. The squirrels snip off branches and carry them to storage piles, called middens. Grizzly Bears and Black Bears will often raid these middens, taking the easy way out to get a big load of rich calories for minimal effort prior to their long winter’s sleep. I’m sure this makes the squirrels really mad, but that’s just the way it goes in nature, where tooth and claw (literally, in the case of bears) rules.

Whitebark Pines are beautiful trees, even in death, and I have several times photographed their bleached white skeletons on windy ridges of the Olympic and Cascade Mountains. But there are more of these skeletons than I would like to see, which is the result of two diseases that ravage the pines. The first is White Pine Blister Rust, which is a disease introduced to Europe and North America, apparently from Asia. This blister rust is a fungus that has a complex life cycle, which requires the fungus to also have a gooseberry/current shrub as a host, and depends upon airborne spores to travel between the pines and the gooseberry bushes. It kills pines in the white pine group, which have five needles, a group that includes Eastern White Pine, Sugar Pine, Whitebark Pine, and several others. The best way to control the disease is to eliminate all gooseberry and current bushes from an area, which is a major undertaking.

Whitebark Pine (photographed in Washington State) probably dying from a Mountain Pine Beetle infestation

The second killer of pines is the Mountain Pine Beetle, which has devastated huge sections of the Rocky Mountains in Canada and the USA. Lodgepole Pines have been hit especially hard by the beetle, which drills into the living tissue of the pine, preventing the tissue from carrying nutrients. Where a rocky mountain forest has been badly hit, a whole mountainside looks rusty red instead of green; it is ugly. Foresters and ecologists believe that a long series of warmer and drier summers, perhaps an outcome of global warming, has tipped the balance in favor of the killer beetle by allowing bigger populations of the beetle to survive the winters in the high country. When we were in Canada, some mills appeared  to be specializing in taking truckload after truckload of pines killed by the beetle.

Whitebark Pine struggling for life in the high country of Olympic National Forest in Washington

Think of the consequences of the deaths of so many Whitebark Pines: Clark’s Nutcrackers would go into a steep decline without the ready supply of nuts; Whitebark Pines wouldn’t have the nutcrackers spreading around their seeds, so fewer seedlings would get a start; and squirrels and bears would lose an energy-rich food source, probably reducing their numbers.  All in all, the forests at timberline would be ghostly and quiet with death, their white trunks gleaming under a full moon.

A pine nut in its bill, this Clark’s Nutcracker will temporarily store this nut in a pouch under its tongue, then will fly off to cache the nut, with several others, under the soil on a mountain slope

We watched and photographed the Clark’s Nutcracker for about fifteen minutes; there were several in the vicinity, but it seems like one persistent individual kept returning to the same clump of trees. The noisy activity was a delight to watch.

For more information about Whitebark Pines and their role as a keystone species in the high Rockies, go to:

Banff National Park Whitebark Pine

Whitebark Pine Ecosystem Foundation

US Fish & Wildlife Service Endangered Species

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com.

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my PhotoShelter Website.