Posted tagged ‘threatened’

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

 

 

 

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.