Archive for July, 2013

Next year (2014) marks the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Yosemite Land Grant by President Abraham Lincoln.  And it looks like the “Crown Jewel of the National Park System” is going to grow with age.  A proposal was introduced to congress by Senator Dianne Feinstein and Representative Jim Costa, both from California.  It is currently working its way through the federal government, and will add 1,600 acres to the western edge of the park next year!  The tract of land is currently owned by a combination of  private individuals and a group called the Pacific Forest Trust, and it includes foothill habitats and overlooks central valley of California.  The private land will be purchased and the Pacific Forest Trust is donating the rest.

I think this is really wonderful event.  Admittedly, if you look at a map of Yosemite and see what 1,600 extra acres adds, you will probably not be impressed.  In comparison to the whole park, 1,600 acres is a tinny little addition, but it is exactly through small increases that large tracts of land can be protected.  And protecting large tracts of land is the best way to insure that biodiversity will be preserved in the future.  Especially in the face of climate change, we don’t really know how the ecosystems of the world are going to change.  Generally, species are likely to move towards the poles and up the sides of mountains, but the world will be rife with exceptions to those general trends.  Preserving lands in large enough pieces to allow for taxa to move around, or move into a new area, and still find suitable habitat is the smartest strategy for insuring that as many species as possible are able to persist.

Stemming from biogeography there has been an ongoing debate in conservation circles for about half a century about they best way to preserve land in order to protect biodiversity.  One side focuses on preserving large tracts of land even though there will be few of these tracts.  The other says that many small tracts will more effectively preserve overall biodiversity.  But, both sides agree that the best outcome of all is many large tracts.  So, we as a society should attempt to increase the size of any preserve any time we can.  If that means buying a small tract of land and creating a preserve where there was none before, that is terrific.  If it means adding to a small preserve and so making it somewhat larger, that is also terrific.  If it means adding to a preserve that is already very big, like Yosemite National Park, that is terrific as well and should not be trivialized.

So, after the addition is added to the park, go out and visit the new portion of Yosemite!

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Spotted Owls have lots of big problems.  One is that their stands of old growth forests are dwindling due to the expansion of human development.  Another is the growing threat of catastrophic wildfires destroying what habitat has not been converted to human uses.  These two issues resulted in two of the subspecies of Spotted Owl being listed as federally threatened under the Endangered Species Act and the third to be listed as a Species of Special Concern.  But the Spotted Owl actually has a problem that is even bigger than those two.  It is the Barred Owl.  I have written previously about the conflict between Spotted Owl and Barred Owls (https://abirdingnaturalist.wordpress.com/2012/08/17/spotted-owl-vs-barred-owl/).  The basic problem is that Barred Owls are expanding their range westward into the range of the Spotted Owl.  Barred Owls are bigger and more aggressive than Spotted Owls, so when they compete for territories the Spotted Owls are driven out or even eaten.  And if the Spotted Owl is not deprived of the territory or eaten, Barred Owls sometimes breed with Spotted Owls, so they are losing their genetic uniqueness as well.

This is a developing situation that wildlife managers, ornithologists and birders have been watching since the 1960s, and there has been a lot of discussion on what, if anything, to do.  Ideas ranging anywhere from doing nothing to going out and shooting Barred Owls have been put on the table.  The idea of shooting Barred Owls started in 2009 when the US Fish and Wildlife Service first proposed the idea and started asking for public comment on it.  The idea was to send hunters out into areas that were known to have good populations of Spotted Owls.  If a Barred Owl was detected, the hunters would use recordings to attract the Barred Owl and shoot it.  There was a fair bit of public commenting on this idea, some for and some against, and then the idea dropped off the radar for most people. Well, just recently, there has been a new development.  The US Fish and Wildlife Service is going ahead with the plan to shoot Barred Owls.  They are proposing a four year trial period beginning in 2013.  During this period, each fall (the non-breeding season) hunters will be sent out into four areas, two in Washington, one in Oregon, and one is California.  The goal will be to kill 3,603 Barred Owls, and then see if Spotted Owl numbers increase.  Why 3,603 specifically?  I have no idea.

I have several problems with this plan, but let me get one issue that I do not have a problem with out the way first.  I am not, categorically, against killing Barred Owls.  I eat meat, I am even a hunter, so it is not the killing of animals that I take issue with.  I am sure that others do feel that it is somehow morally wrong to kill an owl, any owl, but that is not me.  From a population biology standpoint, the Barred Owl is doing really well as a species and so there is no danger at all of the species as a whole being damaged by some birds being killed.  Far more than 3,000 die each year due to starvation, disease, exposure to the elements, or flying into cars or buildings or antennas.

No, my biggest problem with this plan is that it is not going to work.  The Barred Owl population has been increasing in number and expanding in range pretty darn fast.  To think that killing a few is going to make any kind of difference is like thinking that if you beat at the ocean with a garden rake, you will be able to hold back the tide.  Every owl that is killed will be replaced by another from the expanding population.  To top that off, this four year trial is going to cost around 3 million dollars.  A much better use of that money would be to purchase 3 million dollars of land and set it aside as protected wilderness.  This trial will also waste a lot of personnel hours that, just like the money, could be much better spent elsewhere.  And that is just the money and personnel hours for the trial.

An even if this trial run is a success and does lead to a decrease in Barred Owl numbers and an increase in Spotted Owl numbers, this plan will still not work.  The only way that lethal removal works is if you kill  large number of individuals in a given area, and then keep doing it every year.  The constant level of effort that this would require for hunting Barred Owls is simply not sustainable.  To protect the Spotted Owl it would be necessary to remove Barred Owls from all, or most, of the Spotted Owl breeding areas (not just the four limited regions in the trial) and to continue doing so forever (since the moment the hunters stop, more Barred Owls will enter the protected areas).  This would require vastly more time and money than anyone is actually going to have.


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A recent research trip took me into the mountains south of Soda Springs, CA.  As I walked along the edges of wet mountain meadows and through stands of huge Incense Cedars, I heard the call of a Red-tailed Hawk.  I looked up to see a single bird souring above me.  As I watched the bird, I heard another Red-tailed Hawk scream.  When I looked higher, I saw two more Red-tailed Hawks circling together much higher than the first.  The pair were both giving their long harsh screams over and over again, and then they both folded their wings and tipped downwards, dropping into the most spectacular, high-speed, tandem, power dive I have ever seen!  The pair plunged down upon the first bird, who was apparently an intruder on the territory of the pair.  The drop must have been at least 1000 ft.  The pair of hawks sped just past intruder, and dipped below taking another pass that the fleeing intruder as they looped back up above it.  The pair then continued to pursue the intruder, diving on it periodically, for as long as I could still see the birds before they dropped into a valley and out of my sight.  A spectacular display and a stunning bit of flying!

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A few days ago, I went into my boss’s office to go over an extra credit assignment he is creating for a class I am helping with.  As we looked at the tree of life and talked a bit, he showed me something amazing.  From a desk drawer, he pulled out a small test tube with a bit of cotton blocking the open end.  walking around inside the test tube was a small spider, only about half a centimeter long.  My boss has done a lot of work studying spiders all around the world, and in particular has focused his work on spiders hat live in caves.  This was just such a spider.  Completely blind having no eyes at all due to having evolved in the total darkness of a cave, my boss was keeping it cool in his desk and feeding it fruit flies.  Some people exploring a cave near Sonora, CA had found this spider, collected it, and had then brought it to my boss for identification.  And here is the amazing part.  It could not be identified because it was a species that had never been described before!  This was s first for me; to hold an undescribed species!  It reminded me just how little we really know about the biodiversity of the world around us, including the world in our backyards.  So, there I was holding a small piece of the unknown, staring into tone of the white regions of the map.  Really exciting!

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