Conservation: North and South

St George Winter Bird Festival, Courtesy St. George City
St. George Winter Bird Festival
Courtesy St. George City
I spent 2 gloriously warm days in Dixie where I attended the Winter Bird Festival, a grand event by any measure! I also had the good fortune of discovering “Citizens for Dixie’s Future” (henceforth CDF) which has taken on the onerous task of brokering piece between a surging population and the regions limited natural resources. Water topped the list, especially the Lake Powell Pipeline proposal. So I did a bit of reading from CDF’s well stocked library.

It soon became apparent that this multi-billion dollar project needs closer inspection on cost vs benefits. The costs must include not only dollars, but some unintended consequences such as continued urban sprawl in a super sensitive Mojave Desert ecosystem with an abundance of plant and animal life that I became more aware of through an excellent WBF presentation by naturalist educator Marshall Topham on the biodiversity of Washington County.

Citizens for Dixie’s Future
Citizens for Dixie’s Future
Courtesy Citizens for Dixie’s Future

Located at the confluence of 3 major biomes- Great Basin Desert, Mojave desert, and the Colorado Plateau intersected by numerous rivers and the towering Pine Valley Mountains, Washington County is a wildlife mecca with over 350 species of birds listed, an excellent indicator of its natural wealth.

So my naturalist instincts and a propensity towards frugality led me to look for pipeline alternatives.

I found conservation to be the most obvious and least expensive alternative. In 2009, Washington County was at or near the top in the West for per capita water use at 294 gallons per day. In dramatic contrast Tucson was 161 and golf course and fountain studded Vegas at 222. If the county was to set a goal for 1% reduction in water use per annum, it would negate the need for the pipeline according to CDF.

We notherners in Cache County are being threatened with a similar situation. Our Bear River which supplies 60% of the surface flow into the Great Salt Lake and is the primary source for the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge is under scrutiny for multibillion dollar reservoir development to serve the Wasatch Front. In addition to the hefty price tag, this has very serious implications for loss of prime agriculture land and high value wildlife habitat.

The following conservation practices are taken from the CDF.

• Providing rebates for efficient indoor water fixtures and outdoor landscape conversion
• Adding native, drought tolerant landscaping in new developments (and converting old)
• Implementing an increasing rate structure to signal conservation to the customer
• Conservation programs must include numeric targets and performance measures
• Updating building codes with more aggressive plumbing and appliance standards
• Increasing education and awareness about reducing peak water use.
• Implementing smart growth principals and preventing sprawl

An additional conservation possibility being explored by some USU folks is restoring healthy populations of beaver to the Bear River Watershed. This has potential for water storage rivaling planned reservoirs not to mention the supurb wildlife habitat created as a bonus. A question for the Dixie folks- how are the beaver populations in the Beaver Dam and Pine Valley mountains fairing?

This is Jack Greene for Wild About Utah.

Credits:
Image: Courtesy St George Bird Festival, St. George City and Citizens for Dixie’s Future
Text:     Jack Greene, Bridgerland Audubon Society

Additional Reading:

Citizens for Dixie’s Future, http://citizensfordixie.org/

Big Bend Habitat Restoration Project: A Natural Work of Heart, Open Spaces-A Talk on the Wild Side, US FWS, http://www.fws.gov/news/blog/index.cfm/2016/3/25/Big-Bend-Habitat-Restoration-Project-A-Natural-Work-of-Heart [Accessed March 31, 2016]

Public Lands – good or bad?

Click to view Coyote Pups on the public lands of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, Courtesy US FWS

Coyote Pups
on the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge

Courtesy US FWS 

This morning I spent some time skiing up Smithfield Canyon in the Uintah Wasatch Cache National Forest. Growing up in Michigan where public land was hard to come by, I have come to enjoy our “commons” where I’m not trespassing on posted private land, or required to pay a fee before entering.

With the Oregon Bundy-Hammond event taking center stage, it has forced me to do some reflecting on what is right and what is wrong regarding our public lands.

To begin with, I’m biased in two ways- both for the land and for the ranching culture- I have deep affection for both. In my 11 seasons as a Wilderness Ranger for the Logan Ranger District of the USFS and 6 seasons with the National Park Service, I have become well aware of how our public lands are managed- the good, bad, and the ugly. On our national forest the primary issue I was confronted with was livestock grazing. The damage done by cattle and sheep was significant, plus predator control seriously interfered with how natural systems operate in balancing herbivores with their forage supply. Health of the land was always of paramount concern, but due to forest managers having very limited resources, best practices for maintaining healthy ecosystems and watersheds was compromised.

Regarding the livestock industry, it excites me to see real cowboys on horseback rounding up their animals- the romance of the west. I would love to join them. Conflicting with these feelings is my relief that the land will begin to heal from damage that often occurs when utilizing sensitive areas unsuitable for these animals, especially in large, concentrated numbers. And as a back country recreationist, I prefer elk, moose, and mountain sheep, to domestic stock and the artificiality they represent.

There are many examples of ranchers that manage their livestock well, and place them where little damage occurs. There are even ranchers who are willing to sacrifice some of their animals who realize the value of large predators in maintaining healthy ecosystems.

Do I support the Bundy takeover, or the Hammonds who violated the Bureau of Land Management laws in numerous instances? A resounding “NO!” in both cases. But I do wish them well in finding a way to maintain their ranching operations- perhaps by adding eco and/or cultural tourism or renewable energy options to provide additional income. Recreation and tourism has become our largest industry, contributing billions to the economy. More recently, renewable energy has manifested astronomical growth in the forms of geothermal, wind, and solar. Further, well managed rangelands can help remove, or sequester, carbon dioxide from the atmosphere- another potential market.

In the end, I wish both well- restoring health and access to our public lands; and preserving a flourishing ranching culture.

This is Jack Greene for Wild About Utah.

Credits:
Image: Courtesy US FWS
Text:     Jack Greene, Bridgerland Audubon Society


Additional Reading:

Kaste, Martin, NPR Around the Nation, Armed Protesters Occupy Malheur National Wildlife Refuge Center In Oregon, http://www.npr.org/2016/01/04/461944981/armed-protesters-occupy-malheur-national-wildlife-refuge-center-in-oregon

Siegler, Kirk, NPR America, Who Will Blink First? Armed Occupation In Oregon Drags On, http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2016/01/12/462813360/who-will-blink-first-armed-occupation-in-oregon-drags-on

Christmas Bird Count (CBC) and Climate Change

Click for a larger view of Frank M. Chapman, organizer of the first christmas bird count, Courtesy Wikimedia, Image in the public domain
Frank M. Chapman
Courtesy Wikimedia
Image in the public domain
 

On December 19th, I will have joined several others for an exciting day of counting bird species and numbers in our lovely, snowy valley. Our numbers will be entered on a database that will be shared with the world. The Christmas Bird Count began on Christmas Day in the year 1900 when ornithologist Frank M. Chapman, an officer in the nascent Audubon Society, proposed a new holiday tradition—a “Christmas Bird Census” that would count birds during the holidays rather than slaughtering them, which had been the past ritual.

The data collected by observers over the past 115 years has allowed researchers to study the long-term health and status of bird populations across North America. When combined with other surveys such as the Breeding Bird Survey, it provides a picture of how the continent’s bird populations have changed in time and space. This long term perspective is vital for conservationists. It informs strategies to protect birds and their habitat, and helps identify environmental issues with implications for people as well.

Along with the fun it brings, this year’s count will have special significance for our local Audubon chapter which was awarded a National Audubon grant for “spreading the word” on our changing climate’s impact on birds. Through the grant writing and implementation I have a heightened awareness of how bird populations and their spacial distribution are changing at an accelerating rate.

Audubon’s 2014 Climate Change Report is a comprehensive, first-of-its kind study that predicts how climate change could affect the ranges of 588 North American birds. Of the bird species studied, more than half are likely to be in trouble. The models indicate that 314 species will lose more than 50 percent of their current climatic range by 2080.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has included Audubon’s climate change work from CBC data as one of 26 indicators of climate change in their 2012 report.

In 2007, CBC data were instrumental in the development of Audubon’s Common Birds in Decline Report, which revealed that some of America’s most beloved and familiar birds have taken a nosedive over the past forty years.

142 species of concern are found in Utah including our state bird, the California gull and our the bald eagle, our national bird. Averaging the most recent 10 years, our valley has seen 16 species increase and 11 species decline. Of course we would need a take a much broader sweep to know the true story of these species, but our data may play a significant part in the overall analysis.
And please keep those bird feeders full as we enter the coldest month of the year!

This is Jack Greene for Wild About Utah.

Credits:
Image: Courtesy Wikimedia and in the public domain
Text:     Jack Greene, Bridgerland Audubon Society


Additional Reading:

Seasonal Changes and Amazing Adaptations

Seasonal Changes and Amazing Adaptations: Click for a larger view of a Dark-eyed 'Oregon' Junco Male, Junco hyemalis montanus, Courtesy and copyright 2008 Ryan P. O'Donnell
Dark-eyed Junco “Oregon” Male
Junco hyemalis montanus
Courtesy & © 2008 Ryan P. O’Donnell 


Biking daily from Smithfield Canyon to USU campus, combined with an early am run, I’m well aware of the drop in temperatures, as are those of us who find themselves outdoors on a more permanent schedule. I’m speaking of our relatives who reside in the wild- birds, trees, raccoons, and such.

While I put on an extra layer or two, plants and animals have far more sophisticated adaptations from behavioral to physiological to structural.

We are all aware of the marvelous migration and hibernation behaviors, so let’s add a few more amazing adaptations to the list.

I’ll begin with a bird that is very common at our winter feeder- the Dark-eyed Junco. which responds to the first shortening days of summer with a series of physical changes: its reproductive organs become inactive and shrink in size, hormones stimulate the rapid growth of a new set of feathers, and fat deposits develop to provide fuel for the long migratory flight ahead.

Thus the preparation for migration starts as soon as the days begin to shorten. And the process must operate in reverse when the bird is in its winter habitat in the United States. As soon as days begin to lengthen, the Dark-eyed Junco must gear up physically for the flight north and breeding season. If it fails to do so, it likely won’t survive a long-distance migration. So the cycle of life and its related migrations and transitions are deeply connected to the heavens.

Plants are no less amazing. Those in temperate zones must also set their calendars accurately in order to flower and, for deciduous species, develop and drop leaves at the optimal time. Plants set their internal calendars using several attributes from the sunlight they receive. In fact, the angle of the sun may be more important to a plant than day length.

That’s because plant cells produce compounds called phytochromes in response to different portions of the light spectrum. Direct sunlight is higher in red light, while indirect sunlight contains more far-red light. During late fall and early winter, when the sun remains low in the southern sky, the indirect light produces an increase in far-red phytochromes.

As spring approaches and the arc of the sun rises in the sky, direct sunlight triggers the production of red phytochromes. The ratio of these two compounds mediates the hormones involved in flowering, leaf drop, and bud development. Even seeds below the soil are affected. The amount of red and far-red light that penetrate the soil is sufficient to govern germination.

Some behavioral alterations worth mention beyond migrating and hibernation are herding and flocking, huddling to share body warmth, dietary change, hair & feather change- both color and structure, and many more but my radio time is ending, so now it’s your turn to explore more! It really does make you appreciated the wonders of nature.

This is Jack Greene for Wild About Utah.

Credits:
Image: Courtesy and copyright 2008 Ryan P. O’Donnell
Text:     Jack Greene, Bridgerland Audubon Society


Additional Reading:

Dark-eyed Junco, Junco hyemalis, Aynsley Carroll, Animal Diversity Web, http://animaldiversity.org/accounts/Junco_hyemalis/

Dark-eyed Junco, Junco hyemalis, Aynsley Carroll, Boreal Songbird Initiative, http://www.borealbirds.org/bird/dark-eyed-junco

https://scholar.google.com/scholar?q=junco+winter+reproductive+cycles

Jigang Lia, Gang Lib, Haiyang Wangb, and Xing Wang Denga, Phytochrome Signaling Mechanisms, The Arabidopsis Book, American Society of Plant Biologists, 2011, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3268501/ pdf