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Giving a “Dam”: A Natural History of Beavers

February 8th, 2016 | Posted by in Graduate M.Ed. Program

By Liz Blackman, graduate student in the institute’s 14th cohort.

As I slide over the edge of the raceway and landed knee-deep in water I can barely see the almond-colored nose of the buoyant beaver as he floats beneath his cinderblock temporary home behind a large pile of aspen cuttings. He seems minimally threated by my presence, exhibiting none of the displays one would expect from a recently captured wild animal. No tailslapping or aggressive presentations as I slop through the water toward him, awkward and weighed down by the oversized boots and waders protecting me from the cool water. The closer I get the more aware I become of just how gentle this creature must be. We make eye contact before he dips his torpedo-shaped head beneath the water and begins to swim smoothly away from me toward the wall of the raceway. His waffle-pattered leathery tail is smaller than I expect and moves both vertically and horizontally as he alternately propels and rudders himself through the water. It takes only a few minutes of following Chuck around the raceway for him to swim directly into the cage being held in the water ahead of him. No wonder these animals were trapped nearly to extinction. In less than five minutes and with no struggle whatsoever the young male is securely caged and ready to give some third-graders an unrivaled first-hand experience with the country’s largest rodent. The musky smell of castor is unmistakable in the morning air and although entirely new to me, the scent quickly becomes familiar. I am hooked.

Beavers are nature’s most misunderstood rodents. Docile, diligent, tidy and familiar, Castor Canadensis does more to shape waterways and landscapes than any of their mammalian relatives and plays an integral role in the delicate riparian balance of Washington’s diverse ecosystems. Beavers have an ancient history with damns dating back over 10 million years and there are estimates of more than two hundred million beavers historically residing in the continental US. Indigenous American stories describe the beaver as co-creator of the land and sea alongside Great Sprit. Beaver appears in countless ancestral stories of Eastern Washington including the Confederated Tribes of the Coleville Reservation Upper Columbia River Book of Legends. Published in March 2007, the Coleville Book of Legends is full of references to the Beaver Tribe. Beaver is credited with a variety of great feats including stealing fire from the Sky People and bringing firewood to the tribes (How Beaver Stole the Fire) as well as marrying Coyote at Kettle Falls on the Columbia River and becoming the salmon chief (Why Coyote Changed the Course of the Columbia River).

Liz holding beaver

Liz holding a beaver at the Methow Beaver Project.

» Continue reading Giving a “Dam”: A Natural History of Beavers

Jack and Crater Mountain with flowers

Subalpine and Alpine Wildflowers and Pollinators of the North Cascades: Part 2

February 4th, 2016 | Posted by in Graduate M.Ed. Program

By Lauren Ridder, graduate student in the institute’s 14th cohort. This is part two of Lauren’s natural history project. Find part one here.

The Biome: Subalpine to Alpine
The alpine lifezone or biome is most often described as the area above or near treeline on mountaintops. In the North Cascades, the elevation range of the alpine zone is from about 6,400ft to about 8,530ft (Douglas & Bliss, 1977). The subalpine biome often shares many characteristics with alpine plant and animal communities as the boundaries between the two lifezones are rather indistinct (Billings, 1974). The varying topography blends these two biomes, making the assignment of plant communities highly subjective. Among the main features that designate an area as subalpine are the discontinuation of the forest and the formation of “scattered tree clumps in a meadow mosaic” (Taylor & Douglas, 1995, p.4). These tree clumps are pioneers in harsh soil and growth conditions and “are normally short, with spreading branches, but [they still] retain definite crowns and do not develop the dense, low, thicketlike growth form known as krummholz” (Taylor & Douglas, 1995, p. 5-6). Krummholz is generally found on higher slopes and marks the beginning of the alpine zone (Taylor & Douglas, 1995). It would be much easier to assign general characteristics to these biomes if the mountain were flat ground with consistent weather patterns. However, nature provides large doses of interest and variety in vegetation patterns through vastly different slope aspects, substrate conditions, and extreme daily ranges in temperature, wind speeds, solar radiation, and water availability.

The combination of these abiotic factors creates many different habitats with microclimates and vegetation stripe communities occurring within those habitats. Fellfields are most common in the alpine biome, and are “characterized by rocky ground and dry soil, and are typically less than half covered by vegetation…Plants that grow here must be short in stature or they will be desiccated by freezing wind in winter and blasted by wind-driven sand in summer” (Visalli, 2014b, p.3). The constant frost action and avalanche potential acting on the slopes causes the soil to be unstable, poorly developed, and easily eroded as well, and pioneering plants must act quickly to establish roots when possible (Douglas & Bliss, 1977). Vegetation stripes can occur in the talus and scree slopes of fell- and boulder-fields, where soil and moisture has found a path of least resistance to percolate through or flow down and created a pocket of nutrients for plants to capitalize on (Douglas & Bliss, 1977).

» Continue reading Subalpine and Alpine Wildflowers and Pollinators of the North Cascades: Part 2

sunrise flowers

Subalpine and Alpine Wildflowers and Pollinators of the North Cascades: Part 1

January 28th, 2016 | Posted by in Graduate M.Ed. Program

By Lauren Ridder, graduate student in the institute’s 14th cohort.

Nothing can quite prepare the hiker for the beauty of a subalpine meadow in full bloom. The contrast of the delicate flowers’ vibrant colors splashed across a backdrop of jagged peaks provides a moment for reflection and appreciation for the stark beauty of Cascadia. As the other senses kick in and notice is taken of fragrance on the breeze and a buzzing at the feet, the connections between plant, animal, insect, soil, water, and air become all too clear. Those relationships observed between plant and pollinator have been shaped by innumerable abiotic factors over millions of years. Wandering through a high mountain meadow provides a brief glimpse into the fascinating evolutionary history of wildflowers and their pollinators.

A Brief History of Plant Evolution
While observing the beautiful complexity of a wildflower, it can be hard to imagine the selection process that led from a single-celled photosynthetic organism living in a vast, watery world to a flower living high on the flanks of a mountain. Constantly changing environments guided the expansion of the plant kingdom and resulted in the development of vascular systems, seeds, and flowers (Visalli, 2014b). The green algal common ancestor found success over time in the colonization of land through embryo protection and the growth of a more solid tissue system. This tissue system, or vascular system, transports water and nutrients throughout a plant, and is a more recent evolutionary development that allows for survival in harsher, drier environments.

History of plants

This cladogram of plant evolution shows the development of plant systems and the diversification of the plant kingdom over time (Guertin et al., 2015).

» Continue reading Subalpine and Alpine Wildflowers and Pollinators of the North Cascades: Part 1

fisher

Rewilding Cascadia: Return of the grizzly, wolves and fisher in the North Cascades

January 14th, 2016 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

Over the last two centuries human expansion has halted and almost destroyed natural habitat for many species across America. In recent time there has been multiple efforts to “rewild” or restore natural places to previous states. Recently there have been success stories with grizzly bears, wolves, and fishers in the North Cascades Ecosystem.

Grizzly Bears:

Big grizzly populations in places like Yellowstone and the Northern Continental Divide, where about 1,600 grizzlies live, are recovery successes for the species.

Wildlife managers in other ecosystems are looking to those successes as they consider reintroducing bears into other parts of the West.

Only about 20 grizzly bears live in the North Cascades ecosystem of north central Washington. Jack Oeflke works for North Cascades National Park.

“To get to a few hundred animals there it could take 50 to 100 years,” says Oeflke. “So I’ll never see it, but working on it, and hoping we can steer it in that direction is pretty exciting.”

The above excerpt from Corin Cates-Carney describes how far behind the North Cascades ecosystem is compared to comparable wild spaces in regards to grizzly population. The success of both the Yellowstone and Northern Continental Divide sites strengthen the argument for grizzly reintroduction in the North Cascades.

Starting in 1997 the North Cascades was designated as a recovery zone for the bears. A lot of work was needed to be done to get the local population ready for a sizable bear population again. Two of their biggest tools: education and outreach.

Overall, Oeflke says, concerns about reintroduction have been far outweighed by support for bear recovery.

Grizzly Habitat in the North Cascades. Photo courtesy of the Seattle Times.

One such support is by Ron Judd, who shares a personal story with a group of bear juveniles.

That evening, we rigged up our rods and made the short walk to the river mouth to meet the incoming tide, which was like none I had ever seen. Each long, slow wave cruising up the river was half water, half fish. Every cast into these waters produced a strike, from a coho or a feisty Dolly Varden.

To us, it was catch-and-release nirvana. To the four or five brown bears that soon emerged on the opposite side of the river, it was supper. Everyone present made eye contact and managed to avoid flipping out. We backed off and watched them fish. Gradually, they began ignoring us and concentrated on feeding, moving slightly upstream, staying on their side of the river. At some point we shrugged, crept back to the river mouth and started fishing again. Peace prevailed.

I don’t really recommend this, and to this day, I’m not sure what possessed us to take the risk. Most of the bears were juveniles, and seemed utterly disinterested. But one, a massive sow we saw skirt through the area, was the largest bear I’ve ever seen. I’m not sure I would stay there if presented with the same situation today. But at the time, it just seemed OK.

It is a cliché, but you sort of had to be there. I will never forget, fishing a river opposite those bears, the indescribable mixture of fear and reverence I felt in that place and time. With senses heightened off the charts, it was as if I had stopped observing the natural world, and for the first time, stepped all the way into it.

» Continue reading Rewilding Cascadia: Return of the grizzly, wolves and fisher in the North Cascades

Grizz with cubs

Grizzly Bears in the Pacific Northwest: A Natural History (Part 4)

January 7th, 2016 | Posted by in Graduate M.Ed. Program

Recovery came swiftly to the Yellowstone and Northern Continental Divide Ecosystems, unfortunately the same could not be said of the North Cascades. Like the glaciers that move so slowly, grinding their way through the high country, the North Cascades Ecosystem (NCE) Recovery Plan has moved no faster than the glaciers. One could even argue that with the increased melting of the glaciers due to climate change the glaciers are now moving faster than the grizzly recovery project.

The North Cascades Recovery Zone differed from Yellowstone and Glacier because when the recovery zones were established, the North Cascades had much fewer numbers than the other two parks in the recovery zone. As stated above the last grizzly sighting on the American side of the North Cascades was in 1996. Occasionally a track in the mud will be found, but it is estimated now that ten or fewer bears inhabit the North Cascades Ecosystem.

This lack of a viable population presents several problems for potential recovery. Grizzlies are very slow reproducers with an average life expectancy of 25 years. One may think that 25 years is a rather long lifespan in comparison to most wild mammals, giving them plenty of chances each year to reproduce. But when looking at some of the evolutionary habits of the grizzly we start to see that 25 years might not be enough to increase the population.

A female grizzly will not start mating until the age of 5 – 8 years. When the female finally does mate, she will spend 3 to 4 years with her cubs. The average female bear will only mate 2 or 3 times in her life. Survival of cubs is yet another concern. A female grizzly will normally have two cubs of which, under typical environmental circumstances, only one will survive. Grizzly cubs have to face the challenge of eluding other predators such as cougars, wolves, and even other male grizzlies. Male grizzlies have been known to kill cubs that aren’t theirs in order to ensure that their own offspring carries on. Also, in an ecosystem where there may be less than 10 other grizzlies it can be very difficult just to find a mate, considering that grizzlies have a large range of up to 500 square miles.

» Continue reading Grizzly Bears in the Pacific Northwest: A Natural History (Part 4)

fall-SWW

Fall Count: Environmental Learning Center Observations from September through November

January 3rd, 2016 | Posted by in Life at the Learning Center

By Joe Loviska, Graduate Phenology Assistant

Phenology is the study of how plants, animals, and other biotic organisms change with the cycle of the seasons. As the graduate phenology assistant at the Environmental Learning Center (ELC), it is my job to collect and organize data on the weather, mammals, and birds around the center.

Weather

Weather Data from ELC Station

From these few numbers we can see that this fall has generally been cooler than the last two years, with the exception of the November lows in 2013 and 2014. 2014 was a very wet year overall, but this year has already seen more rain than 2013. A few weather events have stood out this fall. Most impactful to our place was the rainstorm from August 21 to September 3. During this period 4.41” of rain fell, effectively stopping the Goodell Creek fire and allowing us to move back into the ELC on August 31. On Halloween (October 31) it dumped 2.29”. Finally, the two rainiest days of the season were November 13th and 17th when 3.08” and 3.67” fell, respectively. This was during the biggest rainstorm of the season, from November 10 to November 18, during which it rained 9.54”. Wow!

Saul Weisberg’s (executive director of the North Cascades Institute) birthday fell on November 16, along with the first snow of the year at the ELC. On November 19, J. Loviska observed that the sun left the ELC amphitheater at 2pm, blocked by the ridge south of the lake. Thus began winter, despite what the calendar claims.

Mammals

We kicked off the Mountain School season well with a black bear (Ursus americanus) sighting in the ELC parking lot on September 14. Two trail groups were on hand to observe the bear as it trundled down the road; then, upon noticing us, it hustled into the forest on the north side. Other notable traces of megafauna: J. Porter heard a gray wolf (Canis lupus) howling early in the morning on September 15 at Black Pine Lake; a wolverine (Gulo gulo) was picked up by the remote camera station on October 1 in Fisher Basin. This collared individual was later identified as Special K; A. Gourd observed a beaver swimming in Diablo Lake near Power Tower Island on October 5. White wood and trees with tooth marks have been observed near the mouth of Thunder Creek, but if anyone has seen beaver activity closer to the ELC, please let us know; on November 11 a coyote was seen crossing Highway 20 in Newhalem, near a deer carcass.

Wolverine Special K Caught on camera.

Wolverine “Special K” caught on camera on 10/01/2015.

» Continue reading Fall Count: Environmental Learning Center Observations from September through November

Gaines

Patience and Persistence: An Interview with Grizzly Bear Biologist Bill Gaines

December 12th, 2015 | Posted by in Graduate M.Ed. Program

Bill Gaines has been at the forefront of the grizzly bear recovery efforts in the Pacific Northwest for 25 years. I recently had the opportunity to sit down and chat with him about the historical struggles of recovery efforts, the impacts of other carnivores in the North Cascades ecosystem and the role education must play in order to successfully implement recover efforts.

Mike Rosekrans: What initially got you interested in bears?

Bill Gaines: I finished my undergrad and went into my Masters pretty quickly where I studied harlequin ducks, so I really wasn’t a bear person coming out of school. I’d always been interested in bears, but it was something I never had the opportunity to focus on. I then went to work for the Forest Service where I was on a crew that was collecting information about habitat for bears in the North Cascades as part of an effort that started in the mid-80’s and ended in the early-90’s to evaluate whether the Cascades had the capability to support a recovered population of grizzly bears. I was working on the habitat side of that process as a field crew person. The fellow who was leading the habitat evaluation wound up moving after a few years, so in the late 80’s I found myself taking over the role of the leader of the habitat evaluation component. It then became pretty obvious to me that I needed to immerse myself in bear biology and ecology.

I began going to different meetings where I got to meet all these interesting people from all over the world who got to work with bears. I immersed myself in the literature, and had an opportunity to get involved with research on black bears in the Cascades for my PhD dissertation. This really gave me the opportunity to get into the research side and get out in the field and track bears around and start learning about how they behave here in the Cascades.

I got to be very intimate with many of the parts of the Cascades and had black bears radio collared on the eastside and the westside. So it was four years of field research that really became a dream job! That got me hooked on bears and I started to become more and more fascinated with their ecology, their intelligence, and their behavior. After I finished my PhD, I became involved with the development of the recovery planning for the grizzly bear in the Cascades.

MR: How important is it to reach the younger generation, who will ultimately be the future managers, to just go out and to educate the general public?

» Continue reading Patience and Persistence: An Interview with Grizzly Bear Biologist Bill Gaines