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Grizzly Bears In the Pacific Northwest: A Natural History (Part one)

August 8th, 2015 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

By Mike Rosekrans

“In late September 1967, Rocky and Lenora Wilson had packed up to Fisher Basin, one of their favorite places, for the ‘high hunt.’ During twilight hours, a large bear came down to the creek close by camp. Rocky lifted his old rifle and got off a good shot. While he knew it was ‘a big’un,’ he didn’t see that it had a shoulder hump and frosted coat until he got to the kill. This was the last known grizzly bear to be taken in the Cascades. A year later, the North Cascades National Park bill was signed, prohibiting hunting in that place and throughout the newly established National Park.”

— Jim Harris, “My Place in the Mountains”

I was on day two of a five-day backpacking trip in the most densely populated grizzly area in the lower 48 states, Glacier National Park. My itinerary, which had been printed and given to me by the backcountry wilderness office, showed that I had 11 miles to my next camp that evening, which included a 2500 ascent up Stony Indian Pass. After hiking the first 5 miles I forded a waist-deep river, where on the other bank I saw a trail sign which read, “Stony Indian Pass 10.5 miles.” How could I have already hiked 5 miles and have another 10 until the pass when my entire trail mileage for the day was only 11? A sinking feeling descended from my throat to the bottom of my gut as the realization set in that the wilderness office had given me the wrong mileage on my itinerary. Here on this rainy July day it was already late morning and I still had 18 miles to hike with a 45-pound pack on my back, up and over a steep pass.

With nothing else to do I put my pack back on and started swiftly hiking toward the pass. Clouds engulfed the high peaks and the rain made seasonal creeks swell and difficult to cross. By mid-afternoon I had reached the pass and saw the clear blue sky and the awe-inspiring mountains to the northwest. I began my descent through overgrown thimbleberry, which made the trail all but invisible. Down, down, down I hiked, every five minutes or so shouting, “Hey Bear.” At 5:00 p.m. I reached a junction that divided the trail to the north and south. Only two more miles and I would be at camp for the night.

After descending such a steep trail the flat ground felt wonderful on my legs and despite walking 20 miles already that day I felt energetic and alert. About a half mile from the trail junction I saw a big, brown animal with a hump on its back and it’s head down coming straight towards me. I instantly knew this was a grizzly bear and shouted, “Hey Bear!” at the top of my lungs as my hands reached toward my hip belt, where my bear spray was strapped. The bear stopped, looked at me, put its head down, and continued walking toward me. I yelled again, “BEAR, STOP!” It once again stopped, this time about ten yards from me. It sat down on its haunches and put its snout in the air and started sniffing. The instant it got a whiff of my scent it sat up, turned, and walked off the trail, giving me the right of way. In Glacier National Park, which is famous for it’s population of more than 300 grizzly bears, I had had an authentic encounter with a bruin itself. It didn’t charge me, it didn’t attack me, and it simply wanted nothing to do with me as it went on its way.

» Continue reading Grizzly Bears In the Pacific Northwest: A Natural History (Part one)

orchard mason bee

Mason Bees and Honey Bees: What’s the Difference?

July 27th, 2015 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

By Kevin Sutton

There were some things I knew about bees when starting this project; what I didn’t know was exactly how much I didn’t know.

When someone says “bees”, I immediately think of the western honeybee (Apis mellifera).  Maybe it’s because of the honey bee’s depiction in popular culture (see Honey Nut Cheerios) or maybe it’s because of the long relationship between humans and bees.

Humans have been trying to domesticate honey bees for thousands of years; evidence has been found in cave paintings in Spain, hieroglyphs in Egypt, on coins in Greece, and more and it makes sense; bees give us honey, wax, and all of our food through pollinating our crops.

The term wild bee is used for those species that don’t produce honey.  There are 20,000 species of bee in the world, 4,000 native to North America, and 600 native to Washington alone.  With such daunting numbers, I focused on one particular native bee, the orchard mason bee (Osmia lignaria).

While similar to A. mellifera in size and shape, O. lignaria differs in coloring, some physical attributes (fig. 1), and most significantly, social structure:

O. lignaria A. mellifera
Metallic blue/green Classic yellow and black striped
Nest in tubes, holes, hollow reeds, etc. Builds a hive of wax
Solitary but will live near other mason bees Social: lives in colonies up to 70,000
Each female lays eggs Only the queen lays eggs
Average range of 100 yards Average range of two miles
250 – 300 bees sufficient to pollinate 1 acre one hive per acre (30,000 – 70,000 bees)
Gathers pollen by stuffing it between hairs on abdomen Gathers pollen by storing it in specially adapted pockets on the rear legs
Stores pockets of pollen between larva Turns pollen into honey and stores for winter
Eggs hatch in summer, larva hibernate through winter, emerge as bees in spring, repeat Eggs regularly tended, hive comes together during winter (like penguins), become more active in spring

 

Screen Shot 2015-07-23 at 1.38.36 PM

For my project, I wanted to see if there were mason bees at the North Cascades Institute.  To do that, I constructed two mason bee houses and stashed them in a rock wall near my house.  Each house is made of the same materials (wood for a base, support, and backing and a compressed cardboard tube for the shell) but the internal pieces, where the Mason Bees will hopefully nest, are different.  The interior nesting holes in house one are made from commercially drilled slats of wood that have been taped together, while the nesting holes in house two are from pieces of bamboo I cut, dried, and tied together (fig. 2).

Screen Shot 2015-07-23 at 1.38.44 PM

I put the houses outside on May 15, 2015 but as of this writing, June 12, 2015, there is no sign of use.  My research said most mason bees are actively laying eggs in early April and with the unusually early and warm spring we’ve had, I expect the process began much earlier than that.  Both houses will stay up until September when I transfer to Bellingham and if nothing else, will try again in March 2016 when I return to my house and garden in Portland, OR.

Cascades-frog-2

Amphibians of North Cascades National Park: Their Importance, Sensitivity, Habitats, Threats and Management Implications

July 21st, 2015 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

By Chelsea Elizabeth Ernst, Candidate for Master’s of Environmental Education

The North Cascades are a rugged and dramatic landscape that offers habitat to thousands of plant and animal species and is an epicenter for biodiversity in the contiguous 48 United States. The ecosystem within North Cascades National Park (NOCA) is a popular location for mountaineers and naturalists alike. Many of the people who visit NOCA come hoping to see one of its charismatic megafauna, including American black bear, grey wolf, or the elusive wolverine.

However, an often-overlooked group of organisms that thrive in the Park are amphibians. Not only are these creatures fun to search for and fascinating to study, they are an important contributor to the NOCA ecosystem. Wild and preserved places like NOCA offer amphibians a large landscape in which to thrive, in a world where their numbers are rapidly declining due to anthropogenic effects. Proper research, public education and management strategies can help maintain healthy populations in a group of organisms that are incredibly sensitive to human activity and global climate change.

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Western redback salamander

The Importance of Amphibians to Ecosystems and People

Due to the nature of amphibious life cycles, being both aquatic and terrestrial, they occupy multiple trophic levels — as predators, primary consumers, detritivores, cannibals, and either specialists or opportunists — and provide a variety of ecosystem services. (Hocking & Babbitt, 2014, pg. 6).

As larvae, many salamanders and frogs are aquatic and regulate nutrient cycling in streams, ponds, and riparian areas. Nutrient cycling contribution by amphibians is apparent in every stage of their life cycle: from eggs that do not hatch providing nutrients to larger riparian consumers to tadpoles scraping diatoms off of rocks. As adults, they can comprise a large portion of the biomass aquatic ecosystems.

Amphibians also play a role in providing ecosystem services that affect people. Frogs often eat insects that that are capable of spreading disease among humans. Culturally, frogs have been important as a clan totem for Native American tribes such as the Tlingit in Alaska. According to the Squamish Lilwat Cultural Center website (2011):

The frog is a sign to our people to put away the winter activities and prepare for a new season. The frog symbolizes cleansing, peace and rebirth. In Northwest Aboriginal Culture, a Frog is a great communicator and often represents the common ground or voice of the people. A Frog embodies magic and good fortune connected with shaman or medicine man and with spiritual and therapeutic cleansing. Frog’s songs are believed to contain divine power and magic. Frog is a messenger and communicator between species being valued for his adaptability because he freely travels between and survives in two worlds land and water, inhabiting both natural and supernatural realms. (Animal Symbology)

Frogs and salamanders have been important throughout history to humans physically and spiritually. They also provide nostalgia for many folks who enjoyed tromping about riparian areas as children in search of amphibious friends.

Western toad

Amphibians’ Environmental Sensitivity

Amphibians are considered indicator species in the ecosystems they inhabit. When their populations decrease, it is often the first sign to humans that other organisms are at risk and that that ecosystem may be unhealthy. Certain aspects of amphibians’ physiology and ecology make them particularly sensitive to changes in ecosystems. As a result of these sensitivities to largely anthropogenic-induced fluctuations in their habitats, Hocking and Babbitt (2014) write that “amphibians are currently the most imperiled class, with approximately 41% of more than 7,000 amphibian species on the planet threatened with extinction” (pg. 1).

Because amphibians require water during part or all of their life cycle, climate change has a substantial impact on them. In the west, important amphibian habitats like high alpine lakes and montane wetlands are drying and warming (Ryan, Palen, Adams, & Rochefort, 2014). Their physiology makes them sensitive to climate change, among other environmental factors. Amphibians breathe cutaneously, absorbing moisture through their skin as part of their respiration process and to stay hydrated. They are ectothermic and require water to regulate their body temperature.

In addition to climate change, deforestation can affect this balance of moisture in ecosystems. Amphibian populations are also sensitive to UV light (Adams et al., 2005), diseases like Chytrid fungus (Chestnut et al., 2014), habitat fragmentation (Pilliod & Wind, 2008), and the introduction of non-native species to habitats (Ryan, Palen, Adams, & Rochefort, 2014).

With the variety of anthropogenic factors that have negative effects on amphibians and the increasing human population, the cause of worldwide amphibian vulnerability is clear. This highlights the importance of amphibian research in relatively untrammelled habitats like NOCA.
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Amphibian Habitats in North Cascades National Park

» Continue reading Amphibians of North Cascades National Park: Their Importance, Sensitivity, Habitats, Threats and Management Implications

ancient places nisbet

Northwest Bookshelf: Ozette, Orcas and Ancient Places

June 8th, 2015 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

Ancient Places: People and Landscape in the Emerging Northwest

Jack Nisbet (Sasquatch Books)

Spokane-based writer Jack Nisbet is a treasure for anyone interested in the ways natural history, landscape and human cultures intersect in the Pacific Northwest. His previous books have traced the route of Northwest fur agent and geographer David Thompson, profiled pioneering naturalist David Douglas and his many discoveries and meditated on the unique flora and fauna of the dry side of Cascadia. His latest title journeys around the Inland Empire in search of “genesis stories,” events from long, long ago that shape our world today.

A highlight is the essay “Meltdown,” which flows across vast stretches of time to reach an understanding of how the cycles of ice ages and epic floods shaped much of Eastern Washington and, in turn, our habitation in and movements across the land.

From the Colville Valley to Lake Pend Oreille, Okanagan Highlands to Grand Coulee, Nisbet deftly connects past to present, human to nature.

Jack Nisbet reads from Ancient Places at Village Books in Fairhaven on Wed, June 10 at 7 pm; free!

 

Ozette-Kirk

Ozette: Excavating a Makah Whaling Village

Ruth Kirk (University of Washington Press)

It’s been nearly 50 years since the Makah’s whaling village at Ozette emerged from the mud in the far northwestern corner of the Olympic Peninsula. Richard Daugherty came across the site while surveying the wild Pacific Coast for archaeology sites as a UW graduate student. The subsequent decade of excavation by Dr. Daughtery and his team unearthed one of the richest troves of Northwest native artifacts ever discovered: clubs and combs made from whalebone, net sinkers and knives from stone, mussel-shell harpoon blades, beaver-teeth carving tools and a myriad of useful and ceremonial items made from the Tree of Life, Western Red Cedar. Their research also discovered entire houses inhabited by the Makah hundreds of years ago, close to perfectly preserved by being encased in a mudslide.

» Continue reading Northwest Bookshelf: Ozette, Orcas and Ancient Places

NorthwestCoast-Holm

Northwest Bookshelf: Native Art, Native Trees and a Journey to the North

June 2nd, 2015 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

Northwest Coast Indian Art
Bill Holm (University of Washington Press)

From blankets to gambling sticks, coffins to rain hats, spoons to shaman’s paraphernalia, seemingly every material aspect of the indigenous cultures of the northern Pacific Coast was decorated with representations of the natural world, usually animals. Salmon, bear, raven, wolf, whale, seal, beaver: the wild creatures of the British Columbian and southeast Alaskan coastlines and islands are memorialized in bold strokes of black and red by Haida, Tsimshian, and Tlingit artists from time immemorial.

The definitive study of the visual language of Northwest Coast Native art is back on bookstore shelves in a 50th anniversary edition that includes new color photographs, illustrations and reflections from contemporary artists on the impact of Bill Holm’s landmark book.

Holm is credited with decoding the hidden structures of the complex and highly stylized art form, helping “unravel the secrets of Northwest Coast art,” according to one artist. He made his findings in a systematic study of hundreds of artifacts housed in the University of Washington’s Burke Museum as a graduate student.

“I realized there was a sort of grammar or syntax to it not unlike a written language,” Holm writes in a new preface. “There were ‘rules’ that transcended tribal and linguistic boundaries on the northern coast, and these rules were followed with remarkable uniformity by artists of all the tribes in the area.”

Considered one of the most advanced art forms in the world, Holm demystifies the schematics of Northwest Coast Indian Art while also allowing that it is the individual artist’s sensibilities that make the sum of elements greater than the parts.

Even with his deep comprehension of the art, Holm acknowledges mystery too: “It is difficult to understand how these Indian artists, scattered among the inlets of the rugged northern coast, mastered the complexities of the design system to such a degree that only an occasional piece in the vast museum collections of today deviates from that system.”

» Continue reading Northwest Bookshelf: Native Art, Native Trees and a Journey to the North

GrayWolf

Howling to be Heard: Wolf Evolution and Behavior

May 18th, 2015 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

by Mike Rosekrans, M.Ed. Graduate Student
This is the second article in Mike’s “Howling to be Heard” series; you can read the first one on wolf folklore here.

Wolves have been a part of the American landscape for a much longer time period than humans have. Evidence shows that gray wolves appeared in North America around 15,000 years ago during a period of oversized mammals. The gray wolf’s much larger cousin, the dire wolf, was the primary predator until it went extinct about 8,000 years ago. It is believed by scientists that because dire wolves were much larger they could not keep up with the ungulates that had become much faster and adapted to run through forested areas after the retreat of the last glaciers at the end of the ice age. The smaller and quicker gray wolf, which hunted in packs, was much more suited to this newly forested environment. Following the extinction of the dire wolf, the gray wolf became the top predator in North America.

The gray wolf is the largest member of the Canid family and the third largest predator in the Northwest after the grizzly and black bears. The gray wolf’s closest relative, the coyote, has taken over much of the gray wolf’s former range due its near eradication during the early 20th century. It is believed that these two species separated on an evolutionary scale about 1.5 million years ago. In fact, all domestic dogs have evolved from gray wolves.

Other than primates, wolves have the most complex social structure amongst land mammals. The social structure of the wolf is centered around the pack, a group of 2-20 wolves that take on specific roles and functions within the community. Each pack has an alpha pair consisting of one male and one female, which is usually the only breeding pair within a pack. The rest of the pack members consist of the alpha pair’s offspring. Some pack members may eventually break away and set off on their own to either establish their own packs or join another. If a male leaves a pack or is kicked out by the alpha it will often become the alpha of another pack.

» Continue reading Howling to be Heard: Wolf Evolution and Behavior

SalishSea

The Salish Sea: Jewel of the Pacific Northwest

April 14th, 2015 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

As part of our “Nature in Writing” series, Joseph K. Gaydos and Audrey DeLella Benedict read from The Salish Sea, Thursday, April 16, 7 pm, in the Readings Gallery at Village Books in Bellingham. Free!

We paddle and sail on it, comb its beaches, stroll its shores. We are drawn to it for fishing, birdwatching, tidepooling, crabbing, sunset gazing and occasionally even swimming. The Salish Sea defines life in the Fourth Corner, providing not only livelihood and sustenance but also opportunities for relaxation, play, adventure and spiritual nourishment.

A new title from Sasquatch Books, written by the Chief Scientist for the SeaDoc Society and the founder of Cloud Ridge Naturalists, aims to educate Pacific Northwesterners about the intricate ecosystem of our inland sea. Joseph K. Gaydos and Audrey DeLella Benedict combine engaging science writing with an array of stunning photographs to produce The Salish Sea: Jewel of the Pacific Northwest.

Several local photographers provided images for the book, including Brett Baunton, John D’Onofrio, Jessica Newley, John Scurlock, Art Wolfe and the Whatcom Museum archives.

The idea for grouping together the Puget Sound, Strait of Juan de Fuca and Strait of Georgia under one moniker originally came from Bert Webber, a retired professor of environmental and marine science at Western Washington University. Thinking of the interconnected, transboundary waters as one cohesive whole — the Salish Sea — helps citizens to “think like a watershed” and better strategize international management of the ecosystem and its wealth of resources.

Wise management is crucial as approximately eight million people live in the Salish Sea ecosystem, with another million projected to settle here over the next ten years. The impacts from extensive human development of the shorelines and uplands are being felt throughout the region.

The Health of the Salish Sea Report, issued by the US Environmental Protection Agency and Environment Canada, gives our treasured inland sea mixed grades.

What they’ve found: 113 marine species and sub-species are formally listed as being at risk or vulnerable to extinction, including 56 birds, 37 fish, 15 mammals, three invertebrates and two reptiles. Also, marine-dissolved oxygen is in long-term decline, and the last few decades have seen steep declines in iconic orca whales and Chinook salmon. Ten of the 17 rivers studied show strongly significant decreasing summer flow trends due to lower snowpacks in the mountains, surface and groundwater withdrawals, and other issues.

On the positive side, air quality has been improving, freshwater quality is general holding steady, nearly 4,00 acres of previously closed shellfish beds in Puget Sound have re-opened due to improvements in water quality and levels of PCBs and PCBEs are declining in harbor seals.

This new book — which is divided into sections that explore different ecological niches like “Life at the Edges,” “Denizens of the Deep” and “Bizarre and Beautiful Fish” — takes the approach of saving the Salish Sea by educating people about it.

“Once people know a place…they become connected to it,” the authors write. “And once people connect to an ecosystem, it becomes personal and they want to protect and restore it.”

Through maps, charts, satellite imagery, nature photography and writing, Benedict and Gaydos concoct an engaging presentation of the natural history of our “jewel of the Pacific Northwest.”  Their mantra of “know, connect, protect and restore” is a hopeful way forward in to a challenging future.

Read the Health of the Salish Sea Report at http://www2.epa.gov/salish-sea/marine-species-risk