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Archive for January, 2018

Father of geese

konrad lorenz goslings

The trilling chirps of greylag goslings fill the morning air. The dew is heavy and cool against the late spring grass. The sun casts down upon the verdant land, and it shines against the greenery that magical shade of green that it turns when it is just starting to approach its summer fullness.

Konrad Lorenz comes to the goslings in the morning dew, and they race to meet his shoes. They know him as their doting parent, for when they first hatched, he was the first thing they saw. Goose instinct says follow that first thing you see when you hatch. That is your parent.

Konrad knows they will come wherever he goes. He was one of the first people to describe the phenomenon by which precocial birds attach themselves to the first moving object they encounter upon leaving the egg. They know him as their father, nothing more and nothing less.

When he lies before them in the cool grass, they gently peck at his goatee.  A beaming smile crosses his face. He is smitten with his charges.

Such a gentle man, so tender with these wee ones.

Yet behind the man lies a hidden darkness.

Raised in parochial Austria and educated at Columbia, he studied medicine at the University of Vienna, then got a doctorate in zoology. But in the 30s, the nation of Austria had turned inward and darker. The Catholic Church held sway. It was stifling a curious mind of science.

In the 30s, he studied the greylags closely. He kept wild ones and the tame varieties and crossed them, and he believed that the tame ones were degenerates. Their blood tainted the wild ones when they were crossed, and his ideas got swept up in the Zeitgeist of racial hygiene.

When the Anschluss came, he joined Hitler’s party and became Nazi scientist. In 1940, he found a job as a professor the University of Koenigsberg, but the war was not far off. He was drafted into the Werhmacht, where he worked on a project that studied the so-called Mischlinge– people who were half-German and half-Polish.

It is the same sort of science he performed on greylags that he now performed on his fellow man.

The Soviet Union beat the Nazis at Stalingrad, and the war was all but lost. The Germans sent as many men as they could to that far eastern front, and Lorenz was sent to defend the Fatherland from the great red Slavic horde. He found himself a prisoner of war, where he worked as a medic for the hated Bolsheviks. He kept a pet starling and wrote on a little manuscript. And he survived.

One day, he would say that he saw much of himself in those Soviet doctors. They were committed to an ideology, an ideology imposed by the state, and in that he saw his own folly through those years of the 30s and the war.

He returned to Vienna, where he loved his wife and dogs and his children. He kept a menagerie of all sorts of animals. He worked at the Max Planck Institutes in Westphalia and Bavaria, and he wrote books on animals and their behavior.

And he tried to forget that he had once allowed himself to become caught up in the madness the wrecked his nation. He won the Nobel Prize for Medicine, sharing it with Karl von Frisch, a fellow Austrian who was deemed a mischling (why different spelling?) and forced into retirement for the crime of “practicing Jewish science,” and Niko Tinbergen, who fought to defend his native Netherlands against the Nazis and was held as prisoner of war.

Lorenz would spend the rest of his life with this stigma of having joined in that great madness. He first denied his membership to that party, but the records were soon revealed to the public.

And all knew that he had partaken in the blood and fury, not as a fanatic but as a man of science.

So he would spend the rest of his days trying to find absolution for that great sin, trying to make amends to his friend Niko.

And on nice late spring days, he would run with his goslings and lead them along the green paths and let them eat the forbs and grass, and then would lead them on to his beloved Danube, where he would enter the water like a great crocodile and the goslings would take to their aquatic existence as true waterfowl.

A true romantic lover of the wildness of Central Europe, Lorenz would work to create the Green Party and fight to preserve nature.

But none of that can atone for the madness that reason excused and acquiesced and rationalized.

So on this day, he leads the goslings onward through the greenery. Onward along the lovely green paths of Altenberg, the merry band goes.

A gosling has never heard the word “National Socialist,” nor even processes the understanding of its horrors. It knows only to follow that which it thinks is its parent.

A gentle soul trying to escape his past horror. Once a young monster, now leading on his chirping charges into the sunshine.

 

 

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pronghorns

Our brains like simple answers. We love to see the cause and then the effect, and we constantly look for them in nature.  At one time, we believed that the appearance of comets in the sky would be harbingers of great doom. And even in the past century in my home state, it has long been claimed that the appearance of Mothman in the area around Pt. Pleasant corresponded with the Silver Bridge collapse.

Correlation does not equal causation. Chanticleer, that old rooster of English Medieval lore, believed that his crowing at dawn made the sun rise.  When two variables occur at the same time but don’t have any causal relationship, they are called stochastic. Stochastic is one of my favorite words from graduate school, and even today when someone posits a bogus relationship between two variables, I say “Those are stochastic variables.”  I get some odd looks, but that was the point.

In trying to understand the complex phenomena that comprise evolution, we are constantly looking for these relationships. Some of them make some good sense and are well-supported with the data. We know that predators are the driving force behind making the prey swift and nimble, and we also know that plant-eating animals are the driving force behind the development of thorns and toxic plants.

But sometimes, our desire to see patterns leads us astray.  One example of what may be an erroneous positing of stochastic variables involves one of North America’s most unusual animals.

If one were to go to Wyoming on a hunting trip, there is a good chance that the outfitter will tell you to buy “antelope tags.”  Tags, of course, are licenses that give permission to the hunter to take a particular species, and in Wyoming, there is great interest in the pursuit of antelope.

But the little secret is there are no antelope in Wyoming. Indeed, the only true antelope in the United States are gemsbok that have been introduced to specific part of New Mexico, and Texas game ranches are full of various species of Old World antelope.

But no true antelope is native to the Americas. The animal we call an “antelope” should be more appropriately called “the pronghorn.”  It is not an antelope at all, but it is the last survivor of a lineage of creatures that are much more closely related to the various giraffe species and the okapi.  The pronghorn and its extinct kin are placed in a superfamily of Artiodactyla called Giraffoidea. These animals have bony processes that stick off their heads. In the giraffe and okapi, these are called ossicones and are covered in hair. In the pronghorn, a sheath of keratin grows over the bone. This sheath is shed every year, which leads to the claim that the pronghorn is the only animal that loses its horns every year.

The animal we call a pronghorn is superficially quite similar to what we would call an antelope or gazelle in the Old World.  But these similarities arose through parallel evolution. Both gazelles and pronghorns evolved in the open land where all sorts of cursorial predators hunted them. Predation forced these animals into swiftness and nimbleness.

That part is not much up for debate.

The problem comes with a specific claim about pronghorns.  One odd feature of this species is its speed. The top speed of an adult pronghorn is 55 mph (88.5 km/h). This speed far exceeds any of its predators that were around in historical times. A pronghorn can smoke a pack of wolves or coyotes and can easily outrun a cougar or a bear.

This high speed has vexed science for quite some time, but there has been an attempt to explain how it could evolved using predation as the driving force.

The hypothesis even points to a specific predator.

At one time the cougar lineage was much more diverse than it is now.  Right now, only three cats still exist in this lineage:  the cougar/mountain lion/puma/catamount/painter/panther (all names for one species), the jaguarundi, and the cheetah of Africa and Iran.

But during the Pleistocene, there were long-limbed cats that superficially resembled the cheetahs of the Old World. They were called “American cheetahs,” but analysis of mitochondrial DNA extracted from their fossils revealed they were much more closely related to cougars. Indeed, they were more closely related to cougars than cougars are to jaguarundi, which complicates the whole move to place jaguarundis in the same genus as the cougar. The two extinct American cheetahs are currently classified in the genus Miracinonyx, while the cougar is in Puma and the jaguarundi is in Herpailurus. Because these two American “cheetahs” are closer to the cougar, placing the jaguarundi in Puma creates a paraphyletic genus. This problem could all be solved if we just placed the two American “cheetahs” into Puma, but not everyone agrees with the mitochondrial DNA assessment of their phylogeny.

Let’s just say that the current pronghorn species lived at the same time as these lithe cougars, and it has been suggested that these cheetahs are the driving force behind the evolution of the extreme speed. The person who came up with this suggestion was a pronghorn expert named John Byers. Byers does not claim that these “cheetahs” were the sole force behind the development of speed in pronghorns. Instead, he lists them among a whole guild of running predators that could have placed selection pressures on pronghorns to force them into the evolution of speed.

The claim that these “cheetahs” were the driving force behind pronghorn speed has been picked up on the popular press though. Wildlife writer Dan Flores even made this claim recently on the Joe Rogan Podcast, and one can find countless pieces on the internet (including this blog when I was a lot more naive) that the extinct North American cheetahs are the “but for” cause of the pronghorn’s fleetness.

The problem with this claim is that it leaves out the nuance of the original hypothesis, and what we’re left with is a sort of cartoon version of evolution.

On the blog Laelaps, a great amount of skepticism is leveled at this hypothesis, largely because the popular understanding of how North American cheetahs might have affected pronghorn evolution.

One problem is that no one really knows how the two species of North America cheetah lived:

We don’t know very much about the natural history of either Miracinonyx species. Their skeletons are cheetah-ish, but that’s not nearly enough to pin these carnivores as the inspiration for artiodactyl agility. In fact, the ecological context of Miracinonyx bones hints that these cats were not simply speedy specialists who prowled open grasslands.

In their 1990 study, Van Valkenburgh and collaborators noted that later Miracinonyx bones have been found from Nebraska to Pennsylvania and Florida in deposits which accumulated under varying conditions. These cats were apparently just as at home among coastal savannahs as mountain stream valleys. More recently, at the 2010 Society of Vertebrate Paleontology meeting, John-Paul Hodnett and coauthors presented a poster about Miracinonyx that frequented caves in prehistoric Grand Canyon, Arizona. There was a distinct lack of fast-running, open-savannah prey animals during the same time period – the researchers noted that the extinct mountain goat Oreamos harringtoni was the most common possibly prey animal in the area. Rather than speeding over the grasslands, Hodnett and colleagues reported, the Grand Canyon Miracinonyx may have lived like snow leopards, bounding down sheer rock faces in pursuit of mountain goats.

This isn’t to say that Miracinonyx never bolted after equally-swift prey. It’s only to point out that we don’t know much about the cat’s ecology, feeding habits, or hunting strategy. There are a few ways we could find out a bit more, though.

Coprolites attributable to Miracinonyx might contain identifiable bone fragments of the cat’s prey. And while such a find is a longshot, perhaps a trackway made by a Miracinonyx running or launching itself into pursuit could tell us about how these cats actually moved. Both lines of evidence suffer from the complexities of accurately attributing a particular trace fossil to a trace-maker, though. Another route may be to compare the isotopic clues in the teeth of Miracinonyx to those of their potential prey, as was recently done for two sabercats and a bear dog found in Spain. By ascertaining where herbivores were feeding, and how geochemical signatures of prey became locked in carnivore teeth, paleontologists could narrow down the preferred habitats and prey of Miracinonyx. Furthermore, a poster presented by Natalia Kennedy and coauthors at the 2012 SVP meeting outlined a new attempt to compare the spine of the modern cheetah to that of Miracinonyx and other extinct cats to see how skeletal anatomy influenced flexibility and lifestyle.

Miracinonyx might have been the reason for the swiftness of pronghorn. False cheetahs and archaic pronghorn overlapped in time, if not habitat, for as much as three million years. But saying Miracinonyx was certainly a speed demon that gave pronghorn a reason to run is only supported by the barest amount of evidence. If we’re going to understand the evolution and natural history of these animals, we must first untangle their histories and the specific details of their ecology. The Just-So story of how the pronghorn got its speed has yet to be tested by the evidence which resides in the fossil record.

So we really don’t know enough about the extinct North American “cheetahs” at all, and we certainly don’t know enough to make claims that they were the driving force behind the evolution of speed in pronghorns.

Further, if one reads Byers’s text on these predators, he does say that these cheetahs were “the principal agents of selection” behind the pronghorn’s speed, but the author does point out that things like dholes, wolves, and various species of Borophaginae could have been part of the mix as well.

Pronghorn don’t just have speed. They have endurance.  Endurance is one way that Old World antelope elude the speed of cheetahs, but the main way they elude them is through agile running maneuvers. Pronghorn are fast, but they don’t have the quick turns of a Thomson’s or dorcas gazelle.

If these North American “cheetahs” ran down their prey in the same way the Old World true cheetahs do, then one would expect the pronghorn to have evolved some of these tricks.

Instead, pronghorn are running machines. They can take off and go and go and go. An animal that evolved to do such a thing likely didn’t evolve to outpace a sprinting cheetah. It likely evolved to outrun endurance runners.

Dholes are known in North America’s fossil record largely from Beringia, but we do have remains of dholes from Mexico. So their distribution in North America was probably more extensive than we might have assumed, but their fossil record is still quite spotty. Dholes run down their prey in long endurance chases, and dhole predation could have been a pretty strong selection pressure on pronghorns to make them fast endurance runners.

But another species could have also provided this pressure, and its presence in North America is well-established. What’s more, it lived in roughly the same areas where pronghorn were common.

This animal was North America’s only hyena, Chasmaporthetes ossifragus. These hyenas were far less like the modern bone-crushing species of hyena. Indeed, they were quite dog-like and are part of a grouping of hyenas that were called “dog-like hyenas.” The only dog-like hyena still in existence is the aardwolf,  which eats almost nothing but termites.  Its extinct relatives, though, were pretty adept predators of ungulates. They are thought to have run down their prey in much the same way dholes and African wild dogs do today.

So it seems that the pronghorn’s speed and endurance are much more likely to have evolved in response to predation from these long-distance running predators.

Further, we really don’t know how early North American wolves hunted their quarry.  Edward’s wolf and Armbruster’s wolf were both pretty common in North America until 300,000 years ago. They may have also hunted in much the same way dholes and African wild dogs do.  We don’t know enough about their natural history either, so we can only speculate.

The truth is we really don’t know why pronghorns are so fast.  It is possible that the North American “cheetahs” were the principal driving force behind the pronghorn’s speed. It is possible, but the evidence still is wanting. Further, there are more likely candidates that should be explored as having some influence on evolution pronghorn predation avoidance behavior.

So it is possible, but right now, it looks like we have two stochastic variables. We need much more evidence for a causal relationship.

And like everything else in evolution, we need to be careful about looking for patterns where they might not exist.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Not a jaguarundi

A few days ago, I came across a story about a jaguarundi sighting in New Mexico, and I have to say I was pretty excited. I have been following accounts jaguarundis north of Mexico, and I have had great hopes that they will finally have a breeding population in the United States again soon.

Jaguarundis historically ranged into Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas, but we have no breeding population. A few years ago, there was talk of them being restored to South Texas, but I’ve heard nothing new about that project. My guess is it fell apart as the new austerity regime took over.

Jaguarundis have been known in the fossil record from Florida, and of course, there are countless sightings of jaguarundis in Florida and in Alabama as well.  None have been confirmed, of course, and if they were discovered in that part of the country, they would be the first ones known in historical times. And they definitely would have descended from “released captive animals.  But the current thinking is that most of these Southeastern jaguarundi are misidentified domestic cats, bobcats, and even otters.

After hearing that story about the possible jaguarundi in New Mexico, I went on a Google safari for potential sightings in the US.

Most of them were quite weak sauce, and I have to say that people really do need to look carefully at photos before posting them

One of the most egregious is this one by a blogger called “Texas Cryptid Hunter,”  who claims that the below trail camera photo is of a jaguarundi in Missouri or Mississippi.

Texas fake jaguarundi gray fox

That animal sure does look like some kind feline, right?

Well, it’s not feline at all.

It’s a gray fox. There are two big identifying features that say this is a gray fox in a subtropical summer coat.  The masking is very unjaguarundi-like, but it is very much like a gray fox. But that alone isn’t enough to scream gray fox at me.

Check out the tail. There is a black stripe running down the tail. No other carnivoran on this continent has that feature, and jaguarundis certainly don’t.

Gray foxes and their cousins, the island foxes of the Channel Islands of California, have this feature.

Further, notice that the deer and the creature seem to be eating the same thing. My guess is that the trail camera was set out near a deer feeder, which shoots out corn. This is a common practice where it’s legal, especially in late summer. It allows the deer hunter to figure out which bucks are developing the best antlers.

A little known fact about gray foxes is they are quite omnivorous, and they particularly like to eat corn from deer feeders.

My guess is the deer and fox were eating corn on the ground, and because the fox is in summer pelt and is holding its ears close to its head, it looks a lot like some kind of cat.

It’s an easy mistake to make. I initially thought the first gray fox I saw running in the broad daylight towards me was a cougar!

Cougars and jaguarundis are close relatives, and compelling molecular data suggest that we ought to classify them in the same genus, which I tend to do. So I can see where someone might see a gray fox and think it’s a jaguarundi.

I am friendly with the cryptozoology community, but I do know there is a tendency among people who “believe” in “cryptids” to be hold fast to bad pieces of evidence. I don’t think there is compelling evidence for bigfoot or long-necked dinosaurs in the Congo, but I’ve run into people who absolutely know these creatures exist.

So it is really hard to have a conversation with people who have decided that a piece of evidence is “the truth.”

I also know there are some sportsman types who will tell me there is no way that can be a fox.  If you can find me a photo of a jaguarundi with a black tail stripe like the animal in the photo, I will stand corrected.

You won’t find it.

I still think that jaguarundis belong in the US, but if that asshole orangutan who thinks he runs this place gets his way, we will have big ol’ wall that keeps them stuck down in Mexico.

And we won’t have a chance at restoring jaguarundis to our southern border country.

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bison and calf

The name of the killer has been lost to the annals of history.  All we know is that he killed, and then there were none.

The whole story has been nothing more than a footnote in one forgotten chapter of wildlife in America. What follows is my conjecture about what happened:

The year was 1825. The bison cow and calf wandered down along wide valley.  They were wary beasts, for their kind had been slaughtered relentlessly in these mountains for 50 years.  For the past two decades, the only ones that remained were those that lived in these high mountains and knew how to hide their massive forms in steep hollows when the scent of man crossed their noses.

The pair had been the last survivors of herd that was massacred two weeks before. Buffle hides were demand, and there were mountain men who would oblige the market.

It is easy to blame the hunters for their rapacity, but the resource seemed inexhaustible. In the early days, every one that was shot was soon replaced by another three that came filtering in from west.

And it was that way until these early decades of the republic, when all that remained were these cagey mountain bison that watched every step they took and hid themselves in the deepest redoubts of the Alleghenies.

Two weeks before, a trio of hide hunters stumbled onto the herd in the deep mountains south of where Elkins, West Virginia, now stands.

They wandered the rugged valley that is carved by the Tygart Valley River during the gentle months of spring, when the green grass grew beautiful and sweet.

But that day, the hide hunters came up from the Shenandoah Valley. The older two had trapped beaver the great land of Kentucky before running back to the settled country in the east. They traded in fur and hides, but upon hearing rumors of the last herds of bison in these mountains, they packed up and headed into the Alleghenies, bringing along one of their sons who had been yearning for a bit of adventure.

The hunters spent ten days tracking the herd, and one morning, the son just happened to bump a bull and two cows off a mineral lick. The bison ran deep into a mountain hollow, and when the son tried followed them, he could hear the hoofbeats of many bison deep down in the hollow.

He raced back to tell his father and his father’s partner about the find, and the men loaded up with balls and gun powder and began their approach into the back side of the hollow, where the hillside was steep and the bison would be helpless down below.

There were seven bison down in the hollow. Three cows, two young calves, a subadult bull, and mature bull were nibbling on some forest browse.

The partner was a better shot than the others, so he positioned himself where his shots would fire across the mouth of the hollow. That way, he could shoot sling lead at any bison that tried to leave. The father and son positioned themselves where they could open fire on the whole herd below.

The balls sailed through the air, and in those days before breech-loading rifles, it took many shots to drop five bison.

They fell bloody and dead. The men set to work cutting the hides and then loading their mules for the long trudge back to Staunton and the Great Valley.

A cow and calf ran long out of the hollow and ran and ran until they could no longer hear the gun shots and shouts of men.

For two weeks they roamed is renegades in the mountains, but hunger and the sweet scent of spring grass brought the pair down into the little head of the Tygart’s Valley.

And it was there that an unnamed hunter, perhaps in need of a little meat or yearning for a bit of brass from the buffle hide, slipped down along the laurel that grew thick along the headwaters.  It took six shots to drop the cow, and the cow was down in two.

This hunter had no idea what he had just done. He’d killed a bison or two before in his life, and he knew their numbers were getting scarcer and scarcer in the mountains. But he knew if he waited a few years, another herd or two would mosey back in, and the hide hunting could continue.

But he was wrong.

What no one knew at the time was that this hunter had killed the last two bison in the Original 13 Colonies. And when those two fell, no more herds filtered in from the west. No more hidden bison herds were revealed in some remote hollow or valley.

This animal had carved much of the early infrastructure of what became West Virginia. The bison originally grazed the High Alleghenies in summer then marched west out of the high country when the snows came.  They would travel so far west as to hit the Ohio River, where the winters were milder. They would mosey east every spring to eat the good mountain grasses, and over the years, bovine inertia would carve vast trails coming out of the mountains towards the Ohio.

The indigenous people of these mountains would use these trails as their roads, and European settlers used them too. They would later use big gangs of slaves to clear the trails and turn them into roads that could take a horse or oxcart, and thus, the land was opened for settlement.

Fur trappers took the bison hides and ate the meat.  The homesteaders shot them because they gored horses and torn down split-rail fences.

And soon the bison numbers began to dwindle.

It was the bison the licked the salt from licks in the Kanawha Valley. Hide and market hunters followed them to these big licks, and soon discovered massive deposits of brine. In the years before the Civil War, large numbers of slaves worked the salt works, and these salt works became the basis for the massive chemical industry.

Near the confluence of the Kanawha River and Campbell’s Creek was a massive mineral lick, called the Great Buffalo Lick. It was there that hunters knew to wait for the great beasts and blast them away, and others knew that they could come down collect some salt for the homesteads.

The death of these two bison meant the end for a beast that helped forge so much of what became West Virginia.

No one really talks of bringing back bison, though there are few people who keep them for the novelty meat market.  Large bovines are hard to live with. They are aggressive and dangerous. They spread diseases to cattle, and they gore horses, tear down fences, and run off with brood cows.

They will never roam as wild animals here, and even if they were returned, they would be put on some state management land and then be micromanaged as if they were nothing more than free range cattle.

The bison will never roam this land as wild animals again. They are gone.  And we killed them.

It was a sin made in ignorance, but it was a sin nonetheless.

I sometimes stand in the secondary growth forests that have taken over much of West Virginia when the scores of farm families gave up the land for life in the industrial cities of the Midwest. The forests are thick and thorny. The trails that cut through the hills are carved by white-tailed deer moving through the countryside.  They are narrow trails, where even a short person like myself gets caught on the overhanging limbs and branches.

But I know when the bison were here, the forests were more open. They browsed up high. Their trails were like roads going through the woodland. They also kept big swaths of the land open through their constant grazing.

Land now is kept open only by the mowing machine and the odd stockman who keeps a few head of cows or sheep on some played out pasture.

The forest has all gone to thicket and thorn. It is not the same as it was those centuries before.

It is a land without its big beast, and if you listen carefully, you can hear it mourning.

Yes, it is mourning the passage of the great buffle and the inertia of its hoofbeats and browsing maw.

And so goes the story of the last wild bovine in the Alleghenies, barely a footnote in the annals of history.

But it was so much more.

 

 

 

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George Bird Evans was the most famous gundog writer West Virginia ever produced. He raised a strain of close-working English setter at his eighteenth century home in Preston County.

The home was named “Old Hemlock,” and his setter strain started with a dog bred George Ryman. The Ryman strain was heavy in Laverack blood, so the dogs look more like what an international audience would think an English setter would look like. They also point with their tails horizon and not erect (“showing off the license plate,” as my Grandpa called it).

This film is colorized from the 1950s, and you can see how good the grouse hunting was in parts of the Alleghenies, including some amazing footage of Canaan Valley, the Blackwater River, and Dolly Sods– “the Canadian Zone” of West Virginia.

These dogs are beautiful but still quite useful. The strain exists today, but it is maintained with more scrutiny and quality control than any gun dog breed that isn’t a German HPR.

The commentary on these dogs and the birds is quite good. I particularly like the discussion of a gray phase ruffed grouse being taken– the only one ever shot in these mountains. Virtually every ruffed grouse in West Virginia is a red phase. The red phase is the minority color for the species, but it isn’t here. Red ruffed grouse are an Appalachian specialty.

I enjoyed this footage of the grouse days long passed, especially those “Canaan days.”

 

 

 

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No black panthers here

panther

I don’t believe in them, though if you travel up the roads in most of West Virginia and ask around, you will find people who believe. More than believe, they know.

The truth of the matter is that I don’t think there are any wild felines in the whole state but bobcats. I don’t think there are any cougars lurking about. Cougars were here, and one might wander in from the West.

But I don’t think there are any native “Eastern cougars” left.

And now, I don’t need to say that I don’t believe in black panthers roam the forests of the Appalachians.

But if you did a poll in West Virginia, I am dead certain that you’d get a majority believing they exist here.

It’s an odd thing, for the only large cat that routinely comes in black in the Americas is the jaguar. North American jaguars are very, very rarely black, and although one can talk of the old stories of wandering jaguars popping up well into the United States, the truth of the matter is the species has a very limited range in this country. The ones that live in this country all are male, and all live along the border with Mexico.

Black leopards might have been turned out here, but no one has found a breeding population of these cats. Black leopards come almost entirely from the tropical subspecies, and although there are jaguars that live in coldness of Korea and the Russia Far East, those subspecies have no melanistic individuals and are not well-represented in the captive leopard population.

If one were to poll people in West Virginia about the existence of bigfoot, only a tiny percentage of people would say they exist. Bigfoot is a ridiculous idea.

But black panthers are not.

I don’t know why the belief in these beasts is so persistent, but it may have something to do with the mystery of blackness.  Blackness on cats has a strong connotation for people of Northwestern European heritage.  Depending upon the region:  Black cats are good luck. Black cats are bad luck. Black cats accompany witches.

So adding a black pelt to a massive cat gives it some sort of mysterious power.

Mystery is good. Romance is better.

And I’ve found once people believe something for those two reasons, good luck dissuading them of the moonshine (and I mean this under both definitions of the word!)

West Virginia is full of coonhounds, bobcat hounds, and bear dogs.  One would think that if there were a population of big cats in this state, they would have been treed by now.

It hasn’t happened, but I know that one day, maybe not soon, but someday, a cougar from the West will wander into this state. It will be known, either from the trail camera photos or from a hound treeing, and half the state will lose its mind.

The DNR will say that cougars are protected species, and the guns will rage against the felines. Feral cats will be shot, and everyone who can will fill a few bobcat tags a year.

That’s because the cougar will be real, and in its reality, it will bring up that old-fashioned hatred of anything predatory in the woods.

But the black panther doesn’t bring that same feeling, and the reason why is that most people know somewhere back in their minds that they don’t exist in these forests.

They might not admit it in an argument at the barber shop. But they know.

Belief in the romance is what it keeps the black panther slinking along forest paths, slipping along until it crosses into the thick cover. It roars up in the imagination, wild and mysterious and untouched by encroachment.

It won’t be molested by the gun or the baying hound. It will slink on into the gray mists of winter, where it will roam as it always has in the magic and mystery of human reverie.

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black bear hunting

“There is no room for a bear and me in these woods,” my Grandpa Westfall always said. He always said that he’d shoot the first bear he came across, and he said that he would defend himself if he got caught with a little quip.

“If that judge asks if I shot that bear in self-defense, I will just say, ‘No, I shot him in the ass and he jumped de fence!'”

He once scoped out an errant emu in his pasture, dead certain that a black bear had foolishly popped its head out of the woods. He was just getting ready to commit a big game law violation, when the shaggy form raised its head and revealed itself as dinosaur and not the great fell beast of the mountains.

My grandpa was not an ignorant man. He was curious about nature and loved almost every animal. He was a hunter, a self-styled conservationist, who kept pet groundhogs and squirrels as a boy.

But he had a blind spot about bears.  He would always point out that some place called Bear Hollow was the place where the last bear in the county was killed. It probably wasn’t true, because there were always a few bears holding out as renegades in the deep woods. Occasionally, they would wander into more civilized areas, and all the papers would make hay about these wanderers.

Today, the bear population is growing steadily. They don’t make so much news now. The bear season is pretty liberal, and I’ve purchased the bear tag on my hunting license. For a West Virginia resident, it’s only $10, but I’ve never been in a good place to hunt bears.  Some day, I hope to be in the right place, and I’ll take a bear.

But I won’t be taking a bear with the same mens rea as my grandpa might have had if the emu had turned out to be truly ursine on that summer day. I would be taking a bear, but not because I think bears don’t belong in the forests. Bears belong in the forest. Absolutely.

But in taking a bear, I’m getting meat. It is the same meat that sustained my ancestor, Jehu Summers, who became a regionally famous frontier bear hunter in central West Virginia.

To them bears were simple things:  Bear hides for coats. Bear meat for sustenance. Bear grease for ersatz butter and cooking oil.

Both native and white used the bears in this way, and the natives likely did so for 13,000 years.before the Europeans arrived.  Hunting was the relationship between our species and theirs, and it made the bear what it is today:  a shy and retiring beast of the thick woods.

If I take a bear, I will be connecting back to my ancestor, communing with him as the flesh crosses my palate and down the maw.

The bears belong here because they sustained us long ago, and we owe to them to find a place where they can roam.

We hunt the bears to re-enact that ancient bond between bruin and hunter, adversaries in the war of existence who grapple across the same mortal plain.

The Alleghenies need their bears, just as they need people to hunt them. Without either, the landscape rings hollow and bland.

And to live next to large predators, it is of utmost importance that these animals know that nothing good can ever come from the hand of man. The black bear bolts for the brush when you wander into him in the forest, but would he think twice if some fool had been letting him eat garbage out of the backyard? If the bullets and arrows didn’t fly at the black hides, would the bears be bolder and more willing to test the gormless bipeds?

I think answer is yes, so in order to have black bears, there must be hunting. Their fear of man makes them manageable.

***

As a result of recent elections, New Jersey has slipped away from that Beachmaster Governor to one a little more rational. At least that’s how this Democrat sees it.

But about one thing this new governor seems to have been lost. I doubt he could have made it through the Democratic Primary had he possessed different views, but the new man in charge in the Garden State has promised to put an end to the bear hunt.

Bears in New Jersey have it pretty easy compared to those in West Virginia. The hunt is much more strictly regulated. An established quota is set. Once that many bears are killed, the hunt is called off that year.

In West Virginia, that $10 tag is sold to anyone who has the main hunting and fishing license.  If it gets filled or not, it is immaterial. That license can be bought next year, and if you’re really bear hungry, the state will even put you in a drawing to get a special tag to hunt your quarry in higher bear density areas that get special seasons.

But in New Jersey, bear hunting is controversial. Every year, protesters show up at hunting areas, cut some monkey shine, and get hauled off to the pokey.

New Jersey’s bear hunt has had some positive results.  Nuisance bear calls are down.  The bear population has been stablized.

With the bear hunt axed, though, it’s likely that the bears are going once again start hanging out near people. Wildlife managers with the state of New Jersey estimate that the bear population could double in four years if the bear hunt is abolished.

In the world of suburbs, the bears will do fine, but they will destroy property.  Some might decide that people are good food, and for those who might be confused, it is not entirely out of the question for a black bear to learn to hunt people. It is not species-typical behavior, but it does happen.

Bears that have learned humans hunt them, though, are going to relate to humanity with utter fear.

It is fear that keeps the peace.

And it is that peace that makes room for bears in the world of man.

It is a lesson that New Jersey is going to have to learn again. Ideology says that bears are like dogs, just bigger and tailless. Ideology ignores their cannibalism, their savagery, and the simple fact that they aren’t dogs at all but wild creatures. Yes, they eat mostly vegetable matter, but they won’t pass up a fawn lying the brush.  They won’t think twice about eating alive a deer mortally wounded by a car.  They don’t think as we do about being humane and kind and sportsmanlike.

They think about living as omnivores. Our world provides them many opportunities, and without the fear of man, they will get in trouble.

The government agencies will try to transplant the problem bears, but they often don’t learn anything. They know we’re overloaded with goodies, and they can’t resist.

And for some bears, the only solution is to die at the hands of a government employee, one whose salary and insurance are paid for by the taxpayer.

Wouldn’t a better solution be to have a regulated hunt and use hunting as way to teach the bears about our own essential savagery?  Then, the bears would know not to come into subdivisions and schoolyards and eat garbage and birdseed. And you wouldn’t have to hire a someone to shoot the incorrigibles.  The hunters would pay license fees, and the state conservation agency could pay more biologists to study bears and protect habitat for other species.

That is how West Virginia has dealt with bears. We now have more 10,000 of them wandering our hills and mountains.

Hunting is part of our management strategy for them. It works well, and it seems that having a hunt worked well for New Jersey.

But we will see what the future holds.

***

Yesterday, I went out with ICOtech predator call.  I go out on the woods with this device in hopes that I might call in a coyote or gray fox and capture it with a camera.

Yes, I am out with a hunting device, but I am hunting only with my camera.

But I have nothing against people who hunt coyotes. I just am not among their number.

Hunting doesn’t really reduce coyote numbers significantly. We’ve been hunting them with the hope of causing extinction for 150 years or so, and all we’ve done is make them increase their range to almost all of North America.

I have a certain amount of admiration of the species. They are survivors, and they are closest thing to wolves we have in this part of the country.

I don’t see them as domestic dogs, but I don’t see them as demons either. I see them as phantoms that lurk in the gray woods and let loose cackling yips and mournful howls in the deadness of night.

They don’t reveal themselves easily. They appear only when they damned well want to.

It’s this challenge that drives me to go into the woods with the call.

I started out with gray squirrel distress for 5 minutes. Nothing responded, so I went to my two gray fox distress calls for 10 minutes. No little gray dog appeared for my camera, which isn’t that much of a surprise. They are much harder to call than coyotes, at least around here.

So I switched to my coyote howls. I have several different iterations that sound like a single one howling, a pair howling, a single one howling with a different pitch, a group cacophony of howling yips, and one that sounds like three coyotes howling a beautiful opera chorus in a language that isn’t Italian or even remotely human.

I switched among these different howl types, and then I would wait five minutes to see if I got a response. I faintly heard what I think may have been a female coyote’s estrus chirp in the woods, but it was a distant chirp nontheless.  This single note of what I thought was an estrus chirp made me stick to my spot, and run through the howls again.

I had gone through five or six different howl sequences, when I heard a gravelly human voice shout from the distant ridge.  This ridge was so thickly forested that I couldn’t see a person there, and what’s more, it was perhaps a quarter mile from where I was sitting.

“You’re gonna get shot!” was what the voice shouted.

I ignored it at first, but then the stupid bastard began mocking my howls.

The land where I was sitting wasn’t his anyway, and I’ve long been allowed to hunt there. The real owners don’t care.

I shouted back at the voice “Shut the fuck up!”

“I’m on my property. I’ll do as I please.”

I shouted several expletives at the voice, which you don’t need to hear, but I flipped the hillside the bird while playing a jay in distress sound at him.

I was so incensed at this man that I went to a different location where the hollow would carry the howls right to his position. I turned it on full blast.

When I told my dad what had happened, he told me to go back out there that you cannot be bullied from doing what you have a right to do.

I didn’t quite feel like going back out there, but my dad took my call and went to woods where I had been calling. He cranked it up full blast for a half hour. No one shouted back at him.

I was so livid at this man for harassing me and ruining my coyote calling session.

But this morning it finally dawned on me why this man had been such an ass:

I scared him.

Rural people in West Virginia are told all sorts of stories about coyotes:

They kill all the deer, even though the deer are still very plentiful, and the poor hunting season in this set of ridges had more to do with a good mast year. Good mast years mean that the does stay up in the most isolated groves oak and beech, and the bucks stay with those does and never once come out into pastures or to big corn piles or feeders.  The only way to get a deer is to use your feet and figure out where they going and where they go when the guns start to crack.

But it’s easy to blame coyotes for the lack of deer at the corn piles. It’s much harder to learn the ways of the deer and get some exercise doing so.

People are also told that coyotes are a mortal threat to humanity– and that they howl just before they attack. I suppose the loudmouth on the hill had heard that story. And that’s why he acted such a fool.

I don’t know who shouted at me, and I honestly don’t care. But as angry at him as I was, I suddenly am returned to my grandpa and his hatred of bears. My grandpa never really knew the full story of black bears, and he didn’t really want to know it.

But he was still the curious naturalist of a hillside turkey hunter that I knew and loved. It’s just he had a black bear-sized blind spot that he didn’t want to fix.

Maybe that loudmouth is the same way, just his is a coyote-sized hole, and one that will cause even more aggravation. Coyotes howl. They announce their presence. Black bears don’t make themselves known at all until you lay eyes upon one.

They are much more mysterious and harder to scapegoat and revile.

But I will not accept his prejudices or let him bully me. I will call coyotes and take photos and you will see them here.

That’s my duty.

***

My views on wildlife put me in an odd position. I am a progressive Democrat, but I think animal rights ideology is woefully misguided.  I am a hunter, but I am more of an Aldo Leopold sort of hunter than a Ted Nugent.

I see coyotes in the way Leopold came to see wolves in his famous essay “Thinking Like a Mountain.” Leopold describes his sudden sorrow at killing a female Mexican wolf, which he watches die before his very eyes. Years later, he came to realize that wolves truly had a place in nature:

Since then I have lived to see state after state extirpate its wolves. I have watched the face of many a newly wolfless mountain, and seen the south-facing slopes wrinkle with a maze of new deer trails. I have seen every edible bush and seedling browsed, first to anaemic desuetude, and then to death. I have seen every edible tree defoliated to the height of a saddlehorn. Such a mountain looks as if someone had given God a new pruning shears, and forbidden Him all other exercise. In the end the starved bones of the hoped-for deer herd, dead of its own too-much, bleach with the bones of the dead sage, or molder under the high-lined junipers.

I now suspect that just as a deer herd lives in mortal fear of its wolves, so does a mountain live in mortal fear of its deer. And perhaps with better cause, for while a buck pulled down by wolves can be replaced in two or three years, a range pulled down by too many deer may fail of replacement in as many decades. So also with cows. The cowman who cleans his range of wolves does not realize that he is taking over the wolf’s job of trimming the herd to fit the range. He has not learned to think like a mountain. Hence we have dustbowls, and rivers washing the future into the sea.

We all strive for safety, prosperity, comfort, long life, and dullness. The deer strives with his supple legs, the cowman with trap and poison, the statesman with pen, the most of us with machines, votes, and dollars, but it all comes to the same thing: peace in our time. A measure of success in this is all well enough, and perhaps is a requisite to objective thinking, but too much safety seems to yield only danger in the long run. Perhaps this is behind Thoreau’s dictum: In wildness is the salvation of the world. Perhaps this is the hidden meaning in the howl of the wolf, long known among mountains, but seldom perceived among men.

We’ve gone over a century without true wolves in West Virginia. The only wolves we have are coyotes, and their smaller size makes them almost a poor facsimile. True, they lift fawns and sometimes pack up and run down adult deer, but they are just as at home hunting mice and rabbits as they are grappling with larger prey with flailing hard hooves and strong legs.

But they do take a few deer, and those removed from the population don’t browse the forests down. Human hunters, though, think those deer belong solely for their crosshairs, and don’t want to share.

The “peace” that Leopold derided in that essay is the false peace that sets humanity at the top of all things and demands that all things bow to his whims and petty desires.  If a twelve-point buck doesn’t walk to the corn pile every deer season then it must surely be that coyotes are eating all the deer.

This is the peace I’m sure that the hilltop shouter wants every year. I bet he spent a lot of time hunting deer in the 90s, when the herds festooned every hillside and a hunter might see dozens of whitetails in a single day’s hunt. State wildlife managers tried to fix that problem by liberalizing doe harvest limits, and after a few decades of sound wildlife management, the deer numbers are somewhat lower than they were in those days of deer plagues.

The 90s deer hunter had it easy, and now the numbers are lower. He must put more effort into the hunt.

And this has come at roughly the same time that coyotes have become fully established and quite numerous as well.

These variables are probably stochastic, but to the hunter who goes home without filled tags, they must be linked. In some places, he would be right, but in the deer’s paradise that is West Virginia, he is most likely wrong.

The culprit isn’t coyotes. It’s the state realizing how bad it is to have a deer overpopulation problem.

My view is controversial among the hunting fraternity, but it really isn’t with most  professional wildlife managers.

But as controversial as that idea is, it is nothing compared to how animal rights people view all hunters as scumbags.

The fact that I hunt animals surely must mean that I am a Trump-loving redneck who hates Mexicans, carries and thumps a Bible, and drives a pickup truck with Confederate flag emblem on my vanity plate.

None of those things fit me. I just find myself– at least in this section of much-debated ideas–in an odd little crevice of nuance.

I see a place in this world for predators, both human and four-legged, and this contention is out of place.  You either want to see all non-human predators killed off, or you want to see all humans stop hunting.

Neither of these really fits an ecological view of the world. Humans are a hunting species. We have been hunting since we evolved in Africa. Following herds brought us into Eurasia and then North America.

But now we live in a world in which ideology is driving real wedges between us. In my country, people are at each other’s throats over a whole host of issues. We’ve become warring tribes

To have a more ecological view as it relates to animal issues is to court controversy, because you ultimately be both a bunny-hugger or an NRA-nutjob.

And it’s not fun to debate both sides.

In the end, I want something like the peace that is made between humans and black bears when they are hunted.  It is a peace that recognizes the importance of human hunters in maintaining wildlife on the land that exists now. It is a peace that doesn’t shun hunting because of ideology. Instead, it sees hunting as part of the puzzle that allows us to have human civilization and large numbers of black living in relative proximity to each other.

It is this kind of peace that acknowledges that humans are the peak of creation but also recognizes that human issues matter.

To stand for both human and animal predators in this era is a risky move, but after looking at all the evidence and spending so much time in woods on my own, I have come to believe that it is the correct position.

But I know I’m not alone.

 

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