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Archive for February, 2018

dead white oak

Dead white oak.

They stand as edifices on the ridge-lines.  They seem as permanent as the stony ground on which they grow, but they are not eternal. Sooner or later, boring of insects and the general rot of wood bring them into death. Then, the winds of summer storms and winter gales bring them to the ground, and their matter returns to the soil from whence they came.

The oak tree played a major role in the identity of two of my ancestral people. The German people see the oak as a national symbol, and the English had a similar position for them. It was from the oak trees that the Royal Navy’s ships were made.

The forests I know best in West Virginia are called “Appalachian Mesophytic Forests.”

“Mesophytic” means not particularly wet or dry.  The oak and the hickory are the dominant trees, which has led to their other name, “oak-hickory forest.”

But the oak predominates.  In a typical West Virginia forest, around 60 percent of the trees will be oak, and unlike Western Europe, where just a few species of oak exist, our forests will be filled a great diversity of the trees. The most common species are divided into “red oak species” and “white oak” species. but there are many other types of oak that fall under neither distinction.

One of the weird delusions one must fight against in these forests is assuming they are old, that they are the same forest primeval that existed when Europeans first arrive. However, most of these forests are regenerated from old farm pastures that were left fallow after the agrarian economy fell apart in the latter decades of the twentieth century.

Those old forests certainly had many oaks, but they also shared their growing space with massive American chestnut trees.  The deer supposedly preferred the chestnuts to acorns, and even now, one can buy chestnut feeds to bait deer.

But those deer munching prepackaged chestnuts will never have the privilege of foraging beneath those old chestnut trees. In the early 1900s, a chestnut blight came sweeping through the Northeast and the Appalachians. The indigenous American chestnuts died off. And now only the deer’s ancestral proclivity manifests itself when the bait is put out.

I knew people who were alive when the last of the chestnuts died. I knew a few old farmers who missed the trees so much that they planted the Chinese chestnut as a replacement tree.  My grandpa Westfall had a massive Chinese chestnut as the “shade tree” for his deck, and I can still see him sitting on his the deck, peeling away chestnuts with his knife that he had just collected from his favorite tree.

A big storm came one summer, and the howling winds twisted that tree down to the ground. I thought it would be there forever, but the wind had other ideas.

It was a lesson in the simple reality that trees are not permanent. They are living, and they die.

This year, a firestorm went off in West Virginia.  The governor wanted to open up some of the state parks to logging. The reason for this move was never fully mentioned, but the truth is the Chinese market wants good quality oak lumber, especially from red oaks. The Chinese are buying the logs straight out and processing them over there, and the state wanted to make a few dollars selling big oak logs.

The plan has since been abandoned.

Now, it is certainly true that oak trees do grow back, but what is not mentioned much of the discussion about oak forests in West Virginia is that oaks are also under threat.

Just as the chestnut blight brought down our native chestnut tree, the oaks are under pressure now and have been for decades. Yes, the forests are still dominated by oak trees, and acorn mast still drives the ecosystem.

But now, it is quite difficult for oaks to reproduce. Squirrels still take acorns and bury them away from their parent tree, which makes for better growing conditions for the seedlings.

But when the seedlings arise from the leaf litter, the chomping maws of white-tails rip them from their shallow little roots.

Deer have always eaten little oak seedlings. The two species have evolved together, and during the autumn, the deer rely heavily upon acorns to build up their fat reserves.

However, we now live in a time in which deer densities are high. Sportsmen expect deer to be a high densities, and during the 80s and 90s, the numbers were even higher than they are now.

The state DNR, realizing that high deer numbers were ultimately bad for forests, for agricultural interests, and for auto insurers, decided to allow hunters to take more does from the population.  The deer numbers went down a bit.

This deer number reduction coincided with a coyote population increase, and it was assumed that the coyotes were the reason why the deer numbers dropped.  Some conspiracy theorists believed that the DNR or the insurance companies turned out coyotes to reduce the deer population. The story goes that some trapper bagged a coyote in his fox trap, and on its ear was a tattoo that said “Property of State Farm.”

Of course, the coyotes do take fawns, and some coyotes do pack up and hunt them. But there is very little evidence that coyotes have an effect on deer populations, at least in this part of the country.

Coyotes aren’t like wolves in that they don’t need to kill lots of deer to survive. They can live very nicely on rabbits and mice. Those smaller species have the added advantage that they don’t fight back with sharp hooves when the predator must make a kill.

So we have sportsmen demanding higher deer numbers and lower coyote numbers, and we have oak trees that are having harder and harder time regenerating, simply because there are too many deer eating their seedlings.

And now, fewer and fewer hunters are taking to the woods to hunt deer. State parks, of course, are off-limits to deer hunters.

So if these big oaks are taken for the Chinese market, it really could mean the end of oak trees in the state parks.

And statewide, they could become a rarity entirely.

Of course, the deer themselves will starve without acorns feeding them every September, October, and November, and maybe that crash will allow some regeneration to occur.

But it might be too late.

The truth of the matter is deer hunting is about forestry, and if more and more people see deer hunting as a cruel “sport,” then we’re going to see drastic changes to our forest ecosystem.

Our only hope is that black bears become more carnivorous and eat as many fawns as they can find, and the coyotes learn to swarm the hills like Kipling’s red dogs.

Or maybe more human hunters will take to the forests and fields in search of high quality meat.

But none of these events is likely to happen.

And in a few decades, we may very well see the end of the oak-hickory forest as we know it.

I guess it is time we thought long and hard again about selling out our natural resources to out of state concerns.  The curse of West Virginia is that we never really have, and those who dared raise the issue were either driven from office or kept as far from centers of power as possible.

Maybe times are changing.

Let’s hope they change fast enough for our forests and wildlife.

 

 

 

 

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She’s figured out that swimming is awesome.

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Dholes kill a gaur calf

Gaur or “Indian bison” are the largest species of bovine. Dholes are about the size of Eastern coyotes, but they are superb hunters in a large pack.

These are Kipling’s “red dogs” at work.

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Simple maturity

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In July of this year, this blog will have been up for a decade. I don’t read the old stuff. I can’t force myself to. When I first started, I tried to put as much information in each post as possible, thinking that I might never get a chance to tell it again.

By the time i’d hit my second year, I was doing longer and longer posts, but ones that were more pointed. This was the era of the fractious blogging world.

I met people along the way. Some of have turned into the best online friends I ever could have imagined. Others were my friends for a while then our relationship went to hell after some disagreement or seeing how a person treated another person.

I notice my first gray hairs. They are just little isolates on my sideburns and temples. Someday, all my brown waves will fade away into silver ones.

Someday, I won’t be writing anything. Someday, I won’t be breathing.

Maybe in this digital age this bit of electronic scribbling will stay up, and someone will read it. Maybe that person in the future will think I’m an insufferable prig.

Or maybe that person will see some kinship.

Or maybe no one will give a damn either way.

I’ve come to realize, though, that maturity is not some mysterious process by which we gain wisdom. It is simply living your life out over several iterations of triumph and defeat and realizing that it is all too short in the end.

That realization has a profound influence on how one sees the world. A part of me misses those days of piss and vinegar and comradeship, but another more profound part me realizes what I fool I was.

The most profound song lyrics I’ve ever heard come (oddly) from Billy Joel. In song called “You’re Only Human (Second Wind,” he shuffles quickly through these two lines:

You’re not the only one who’s made mistakes
But they’re the only thing that you can truly call your own

Yep. And I’ll get some more of my truest possession before I finally leave off into the void of eternity.

But I hope I am more refined now and will be more refined later.

I am now more interested in the simplicity of art than the debate about facts, because I will get the facts right somehow. I just want it to look and sound pretty when I lay them out to you.

I hope those people who use to blog with me but have now moved on will find within themselves strength stare it all in the eyes once again.  Let that maturity take hold of you and let it drive your narrative prose.

That’s what I am trying to do now before I sleep.

 

 

 

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red panda mom

Mozilla Firefox is a browser with an interesting zoological name.

I think it’s a little strange that people don’t know what a “firefox” is, but it is an alternate name for the red panda. The company that developed the browser is quite into red pandas for this reason, but I don’t think the typical user of the product really thinks much about the name.

Red pandas are perhaps the most unusual carnivoran from a taxonomy perspective.  For most of the twentieth century, it was assumed that red and giant were close relatives. Both animals live in Asia, and both have this unusual “thumb” that is made out of one their wrist bones. The feature is used to grip bamboo, and it was just assumed they evolved this trait from a common ancestor.

Red pandas look a lot like raccoons, and it was proposed that they were procyonids, just because they looks so much like a more specialized form of raccoon. And if this animal is a raccoon and the giant panda is its closest relative, giant pandas are not bears.

The classification of the giant panda was resolved though a molecular and genetic measures that were published in 1985. Giant pandas are bears, though they are a very divergent form of bear. Further, the giant panda’s chromosomes were found to be mostly fusions of the typical bear karyotype.

Red pandas, though, were even more strange. They weren’t bears, and they weren’t procyonids either.  In this study, they were as divergent from bears and procyonids as bears and procyonids are from each other, but the techniques in those days were rudimentary and not conclusive.

However, this finding suggested that red pandas really are something else. They were given their own family name (Ailuridae), and researchers have spent several decades trying to figure out where these animals fit in the order Carnivora.

Of course, figuring out exactly where they fit they were took some time. In 2009, we finally got a good molecular study that looked at a relatively large same of nuclear DNA of red pandas, procyonids, mustelids (weasels, ferrets, otters, wolverines, martens, and mink), and mephitids (skunks and stink badgers).  It found that red pandas formed a clade with procyonids and mustelids. They are roughly as closely related to mustelids as they are to procyonids, so they definitely do deserve their own family name.

This is largely the consensus view on where red pandas fit, but there is an alternate view that has popped up as result of another molecular study.

In 2010, an analysis of the cytochrome-b sequences from 243 carnivoran species and subspecies found something unusual. The red panda was found to be most closely related to canids.

This finding is somewhat surprising, and because this study is based upon a very small part of the mitochondrial DNA from each sample, it is problematic. If you look at the phylogeny proposed in this paper, it puts the kinkajou outside of Procyonidae, and a clade is formed with the Ethiopian wolf, red wolf, and the coyote, while another clade is formed with the various subspecies of the Holarctic wolf and the golden jackal. These are problematic because full-genome comparisons tend to place the coyote as much closer to the Holarctic wolf than we ever thought, and the exact position of the other species still must be worked out.

But let’s just say that this study’s findings about the red panda are later confirmed in another nuclear DNA study or one that uses full-genome comparisons.

If the red panda is the closest living relative to the dog family, then we’ve got something interesting. Canids were an early diverging family in the order Carnivora. Their sister family were the amphicyonids, which are often called “bear-dogs” in English. This family consisted of plantigrade species that were sort like wolverine-lions. They went extinct 1.8 million years ago.

Dogs are not that closely related to rest of what are called the “caniform” carnivorans, so when the amphicyonids became extinct, they were the last of their lineage.

If the red panda really is that close to the dog family, its exact position with regard to both canids and amphycyonids is not entirely clear.  It could be that red pandas are actually a sister taxa to the extinct bear dogs, which would be an interesting find.

One should keep in mind that the red panda family used to include some pretty fell beasts.  Simocyon was a genus of cougar-sized predators that lived throughout Eurasia and was also found in North America and Africa during the late Miocene and Pliocene epochs. These creatures were fully carnivorous– and they had the wrist thumb that one finds on the red panda living today. The discovery of this thumb on this extinct relative with such a different ecological niche revealed that the red panda’s thumb came about far earlier than we expected. And it had nothing to do with gripping bamboo to eat.  It had more to do with climbing around in trees.

The giant panda’s thumb does have to do with eating vegetation.  A Miocene bear in the panda lineage from Spain called Indarctos arctoides already started to have some deviations with the bone that becomes the “thumb” in modern pandas.

The trait evolved without any common ancestry, and it is only one of those ironies of natural history that these two creatures have this feature and use it in much the same way.

So giant panda really is a bear, and the firefox might be a kin to the dogs.  (But probably isn’t).

 

 

 

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reccent westminster winner

There was time when this blog was part of an official network of bloggers. We would amplify each other’s posts.

The most important thing was to be anti-kennel club and anti-dog show. If one could be rude as possible about it, then do so.

Such an environment is not exactly designed for close collaboration, for eventually we all turned on each other.

I became a pariah from that group, and things sort of died down. I still blogged about dogs. I still got pageviews.

But over time, I’ve slowly given it up.

For the sake of my own art and my own sanity, I’ve consciously moved away from dog writing. I do write about dogs on occasion, but so much about dogs has already been said.

The problems of closed studbooks and breeding exaggeration in conformation are still there. They have been highlighted much more in the past decade, but I’m reaching the point in my life that I’ve written enough about them.

I am not writing one of those “Westminster rewards breeding freaks” posts, because the usual suspects likely already have the draft written and just need to cut and paste the problems associated with the winner next Tuesday.

People are moving on in the world of dogs. I’m okay with it. And I’m certainly okay with finding comfort in my own skin as a mostly wildlife and natural history blogger.

I’m not writing about Westminster on Tuesday or Wednesday next week. I don’t know what I’ll write about, but my guess is I’ll try my hand at producing something like Rick Bass or Aldo Leopold or Annie Dillard (and fail because those are masters) and post it here.

And no one will get into a big argument with me, and I will feel better for having tried do something artful with this here English language and what it is I think I know about nature.

I’ll trundle on. I’ll try to write. I’ll hope you read it and don’t hate it. I’ll get better over time.

And so it goes.

It’s the silly work I do online.

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Trump Jr with coyote he killed

Donald Trump Jr and Canis latrans.

I am in an odd place politically. I suppose one of the worst things about living in America now is that we have decided what tribes we belong to, and the two tribes have gone to war.

Don’t get me wrong. I know which tribe I belong to. It was somewhat preordained because I was raised in the one the last FDR-style liberal family still left in the backwoods of West Virginia.  No one in my immediate family voted for Trump, and I didn’t either.

I am also approaching my 35th birthday, which means my political views were largely set during the George W. Bush administration.  Let’s just say I wasn’t a fan.

But at the same time, I like to hunt and fish.  There is an assumption in the new tribal landscape of this country that if one calls himself a progressive Democrat that this political identity means that I side with the radical animal rights movement.

I don’t. Indeed, I oppose them as much as I do the right wing, but in this new era, it is really hard to explain to people that I am not a Republican.

I am well aware that the Republican Party and conservatism as construed now are entities that have a pretty bad demographic problem.  As time goes on, it will have harder and harder times winning elections.

And the sad thing is, hunting and, to a lesser extent, fishing have hitched their political wagons to that party.  Virtually all the celebrity hunters on TV are Republican. If they aren’t, they are either Canadian or are very quiet about not being Republican.

The problem here is obvious. In a few decades, the Republican Party is going to have a hard time winning elections, and the Democratic Party is full of people who have very negative notions about what hunting is.

I see so many hunters talk up Donald Trump Jr. as someone we should celebrate as a hunter. I don’t know how he is as a hunter, but for me and for a whole host of people my age and younger, he is not an admirable figure at all.  To me, he’s that guy who meets with people who work for the Russian government to get opposition research on his father’s opponent. To others, he’s that blowhard who thinks socialism is about taking candy away from children on Halloween.

I don’t care that he spent much of his youth learning to hunt with his grandfather, a gamekeeper for the state in Czechoslovakia, and I say this as someone who has more than a passing interest in Central European hunting and wildlife management systems.

If people like the Trumps and Ted Nugent are the representatives for what hunting is, then the whole enterprise is doomed to fail. It will fall apart as the Republican Party stops being able to win elections.

Who could save hunting?

Well, we’ve got to find someone like a 21st Century Aldo Leopold.  I have no idea what Aldo Leopold’s politics were, but he wrote about hunting and ecology in truly poignant ways.

And he never once came across in his prose as some kind of yahoo. He was a lifelong hunter, but he was troubled by some the axioms of the culture in which he lived.

aldo leopold german shorthair

Leopold would have real problems with a president who denies climate change and allows fossil fuel companies to operate with impunity. He would have taken great issue with current moves to dump off public lands into the hands of the states or private interests.

To save hunting, we must find away of connecting the act with affirmative conservation. Most people live in urban areas. Their understanding of the wild is mostly from digital content now.

They cannot see or fully understand that hunting plays a major role on our North American model of conservation. In our system, wildlife is managed as a public trust, but most the fees that go to support research and conservation come from the sale of ammunition and hunting licenses. As those fees dwindle, it will become harder and harder to fund research and conservation projects.

And that will ultimately be bad for wildlife.

Further, hunting itself plays a management role in the ecosystem. Ever since the first people came down into this continent from Siberia, humans have been managing wildlife. When Europeans arrived here, they found many different nations of people who actively engaging in managing wildlife and maintaining habitat. It is well-known that fire was used to maintain good grazing for deer in open parts of the Northeastern forests, and they were actively working on creating conditions on the land the produced enough wild animals on which they could survive.

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, Americans began to realize that we’d wrecked our wildlife heritage, and hunters were among those who led the movement to preserve species.

The white-tailed deer, for example, was quite rare by the early part of the twentieth century, and so state after state began to set up wildlife management programs for them. In a world in which wolves and cougars had been mostly killed off, the deer recovered very well. Indeed, when I was in my adolescence, the deer were so numerous in parts of West Virginia that there were very real concerns that they would eat the forest down around them.

Liberalizing hunting on the deer has helped cut those numbers back. In most of northern and central West Virginia, the doe season has been lengthened out. In some counties, one must kill a doe during rifle season in order to use a second buck tag.  This provision has resulted in higher doe kills. If one kills a mature doe, then you’re removing three deer from the population: the doe and the two fawns she will have the next spring.  Thus, the numbers can be reduced fairly quickly if the does can be targeted in this fashion.

Some anti-hunters might say that we should just bring back wolves and cougars, but the North American continent as it exists now will never tolerate wolves and cougars on the land at the same levels were around at the time of European settlement.  Suburbanites raise hell when coyotes set up shop, and they certainly would lose it if they saw a pack of wolves chasing a deer through a golf course.

So we’re going to need hunting to preserve what wild remains. When humans hunt, we assume the role of the predatory beasts we’ve extirpated, but we also assume the role in the ecosystem that we’ve held for the past 300,000 years.

You would never get such a discussion from the current avatars of hunting in America.

A few weeks ago, I decided to watch one of these hunting shows on television. It was primarily a white-tailed deer hunting program, and it had a hokey little intro.

And it went downhill from there. In the first minute and half, Al Gore was mocked for believing in climate change.

I didn’t watch another second. I changed the channel and began to wonder what these people are thinking.

Yes, they are pandering to an audience, but that audience is becoming a smaller and smaller part of the country.

And in this accident of the electoral college and gerrymandering, we are watching a minority of the country’s wishes being imposed upon the majority.

A backlash is certainly brewing, and hunters could very well be collateral damage.

I suppose I can see it because I am part of an even odder minority in the American political system, but I can see what is coming very clearly.

And hunters better do a better job reaching out to constituencies that aren’t on the right, or we’re toast.

 

 

 

 

 

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