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Archive for March, 2018

arctic fox eating an auklet

Arctic foxes were introduced to the Aleutians where they waged war on the seabird population, such as this poor least auklet.

I am a speciesist. Yep. I accept the title. I do believe some individual animals of certain species do have certain privileges that others don’t.

Owned domestic dogs should be treated as individuals, as should anything else kept as an actual companion animal.

Individual animals that must be culled through hunting seasons, like white-tailed deer, get no individual consideration. What matters about those species is carrying capacity as determined by wildlife managers.

Invasive species anywhere should receive even fewer protections than the game species.

That’s because as a conservationist, I value biodiversity over individual animals.

So I really don’t care that conservationists have trapped and killed introduced arctic foxes in the Aleutians, feral cats in the islands of the Sea of Cortés, or red foxes in Australia.

I don’t care about the individual deer that are shot every year in the United States. I care much more about what they are doing to temperate forest ecosystems.  They exist in a world without predators, predators that will never be reintroduced in significant numbers, and it is vital that humans manage their populations.

I don’t think an absolute moral system can be applied to all animals. Indeed, I have issues with the concept of an absolute morality period.

I know, though, that we are but one chain of biodiversity on the planet. And it is out of this chain that we somehow became the dominant species on the planet. As the dominant species, we like to think we’re above all other species, when we’re just the ones at the top right now.

I don’t think every invasive or introduced species is a negative on the ecosystem. Ring-necked pheasants are mostly banal where they have been introduced. In North America, common carp are generally not an invasive species either.

But many things that have been introduced clearly are.

Especially on islands.

New Zealand had rabbits that were introduced, which ate down much of the good sheep grazing. Then stoats, weasel, and polecat-ferret hybrids were released to control the rabbits, and the mustelids wreaked havoc upon the ground-nesting bird population. New Zealand is a place full of unique ground-nesting birds, and it was once fuller of those species before the weasel horde hit its shores.

Therefore, to protect things like the kakapo, a massive ground-nesting parrot, it is necessary to kill these predators.

Animal rights ideology, which posits an absolute set of rights for individual animals, cannot allow for this killing.

So this ideology would rather have all the kakapo and native New Zealand birds go extinct, just because this ideology doesn’t want to see a guild of invasive predators killed off.

And I must say that I have to reject this ideology, because it clashes with my aesthetic, which requires us to maintain biodiversity as much as possible.

That’s because I know fully well that in a hundred years, that biodiversity will be reduced. Habitat loss, poaching, pollution, climate change, and invasive species will take their toll on a whole host of species.

And the diversity of life from which we descend will be reduced because of us.

Therefore we must kill invasive species to protect as much of life as we can.  It is this paradox that many people cannot understand, but failure to understand this concept is ultimately going to add to the many species that will go extinct.

But in the end, animal rights ideology and conservation are not the same thing. Hunters who oppose animal rights ideology should stop conflating the two systems of thought. Animal rights ideology has no room for hunters, but true conservationists, who want to protect wild places from rampant development, believe hunters are part of the solution.

And virtually everyone is a speciesist. I am one, and it is only a small minority who try to hold absolute values when it comes to animals.

We have these inconsistencies, but they are not without reason. And although most mammals are very much like your own pet dog, they don’t act in the ecosystem in the same way. Transferring one’s feelings about a pet dog onto a mongoose in Hawaii is not wise– that is, if you care about nene. If you don’t care about biodiversity, then go ahead.

But don’t pretend that these two concepts are consistent. They are not.

And they are very much in conflict with each other.

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golden wolf vs. black backed jackal

Not the best photo, but this is golden wolf on the left and a black-backed jackal on the right. I screen-captured this image from this documentary, which was made before the big golden jackal revision that happened a few years ago.

There is still a big debate on how classify the creature formerly known as the African golden jackal. It is clearly closer to gray wolves and coyote than to the Eurasian golden jackal, but the exact closeness requires further research.

The black-backed jackal on the right is a much older species. It has been known from the fossil record in Africa for over two million years, and the wolf-coyote-golden wolf lineage last shared a common ancestor with it around 4.5 million years ago.

Depending upon when we finally determine when the golden wolf diverged from the modern gray wolf, it may have evolved from larger ancient gray wolves that adapted to fit the generalist jackal-like niche, or it may have evolved from a African population of Canis mosbachensis.

The black-backed jackal is derived from the earliest wolf-like canids to have entered the Old World from North America. Those early wolves were all smaller and jackal-like, and its appearance and adaptations are of the primitive type.

So here we have two species that look like they might just be color phases of the same species but actually are divided by millions of years of evolution. One is a truly primitive member of its lineage. So primitive and basal that its now classified in a different genus (Lupullela). The other came from a more derived source that evolved parallel characteristics with the primitive one.

Parallel evolution is a hell of a thing, especially when it comes to canids. So much of this parallel evolution has been missed in paleontology and in the conventional methods of taxonomy that use only morphology. Not recognizing the parallel evolution issues is why we didn’t notice that coyotes and gray wolves were much more closely related than we ever could have imagined. It’s also why we thought bush dog belonged with the dhole and African wild dog, just because their teeth are so similar, and it is also why an affinity has been suggested between crab-eating foxes and raccoon dogs, even though they are in entirely different lineages. It is also why there was a suggestion that red wolves represent an ancient lineage of North American wolves, when they are now probably hybrids between coyotes and gray wolves.

Parallel evolution messes up a lot of things. Our eyes and our measuring instruments can fail us.

But the correction of these failures reveals a much more mysterious world.

That’s the inherent beauty of science. Each correction is a revelation.

 

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spotted urocyon

This gray fox has some white marking on its face and feet.

We can speculate about where they came from. Domestication process maybe?

We know, though, that these white marking didn’t come from crossbreeding with domestic dogs, because the gray fox lineage diverged from the rest of the dog family 10-12 million years ago.

Whatever the reasons for its white markings, it is a stunning animal nonetheless.

 

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I hate biology by Facebook meme. We’re living in a time of great natural history illiteracy, but we’re also living at a time in which people want to respect and learn about nature.

Virginia opossums are one of the most common species in the United States. They fit nicely in suburbia, and they are quite often encountered.

They are not cute, at least by conventional standards of cuteness, and when you encounter them, they stand with their mouths open in a gape threat display. They usually drool and generally look nasty.

So well-meaning people have tried to make the opossum look good, and in doing so, they have decided to bullshit people.

Bullshitting about any animal is a bad conservation strategy.

One common statement is that “many studies” or “a study” have shown that opossums are smarter than dogs and cats.

I had to hunt to find that citation! You’d think that such a groundbreaking discovery would be all over the clickbait science press, but no, it’s actually rather obscure study.

It was a study that was performed in the 1950s using the Fink arrow maze. It is really just a test to see if an animal can remember where it was fed before.  The researcher who did the research was a W.T. James, and he performed some other studies on the species, which did not show such a marked ability among the opossums. They are capable of learning.

Other researchers looked into the opossum’s intelligence and have generally found it lacking. Indeed, a 1965 study revealed that opossums were much worse than rats at learning how to follow a maze.

The 1950s study is the only one that compared dogs and opossums, and we live in a time in which a new cognitive study on dogs is released every month or so. Dogs are pretty intelligent animals. They have evolved some cognitive shortcuts that have allowed them to live in close concert with humans and to learn from humans.

So you have one study that shows opossums are more intelligent than dogs and you think that is worth posting on a Facebook meme?

It’s bullshitting people.

The truth is opossums don’t have to be smart to be successful. What makes them successful are two simple things: they reproduce rapidly and they will eat virtually anything.

They also can live their whole lives next to people and never really bother anything. Opossums are far less obnoxious to have around than raccoons are.  Raccoons tear things up. They open up garbage bins. They den in chimneys. They kill cats and eat their food.

A raccoon is an intelligent animal. They know how to open up chicken coops and eat all the chickens. They know how to open up gates and get into cornfields.

An opossum will just trundle around and not cause too much trouble.

It works for them.

And yes, they eat ticks and can prevent the spread of Lyme disease.

But they aren’t smarter than super social carnivorans.

So when you see these memes posted on Facebook about how wonderful opossums are, keep in mind that the claim about opossum intelligence being greater than dogs comes from a single study.

It’s bullshitting people. This study is useful, but it’s 60 years old. And no one has attempted to replicate it or tried to draw deeper meaning in the general comparison of cognitive abilities between dogs and opossums.

So yeah, one study. Interesting discovery, but it hasn’t been replicated. Also it doesn’t match what else we know about the two species.

It’s just one of those things you run across in a literature review and wonder about.

A much better understanding of opossums is they are primitive mammals. I don’t mean that they are inferior in this sense. I mean that they very similar to the first mammals that ever existed, and they have retained these primitive, generalized traits for tens of millions years.

That’s pretty amazing.

And it’s not bullshitting people.

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The North America wildlife management strategy is best described in this video:

Just a few days ago, NPR reported that the percentage of people hunting in the United States has dwindled to 5 percent, and this lack of hunter participation is hamstringing wildlife management departments all over America.

The North American model’s main funding mechanism, which isn’t really mentioned in the Rinella piece, comes from two main sources, hunting license and taxes paid on hunting equipment. Right now, if you buy ammunition or a sporting gun, there is an 11 percent sales tax, which comes from the Pittman-Robertson Act.  There is a 10 percent sales tax on pistols and revolvers, and that money goes to the Department of the Interior, where it is then distributed to the states and territories for conservation purposes.

With gun and ammunition sales often driven by speculation and fear-mongering about gun control (which is now in the news again), it is unlikely that this source will dry up in the near future.

The real problem is lower hunter participation. With fewer and fewer hunters taking out after game each year, the coffers of state wildlife agencies become emptier and emptier. The election of so many Republican legislatures nationwide also means that the states are less likely to offer up alternative revenue for wildlife management agencies. So many people who are hunters vote Republican, but in the end, the Republican Party isn’t about increase taxes on anything to keep spending money on what some view as a socialist enterprise in our wildlife management system.

So we live at a time when our public management system is under attack from conservative force but is being starved by an increasingly urban and liberal public. Yes, an increasingly liberal and urban society isn’t going to be spending money on hunting licenses.

It is a perfect storm of bad ideas from the right and the left.  It is easy for hunters to attack urban people. We all have this concept of the New Jersey cat lady, who has 25 cats in her house and does TNR with the alley cats and goes to great length to raise hell when the bear season comes every year.  That is someone who definitely does exist, but it is a caricature of what liberal, urban America actually is.

Most people who live in these areas vote Democrat, but they don’t really have a strong opinion about hunting. And because they really don’t know anyone who hunts, they are very easily manipulated by animal rights organizations. They are manipulated by ignorance.

Ignorance is nothing to be ashamed of. I’m ignorant about many things. We all are. If your day-to-day existence doesn’t include much wildlife, it is easy to think that those animal rights people actually do know what they’re talking about. If you don’t know anyone who hunts, it is easy to accept the premise that all hunters are right wingers who love their Donald Trump and Ted Nugent.

And hunters have responded to this stigmatization by wrapping themselves up in right wing politics, which will likely turn out to be the biggest strategic move that hunters could have made.

Right now, the Republican base is aging, and fewer and fewer young people each year register as Republicans. By wrapping hunting up into the greater ideals of conservatism rather than conservation, hunters are going to suffer greatly as the next generation of voters shuns the Republican Party.

That’s going to be bad for wildlife, too. They will not be buying tags for hunting, and they won’t be buying guns and ammunition either.

So both revenue sources for the North American Model will be drying up.

One could simply add canoes, camping equipment, and cameras to the goods subject to the Pittman-Robertson taxes, because then you’d have non-hunting wildlife enthusiasts paying for conservation.

That solution would require legislation, and I am not certain if people who are engaged in those activities would support those taxes. Businesses that sell those items would likely not be happy with adding a cost to their sales prices.

So the only real solution is to find a way to destigmatize hunting for the younger and more urban generation.

The first thing that hunters who are interested in the future should do is take on the cause of conservation.  It is not helpful for hunters to be deniers of scientific facts, especially when it comes to climate change. People under a certain age will not buy any of that stuff.  Demographically, that battle has been lost, whether you’re right or not. (And you aren’t).

If you can sell hunting as an ethical way to manage forests, say show how killing a some white-tailed deer every year promotes the regeneration of oak forest, then you’re making some headway. Also show how humanely you kill a deer, explain that a single shot to the heart, which is kills in seconds, is far more merciful than a lingering death in the March woods when all the acorns are gone.

The other thing hunters must do is realize that conservatism is a lost cause. Conservatism isn’t going to save your guns, because consevatism is a discredited ideology for the generation that is about to take power. What will save your guns is recognizing the need for meaningful gun legislation and making dead certain that you understand that hunting is primarily about conservation. It is a “green” idea to hunt deer, and being green isn’t a bad thing, because it ensures that wild places will continue to exist.

If you’re going to hold onto these ideas and attack young people, then they will not listen to you, and they WILL listen to the animal rights extremists, who honestly don’t have a very good grounding in conservation principles at all. Animal rights extremists know how to do publicity right. They know how to do politics.

Most hunting organizations know only how to operate in a system in which conservative politics reigns or has the potential to reign. The new world for hunting organizations is figuring out how to exist in a society that doesn’t regard socialism as a dirty word and views climate change as a major issue that must be addressed.

Hunting can survive, but only if hunting organizations realize that real world has changed. And it’s up to us to be much more effective at destigmatizing field sports.

I know this is easy for me. I’ve never been a conservative. I was raised in a family of liberal deer hunters, so it’s not like I really have to change my approach.

But I am only one person.

For those hunters who disagree with me, I have two questions:

Do you really think Ted Nugent has changed the minds of enough young people to keep hunting a part of America’s conservation heritage for decades to come?

Do you think Donald Trump has added to his electoral base since the 2016 election?

You know the answers to both questions.

And that’s why we are going to have this big challenge ahead of us for the future of hunting and conservation in this country.

 

 

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

My grandpa’s deck. The great feeding ground for countless songbirds.

The snow hangs around in patches where the sun doesn’t hit it directly. Beneath the bows of the white pine and the steep northern slopes of a hollow, it holds on cold and white.

The cardinals have stopped their flitting forays in somber in winter flocks. The trees rise with cardinal song, and the cockbirds are resplendent red and game for scuffles in the woodlots. The sun comes in casting stronger now, and the days are lengthening. And testosterone levels drive the redbirds into their coming days orgy.

A band of three whitetail does stands upon the dormant grass. The starving time is now, when the acorn crop has long since been exhausted and so have their fat reserves. The land has yet to bring forth the green grass and chewy twigs of spring, and so they live in hunger.

But the cardinals will soon have their nests and screaming broods to feed. The white-tail does will shed out their mousy-gray coats of winter and replace them with fine pelts of tawny. And then they’ll seek the thickets of greenbrier,  multiflora rose, and bracken and drop their spotted fawns into the May balmy.

Today, I was at my grandparents’ house. My parents have rented it out since my grandpa’s death, and now, they are between renters.  All landlords know that time between renters is a time to clean and renovate and do improvements.

I came to pick up some garbage left on the premises. I hadn’t been on this property since the November of 2011, when I was left to watch some Jack Russell pups while my parents and my aunt and uncle went off to attend to some of my grandpa’s final affairs.

It felt eerie to stand on that property today, a place where I spent countless happy childhood hours. I see my grandpa’s beloved Colorado blue spruce, a shelter for so many songbirds in winter, now standing nearly needle-less against the sky.  It too has fallen into death.

I then passed by the grove of spruce where my grandpa sat every evening and every morning. He would sit in his wooden chair and stare out of over the old pasture. His blue eyes glanced on countless numbers of deer that came there to graze. They even fell upon an errant emu, which he initially mistook for a bear.

To left of the spruce grove is a black cherry tree that stands at the edge of another old pasture, and a carefully placed birdhouse was the nesting box for a great many generations of bluebird.

But when I passed the spruce grove today, I saw that his wooden chair had a broken leg, and it stood sideways and unstable as if it were crumbling away into the earth.

The cherry limb that held the bluebird box had fallen to the ground, and the birdhouse was bashed to pieces. Only one of the sides and the board with the opening remained intact.

The former renters put up a cheap above ground swimming pool. It lies beside the outbuilding where I kept my hamster puppy mill. I could still smell the motor oil and sawdust and hamster piss, but that damned pool just took away from it all.

Below the pool is the dog cemetery, where several generations of good dogs now lie.  I think there is something almost sacrilegious about putting an above ground pool so close to a dog cemetery. It is on those grounds that Miley was laid to rest last summer, and just yards from her lies Dixie, my grandpa’s last dog. A beagle cross of some sort, she live out most of her 18 years on this land, spending her mornings and evenings resting beneath my grandpa’s wooden chair and glowering out at any dogs that bother to approach her place near the throne.

The pool will gone soon enough.  New renters will move in. They will bring in new things. I won’t set foot on that property so long as they live there.

They will not know the summer evenings when I’d beg my grandpa to take me fishing at his bluegill pond that lay just across the gravel road. They will not know of my grandmother’s big hugs and special pancakes.

They will not know that the first story I ever wrote and illustrated was in that house. I did the illustration, and the writing was all by dictation. It was a story about the beagle named Willie, the one that used to watch my playpen while my parents worked on their home just down the road.  I gave the words to my grandmother, and she obliged my puny childhood prose.

They won’t know about my early forays into wildlife photography, when I set up the cushions to the deck furniture up against the sliding glass door so that I could have my own photography blind. I was mimicking Dieter Plage, who set up his own blinds to photograph birds in the jungles. My grandpa fed the wild birds on his deck, and you could watch them all day through the sliding glass door. But I thought I had to do it, so I could see the birds.

My photos were all crappy.  They were out of focus, and I often got better photos of the deck furniture than the birds. But it was all in good fun.

The new renters will come with their own lives, their own histories. They will make their memories there.

And I will hold onto to mine. I will keep them buried until something rises them from my psyche. If I stand on that property, they will be evoked again. I will feel sorrow and sadness.

I will miss those beautiful days of youth and my two loving grandparents.

But I must let them live within me.

There may be no permanence to this world.  But they live on in my memories.

My grandpa once told me that grandchildren were the most important generation, for they are the last ones who will remember what their grandparents were like as people and not as characters in stories told to the younger ones.

I think that this is true. In fact, it is beyond true. It is profound.

As long as my memory works, they will live as real as they were, and I must make sure that I create memories for my younger relatives. That way, I can live on in their minds, as my grandparents do with me.

This is the afterlife I know really exists, and though one will not know it in one’s passing, it will be some solace to know that one’s life touched someone else enough that they remember you.

Our existence is a fleeting deer. Blink once and the tawny form will bound away from the sunshine and into the deepest thicket, where your eyes will be able to make out its form again.

So the eyes must be open to sear that deer’s essence on the psyche before it goes out of sight.

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red wolf female

Longtime readers of this blog know that I am a bit of skeptic on the validity of the red wolf as a species.

In the early days of this blog, I thought it was probably a primitive form of Canis lupus that interbred coyotes, which is why it has such coyote-like mitochondrial DNA.  I thought its similarities with the Indian wolf were awfully compelling, but I was always leery of suggestions that it represented a full species called Canis rufus.

But then we started getting full genome analysis on red wolves, starting in 2011, when the first comparative assay of red wolf, gray wolf, and coyote genomes was published.

This study showed that red wolves were hybrids between gray wolves and coyotes.  This creates an enormous problem for the red wolf’s protections under the ESA, for the language of the statute doesn’t allow for the protection of hybrids. 2011 was first year of Republican majorities in the House of Representatives since Obama’s election, and I noted at the time that it would not be long before conservative forces began to push the red wolf out.

Since that study came out, a group of landowners in Eastern North Carolina have come out with complaints about red wolves. At the time of that study, there were very few documented complaints about them, but now there is an organized movement. Sometimes there videos are a bit in poor taste, but they have recently figured out some pretty savvy tactics, such as playing up the carnage against coyotes, including nursing pups that are hybrids between coyotes and putative red wolves.

The biggest complaint these landowners have is that red wolves were released upon private property, which generally would bother most people.  These landowners worked hard on getting their issues before the North Carolina Wildlife Services Commission, which in 2015, voted on a resolution requesting the US Fish and Wildlife Service to end the program.

Then, two things happened in 2016, one of these was new full-genome comparison study, which I have written about quite extensively. It revealed that gray wolves and coyotes have exchanged genes across the continent, and yes, red wolves are mostly coyote and only partially gray wolf in ancestry.  A full genome comparison is a much better analysis than an assay of a genome, because the researchers were looking at a much fuller picture.

This makes the red wolf even harder to defend as a distinct species.

That same year, the  US Fish and Wildlife Service began rolling back its red wolf recovery program.

In 2017, the program’s standing was then on quite unstable ground. The election of a Republican president with a very pro-sportsman secretary of the interior pretty much meant that the red wolf would be on shaky ground.

In November of 2017, a Senate panel voted in a directive for the US Fish and Wildlife Service to delist the red wolf as part of a spending package that funds the Department of the Interior.

I’ve been following this story since that vote. I’ve been expecting this directive to appear in the various last minute spending bills that have gone through over the last few months.

It hasn’t, but there is still a lot of political pressure on the US Fish and Wildlife Service to drop the red wolf in the updated Red Wolf Recovery Plan, which will be out some time this year.

This animal the biggest clusterf*ck in the history of wildlife conservation on this continent, and its problems are even more hampered by sort of unwillingness to accept that this not a surviving lineage of an ancient North American wolf.

Most people who love red wolves love to attack the full-genome study from 2016, but in that study, there might yet be a way to save them.

The legal definition of a species in the ESA is as follows: ”any subspecies of fish or wildlife or plants, and any distinct population segment of any species of vertebrate fish or wildlife which interbreeds when mature.”

In that study that gets lambasted by red wolf advocates, there is section of note, which reveals a recent split between the gray wolf and the coyote. Most of the literature on gray wolf and coyote genetics suggested a million-year split from a common ancestor. That particular study found only about 50,000-year split, which is roughly equivalent to when extant forms of Canis lupus radiated across Eurasia and North America.

Therefore, one could make the argument that coyotes are a subspecies of Canis lupus, and the red wolf is a hybrid between two subspecies and not an interspecific hybrid.

Under that definition, the red wolf would meet the species requirement under the ESA.

Of course, this strategy will never happen. Coyotes are not regulated as proper game animals in most states. In mine, you can kill one at any time. There are no bag limits, and you can hunt them with lights from January 1 to July 31.

Wolves are not managed the same way. Indeed, in most of the US gray wolves are a listed species, and you cannot kill them. In the states that do have a wolf season, there are strict bag limits and tagging requirements.

The politicians will probably cut the red wolf off.  It is very unlikely that this animal will be able to survive as a pure species, even if it were shown to be a genetically distinct species, because it readily breeds with coyotes. And once coyotes show up anywhere, it is virtually impossible to reduce their numbers.

Further, the coyotes that are coming into North Carolina are also hybridized a bit. They do have some wolf ancestry, though not as much as the putative red wolves do.

So to keep the red wolf going, we have to kill off another canid that genetically quite similar to the one we’re trying to save.

It is rather perverse in a way.

I say this as someone who really does support the Endangered Species Act and the Fish and Wildlife Service, but the red wolf issues ultimately harm the credibility of the act.

And that’s why I am such a negative nabob about them.

 

 

 

 

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