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OF PREDATION AND LIFE January 19, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — bisonquest @ 7:55 pm
dusky grouse killed by goshawk

dusky grouse killed by goshawk

OF PREDATION AND LIFE”; this was the title of Paul L. Errington‘s (a pioneer in wildlife biology at Iowa State University) book on predator-prey relationships in natural ecosystems.  Errington observed that predation is a dramatic and emotional event to observe and is frequently misinterpreted by people.  I remember when I studied deer and coyotes on the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge in the 1970s it  was hard for me to watch coyotes bring down a white-tailed deer and start feeding on it before it was dead.   I had a biologist friend who once told me that he took his young son fishing at a small pond and they observed a garter snake catch and slowly swallow a frog.  His son wanted to intervene on the behalf of the frog, but the father said “No, that’s the way it is in the world of snakes and frogs.”

Errington studied muskrats and mink – a classic predator-prey relationship.  He concluded that the muskrats sustained the mink, and that the mink did not control the muskrat population.   Another classic predator prey relationship is the northern goshawk and ruffed grouse in northern Minnesota.   The grouse population is on an 11 year cycle and goshawk abundance mirrors the grouse cycle.   The lynx and snowshoe hare are also locked into a similar relationship.   In each case, it appears the prey sustains the predator (ok – it’s a little more complicated than that, but that’s the gist of it).

A few days before the ABC 20/20 crew came for their visit, I plowed a few paths through the pasture with our Zetor tractor so we would not get stuck in the snow while feeding the bison.  Two hours later we returned to feed the bison and there was a freshly killed and eaten blue grouse (now offically known as the dusky grouse) on the snow berm kicked up by the tractor’s back blade.  We examined the kill and kill site, and concluded that this was the work of a raptor.  There were no tracks in the snow leading up to the kill, but instead there was a blood spot at the initial hit, signs of struggle, and the feeding site.  The grouse was skinned out as it was eaten, and all that remained was one leg and the crop.  The crop was full of Douglas fir needles (actually it was the terminal inch of twigs with needles attached).   We assumed it was  a northern goshawk that killed the grouse since this is the only diurnal raptor that winters on our ranch, and grouse are certainly on their list of acceptable prey.  The dusky grouse is kind of a pet for us because they winter around the house, spending most of their time in our Douglas fir trees.  If it were not for their droppings on the hay stack, I would not think to look up and see them in the fir trees overhanging the stack.  So it was very dramatic tracing out the act of predation in the snow and holding the remains of the grouse, and I had to remember my friends words “That’s the way it is in the world of snakes and frogs.” – Craig

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Our visit from ABC’s 20/20 January 18, 2009

Filed under: film crews — bisonquest @ 5:50 pm

Of course, the easiest time to add to our blog is when life is slow and mellow, and there’s some spare time. But then there’s not so much to say! It’s when life is exciting, challenging, and full that I can think of all kinds of things to write about, but can’t find a minute to sit down to do it. And that’s what winter has been like for us ever since Christmas day. We had a great Christmas here at the ranch and were able to “ferry up” kids and grandparents via four wheel drive to spend a beautiful and peaceful Christmas day. But we had no sooner gotten everyone back to their cars (which had been left seven miles away down by the highway) on Christmas evening when it began to snow. And did it snow! We had 7 inches of the fluffy white stuff. And then – it began to blow. And that spells trouble big time for our 7 miles of back roads leading to the ranch.

Now there are a few things to understand here. It’s not unusual for people in the northern states of the US to get snow. In fact, many of you get much more snow than we do – like in Maine or upstate NY or Minnesota. The difference is, those folks have services that plow the roads on a regular basis. When you live clear out here, in a poor county in Montana – well, they clear the road when they can and if they can (are drifts are big). And they give priority to roads with more people along them, as they should. So, it’s not the amount of snow you get that’s the problem – it’s the drifting snow and whether or not you have someone clearing the road for you.

Another thing you learn living in remote areas like this, is that you don’t “schedule” things. You work around the weather and the roads. You don’t say, “I want to go to town today.” You say, “The road is open, I think I’ll go to town today.” or “ The road has drifted shut, I think I’ll work up in the office today.” Life is much easier that way, and it keeps the stress level down. But we do live in the modern world – at least some of the time – and that world just doesn’t have that laid back attitude. “Modern Life” centers around schedules and plans and set times. And when those plans collide with the weather in remote country – well, it makes life very interesting indeed.

Jeff Diamond, a producer from ABC’s 20/20, had scheduled to come up here to film the herd and talk to us about our views on whether farming wildlife domestically could save them in the wild (see my earlier blog entry – that’s what initiated that entry). They had it all planned for a specific day – of course – since the camera crew had to come in from Minnesota and Jeff from New York City. It all seemed reasonable at the time. Until it started to snow. And then to blow. The day they were scheduled to arrive. A flurry of phone calls between Jeff and I established that they did want to come, weren’t afraid of snow, and didn’t mind what their mode of transportation was. And I must say, they were as good as their word.

That morning we met the crew at the highway where we had parked a truck prior to the snow and wind.  We managed to drive 5 miles before encountering an impassable drift.  We then switched to snowmobiles (and neighbors with snowmobiles – we have awesome neighbors), to ferry the crew and equipment for 1 mile over a series of large drifts to another truck to complete the journey.   Jeff’s comment was, “You really ARE out in the wilds”. It was actually a lot of fun, and I don’t think that any of the crew will forget their arrival at Wild Echo Bison Ranch. Leave it to us to stand out in the crowd. It snowed hard all day (just ironic that it was clear with a bright blue sky both before and after their visit). What is it with film crews that they have to come in the snowstorms!? The crew from the Sundance channel “Big Ideas from a Small Planet” did the same thing!

At any rate, we thoroughly enjoyed our time with Jeff and his “crew”. Mark, the cameraman (and wildlife cinema photographer) and his “soundlady” Heidi, were really great and, being from Minnesota, the snow didn’t even slow them down. Everyone was dressed to the “nines” (in this case, that means lots of layers of wool and down and pacs for footwear) and we all managed to stay warm even though the snow fell all day.  They filmed the herd all morning, and the buffs – well, suffice it to say that they are always happy to see us with guests Not because they have latent dreams of being film stars, but because we break out the bags of sweet grain and they just LOVE that! And as for the filming itself – well, buffs always look good in white.

After a lunch of buffalo stew, they spent the afternoon setting up and filming the “interviews” with Craig and me. Definitely my least favorite part of the day. I am quickly coming to the conclusion that I really am not fond of formal interviews. It’s too hard to relax and “just chat” when a camera is turned on one. Not to mention that one has

20/20 crew all bundled for snow

Craig and 20/20 crew all bundled for snow

no idea how it looks – or exactly how it will be used. But we got through it and, if nothing else, were able to give our view as wildlife biologists on why farming endangered species is a bad idea. While I would much prefer giving my views via the written word, there’s no question that info via television reaches a wider – and different – audience. It will be interesting to see what the storyline looks like when it all airs.

Pam

 

Show Environmental Leadership by Greening the Government January 13, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — bisonquest @ 10:57 am

What a great concept!!  I just love this idea  and you can vote on it at:

http://www.change.org/ideas/view/show_environmental_leadership_by_greening_the_government

It’s not that I think this is the answer to all of our environmental problems, but it’s important for us to do just what it says – showing that our leadership in this country is willing to lead the way to improving the environment by “walking the walk and not just talking the talk”.   There are so many “little” things that all of us can do that, when added up, would make HUGE differences in our energy consumption and environmental abuse.  If the White House would lead the way by making those relatively small changes (the money it would take to do this is a pittance compared to what this country spends), then I believe more Americans would also be willing to make changes.

Pam

 

Farming Endangered Species – would it work? January 6, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — bisonquest @ 7:53 am
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Recently, we had a call from ABC’s 20/20 asking if we would allow them to come up to the ranch to film the bison and chat with us about our views on whether certain species of endangered animals (like tigers, elephants, rhinoceroses, etc.) might face less pressure in the wild from poachers if it were made legal to raise them in captivity for harvest. We thought about it, and decided that it might be a good opportunity to discuss the biological and ecological repercussions of this type of idea via a reputable investigative program like 20/20.

So that got us to thinking. What are the reasons to farm, or not farm, endangered species? We hear folks say things like “well, if they were farmed and sold, then wouldn’t that saturate the market and keep people from wanting to poach them?” It seems like such a simple solution on the surface. And, unfortunately, like many “simple solutions” to very complex problems, it isn’t really a solution at all, but much more likely to make the problem even worse than it is at present.
First of all, when we talk about “endangered species”, we are talking about an incredible array of animals and plants, from endangered shrimp species and corals (with little intelligence) all the way to tigers and elephants – some of the most intelligent creatures on the planet. So trying to “fix” a problem of endangered species and poaching is a complex one and it’s impossible to throw a net around ”endangered species” and try to come up with a solution that will solve the problem of poaching for all species. If we are going to talk about solutions to poaching endangered species, then we will have to specify the species we’re talking about. Well, Craig and I are most familiar with mammals, so we’ll leave the fisheries solution to others more versed in them then we are, and we’ll stick with the mammals.
I first need to admit that my immediate reaction to farming intelligent and magnificent creatures like the tiger and elephant is that it is a bad idea. But I need to make sure that my initial reaction is as a wildlife ecologist, not just as a person who happens to like intelligent creatures and hates to see them raised in little cages like so many chickens. And I don’t have to think about it long, before a number of problems surface – some from an ethical and humane aspect, and some from a biological and cultural aspect. I’m going to first discuss my objections as a biologist, based on my observations of wildlife species over the years, as well as wildlife management, both in this country as well as the numerous third world countries that I have traveled through as a wildlife biologist.
Although we are certainly not tiger biologists, and don’t know a lot about their ecology, in order to deal with this issue, one really does have to take it “one species at a time”.  Endangered species  are simply too diverse to make sweeping statements about as a group. So, since we have worked with carnivores, and we have worked with wildlife in third world countries, let’s talk about farming tigers to save them from poaching. Would it work? And if not, why not?
Assumption: Would offering legal tigers for the use of grinding up their various body parts and selling them as medicines alleviate the poaching of wild tigers. My first question in answer to this is, “Why would it?”
1. First of all, the country with the most demand for tiger parts is China. There are many there who believe that the ingesting of various parts of the tiger is good for a wide variety of ailments. And the country that would almost undoubtedly be the major “farmer” for tigers if legalized, would be China. So that’s the country that one would be primarily dealing with if tiger farming were legalized. Fact: It is significantly cheaper to poach a tiger (around $100 of equipment) than it is to raise one in a meat poor and impoverished country like China where some estimates put cost of raising a tiger around $3000. Buying a meat dinner in Asia is costly and difficult to find. Would it really be a good idea to encourage them to raise huge obligate carnivores that need to eat over 20 lbs of meat daily?

2. Another problem with this is that, right now, only a relatively small proportion of Chinese can afford the expensive tiger parts. What happens when, indeed, supply increases and price decreases? Has that ever been a recipe for less demand? Or would we, in fact, find people buying tiger parts for medicines who had never been able to afford them before? People who might of formerly been happy with looking around for alternatives? Would we actually see an increase in demand for tiger parts? With the Chinese population making up nearly a quarter of the world’s population, is it reasonable to expect that we could EVER saturate the market with tiger parts to the point that no one would find the cheap “poaching” less attractive than buying legal parts? Or would we, instead, find even more people wanting to poach tigers – because they now have a legal venue to move them. (Yes, I know that proponents of the farming issue assures us that “legal” animal parts and ‘illegal” animal parts would be kept separate. Honestly – does anyone REALLY think that would work in third world countries? Where many of the governments themselves are active in the drug and illegal animal trafficking? Get real.)  I can tell you, having spent time in several third world countries and working with their wildlife, that opening up the legal ability to move domestically raised endangered species is much more likely to simplify the pipeline to market ALL of those parts, wild and domestic. A “farmed” tiger paw looks just like a “wild tiger paw” once the tiger is dead.

3. And we have cultural beliefs in that “Wild is better than domestic” to deal with. This is a common belief (right or wrong) and one that causes a lot of trouble for anyone trying to save wild species. Because there is often a belief that wild is better for one than domestic. Whether it’s true is irrelevant. There is often a general belief in it. I know that an Asian friend of mine, talking to me about the benefits of eating honey with deer antler in it, informed me that all he could afford was the deer antler that was raised domestically but “the wild stuff is much more potent.” Would that be something that one would also see with tigers? That the “wild tiger” is actually better for one than a farmed one?

4. As far as ethical and humane problems, if one would like to know how tigers would be raised in China, we don’t even have to guess at that. We already know, beyond a doubt, about how it will be done. Because they are already farming wildlife species. For example – their bear. Bear gall is another Chinese medicine that some believe has numerous health “benefits. I have friends who have seen some of these bear farms, and the conditions these bears are raised in are horrendous, sometimes screaming and sobbing in pain for years.  Should we encourage more farms where we can fully expect the same sort of treatment for additional species? And what does raising animals in those conditions do to the people who see and hear the pain daily. How does that affect them in their outlook at wildlife in particular and, indeed, life itself?  How does that effect humans treatment of other humans?
“The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated” ~Gandhi

Well, these are just thoughts running through my head this morning, as we are getting ready to gear up the snowmobiles, chain up the trucks, and try to get out of the seven miles of our “driveway” to meet Jeff Diamond and his crew at the highway. I’ve read several of Jeff’s articles and have enjoyed chatting with him on the phone. He sounds like a fun guy and we’re looking forward to watching a real investigative journalist at work! I have lots of additional thoughts – and some possible solutions – to trying to save endangered species that doesn’t necessitate the farming and all of the negatives that go with it. But I’m out of time for now, so I’ll continue this thread later.

 

 
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