Conservation basic training

I’m always a good several months behind in reading my National Geographic subscription. Recently I was working my way through the August 2014 issue and got to a fantastic article (I can’t remember very many National Geographic articles that aren’t fantastic) about Franz Josef Land – an isolated archipelago in Russia’s region of the Arctic Circle.

I enjoyed the entire article, of course. But a particular quote that caught me quite off guard and has caused me to ruminate for the past few days. Digesting that glossy cellulose can be difficult for gut microbes. Here’s what I read:

(National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Enric Sala) was a professor at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, teaching grad students about food webs and marine conservation but dissatisfied with his contribution to the world. “I saw myself as refining the obituary of nature, with increased precision,” he tells me during a conversation aboard the Polaris. His distress at the continuing trends of ecosystem degradation and species loss, in marine as well as terrestrial realms, led him out of academia. “I wanted to try to fix the problem,” he says. So in 2005 he assembled a SWAT team of scientists, including experts on marine microbes, algae, invertebrates, and fish, and sailed for the northern Line Islands, a remote cluster of coral outcrops in the Pacific about a thousand nautical miles south of Hawaii.

Oftentimes there is a disconnect somewhere between what a person thinks, what they say, what a journalist thinks they said, what an editor decides, and what ends up being printed on paper. I’ve experienced that, as has anyone who has been interviewed by the media for just about anything. So I’ll give Dr. Sala the benefit of the doubt here, but will comment on the way that this has been presented by National Geographic.

The implication in this clip of text, intentional or not, is that the job of teaching biology and natural history is task that does not have important conservation implications. I beg to differ.

In fact, I would argue that teaching is at least as important as data collection. Yes, there are the more obvious conservation roles that are more easily noticed than a professor in front of a lecture hall or guiding a group in the field or the lab. These include conservation officers, engaged politicians, park rangers, environment/agriculture/forestry/parks ministry employees, thoughtful farmers and foresters, academic/industry/government scientists, environmental consultants, NGO employees, public health nurses and physicians, and National Geographic Explorers-in-Residence. Those individuals are analogous to the soldiers fighting the battle on the front lines. But, as with any army, those front line soldiers would not do well if they were just dumped in front of the enemy with a loaded rifle and a “good luck.”

Winning battles, and ultimately winning a war, requires that soldiers be trained. Trained to operate independently. Trained to work in teams. Trained to understand the terrain. Trained to work with the equipment. Trained to get results. Academic teaching done correctly and enthusiastically – and with a focus on natural history and conservation – is a vital part of the basic training that conservation professions require in order for efficacy. Dr. Sala is undoubtedly the engaged conservationist and excellent scientist that he is in some very large part due to that basic training in an academic setting.

Beyond that, those of us who collect and synthesize data have not done our jobs completely if we do not also bring those results and their implications to a wider scientific and lay public. By participating in this National Geographic feature (indeed, by working for National Geographic) Dr. Sala has simply exchanged his teaching role from a classroom to the pages of a magazine. When we conduct research and then present it at a conference, in a scientific paper, in a classroom or field course, in a textbook, in a magazine, or on a radio or television program, we are teaching. Teaching, in whatever context, goes hand-in-hand with the scientific endeavor. I am taught when I read a colleague’s paper, even if I am reading her paper decades after she wrote it. She wrote it to teach me and others about phenomena that she had observed. When I take what I have learned from her study into the classroom and present it well, my students, I would hope, are better off for it and are better prepared as engaged conservationists as they prepare to work to protect habitats, species, ecosystems, and societies.

There is no doubt that the work of conservation in the face of massive, global anthropogenic influence is a vital and growing concern. Looking at the data, it sure seems that we are too often losing important battles. Dr. Sala is correct to be concerned about being caught up in “…refining the obituary of nature…” But the best way to stop writing that obituary is to bring the wonder and amazement and necessity of our natural world into the metaphorical “classroom” by bringing relevant research results (our own and those of others) to students. This is one of the best ways to create authentic, engaged, and active young conservationists who will fill traditional conservation roles or who will be conservation vocationists and ambassadors in whatever profession they ultimately choose.

Teaching is the hard and often unnoticed basic training work of conservation. And that’s why I choose to do it.

Finding something new

It seems that, with this post, I have inadvertently blogged a three-part series on why field work matters. In part 1 I wrote about the value of getting out, rather than being stuck behind a desk. In part 2 I wrote about the idea of place and how regular field work in one discrete location is important in terms of both understanding a system and for developing a conservation mindset. In this final (I think) part, I would like to write about the importance of novel experiences in the field.

In July I accompanied Dr. Aynsley Thielman, a postdoctoral associate in my lab, on her first visit to some high elevation, coastal field sites. Our particular task was to spend a couple of days intensively surveying the arthropod fauna in various habitats, and we were set to access the sites by helicopter. I’ve flown in helicopters on a number of occasions prior to this, but only for general reconnaissance purposes. This was the first time that I was going to be dropped off in a remote location. While the pilot was planning to stay with us, the reality in these mountainous situations is rapid shifts in weather and visibility. That meant that the pilot would give us very little notice before starting up the machine and leaving if he thought there was a safety risk. That, in turn, meant that besides efficient packing of field gear, we had to be prepared to potentially survive a night or two on the mountain before we could be flown down again. This was an interesting challenge, and one that I had never encountered before as most of the work that I have ever done is in locations accessible by well-traversed logging roads. I was, to be honest, a bit nervous leading up to the trip.

Those nerves dissipated rapidly, however, as soon as we were in the chopper and flying over the phenomenal landscapes of British Columbia’s central coastal mountains. And if just getting there was great, being there was doubly great. It’s hard to fully express in words how beautiful this place is. On the first day, we were beset by banks of clouds that meant that our pilot had to keep us moving quite quickly from site to site. But even so, the sight of clouds all around, the wind-stunted trees, the heather meadows, and the strange soil crusts kept us continually fascinated. The second day was as warm and sunny-beautiful a day as you can imagine – a complete reversal from the first day – and we were able to spend many hours in two discrete sites, looking under rocks for spiders, poking in the heather, sweeping trees, and waiting near flowers for pollinators.

By the end of two days of glorious collecting, I wasn’t sure that I wanted to go back to my desk. I was certainly jealous of Aynsley and the summer students who were going to be going up there several more times over the course of the summer.

This was a unique experience in my career as a biologist. Most of my field work experience has been in the, relatively speaking, lower elevation forests of the interior of British Columbia. On the mountain, on the other hand, I was taller than most of the trees at one of the sites; and the “canopy” at the other site was the heather and wildflowers. And we were dealing with a whole host of arthropods, and none of them were bark beetles (although I do need to get in closer to inspect the boles of some of those trees next time I’m up there). I found that being in a unique field site – one that is beyond my normal travels – helped to prod my brain towards fresh thinking. It is easy, I think, to lose some degree of that freshness when doing the same thing repeatedly in the same type of situation. An entirely new ecosystem, a different mode of transportation, and the challenges that go with this kind of field work stimulate the mind or, perhaps, rouse it from potential lethargy.

It might also be worth noting that some of the noted naturalists of bygone eras – think Darwin on the Beagle or Wallace in the Malay Archipelago, for instance – spent some part of their careers in fairly continuous motion to new and vastly different areas. I could never hope to accomplish what either of these preeminent scientists did in terms of turning the study of biology upside down. But I think it would be fair to say that getting out of what they were used to on the British Isles to new contexts allowed them to see patterns that they may have never noticed if they had stayed put. In Darwin’s case, the experience took some time to set in, but was instrumental in the development of the idea. In Wallace’s case, the idea came to him in the context of his experience. In either case one might argue that experiencing a unique field situation can help to make a scientist alert to new ideas. And this may be an outcome of the mind being stimulated toward fresh thinking.

Finally, new experiences like this can serve to remind us about the bigger picture. It is easy to get complacent about the “known” when we travel to our regular sites that we think that we understand so well. But how much do we really know, even of those sites? Spending time in a place that is unique to you – and where almost everything that you see is new – is a good reminder of how little we actually know. It should stimulate a researcher to return to their regular field locations with fresh eyes and a new realization about how much we still have to learn.

I know that it has done that for me. And I can’t wait to get back.

Place and rhythm

In “The Dry Salvages,” part of his Four Quartets, T.S. Eliot wrote the following*:

     I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river
Is a strong brown god – sullen, untamed and intractable,
Patient to some degree, at first recognised as a frontier;
Useful, untrustworthy, as a conveyor of commerce;
Then only a problem confronting the builder of bridges.
The problem once solved, the brown god is almost forgotten
By the dwellers in cities – ever, however, implacable.
Keeping his seasons, and rages, destroyer, reminder
Of what men choose to forget. Unhonoured, unpropitiated
By worshippers of the machine, but waiting, watching and waiting.

A large part of my field work over the past summer was taken up by weekly trips to a river near Prince George for work on a project with Dr. Daniel Erasmus and an intrepid NSERC summer student, Claire. On each trip we visited a number of locations along the length of the river and sampled mayfly nymphs and adults, along with whatever else came up in our sampling efforts. Once a week from May until August, rain or shine, two or three of us would set out from UNBC and would spend the day on the river. I was fortunate to be in on most of those trips, and my regular visits to the river’s “strong brown god” reminded me of the importance of not just getting out to do field work, but also getting out to the same location on a regular basis.

My regular trips meant I was able to watch and experience-via-chest-waders the seasonal ebb and flow of the river. We saw the exploding emergence and seeming imploding disappearance of one fascinating insect species after another. Some weeks we would find a few larvae or nymphs on the vegetation. In following weeks we’d find more. And then even more suddenly than they had appeared on the reeds, they were gone. Asters were not blooming, and then they were blooming, and then they were setting seed. Some days were spent mingling with the scent of wild roses on the bank while we worked, and other days the roses were gone. We could watch the bumblebees focus on one flower species, and then another, and then another as the summer progressed. We were greeted many weeks at one site by a loud family of ravens and sometimes a bald eagle as well. Northern pike minnows spawned at our feet while we sampled a site on one afternoon. Some days were blazing hot, on others we shivered in our rain gear.

And the whole time I got to know the river in a way that I could not have if I had only spent a day or two there. Over the course of the summer, the winding course of the river became a place to me. That is, the river is a geographical location that I now know in a way that makes it more than another spot on a map. And even more than that, it has become a spot that I care about in more than just an abstract way.

I have had other “places” like this in my life, as have we all. A stretch of the Bow River right in downtown Calgary that I have fished and walked along more times than I can count. A hillside called McHugh Bluff, across the street from the house that I grew up in in Calgary and where I spent much of my childhood wandering and hunting magpies with a slingshot (for those concerned, I was always unsuccessful, which is either a testament to my aim or to the intelligence of corvids). A nondescript site on the side of a mountain outside of Lytton, British Columbia where I spent many of my Ph.D. spring field seasons trapping Douglas-fir beetles.

The thing that each of these places have in common is the fact that I have not only spent some time in them, but I have spent large amounts of time there, across a season or seasons, being actively engaged in the landscape. I have been to many, many locations in my life. I have only had the time to develop a small number of places.

In his essay, “The Sense of Place,” Wallace Stegner writes about placed and displaced individuals:

To the placed person (the displaced person) seems hasty, shallow, and restless. He has a current like the Platte, a mile wide and inch deep. As a species, he is non-territorial, he lacks a stamping ground. Acquainted with many places, he is rooted in none. Culturally he is a discarder or transplanter, not a builder or conserver. He even seems to like and value his rootlessness, though to the placed person he shows the symptoms of nutritional deficiency, as if he suffered from some obscure scurvy or pellagra of the soul.

And this takes us back to the snippet from the Eliot poem. Eliot identifies the way that we often interact with nature. That is, we either find it “useful… as a conveyor of commerce” or we cloister ourselves into cities, become “worshippers of the machine.” Then, cloistered in concrete, we not only forget about the river, but we also “unhonour” and “unpropitiate” it and all that it represents.

But Eliot subtly also seems to provide a remedy for the growth of detachment in the several lines that follow. Specifically:

His rhythm was present in the nursery bedroom,
In the rank ailanthus of the April dooryard,
In the smell of grapes on the autumn table,
And the evening circle in the winter gaslight.

That is, the river’s seasonal rhythm continues to call, even after it has been tamed by bridges. Those who are consumed with technology and modernity in general have the opportunity to listen, or to ignore. Biologists and other naturalists have a unique opportunity to be listeners, to move with the river’s rhythm, and then to carry that rhythm back to those who have not yet responded to it. This, of course, requires that we take the time for regular contemplation of the river, the forest, the soil, the pinned or pressed specimens, and the wise written words of those who have studied these things in times past.

So take some time out of your day or week to hear the rhythm that is calling. And then, once you have listened to it, make the effort to relate it to those who have not yet found the time or inclination to do so. Only then, one place at time, will others also deeply understand the need for conservation of the places that they come love.


*Yes, I’m aware that the “river god” in Eliot’s Four Quartets has larger implications relating to what is knowable and what is unknowable. But I believe that this passage also works in this context. Opinions may vary.

Harrington’s 1881 field notes and thoughts for today

The earth covered by its first mantle of snow reminds one that the collecting season is virtually ended, and the lengthening evenings allure one to the study fireside to go carefully over note books and collections and to read the recorded labors of fellow Entomologists.

So begins William Hague Harrington as he recapped his personal entomological observations from the summer of 1881 near to Ottawa, Ontario.

It was this sentence that first caught my eye while I was browsing around the deep back issues of The Canadian Entomologist. Perhaps it was the reference to snow just as the warmest days of the year are beginning. Perhaps is was simply the language that Harrington used. But either way it prompted me to find out more about the entomologist behind these words.

According to his obituary in the June 1918 issue of The Canadian Entomologist, Harrington was born in 1852 in Nova Scotia. After his formal education he worked in the Canadian civil service in various roles until he retired in 1916. He passed away shortly after that, in 1918.

Prior to that, in 1879, he was one of the founders and charter members of the Ottawa Field-Naturalists’ Club, an organization that is still active today and which publishes The Canadian Field-Naturalist. He was secretary-treasurer, secretary, and president of that club at various times. He was also an active member of the Entomological Society of Ontario, and was president of that organization for a couple of years. His obituary lists close to 50 articles published in The Canadian Entomologist and more than 50 published elsewhere. The article topics range widely with, as his obituary notes, a substantial focus on Coleoptera and Hymenoptera.

Besides – and I’d argue more important than – his scientific accomplishments, he was described as:

(q)uiet in nature and unassuming, even retiring at times, Harrington was held in high regard by all who knew him.

Reading his summary of his 1881 field notes I think that we can see hints of both his “quiet nature” and his expertise as a natural historian. The notes are both contemplative and full of useful information.

His discussion begins with collections of “mud-wasps” – I am guessing that he was referring to the black and yellow mud-dauber Sceliphron caementarium, although he calls them Polestes annulatus – on 15 March 1881. These he describes as collecting nest material from the “pulverized macadam” of the streets of Ottawa and building nests on the side of the Parliament buildings.

He goes on to discuss various butterflies, the full onslaught of mosquitoes around 24 April, and an early emergence of some buptrestid beetles. Other spring-emerging, conifer-feeding species that year included Pissodes spp. weevils and sawflies.

Harrington’s attention to detail is present throughout this short essay. Take, for instance, his discussion of fireflies:

During May the curious larvae of certain Lampyridae were often seen in damp woods, crawling on the trunks of trees, such as cedar, or affixed by the tail to the bark, undergoing their metamorphoses in a similar manner to the larvae of the Coccinellidae. Some reared at home emerged as Photinus angulatus [Note: although this species name appears commonly in the literature of the time, I am not sure of the current taxonomy]. The larvae, and to a less degree, the pupae, emitted a strong greenish glow from two of the posterior segments; the imago being, of course, one of our common “fire flies.” Some of the larvae were thickly covered beneath with small ticks, of a bright vermilion color, which had their pointed heads plunged between the armored segments of the larvae. They were not dislodged, but walked rapidly when free. By these little parasites the larva were so weakened as to perish before completing their transformation.

During the spring he also took two trips – one to Wakefield Cave (here, I assume) with some friends, and one with the Ottawa Field-Naturalist’s Club to Montebello. On both trips he successfully collected a large number of insects, including a number of tiger beetles.

After that he states that “my opportunities for collecting were few, and my notes correspondingly scanty.” As for all of us, life’s necessities and other urgent (and less-urgent) issues often take precedence. Harrington finishes off his compilation mentioning early-October collections a few specimens of a cotton moth that seemed to be a seasonal and accidental invader of Canada.

A couple of things struck me about this compilation of notes. First, the fact that Harrington obviously took the time to take good field notes and then to publish them in this summarized form is wonderful. Not only is it a record of what he did and saw in 1881, but it provides some interesting information that others may be able to follow up on over 125 years later. His attention to detail and drive to get the information out to the public in curated and archived form is a great example to follow. These days a scientific paper is the usual, highly distilled, production of field and lab notes. Should we be thinking more about how to regularly compile our field and lab notes in this way as well? Would such information be useful to future generations of biologists? Are there curated and archived venues that would take such compilations today? I can’t think of any, but I’d love to be informed if there are.

And second, for all of the current discussion of “citizen science,” it is obvious that citizen science has been alive and well for decades, if not centuries. Harrington was not what most would consider to be a “scientist” today. But he most definitely was just exactly that. The current push towards large- and small-scale, often online, citizen science initiatives simply picks up a baton that has been passed along through multiple generations. Much of the science done in previous generations was done by people exactly like Harrington – lay citizens with a deep interest in the natural world around them. In other words, new times require new methods, but not a new spirit of fascination. Fascination is always present.

So, a big thanks to William Hague Harrington for his contributions and his foresight and care to ensure that his observations are still here for us to read about and learn from.

Hot ice crawlers

I enjoy reading older literature for many reasons. I love the “time capsule” aspect of it, as I get a glimpse into what people were thinking in decades (or centuries) past. I also enjoy finding little bits of information that have served as part of the foundation for ongoing current study – or that could spark new inquiry.

As editor of the Journal of the Entomological Society of British Columbia, I am often on the journal website taking care of journal business. While there I sometimes delve into the archives and see what I can find.

(The archives, by the way, are almost complete thanks to the tireless work of Alex Chubaty and a small army of other volunteers. Only a bit more work, and we’ll have the entire century-plus natural history record of JESBC online. Exciting!)

While poking around the archives recently I came across this little gem of an article, written in 1945 by George Spencer and entitled “On the incidence, density, and decline of certain insects in British Columbia.” Since part of the research in my lab is on outbreaking insects – bark beetles – this title caught my eye.

Further reading brought me to this paragraph:

About 1937, J. D. Gregson found Grylloblatta campodeiformis Walk. at Kamloops in the talus slope of Mount Paul, at an elevation of 1,400 feet only. The face of this slope is one of the hottest spots in the Dry Belt and Grylloblatta seems to retreat into the cold interior of the rock pile during summer, coming out to the surface only when November cools down the countryside with sharp frosts. Its previous records were from Lakes Louise and Agnes and on Rundle Mountain, in the Rockies, Alberta, and in British Columbia, a reported record from Forbidden Plateau near Courtenay on Vancouver Island and at the top of Grouse Mountain near Vancouver. To find it in numbers at 1,400 feet at Kamloops, provides a most remarkable record of discontinuous distribution. It is probable that further collecting in this Province, in late autumn will show that Grylloblatta is widely distributed in locations similar to those occurring at Kamloops. The insect must have followed the skirts of the receding ice sheet 15,000 years ago and persisted in situations where it could retreat in summer time to near frozen spots deep in rock piles.

Grylloblattids have always fascinated me, although I have yet to see one alive in its natural habitat. It’s on my bucket list. Entomologists have strange bucket lists.

These creatures – often called ice crawlers – are a small group consisting of around three dozen known species. They live mainly in alpine regions and they are best suited to a narrow range of temperatures a bit above the freezing mark. They eat insects or other food items that are blown into their cold habitat from lower, warmer, and less desolate elevations. They do not do well at high temperatures – temperatures that you and I would think of as a nice day – so it was quite surprising to find these creatures in such a blazing hot location.

A bit of further digging in the JESBC archives pulled up a 1938 article by Gregson (“Notes on the Occurrence of Grylloblatta campodeiformis Walker in the Kalmoops District”) which provides great detail on the natural history and some of the early collections of this insect near to Kamloops. It makes for a fairly short, but fascinating and instructive read, giving some details on how this population may be able to survive summer surface temperatures above 40ºC.

So what has become of this information in the almost eighty years since Gregson’s description? As luck would have it, there are two very recent pieces reviewing what is known about grylloblattids. In one article, Schoville and Graening (2013) have developed an updated checklist of ice crawlers (and there have been some good collections made in the recent past), with copious information on their natural history. If you take a look at Figure 1 in their paper, you can see two lonely triangles near to Kamloops. In other words, over the decades the Mt. Paul population still seems to be rather isolated in its one little hot island.

In another recent (2014) paper by Schoville [“Current status of the systematics and evolutionary biology of Grylloblattidae (Grylloblattodea)”], you can see a photograph of G. campodeiformis (Figure 1) along with the known worldwide distribution of all species (Figure 2). Schoville also describes “a glacially driven alpine species pump within the Sierra Nevada mountains” and speculates as to whether it’s possible that past climate change explains the distribution of species in other parts of North America.

So, the Mt. Paul ice cralwers seem to constitute quite an interesting little population. Besides behavioral (and physiological?) adaptations to their harsh habitat, they are also seemingly quite isolated from any other populations. Can understanding why this is the case help us to understand past speciation events? Perhaps someone has done further research on this overall situation, and if so, I’d love to hear about it. But there seem to be a number of obvious questions here regarding the relationship of this population to other G. campodeiformis populations. And, of course, there are all sorts of other evolutionary, behavioral, physiological, and ecological questions to be considered as well.

As I wrote above, perhaps this has been studied in further depth, or perhaps studies are ongoing. If so, please point me in the right direction because I’d love to read further.

If not, it’s just another one of those zillions of projects out there waiting for someone to take it on.

And in either case, it outlines the value of an ongoing commitment to natural history research to uncover interesting situations and point to new research directions.


A week or so ago I finished reading an article in the February 2014 issue of National Geographic entitled “Yukon: Canada’s Wild West” (written by Tom Clynes with amazing photography by Paul Nicklen). I have been to the Yukon all of one time in my life, and that just for a couple of days in the spring. Even that tiny taste of such a wonderland left me wanting more.

(If you have not read the article and viewed the photographs already, stop reading this and go and do that.)

But there is something going on beyond all of that beauty. The Yukon is in the midst of a new gold rush that is beginning to rival any other large-scale industrial activity going on in Canada at the moment. Most people, however, don’t seem to have a clue that it’s going on – and that even goes for people here in BC where the Yukon is our next door neighbor. My guess is that many Canadians – generally clustered along our southern border – forget that our north even exists.

It’s time for us to take more notice.

Here are a few of the highlights (or should I say low lights?) from the article:

  • Current legislation permits any adult to stake a claim almost anywhere in the territory.
  • Some royalty payments to the government were set way back in 1906 and haven’t been changed in any substantive way since. The article quotes Lewis Rifkind of the Yukon Conservation Society who says: “…we’re still regulating (mining) with laws written when that bearded guy on our license plates was crouching in a creek, shaking a pan.”
  • The Faro Mine Complex, an now-defunct open pit lead-zinc mine – will take over a hundred years to clean up and will cost taxpayers ~$700 million dollars.
  • The currently protected and virtually pristine Peel watershed is now under threat of development.

If you care about conservation, any of those points is worrisome enough. But nothing in the article was as worrisome as this quote attributed to Mr. Shawn Ryan, one of the most successful contemporary Yukon prospectors:

“I tell people not to get too attached to all this beauty. We just might want to mine it.”

While this is, to me at least, a shocking statement, I’d first like to thank Mr. Ryan for his honesty. Second, I’d like to point out that there is a great deal of wisdom (though wrongheaded) in that statement.

Specifically this: Mr. Ryan is absolutely correct in his realization that people who become attached to a place will be the first to question the proposed exploitation of that place.

This hit home to me even more this past weekend with the annual hoopla surrounding Earth Hour. Of course I recognize that this is just a symbol to remind people of their impact on the world around them. That is fine and good. But the big problem that I see with events like Earth Hour is that there is no real effort made to get people to find attachment to the world around them. How many people actually know where/how their electricity is generated or what specific impact that process has? And how many of those who know that actually contemplate it very often?

The unfortunate reality is that without an attachment to place, many environmental concerns are going to be at best esoteric and at worst not even considered. In complete honesty I worry that I’m really not much better than anyone else in that respect. I’m currently typing on a computer for which I have no clue where the component parts came from (perhaps some of the metals were mined in the Yukon? They were certainly mined somewhere.). I am drinking tea that claims to be ethically sourced, but what does that really mean? I ate yogurt for lunch, and the oil-derived plastic container that it came in is staring at me on my desk hoping to be at least recycled.

Those admissions are coming from someone who considers himself to be pretty attached to the environment around him and beyond. What about the person who does not have the opportunity to spend time in a natural setting or to even read a magazine like National Geographic?

Take a moment to read Mr. Ryan’s unintended wisdom again:

“I tell people not to get too attached to all this beauty. We just might want to mine it.”

Now contemplate your attachment to your place and how it impacts your decisions. Then think about creative ways to begin to stimulate that in others around you.

Ode to the Corvidae

When spring comes to this part of the world, so do the birds. In a mere couple of months or so – perhaps less in the case of some species – we’ll start to hear their singing in the morning. They’ll stick around all summer and into the autumn. But eventually all of them leave. All, that is, except for a select few whose domain is the Canadian winter.

Right now in January, of course, those winter birds are the rulers of the air and the glades. And chief among them are a few species from the family Corvidae. The corvids include crows, ravens, magpies, and jays among others.

These birds have long been reputed to be not just the most intelligent of birds, but among the most intelligent of non-human animals. In fact, they are often referred to a “feathered apes.” Their brain is very large in comparison to the size of their body, and this is a general marker for intelligence. It is not difficult to believe that they are highly intelligent either because they can naturally learn, or be trained, to do some amazing things.

But I am not writing this ode simply to expound upon their intelligence and amazing behavior. Both are completely obvious to anyone who spends any time at all watching them. Rather, I am writing to appreciate these birds because of the joy that they have brought me over the years.

Growing up in Calgary meant growing up with magpies. For some reason Calgary (and Edmonton) are inundated with magpies, while crows and ravens are more rare and are more often found in the outskirts. In other places that I’ve lived – for instance Vancouver and Prince George – crows and ravens are more common in the city and magpies seem to stay further to the edges of the urban sprawl. If someone out there can tell me why this is the case, I’d be very interested.

In any case, I can remember waking up many summer mornings to the raucous calls of magpies, all dressed up in their tux-and-tails. At one point as a young teenager I fashioned a predator consisting of a couple of pieces of carved balsa wood and a thick rubber band. I had come across the design in my Outdoor Canada magazine, and the writer promised that using it would bring surprising results. And it did! I could sit out in our front yard and make sounds like an injured rabbit. Very quickly one magpie would arrive. Then another, and another, until the two big cottonwood trees in front of our house were alive with calling birds. The whole neighborhood must have wondered what on earth was going on.

Magpies are seemingly as intelligent as their crow and raven kin. One autumn day, watching our front yard from the verandah, I spied a squirrel dutifully digging a nut into the ground as a provision against the coming winter. Above the squirrel, on a branch, a lone magpie watched the proceedings. As soon as the squirrel had hopped off and out of the picture, down swooped the magpie and uncovered the nut and headed off. Smart bird; poor squirrel.

About a decade ago, while living in Davis California, I got to know the beautiful western scrub jays very well. Our apartment complex had a group of them that roved around looking for scraps and other remnants of student parties. Like all of the other corvids that I have known, they were never shy about letting everyone know that they were around.

We had a tabby cat at the time named – appropriately for California – Sequoia. Sequoia would make a point of sitting at our second-floor apartment window next to a burst of tree branches. As soon as the jays would see her, they would congregate on the branches and holler at her. She would sit there, seemingly saying “just you wait.” The jays would let her know what they thought of that attitude. It would get very loud at times, and was a complete riot to watch.

Once in Maligne Canyon, in Jasper National Park, I had the honor of watching a family of ravens nesting in a small cave. I was able to take a few photographs of them, and I still enjoy going back to look at these years later. I hope one day to go back to the location during breeding season and take some better photographs than these.

Now that we live in Prince George, I am privileged almost every winter morning to be greeted by ravens and crows who make their way from one roosting point to another while I catch the bus. Some of them live in the small forest and creek area near to my house (although lately the group of ravens that was there seems to have moved on elsewhere). Some days they just fly straight along above the road toward the local fast food joints (breakfast!). Other days they tussle and rustle in the sky above me, most certainly oblivious to my presence as they enjoy each other.

One particular winter morning, after a heavy snowfall the night before, two ravens tumbled together above me and the snow-laden trees. It was perfectly silent as it always seems to be after a snowfall. The only sounds were their gentle murmurings and the light clatter of their wings and feathers against each other. A single black feather floated through the still air and onto the white world below, fluttering right next to me on its descent. It was a haiku moment, and I immediately wrote this in my notebook as soon as I stepped onto the bus a few minutes later:

Two ravens tussle
Above the snow-heaped forest
A feather drifts down

I’m the first to admit that I’m not really much of a poet, so I don’t even know if I got that right. Likely some more work would make it better. Never-the-less, it was just one more instance in my love affair with corvids, and I still remember that moment as vividly as yesterday.

I’ve probably gone on long enough now, and to all of you who have bothered to read this far, I want to offer you one more corvid-inspired creation of mine – a small gallery of photographs that I have made over recent years featuring these amazing birds. And I certainly hope to make many more in years to come.

Damn the torpedoes!

My family is probably one of the few that still receives the morning newspaper delivered to the front door. My winter morning ritual consists of braving the cold for a couple of seconds to bring in the paper and then settling down to read it at breakfast with a hot cup of tea. For some reason – likely masochistic tendencies; perhaps also because it gets my brain going – I always first turn to the editorial and letters section.

Yesterday, I was presented with this letter to the editor, and I’ll admit that it got me a bit riled up. The basic premise of the letter seems to be that contemporary conservation efforts are misguided because they seek to manage crises rather than just simply “letting nature take its course.”

Here is a relevant snippet from the letter:

As the numbers of these endangered species increase it will cause a rapid decline in their food supply ending in the long, slow death by starvation. This is also going to happen to the seal populations of the Atlantic as the environmental movement demands the removal of their major predator man [sic].

There have been 90 million species that have inhabited this planet, 99 per cent have become extinct, pushed out of existence by newer more complex, more adaptable species. This process is now seen as being unnatural and declaring every species that nature is pushing into extinction must be labeled endangered and saved even if it requires the destruction of those more complex, more adaptable species for doing what nature intended them to do.

It’s hard to know where to start with this, as there are a number of problems (including a misunderstanding of evolutionary theory and history which I won’t bother to touch on here) even within that small block of text.

Many, if not most, conservation efforts these days revolve around species and ecosystems that are highly impacted by humans. In fact, it is difficult to go anywhere on earth anymore without being able to quickly find evidence of human impact. Some people have begun to call the current geological epoch the Anthropocene in recognition of the fact that human activity is leaving an indelible mark on our planet that will be detectable for eons to come. As such, many, if not most, species in crisis are in that situation due to ongoing and systemic causes such as habitat loss, pollution, or overhunting – not because they are being supplanted by “complex, more adaptable species.” This means that even the most wildly successful conservation programs rarely accomplish a return to previous levels of species numbers, let alone burgeoning population levels that lead to mass starvation. In most cases, conservationists are working within much-reduced species geographical ranges and in degraded habitats. The reduced size of the remaining land base and the deteriorated habitat are not usually capable of sustaining previous population levels.

So, let’s talk seals, since the letter writer brought them up. “Man” is, indeed, currently a major predator. But until recently humans were not capable of killing them in numbers substantial enough to have any real impact on their populations. That has all changed, of course. The fact of the matter is that humans have been the cause of the decline and demise of many, many sea mammals through combinations of hunting, overfishing of prey, or pollution. Our exploitation of these animals needs to be regulated, not simply allowed to continue carte blanche. (Note that I am not opposed to hunting – even seal hunting – but such activity needs careful monitoring.) Since seals, and many other sea mammals, reside near the top of their respective food chains, small perturbations at those levels can cause cascading effects to other levels.

Sea otters are a great example of what can happen if we do not regulate our activities. These cute sea mammals were hunted to near extinction during the fur trade over much of the Pacific coast. Sea otters eat lots of sea urchins. Sea urchins eat lots of kelp. Extremely low numbers of otters mean high numbers of urchins and much reduced levels of kelp. The heavily urchin-grazed areas that result are called urchin barrens and are obviously radically transformed from their normal state.

Thus we humans, novel predators for sea otters in terms of evolutionary time, end up having rapid and dramatic effects that reverberate deep into the ecosystem and end up returning to bite us back. In this case urchin barrens become non-productive zones for fisheries or other activities that humans value. The only way back to some semblance of normalcy (in the absence of the return of healthy populations of sea otters or other urchin predators) would be expensive and labor-intensive work that is not feasible across vast stretches of territory – e.g. removing urchins by hand.

The reality is that conservation programs require a great deal of thought, research, and often back-breaking effort. Beyond that, such programs also require consultation not just regarding the ecology and other biological aspects of the situation, but also in terms an often-tangled complex of cultural, economic, and social parameters. This is because humans are now an integral part of virtually every single ecosystem on earth, and humans are highly invested in the natural world around them, whether they realize that or not.

When we see situations of one species supplanting another, as the letter writer alludes to, there is an off chance that it is a “natural” occurrence. But more often than not it is due to choices that we are making or have made in the past. Many such situations are due, for instance, to species from other geographical regions being transplanted into a new region by humans. Not all exotic species find a foothold, but when they do the consequences can be enormous. Ask anyone in the southern USA about kudzu.

One could argue, as the letter writer seems to be doing, that we should throw up our hands and sit back and let outcomes be the outcomes across our planet. “Damn the torpedoes!”

But, while our impact on nature is massive, we also rely on the natural world to sustain us – from the air we breath to the water we drink to the food we eat.

In the end, it’s hard to fault the public for not fully understanding the intricacy and massive effort behind conservation efforts. When we see letters like this that are obviously wrong on a number of levels, at least part of the fault lies with those of us who should be communicating with the public. But letters or articles like the one that I read with my morning tea yesterday also require responding to errors in a public fashion, which is what I hope that I have at least partially accomplished here.

Feel free to add your thoughts in the comments or elsewhere. There are many other things that I could have said, and I hope that my discussion here has been accurate. I look forward to hearing what others have to say.

Canada (finally) notices neonicotinoids

Many of you have probably heard that neonicotinoid pesticides seem to be responsible for negative effects on various pollinators, including bumblebees and honey bees.

With limited time today (and for this entire week), I won’t add much more than that right now, other than to say that others have written a ton about it already. So check out some of the links that I’ve provided for some background information.

But, I do have a reason for this brief blog post. It turns out that the Canadian government, via the Health Canada Pest Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA) are starting to take some notice and have issued a notice of intent to begin consultations on this subject. The notice of intent gives 90 days for interested parties to comment.

Some quotes from the notice of intent:

…in spring 2013 with more typical weather patterns, we continued to receive a significant number of pollinator mortality reports from both corn and soybean growing regions of Ontario and Quebec, as well as Manitoba. Consequently, we have concluded that current agricultural practices related to the use of neonicotinoid treated corn and soybean seed are not sustainable.

Bee health is a complex issue that goes beyond the incidents in 2012 and 2013 and may involve a number of additional factors, including parasites, disease and climate. Health Canada’s PMRA is currently conducting a re-evaluation of all uses of neonicotinoid insecticides in cooperation with the United States Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA) as part of the work being done with international partners. We are expediting this re-evaluation, which will help us better understand and manage potential risks these pesticides may pose to long-term bee health.

A few things to keep in mind:

  • Although the notice of intent seems to mainly target dust-related problems – and pesticide-laced dust is definitely an issue – it’s not the only issue.
  • Neonicotinoids are systemic pesticides. That means that they end up in the plant’s tissues. This is why they are very effective against herbivores (and why they were touted as such a great thing) because they are mainly targeted at things that are eating plant tissues. But the pesticide also ends up in the pollen and nectar, and that is what bees and other pollinators forage on.
  • On that topic, it’s not just honey bees that are affected. Bumblebees, as noted above, are also known to be vulnerable. In addition there are many other native pollinators – bees and otherwise – that are likely to be affected (and honey bees are not native pollinators in North America).
  • Many other organisms and ecosystems may be harmed by this class of pesticides, including fish, birds, non-pollinating insects, and soil microorganisms. This article is a decent synopsis.

It’s good to see something resembling traction on this issue emerging here in Canada.

If anyone feels so inclined, the notice of intent contains instructions for making a statement on the continued use of neonicotinoids in Canada.


Kids, go outside… or maybe not?

My family is lucky enough to live in a city that is surrounded by vast tracts of wilderness. We’re also lucky to live in a city that has seen fit to preserve at least some of that wilderness within the urban boundaries. While Prince George has a long way to go in terms of truly being a green city (ahem… let’s at least start with a municipal recycling program instead of just talking about it), people here tend to love the nature that surrounds them. In fact, I would guess that many of the residents here – both longtime citizens and more recent arrivals – a big drawing point to life in central BC was the beauty of nature that surrounds us here. The city is surrounded by lakes. We’re at the junction of two rivers. Jasper National Park is just down the road. There is an awesome inland rainforest just to the east of us. And that’s just skimming the surface of what’s available to residents here.

Did I mention that we’re lucky?

I assume that many of you who read this blog (all six of you, not including my mom), enjoy spending time in nature too, wherever you may live. So think back to your own childhood for a moment. Did that love of nature emerge because you sat in the basement all day playing Atari? Or did you spend a lot of time out-of-doors, both with and without your parents or other relatives? I suspect that it’s safe to bet on the latter in most cases. Basement dwelling does not generally create lifelong naturalists.

However, today I get the impression that our municipal leaders would prefer that kids not get outside; or rather, if they do get outside, it’s only under strictly controlled conditions.

Why do I say this? It turns out that someone in town, whose kids obviously enjoy playing outside in the yard, decided that a prudent and completely unobtrusive thing to do would be to post a small sign obtained from the British Columbia Automobile Association on their own front lawn to remind passing motorists that there were kids in the area. Sounds like a perfectly reasonable thing to me, both as a father of two boys and as a driver.

The city of Prince George, however, thought otherwise, and the family was sent a bylaw warning to remove their sign or face a fine. That, in itself, is well off the mark. But the part that really irked me was a comment from the city manager of transportation operations in response to a media inquiry:

“Parents should encourage their children to play in playgrounds as playing near the street is not the safest place to play.”

The thing that bugs me about this comment is its deeper implication that spontaneous play in a child’s own yard is not safe and that the only places that kids should be are in a playground (highly supervised, of course) or, presumably, in their house. This comment leaves the impression that, in the mind of our city officials, a yard is inherently unsafe.

This is not surprising, of course, since the notion of the “unsafe outdoors” is likely one of the main reasons that parents don’t let their kids play outside as much as they used to. But is keeping kids indoors most of the time and then shuttling them back and forth to tightly-monitored playground- or soccer-type situations really any safer in the long run? Is it really safer for them to learn to be sedentary as kids and head off into a sedentary adulthood, as modeled by their parents? Are the indoors really safer anyhow, in terms of overall household accidents? Does attempting to remove all dangers from kids teach them how to monitor, assess, and avoid real dangers when they inevitably encounter them? Is it safe for the local and global environment to be raising a generation of kids who don’t know anything about their local natural spaces because they never get out into them – and who thus have a mainly academic (if that) knowledge of nature?

So, to the good leaders of our fine city I say this:

Please take a serious look at our city’s bylaws and their enforcement and think about what they mean for parents who want their kids to spend time outdoors. You have done a great job in creating and maintaining natural spaces throughout our city, and for that I truly applaud you. But if we want the next generation to appreciate and work to protect those spaces – and to care about our environment in general – we need to find ways to encourage parents and kids to walk and play in the local environment. Messages that such play is somehow unsafe, combined with overzealous enforcement of bylaws that have the effect of stifling such childhood activity, need to be carefully reconsidered.

(On a side note: A great book on this very topic is Richard Louv‘s “Last Child in the Woods.” I highly recommend it to anyone who cares for children and who cares about their welfare and the welfare of our planet in general.)

(Another note – added 5-VII-13: I just noticed that the Nature Conservancy of Canada has a great little article in the Globe and Mail about a children spending time in nature. You can get it here.)