Getting Intimate with the Shrub-Steppe (GISS)

Written by Jim Huckabay on May 8, 2019. Posted in Uncategorized

Saturday is the big day. You and yours are invited to the 20th Annual celebration of our shrub-steppe heritage here in Central Washington. Between 7:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. there will be no fewer than seven hour-long field trip choices and a variety of experiences at a dozen or so activity centers. There will be expert-led field trips, educational and hands-on science booths and fun activities for kids of all ages. Included in these adventures are the early morning bird walk, spring wildflowers, snake-sneaking, geology-learning, beaver thinking, kayaking, visualizing those who occupied the Yakima River Canyon long before us, and an obstacle course with prizes.

This all happens at either Helen McCabe State Park (at the north end of the Yakima River Canyon) or the Umtanum Creek Recreation Area (a dozen or so miles down the river). All you bring is your family, water bottles, hiking shoes, binoculars, cameras, and your senses of wonder. See what’s in store: check out www.ycic.org, and click on “Keen Events.” On that page, “Get Intimate with the Shrub-Steppe” will get you the full schedule of events and opportunities.

The earliest fun starts at the Umtanum site – starting point for most excursions. The morning bird walk kicks off there at 7:30 a.m. (Think of the joy your children will relive when – some sweet day – they tell their own children of their Early Bird walk with Jerry Scoville and Deborah Essman – Bird Whisperers of Paradise.) Return from that brief excursion and choose an excursion of beaver tales with Lixing Sun or a wildflower walk with Ian Seilor.

As the morning unfolds, you might learn about ancient and modern cultural landscapes of our amazing Canyon, or hear Nick Zentner as he brings the Canyon’s geology to life. Cap off your morning at the Umtanum site with an hour and a half of “Snake Sneaking” with reptile pro and personal hero Dan Beck (you will have to pre-register for this one).

Meantime, back at Helen McCabe State Park, those activity centers that kicked off at 9 are up and running until 2 p.m. At one booth or activity center or another, you and your whole family may examine and learn about native snakes and reptiles, skulls and bones, native plants, the story of rivers, fish and bugs, and a lot about our insects. Somewhere in that joyful outdoor-oriented community will be an obstacle course (with prizes for various levels of dexterity), a chance to join up with the Junior Ranger Program, and the opportunity to see trained falcons up close and personal. Learn about the work of KEEN’s Stewardship Team and the coming Yakima Canyon Interpretive Center, as well that of the Nature Conservancy, the Wild Horse Wind Facility and the East Cascade Recreation Partnership.

This GISS Day is a few hours of great fun for the whole family – but so much more than that.

This is important to you and me and yours and mine and all theirs to come. We have talked about this before: when push comes to shove (and it will) people with no real connection to nature will not give a rat’s backside about a sustainable outdoor future. The challenge is on our doorstep right now, and becomes more critical with each passing moment.

No doubt you recall our discussions of Richard Louv’s book, Last Child in the Woods, Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. Maybe you sat in on one of my discussions of the concern over what nature writer and author Robert Michael Pyle calls “the extinction of experience.” With such an extinction, an indoor kid will be able to go anywhere, stay “plugged-in,” and remain disconnected from his earth-bound life and roots. Recall that Pulitzer Prize‑winning Harvard biology professor E.O. Wilson coined the word “biophilia” for the innate desire of humans to connect with other life forms. He has long maintained that this connection benefits us both as individuals and as a species of the whole; any individual’s loss of that connection – that sense of belonging to nature – threatens us all and our future.

While I recognize that a growing number of people consider this outdoor connection an antiquity – best left behind so that humanity can grow into its high-tech and dense urban population destiny – I have hope. Every day, I see the importance of outdoor connections to the development of healthy, happy and safe humans.

To lose our connection to nature and other living things we must first have the connection. This is why, this week, it seems so important to focus on these Get Intimate with the Shrub-Steppe (GISS) activities. Consider this column to be your personal invitation.

In this 20th Anniversary celebration, as always, there are many opportunities to get your family connected to nature, polish your own connections and get yourself caught up on springtime in Paradise.

Whatever adventures you choose, you will find an abundance of kid and family connection opportunity three days hence. Bring yourself and those you treasure into the Yakima River Canyon. Come play.

This is important to a future reaching far beyond those of us enjoying Paradise today. Let us send our young forward with a soul-satisfying connection to the natural world which sustains us all. To slightly paraphrase Jodi Larsen, of our Upper Kittitas County Rotary, Remember that children are the emissaries we send into a time we will not see…

 

Welcome to Osprey Time

Written by Jim Huckabay on April 24, 2019. Posted in Uncategorized

At this month’s Kittitas County Field and Stream meeting, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife fishing pro Marc Divens was talking stocking and fishing possibilities. One Homey opined as how, in five days of fishing three different local honey holes with his grandkids, he caught no fish, but watched ospreys having no problem catching whatever they wanted. We all commiserated with him, then switched our minds to the glorious creature that is “osprey.”

One of the sharpest videos I have in my mind was put there on a mid-summer day – decades ago – along a little muddy lake in the middle of the Red Desert in south central Wyoming. I had just been drawn for an antelope tag in this “biggest bucks in Wyoming” unit, and was doing my best to convince those big bucks that I was not on a scouting mission. Anyway, looking up from that brownish water, I noticed two downy white fuzz-balls in a stickpile atop a rusty old drilling platform. They were already bigger than some hawks. The bird that passed overhead seemed as big as an eagle, but didn’t look like any eagle I knew. I watched it land at the platform of sticks, pull strips from the fish it held, and feed the fuzz-balls. Ospreys have fascinated me ever since, and to this day I can close my eyes, smell that desert lake air, and watch it all again.

I’ve never met anyone who has watched an osprey fishing, and doesn’t remember every detail. We still talk about that “Fio Rito Show!” a decade or so ago, during one of those June Free Fishing Weekends. There were blue herons, red-winged and yellow-headed blackbirds, hawks and cormorants all around, but the star of that day was an osprey (likely a male, since males do most of the hunting during the nesting season).

He patiently circled the lake and swept the creek to the east, looking and finding fish. We reckoned he had a mate on an egg clutch nearby or was feeding new fuzz-balls. Each time he snatched a trout from the water, a couple dozen people came to attention and someone clapped.

Often called “fish hawks,” ospreys are small eagles with long wingspans and a unique set of behaviors which makes them downright thrilling to watch.

You may have watched an osprey hover 50 to 100 feet above the water and then dive headlong – even clear under the water – after a meal. The special protective covering over his or her eyes enables such dives and aids in seeing prey under the surface. There’s enough oil on osprey feathers to dive in, grab a fish, bob back to the surface and take off – but not enough to float or swim. The osprey is the only raptor whose front talons turn backwards, something it probably developed to aid it in catching fish.

As mentioned above, the male does most of the hunting. And hunt he must! He feeds his mate from the time they set up housekeeping. Once they have a brood (two to four), he may have to provide six pounds of fish a day. Fledglings grow fast, and will be flying and hunting by mid-August. By late September, most of our birds will all head to Chile or Argentina to winter over. The young birds may remain in South America for up to 18 months before joining the annual trips north.

Of course, in keeping with the wishes of the Science Education Committee of the Reecer Creek Rod, Gun, Working Dog & Outdoor Think Tank Benevolent Association, I must include the following. Osprey’s scientific name is Pandion haliaetus Linnaeus. It is mostly dark above and white underneath, with black “wrist” patches. The osprey is easily identified in flight by the angular shape of those wrists in the wings. Look for the slow deep wing beats of arched wings spanning up to nearly six feet. As with most all raptors, the female will be larger than the male, but still weighing something less than four pounds. The osprey prefers open waterways, lakes and shore areas, where it finds the fish and crustaceans on which it makes its living. Of course, it will eat a rodent or bird, too, given the chance.

You may see ospreys – on their mostly man-made nest platforms – near water most anywhere in the state, but some of the easiest to observe here in Paradise are along the Yakima River through most of the county. Find a nest and a safe place to pull over, get out the binoculars, and let yourself be entertained for a while.

Our ospreys are in good numbers. Their most common danger is entanglement with gathered fishing line or bailing twine – a fledgling or two are lost each year.

Ask Deborah Essman – Bird Whisperer of Paradise – about these wonderful birds and she’ll likely tell you about their “Velcro feet,” the tiny barbs, or spicules, which enable them to grip the slimiest of fish. She may even tell you that ospreys seem largely right-footed. Give her a moment to close her eyes, and she may share the sense of wonder she experiences seeing a large beautiful raptor fearlessly hit the water and emerge with a fish even larger than itself.

See for yourself. Check out National Geographic’s spectacular “Gone Fishing” video at video.nationalgeographic.com/video/00000144-0a1f-d3cb-a96c-7b1f2a0f0000, and others you will find when you google “osprey birds.” Gather the family and watch ospreys doing what they were born (hatched?) to do.

Happy osprey season.

Spring and Summer Smoke in the Hills around Paradise

Written by Jim Huckabay on April 17, 2019. Posted in Uncategorized

It may have begun in the few days since I wrote this, but the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (DFW) has scheduled controlled burns on eight wildlife areas for this spring and summer. The exact dates will be weather-dependent, of course, as the department begins its efforts to treat 18,000 of the one million acres of public ground it manages, by 2021. The intention, of course, is to reduce the risk of wildfire and improve habitat for animals such as deer, elk, and bighorn sheep. Around Paradise, burns are scheduled for small parts of the Colockum, L.T. Murray, and Oak Creek Wildlife Areas.

DFW operates the only prescribed fire management team in the state – a team of five full-time foresters and 18 burn-team members. The DFW team posts signs and looks after public safety before and during burns, and will then monitors each burn continuously until it is completely out. There will be smoke, of course, and some may find its way to our homes. Still, these are specific and short-term burns which greatly reduce the risk of those high-intensity wildfires we’d prefer to avoid. “Prescribed fire” treatments have been paying off for years; just last August, the team’s work on the Sherman Creek Wildlife Area was instrumental in helping suppress the Boyd’s wildfire in Ferry County.

I think we are pretty clearly understanding that it is no longer a question of “if” we will have huge and dangerous wildfires, but rather “when” (and just how much we may be able reduce their damage). Thus, you and I have looked at the need for, and benefits of, prescribed burns a couple times over the last few years.

You may recall the thoughts of Dale Swedburg, a passionate proponent of fire, just prior to his 2016 retirement as the Okanogan Land Manager for DFW. Over his career, Dale became a student of fire and its value to the public lands he devoted his life to protecting – lands which literally evolved as fire-dependent ecosystems. He will tell you how regular, naturally-occurring, forest fires benefit the lands and the plant communities which evolved with them. And he will remind you that the raging, super-hot and impossible-to-control megafires tearing through the overgrown forests we have created by preventing fires are almost never friends of nature – or people. Prescribed burning – properly executed – is a way of re-creating the natural periodic burns which most of the world’s forest ecosystems have known for millennia, while significantly reducing the risk of our ever-more-common megafires.

Obviously, those planning the burns on DFW-managed lands over the next couple years share Dale’s passion for controlled burns. The benefits are many.

One of the primary benefits of fire is the removal of all those crowded trees and ground cover (commonly called “fuels reduction”). The mechanical clearing of forests and cleanup of flammable ground cover accomplishes such fuels reduction, of course. The value of that is seen in the surge of Firewise Programs protecting families and properties around us and across the West. The challenge? There is probably not enough money anywhere to hire enough loggers to beat the natural fuels buildup in our forests. A controlled burn is faster, cheaper, and it does things no mechanical clearing can do.

In forest ecosystems, fire: reduces insect pests and disease; removes non-native species which often crowd out natives; increases forage for game and other wildlife; recycles soil nutrients; supports the growth of the trees, wildflowers, shrubs and other plants which make up a healthy ecosystem; provides better habitat for threatened and endangered species of all types; and proper (or prescribed) fire limits numbers of super-hot megafires.

Smoke, of course, is the biggest source of complaints about forest fires. Still, in the forest, a wide range of native plant species need smoke (often with heat) to properly germinate and grow. Indeed, there is some evidence of buckbrush (an important ungulate forage plant) seed lying dormant in soil for two hundred years before germinating after a fire.

The USDA Forest Service has a great site for finding research on fire effects on plants and various regimes. Check out www.feis-crs.org/feis/. At this site, you learn things that will change how your friends look at you the next time you discuss forest fires.

Of course, there are groups opposed to the use of prescribed fire. If you want a sense of the challenges, see the website of Citizens Against Polluted Air: prescribedburns.com/index.html.

Any of the fire pros will admit that smoke is the big problem – but “no fire” is not an option. Is it better to have small expected fires or unpredictable megafires?

There will be fires. Watch for the planned burns around us and in eastern Washington in the next few months. Let’s hope they do their job.

The Makah Tribe and Whale Hunting

Written by Jim Huckabay on April 10, 2019. Posted in Uncategorized

No doubt you are aware that a bit over a week ago the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) proposed to allow the Makah Tribe – in and around Neah Bay (out at the tip of the Olympic Peninsula) – to take between one and three gray whales annually in their historic hunting range. The Tribe is the only tribe in the US with explicit treaty rights to hunt gray whales. It did just that until the 1920s, when it voluntarily stopped hunting the whales because of concern over their declining population from heavy commercial hunting.

Nearly eight decades later, the Makah held their next legal hunt. May of 1999. Protests and lawsuits filled the air, and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals banned the hunt in 2000.

During that spring of ’99, two decades ago, I had a great deal of company as I followed the Makah Tribe’s efforts to return to their ancestral tradition of hunting, eating, and utilizing gray whales. Tribal leaders and members noted that the spiritual and physical medicine of the whale taken would restore their ancestral relationship with the whale, and help heal their people and their community. Protesters did pretty much everything they could to disrupt the whale hunt; others made jokes, threw insults and mocked the Makah People and their hunt in Neah Bay. Airborne TV cameras dogged the hunt. As you might imagine, if you’ve been following the last 1,050 of these weekly efforts to look into the outdoors, the whole thing fascinated me.

During the year prior to that ’99 hunt, more than a dozen grays died or beached, including a couple in Puget Sound. Several of them, apparently, died slowly and suffered for many hours – even a day or more. For them, there was no public grieving, but plenty of tourism and a scientific curiosity about what killed them.

On a Monday morning, the carefully-selected and blessed Makah hunters killed a whale. At least one of the Seattle papers called it “a TV news director’s dream,” as viewers got to watch, over breakfast, the helicopter footage of the whale dying.

That night, according to the Seattle P-I (still a paper at the time), 200 people in downtown Seattle observed 10 minutes of silence at a candlelight vigil to symbolize the whale’s “10 minutes of suffering.” There were tears and talk of the whale’s martyrdom.

The whale approached the hunters’ canoe. The Makah whalers saw that as a sacred give-away – a sign their hunt was meant to be and the whale was giving itself to the People. Anti‑whalers vehemently disagreed.

One TV executive observed a “huge passion against killing the whale,” with email reaction to the taking of the whale running 95 percent against. A great deal of that reaction was deriding the Tribe’s expressed desire to heal its community by returning to the medicine of traditional food and ways.

Did the whale give itself to the Makah?  Sacred?  Medicine? Healing?  Without being part of that culture and those prayers, how would we know?

Then there is that thing about the helicopters hovering over the Makah Tribes’ sacred hunt – that “TV news director=s dream.”

In the ‘80s, I drew an archery elk license for an area near Evergreen, Colorado. Lots of elk at the edge of suburbia. After days of stalks on public land, but no clear opportunities, I moved to some private land with small forest stands. One evening, the elk were along the edge of some timber. The breeze was right for a good stalk. After a painstaking hour-long crawl, I found myself among the elk, 20 yards from the broadside of a large bull which would get my tribe through winter. Easy. I said my prayer, drew my bow… and heard a car door close. Across a meadow, over a quarter mile away, several people were watching the elk. I let the draw down, stood up, spooked the elk, and walked away.

If the Makah must kill whales, restoring ancient bonds of relationship, that is between them and the whales. Making a spectator sport of any harvest or killing – sacred or not – will never be okay with me.

On 12 August of this year, the waiver of the Marine Mammal Protection Act – sought by NOAA on behalf of the Tribe will be heard in federal court by an administrative law judge in Seattle. Virtually every animal rights organization in the Pacific Northwest and beyond is, and will be, opposing the return of the Makah hunts, on a variety of grounds.

NOAA staff have noted that the gray whale stock “is very healthy…around 27,000 whales, which is probably about as large as it’s ever been. It is fully recovered and de-listed from the Endangered Species List.” Still, the road to resumed hunts and restored relationship will be a bumpy one.

The soonest a hunt could be held – assuming NOAA succeeds in court – will be in 2020.

However this goes, it will be a zoo. Stand by.

Rituals of Spring – Making More

Written by Jim Huckabay on April 3, 2019. Posted in Uncategorized

The first day of Spring Quarter at Central Washington University – one week ago. I ran into Homey outside the Student Union and Recreation Center (SURC), and we quickly fell into one of those finally-spring conversations. As we talked, around us were the opening salvos of the serious-yet-playful rituals which will play themselves out through spring as young adults practice determining whose genes will carry which characteristics into a future we will not see.

“So,” Homey mused, “are you going to do one of those ‘mating games’ columns where you compare these folks to the birds and bees and animals? And that stuff about how some birds and animals mating for life – sort of.” When I just shrugged, he added, “You know, maybe you could talk about the new research or surveys showing that wives cheat more than husbands, huh? I heard it on NPR a couple weeks ago.”

“That wasn’t quite the story you heard,” I said. “You gotta be careful – and accurate – with this stuff, Homey. Even the truth can get you in trouble, so have your facts in line.” At his urging, I recalled that story. (Thruthfully, I kinda wanted to hear it again myself, anyhow.)

Almost exactly three decades ago, at a city parks Canada-goose-management hearing in Denver, I got sucked into a conversation that changed my thinking about geese, their personal relationships and their mating habits. I happened to be standing, innocently, next to a woman regaling a friend about her husband/boyfriend’s cheating. She started comparing geese and their mating habits to men in general. I happened to be the closest man as we walked out, and without even opening my big mouth, I became the backboard off which she bounced her done-me-wrongs. She punctuated the completion of her list with, “Well, at least geese mate for life and know how to be faithful! Put that in your male chauvinist pig attitude and smoke it!”

The gauntlet thrown, I was duty-bound to explore the question. With little research I found that waterfowl specialists had discovered that in any given clutch of four to ten eggs on arctic breeding grounds, there was DNA evidence of fertilization by at least two ganders, and sometimes as many as four. Geese may, indeed, mate for life, but they fool around.

Studies of mallard ducks found similar situations. Then a buddy in the Colorado Division of Wildlife passed along a memo from the Fort Collins research center: a fair percentage of twin deer fawns actually had two different daddies.

Then there was that January, 1999, issue of Scientific American, and the article by Pascal Gagneux and David Woodruff of the University of California at San Diego. DNA tracers showed that most of the babies born in an isolated group of wild chimps in West Africa were not from any of the males in the group. Conclusion was that “at least some of the female chimpanzees must have sneaked into the surrounding forest for trysts with males of other groups. Such adventures might explain how even small groups of chimpanzees maintain a great deal of genetic diversity.”

Now we have these recent surveys on cheating in human relationships. Homey had it a bit wrong. Men are still ahead in the cheating game, as you no doubt suspected. However, in recent family-practice and other surveys, women are only three to five percentage points behind them. Really all of the above makes sense; in virtually all species it is incumbent upon the female to introduce as much genetic diversity as possible to sustain her species. Hello…

So, where were we? Oh yes, the mating games of spring. Look around at all the evidence for the continued existence of the species we enjoy.

The little California quail boys are staking out turf and calling girls on all sides of us. From dawn >til dusk, we can hear that passionate “chi-CAH-go, chi-CAH-go.” In East Wenatchee, I grew up bathing in that call through hundreds of warm spring days.

The male robins are now staking out their turf and the females are arriving to make partnership and nesting decisions. The mourning and ring-necked doves will increasingly be calling for company in the weeks to come. Drive out to valley wetlands and watch – and hear – the male red-winged and yellow headed blackbirds courting the females with whom they will make the next generation of their kind.

And, if you are one of the lucky ones – one whose house has just the right acoustics – you may be an up-close witness to the love drumming of the looking-for-love northern flicker. If a female is attracted, she may join in a drumming duet at some acoustically-pleasing part of your siding. (It will end once love settles into a nesting relationship.)

As I walk, white-haired and unobtrusive, among Central’s young men and women on these pleasant spring days, I sense the future of our species is safe.  Our young people preen and strut and test and chase and accept and reject.  It is comforting to see that our human rituals, and mating habits, vary so little from those of the feathered and furred brethren about us.  It is all about ensuring the future – by making more.

I always give thanks for spring…