Monday, November 26, 2007

Red Fox

My friend and fellow outdoor enthusiast Phares Book sent me this great photo of a red fox he took along the Boise River.

Red fox are not an uncommon sight at this time of year: patrolling for mice along the Boise Greenbelt, trotting through downtown Ketchum, darting along the edges of farm fields across the state.

This wasn't always the case.

The red fox (Vulpes vulpes) has the widest range of any terrestrial carnivore on earth, being found in North Africa, across North America (including Alaska and Canada) and throughout much of Europe and Asia. Red fox were also introduced to Australia, where they quickly spread, devastating native marsupials and birds.

A common belief is that the red fox is not native to Idaho, and there are some who maintain it is not even native to the United States. This idea stems from the fact that English emigrants did import foxes for the British sport of fox hunting. And foxes don't seem to appear in natural history accounts of early explorers.

However, archaeological digs in Idaho have found red fox bones that are thousands of years old, predating European settlement by a long shot.

What is certain, though, is this: The red fox was never a very common animal in pre-Columbian North America. It was a rare species, perhaps clinging precariously to existence on a continent dominated by wolves and other large predators.

Doubtless the stocking of foxes by Europeans helped speed their spread. So too did fox escapes from fur farms over the years. And the red fox is one of those animals that thrives with civilization. Farms, woodlots and suburbs provide the perfect habitat for them.

The red fox is a frequent character in myths, stories and fables--often playing the part of a sly trickster. As with so many animals of legend, there's a lot of truth in the fictional fox. Indeed, it takes a wily predator to survive the bewildering maze of roads, pets and other hazards that many a red fox negotiates every day. --Matt Miller

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Gobble Gobble

Turkeys an endangered species? Such a notion, as millions of us sit down to enjoy our Thanksgiving dinner, seems preposterous.

But for the wild turkey, it was once the reality. Unregulated hunting and habitat loss had reduced the nationwide wild turkey population to an estimated 30,000. What was once one of the continent's most common birds--with large flocks roosting in forests, along river bottoms and on prairie edges--was barely hanging on in pockets of habitat.

A gambling man of the time would have likely been considered a fool to bet on the turkey's long-term prospects.

In fact, conventional wisdom at the time assumed that many wildlife species were doomed, with no hope of recovery.

Theodore Roosevelt is well known for his conservation policies. What many don't realize is that in the late 1800's, Roosevelt and his contemporaries advocated for record-keeping of big game animals. The reason? Because they wanted accurate representations of these animals in museums, so future generations could know what elk and deer and pronghorn antelope looked like.

People had written these animals off. Given them no hope.

But we don't have to go to the museum to see an elk or a pronghorn today. When Roosevelt had the opportunity, he acted with vision and courage--to pass game laws, to protect special natural areas, to establish wildlife refuges. Think of that the next time you hear an elk bugling in the fall, thrill to a herd of pronghorns racing across the sage.

Or see a wild turkey. Turkeys benefited greatly by hunting regulations. They increased steadily throughout the 20th century. Hatchery programs were tried, but pen-raised birds were poor survivors--they couldn't elude predators or hunters, and were susceptible disease.

In the 1970's, wildlife managers found that trapping wild birds from abundant populations and transferring them to suitable habitat could speed the recovery. Turkeys found, literally, a new world: a world of woodlots and fields and regenerated forest. It was a good time to be a turkey.

I still remember seeing my first flock moving through the woods--scratching noisily at the forest floor, then ghosting quietly away over the ridge. It was in the early 80's on family ground. Many people did not believe that my dad and I had actually seen them.

But soon turkeys became a common sight in this area--and many others. Turkeys prospered.

Today, 7 million wild turkeys roam North America, occupying almost all suitable habitat and expanding even beyond their original range (including an introduced population in Idaho).

Emily Dickinson famously wrote that "Hope is the thing with feathers." The turkey's story is indeed one of hope, a story to be remembered when today's many environmental problems seem daunting, insurmountable, hopeless. It's something to be thankful for.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Remembering Hal Malde

The cheerful voice on the other end of the phone asked me to meet him at his vehicle in the parking lot in an hour. "How will I know which vehicle is yours?" I asked.

"Oh, you'll know," the man replied. "It's the van with the large Nature Conservancy logo on the side. You can't miss it."

Harold "Hal" Malde considered himself an ambassador for The Nature Conservancy, an ambassador who could make his best contributions through photography. During my tenure with the Conservancy, I don't believe I have met a more enthusiastic support of our organization and our mission.

Hal passed away on November 4 at the age of 84.

He began his volunteer work for the Conservancy twenty years ago, when he visited a preserve in Minnesota. Inspired, he embarked on a two-decade journey to document preserves around the country through photographs. He logged as many as 14,000 miles a year, on his own expense, visiting 650 preserves in the process--more than any other person, including paid staff. View a slide show featuring Malde's images.
I met Hal when he was 81--fresh from driving through the Owyhees solo, part of a several-month traverse of the Western states to visit new preserves and projects.
Hal's photos have been used by the Conservancy in countless publications, web sites and interpretive signs. Many offices have framed pictures of his images.

He loved going afield with staff. He had a deep knowledge of geology, biology and land conservation issues, and a genuine curiosity about the places he visited.
As Conservancy directly of photography Mark Godfrey writes, "Harold Malde was more then just a remarkable Conservancy volunteer. He was also a special hero to those of us who have also dedicated our lives to the cause of conservation. "

All photos by Harold Malde

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Silver Creek Silos

The Silos from Stocker Creek Road

The first time I came down to Silver Creek, I was with a friend. The second time, I came alone. Luckily I remembered the Picabo hills and a group of silos. I could see the silos as I headed south from Ketchum and they guided me in—much like sighting with a compass. I wonder how many other people have been guided by the four silos that sat upon the bench above Stalker Creek? Well, if you ever come in ‘the back way’ to Silver Creek Preserve, you know what I am talking about and you may feel that slight and kind of confusing sense of loss that I felt today as they tore down those four silos.

The attachment is not too hard to understand, I suppose. To me, the silos symbolized the ‘ruralness’ of the area, the entrance to Silver Creek, and coming home. I also really liked saying, ‘take a left at the silos’ when directing people to my house. To a lot of people out there, I imagine they probably marked the start of a great fishing adventure or peaceful morning walk. Or maybe they marked the exit from Silver Creek- the symbolic division of Silver Creek and the rest of the world.

Well, today there were no significant natural changes on the creek that I know of, but a pretty significant change to the human elements we tend to get just as attached to—the silos are gone. They lost to a better view, to less clutter, to being of better use somewhere else. Goodbye silos, we’ll miss you!!

-- Dayna, Silver Creek Preserve Manager

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Far Afield: Brazil's Pantanal, Land of the Jaguar

I wanted to see a capybara.

That was my main hope on a recent trip to the Pantanal. I've always had a strange fascination with capybaras--something about a rodent the size of a Labrador retriever that roams in herds had captured my imagination since I was a kid. On two previous trips to South America in areas reputed to be capybara habitat, I had never seen one of the world's largest rodent.
Julinho Monteiro, our local guide for the trip, responded to my request, "You usually can't guarantee wildlife sightings, but I'll guarantee you'll see lots of capybaras. Lots of caimans, and lots capybaras."
My wife Jennifer and I were in Brazil's Pantanal, the world's largest wetland located in western Brazil. The Nature Conservancy recognizes it for its incredible wildlife diversity, and is working on unique collaborative partnerships to protect it. This huge area--which includes parts of Brazil, Paraguay and Bolivia--is not a national park, but is rather covered in cattle ranches. Each year, rivers flowing through this grassland flood their banks, and then recede, concentrating birds, reptiles and mammals around the ponds that remain.

I knew it was biologically important, but that fact doesn't really capture the spirit and beauty of the Pantanal. Within minutes of entering onto the Transpanteneira, a dirt roadway that dead ends in the middle of the Pantanal, we were seeing birds of every size, color and description. And caimans. Thousands of caimans.

What about the capybaras? Oh yes. Herds--yes, herds--were constantly appearing around each bend of the river. All the capybaras I could want to see, observe and photograph, and then some more. Although most South American natural areas are not known for their mammal viewing opportunities, here we saw a tremendous number and variety of strange and wonderful creatures--giant anteater, tapir, howler and capuchin monkey, peccary, swamp deer, armadillo, giant otter, crab-eating fox.
And then: Deep into the Pantanal, camping on the front yard of a family that lived 8 hours by boat and car from the nearest town. In this area, we were looking for that most elusive of Pantanal animals: the jaguar.

The first appears like a ghost sitting in grass along the riverbank. The jaguar appears indifferent about the encounter. I am not. This is stepping into the dream world of my youth: the world brought to me by Ranger Rick and Marlin Perkins and mountains of library books filled with travel and adventure.

But this jaguar is just the beginning. Within an hour, we see three more. Julinho Monteiro, an independent guide who started his own company, Pantanal Trackers, has an almost supernatural ability to find the spotted cats.

The next day, we see another: a mature female that falls asleep with us watching. We take photos and watch it, and then it's time to drift away, on to see what else the Pantanal has in store.--Matt Miller

Friday, November 02, 2007

To the Cauliflower Cave

Fellow Conservancy staffer Marilynne Manguba and I recently took a trip to The Nature Conservancy’s Formation Springs Preserve, located near the town of Soda Springs in southeastern Idaho. Before we embarked, Marilynne advised me not to forget my flashlight. Since we were headed to a part of Idaho known for its expansive mountain views and open sagebrush steppe habitat, I was puzzled by the need for a flashlight. The preserve is a manageable 195 acres – surely it wouldn’t take all the daylight hours to see the entire place!

We pulled into the dusty parking lot over a ghostly white road made of the calcium-rich soil unique to the area. As we walked up the trail into the preserve, I could see wind-sculpted juniper trees against the Aspen Mountains. The trees looked as though a whimsical gardener had been at work on them with hedge-trimmers.
It’s peaceful and quiet at Formation Springs – the breeze carries the sweet smell of sage, and many species of wildlife find shelter here among the junipers and willows. We saw deer tracks and heard songbirds rustling through the water birch trees. These springs are an oasis for wildlife, and attract throngs of ducks in the summer – I made a mental note to return then to do some birdwatching. Over thousands of years, the springs have created travertine terraces; travertine is a white crystalline rock formed from calcium carbonate. If you’ve ever seen Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone National Park, you were looking at travertine minerals.

Thinking of that scalding spring, I bent down from the boardwalk path to feel this spring water with my hand – it was shockingly cold. The frigid temperature of the springs reminded me that the water flowing from them dates from the end of the last ice age – this water fell as rain before the invention of agriculture! Using isotopes to age the water, scientists have found it to be around 13,000 years old. The springs have deep pools where the color of the water looks glacial: it’s a turquoise blue against white rock.
As we followed the trail past the ribbon of trees and flowers along the spring, we came to a bowl-shaped area with some non-descript white boulders along the edge. Marilynne knew just where to look, and I finally realized what the flashlights were for. The white rock obscured a cave entrance, just big enough for a person to scramble through. As we entered the cave, the sound became muffled, and the darkness became profound.

I switched on my flashlight. Immediately I could see the cave roof was not made up of the stalactites I had expected, but rather a calcium carbonate surface that, Marilynne mused, looks just like cauliflower. The cave stretches for several hundred feet, and has a few wings, but with a flashlight we couldn’t get lost. Plus, every fifty feet or so, I’d come upon a small porthole to the outside world, which let in welcome fresh air and a little beacon of light. I emerged, blinking, into the bright Idaho sun, feeling lucky to have spent my day in such an amazing part of Idaho’s natural world. Next time I visit, I will be sure to bring my binoculars for the birds and my flashlight for the cauliflower cave. --Sus Danner, protection program manager