Sunday, August 26, 2012

Fear of Bears

A wilderness with grizzlies is different from a tamer wilderness with just bees and snakes.

A week earlier, I sat on a Toklat River bridge watching a grizzly follow my trail. Then on August 24th, that bear (or one of a dozen others in the area) killed a backpacker who didn’t follow the park’s “Bear Aware” rules.

Denali National Park in Alaska is well run. Park Service rangers and guides repeatedly emphasize bear, wolf and moose safety. For bears, stay two football fields away. If one emerges from a closer thicket, stand tall, say “Hey Bear!” in a loud but calm voice. If a bear approaches you, wave your arms above your head to make yourself appear bigger. Talk firmly but calmly to the bear. (For a wolf, in contrast, use the tone you would with a bad dog.)

Rangers apparently try to reassure us by explaining, over and over, that most bear charges are merely to test you. If you stand firm, most bears veer away at the last minute. Reassuring?

They also offer this advice. If a bear “makes contact,” lie down and play dead. Keep your backpack on if you’re wearing one, because the bear may gnaw on the pack without hurting you. Adopt a fetal position. Lace your fingers behind your neck, as that will provide some protection there.

I found the advice less and less reassuring as these tutorials proceeded. That may have been the rangers' intent. Next was the contrast between grizzly and black bear attacks. Black bears are likely looking for dinner so I should fight back. Denali grizzlies are largely herbivores and will most likely attack because they're startled, to defend blueberry patches or for other non-carnivorous reasons.

Rangers didn’t give us pointers about how to fight back. To me the very least reassuring advice was the added detail offered by some rangers. “If a grizzly does start to eat you, then fight back.”

I was in Denali to appreciate the ecosystem. I saw three grizzlies, caribou, golden eagles, arctic ground squirrels, bear-flower, gentians, monkshood, reindeer moss and at least a thousand other species of plants and animals, most of which I couldn’t identify to species but all of which added up to an inspired bliss.

I dearly love the richness of life in true wilderness. Coral reefs, tallgrass prairies and alpine meadows are favorites. The overwhelming variety of color and shape gets to me. 

My partner Linda took photos of our first bear from the safety of the bus. Private cars are banned. Wilderness could not abide the traffic that would jam the park's one road. Color coded busses take hundreds of people a day down the 92 miles of unpaved inspiration. The green eco-busses are the best. They’ll drop you off wherever you ask and pick you up whenever you hail them.

We'd signed up with half a dozen other wilderness fans for a hike led by a park guide. She had intended to take us down a mostly dry river bed, across dead rocks, with a brief excursion to an “alpine meadow shelf” at the end. We abandoned the planned route in part because this was one of the about three days a month when Mt. McKinley emerged from the clouds, and views of it seem to be much sought after. Our guide also probably noticed three of our little group, on hands and knees, thrilled by our first glimpses of the miniature flora. We took a vote, and she led us, trampling across this precious landscape, to a high ridge where we saw the mountain. Later she’d map the hike; not more than two hikes a year can cross the same ground in this six million-acre park. The tundra recovers slowly from trampling. Wilderness is foremost.

Golly how awed I am by the magic of an alpine meadow. We puzzled over gentians, saxifrages, betonies and identified many of them from a picture book our guide excavated from her standard guide backpack. Also in that pack, an emergency radio: she taught us how to use it in case she was incapacitated. She assured us she would stand in front if a bear approached. She described her personal hair-raising encounters with Denali bears, all of which ended well.

One large and showy herb we found was bear-flower. Grizzlies dig it up to feast on its potatoes or carrots or whatever lusciousness it grows below ground. We saw much bear-flower, and many yard-wide diggings scattered wherever the plants were thick. We saw bear tracks, bear scat, and more bear-flower holes.

Our revised plan was to circle down into the river valley after our glance at Mt. McKinley. As we indeed circled, we increasingly noticed that buses of all colors were stopping on the bridge where we’d been left off. There was an expanding traffic jam of public transportation.

Busses stop in groups for one reason -- wildlife. Phalanxes of binoculars in bus windows pointed down the valley that we could not see but were heading for. “Perhaps there’s a fox,” our guide said cheerfully. It did not seem likely that foxes would cause such a jam. Our guide reminded us once more of Bear Aware rules. As we approached brush patches she called out “Hey, Bear” – again and again. She pointed out that grizzlies seldom confront large groups (we were seven).

Indeed, we reached the river without incident. We hiked upstream over the dull rocks, had lunch amid soaring peaks and floating golden eagles. We thought we’d finished our adventure with our retreat back downstream as we sat on the bridge for more than a half hour waiting for our green bus.

It was not a dull half hour. Soon after we sat down, a grizzly emerged from one of those thickets we had Hey-Bear-ed our way through. We watched as it dug up the bear-flower in the very patches we had appreciated. We could see where our hike had gone. The bear was following exactly in our tracks.

This bear was not close. It was more than two football fields away. At that distance, even a large bear is hard to see without binoculars. The route of the bear was essentially perpendicular to where we now sat. Our guide said, if it turns toward us, we need to back off. I found that hard to believe. Did we really have to retreat from an animal so far away that the naked eye could barely make it out? But the park has rules. Two football fields. Caribou cannot be approached closer than 25 yards. The varied distances seem to be based on the needs of wilderness. Our closeness cannot be allowed to impact the animals’ behavior. Caribou, apparently, are not easy to impact.

In time the bear went over the mountain, and a bus arrived to pick us up. Our guide said, “It’s a different experience to see a bear from outside a bus. Yes?”

The experience stayed with me. I began self-consciously hollering “Hey, Bear!” whenever I approached a thicket or turned a blind corner. Days later Linda and I hiked another alpine meadow far away, with no bear scat, tracks or diggings. It seemed less wild. I felt more relaxed. A different, more peaceful sense of closeness with nature returned.

On August 24 Richard White of San Diego was killed and partly eaten. Rangers responded to a report of a ravaged backpack and blood. They found a camera and the body; they shot the bear eating it. White's camera told the story -- the grizzly grazing peacefully about about 50 yards, then turning, and walking toward the camera. White photographed; he did not stand, speak with a loud but calm voice, and back off as required by the permit he had signed. 

I have learned to love the midwest's wild woods and prairies, that have been without grizzlies for many decades. I campaign to enlarge and restore them, to return them to the wildest state possible. I support bringing back natural predators as much as possible. Or do I?

This drama challenges me. I appreciate wilderness without fear very much. 

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Weed? Alien? Invasive? Malignant?

Definitions can change the way we see the world – and how we act.

What is a Weed?

Weeds in nature are valuable plants that deserve respect. Be clear that the ecological definition of “weed” is different from the gardener’s definition.

In this photo by Mark Baldwin, the black-eyed Susan is a native weed, and the blue chicory is an alien weed. They’re both good.

A weed patch in the ecosystem often functions much like a scab on a mild wound that you or I might suffer. Weeds are an ecosystem’s response to degradation or disturbance. The scab helps the wound heal. Weeds help quality ecosystems heal. They prevent erosion and start a succession process that is likely to end with the conservative plant species that were there before the (mild and temporary) wound.

Weeds are often annual or biennial. Classic native prairie weeds include ragweed, black-eyed Susan, and common evening primrose. These days, the “healing scab” species may also include weedy aliens like wild carrot, bull thistle and chicory. These “alien” species are long naturalized to North America and function like the native weeds. They should not be seen as problem species. A true simple classic weed goes away with time and doesn’t leave a scar.

Many people worry needlessly (and sometimes counterproductively) about weeds in restoration areas. Relax. Welcome them. Some people say authoritatively, “Oh, yes, wild carrot is a problem. I’ve seen it be very invasive.” But they haven’t. They’ve seen it become very common. That’s just a phase, and a step forward for the ecosystem. All these species are easily outcompeted by more conservative prairie species within a few years.

Spraying herbicide on wild carrot or bull thistle may kill it. But that same herbicide will also likely kill young plants of more quality that would otherwise have soon out-competed the weed. In response to herbicide, the same weeds – or possibly more damaging invasives – may well fill the herbicide-created void, instead of the young prairie plant that otherwise would have been thriving in a year or two. Even pulling harmless weeds may slow down the restoration, because it takes time away from work that would actually do some good.

What is Invasive?

Most weeds do not lead to the damage that an invasive does. In the early days of ecosystem restoration, we often used the word “alien” as the standard word to describe species that degraded ecosystems. At first, that word seemed to communicate well, as many people quickly supported the need for remedies when it was used. “Alien” was partly accurate, since most of the problem species then recognized were from other countries. Many members of the general public (who were basically too busy or not interested enough in ecosystems to spend a lot of time learning about problem plants) seemed to feel like they understood what we were talking about through the metaphor that mixed the fun fear of space aliens with the now-politically-incorrect-in-progressive-circles concern about “outsiders.” 

But that word failed for two reasons. The first was that some people increasingly used it as an opportunity to argue politics. Attempts at scientific discussion were regularly hampered by totally unrelated Republican-Democrat arguments, especially as America became increasingly divided over the “undocumented.”

More important, it became increasingly clear the “native” and “alien” wasn’t really the issue. Most non-native species were no problem. And many native species were very much so, in the modern context. Unburned prairies died in the shade of native gray dogwood or green ash as surely as they did from the shade of alien buckthorn.

Many of us started using the words “invader” and “invasive” for what we once called “weeds” or “aliens.” This approach worked better. It described the real problem better (but not good enough?).

I remember reviewing a draft policy of the Carter administration that would discourage non-natives and encourage natives in government projects. I commented that “invasive” was a better word, and explained. Apparently someone in that administration was convinced. When the official policy was published, “alien” was edited out and “invasive” replaced it. Does our system actually work!?! Perhaps many people made that recommendation. The new language also continued in some later administrations’ policies.

And, yet, while a great improvement, “invasive” was not itself quite the right word.

In savannas, although gray dogwood/box elder/sumac could indeed degrade the system in the absence of fire, they did not “invade” from outside. They were natural components. Yet they could be lethal to the basic ecosystem. Similarly with animals, overabundant meso-predators can seriously damage systems they were a part of, in the absence of large predators.

I began to recommend using “in balance” and “out of balance,” but many people found the “balance of nature” concept also “out of date” and misleading.

Benign and Malignant

Increasingly, many of us have begun to compare the health of the ecosystem to the health of the human body. It’s a fairly easy model for most people to understand. The parallels are substantial.

In this metaphor, the “problem species” is the microbe or the cancer cell. Just as a formerly perfectly respectable cell from my own body can start multiplying uncontrollably and kill me, just so, a formerly “in balance” member of a community can reproduce out of control and cause the lost of most species. That’s ill health, from a community perspective.

In the absence of fire, maples can invade a bur oak woods and wipe out most of the natural diversity of animals and plants. Okay – it seems fair to call that maple an invader or “invasive” in that scenario. But box elders and wild black cherries are constituents of oak woodland. Natural fire keeps them in check. But in the absence of fire, those species create a malignancy of shade. How should we refer to them in that case? They didn’t invade. Perhaps “out of balance” and “malignant” are the best words our language has.

Native white-tailed deer can drive out most species of wildflowers, shrubs and saplings from a savanna or woodland; they can also seriously deplete many bird species. They’re native, beautiful animals and have rights, but they also may have a malignant impact in the absence of equally admirable predators. As Leopold’s Land Ethic makes clear, ecosystems deserve our respect and affection – and they also have rights.

Conservation requires public support. Thus, we need good words to describe problems and solutions to people who care about nature but will not have time to study intensively.  

Wednesday, August 01, 2012


An ancient woodland lets you see long histories preserved in the shapes of the oaks, especially the bur oaks, like this one.

How did it get its craggy shape?

The answer will be speculative – but likely true.

At least two hundred years ago, another tree  grew just to the left of this tree. That tree (now gone) became a big old monster, and the Z tree grew up literally in its shadow. At first, the Z oak grew fairly straight, but as the older tree grew and spread, the Z oak had to reach out more and more to the right to get its light.

Then something dramatic happened – at just about the time when the second big branch on the right was forming. The big tree died, or was blown over, or got chopped down. At that point, huge light was available to the east, and a new trunk-like branch headed straight left to soak it up.

Great job, tree! There’s something righteous and moving in how the struggle, determination and triumph of an ancient tree can be openly revealed in its architecture.

(This tree of noble character is near the beginning of the Outer Loop trail, in the southeast corner of Somme Prairie Grove.)