Attack of the Silver Carp

January 13, 2010

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It is seemingly commonplace that the actions of humanity negatively affect our environmental world around us, and no continent is exempt from this reality. In the midwestern United States, a legal battle has recently begun that could forever change interstate commerce and leave a legacy of saving the largest freshwater fishery on the planet, the Great Lakes..

In December of 2009, the state of Michigan sued the state of Illinois, the Army Corps of Engineers, and the states of Indiana and Wisconsin to force the closure of the Illinois Sanitary and Shipping Canal (ISSC), a man-made channel that is the only direct water link between the Mississippi River Watershed and the Great Lakes. The channel is some 28 miles long and is jointly controlled by the Army Corps of Engineers (ACoE) and the State of Illinois. Why was this lawsuit brought forth? To stop the rapid encroachment of a prolific invasive fish, the Asian Carp.

Asian Carp, a general term referencing four different types of carp species originating from Asia, have exploded in population in the Mississippi River Basin since 1990. The main culprit is one species whose common name is the “Silver Carp”. These Silver Carp grow to nearly 2 feet long and can weigh up to 40 lbs, and are known for their spectacular ‘leaping’ ability. They are able to launch themselves upwards of 10 feet into the air; a behavior that is not fully understood. The Carp are filter feeders and devour plankton and detritus almost constantly, as they lack a true stomach. As compared to other fish, they reproduce at a fantastic rate and have no natural predators in American waters. They were originally introduced into the U.S. as a biological means to reduce algae growth in wastewater treatment facilities and within one year of introduction, had found their way into public waterways.

Many people ask why a planktivorous filter feeding fish would be a concern for a fishery, and it is a legitimate question with a specific and far-reaching answer. Nearly all native sportfish and commercially important fish in North America (bass, sunfish, pikes, etc) are planktivorous in their youth stages of development. If a vast, reproducing population of Silver Carp were to be established in Lake Michigan (and the other Great Lakes), the rippling population effects on native, commercially important fish would be devastating. The Carp would essentially “clean out” the Great Lakes and youth populations of those native fish would be starved, causing a catastrophic drop as quickly as a decade from introduction. And once established, a Silver Carp population will be virtually impossible to eradicate from waterways as large as the Great Lakes.

To stop this encroachment, the ACoE built two massive electrified barriers that supposedly disallow fish from passing in either direction at a point on the ISSC some 9 miles from Lake Michigan. Unfortunately, in November of 2009, Silver Carp DNA was found on the Lake Michigan side of the barriers, causing a massive response from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. Three weeks after the DNA finding, those two agencies intervened with a massive chemical fish kill which resulted in 90 tons of dead fish, but almost no Carp were amongst the kill. The Michigan lawsuit requests that the ISSC be closed semi-permanently, until a more effective barrier can be constructed to protect the Great Lakes fishery.

If the lawsuit is successful, and the canal is closed, thousands of jobs may be lost as the canal provides a vital link from the Great Lakes throughout the midwestern and western United States. However, other thousands of fisheries-related jobs may be saved, and a massive irreversible environmental disaster would be averted. Considered yourself urged to further look into this matter, and contact your congressman or senator to voice your opinion, especially if you live in a Great Lakes state.

Glacier National Park

November 11, 2009

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Driving across the Great Plains, the great midsection of America, is quite the chore. Interstates 80, 90, and 94 seemingly drag on for mile after mile no matter which direction one travels. If a driver starts somewhere in the middling Midwest and drives west, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. The Rocky Mountains will throw up their barriers at some point during your trip, and if you’re heading west on 90/94 through Montana, eventually you will pass within 60 miles of one of the Nation’s great gems.

Glacier National Park sits on just over 1 million acres in northwest Montana and shares a border with Canadian provinces Alberta and British Columbia. Glacier’s southern border is mostly distinguished by the spectacular Flathead River, one of the great trout fisheries in North America. Glacier is often visited, but would never be considered busy like some of the southern parks, as the park is mainly trail-based with very few roads or dirt tracks. If you want to see something in Glacier, you are going to have to walk there.

The entrance to the east side of the park is certainly the most breathtaking as large, imposing mountains rise suddenly and sharply out of serene plains lands. There is one main entrance to Glacier from the east, and other smaller entrances that do not allow one to cross the park by car. Only the St. Mary’s entrance on world famous Going-to-the-sun road will allow the visitor to enter from the east and exit on the west side. The other entrances on the east side include Many Glacier, Cut Bank, and Two Medicine. Having visited all but the Cut Bank entrance, it is fair to say they each hold their own unique charms.

The Park is full, as one would guess, of glacial remnant lakes. Water as clear as glass and as cold as one can imagine. These lakes form various streams, runoffs, waterfalls, and rivers as the waters naturally find a path of descent towards the larger valley lakes at lower elevations. Nearly every lake in the park is accessible by hiking path, and quite a few are no more than a day hike away from a road. Some of the most visited are Grinnell Lake, Iceberg Lake, and Hidden Lake. While these are still breathtaking, it is suggested to attempt to visit some the lesser visited lakes like the Kintla Lakes in the north of the park, and Helen Lake, a 4 day hike/camp from the nearest road.

Whomever takes the wheel for the trip over the pass on Going-to-the-sun road, make sure they have steady hands and steady nerves as the hairpin turns can cause nervousness. The views make the entire trip worth it, however. Broad valleys, distant peaks, various waterfalls, and numerous wildlife make the tight, curvy road well worth attempting. On the west side of the park, and on the road at lower elevation sits Avalanche Creek campground. It is one of the few full use campgrounds in the park and charming in its own right. Campsites are relatively private and are separated by swaths of old growth trees. Some trunks take 5 people to make the circumference.

Once reaching the west side of the park, it is suggested to drive north (summertime preferred) along the park boundary towards Logging Creek and Polebridge. Stopping in Polebridge is quite a tradition for many backpackers as its mercantile store offers various freshly baked pastries and fudges to replenish the calories so fervently burned on the trails. This unincorporated village also has residents who have built a private shower facility for those in need of a wash, and checking out the map and lists of visitors is worth the $5 alone.

Realistically, Glacier is too large and too enjoyable to only spend a day or two. Even the casual outdoors lover will find the Park stealing their heart and reminding them what the Rocky Mountains looked like, felt like, and smelled like in the 1800s. When you plan your trip to Glacier, take your time and enjoy the grandeur. You will learn quickly why Glacier is held as a holy land by the various Native American tribes who historically lived there. It is a treasure not to be missed.

The Plight of the Crocodile

October 15, 2009

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In the United States, there are many endangered and threatened animals which the public knows much about. The Gray Wolf, Grizzly Bear, Black Footed Ferret, and so forth. All of these animals fall into the “charismatic megafauna” title: big, furry animals that look good on a postcard. Unfortunately, there are constant battles being fought for other lesser known and lesser loved species One of these animals is the American Crocodile. Yes, that is correct, there is a native Crocodile in the United States.

The American Crocodile ranges from the coastlines of the northern portion of South America, throughout Mexico and Central America and to the Caribbean islands. There is also a small remnant population struggling to survive in the Everglades of southern Florida. Since the appearance of Europeans in Florida, the crocodiles (and alligators) have been killed, and their habitats destroyed. It is estimated that at one time, the American Crocodile numbered in the tens of thousands, but today somewhere between 500 and 2,000 survive. These ferocious carnivores survive in the brackish, coastal waters along the southern third of the Florida coast, but their habitat is dwindling in both size and quality.

Crocodiles share geographic space with their relative, the Alligator. Over the course of crocodilian history, the Alligators became more adept at handling more habitats, and the Crocodiles were relegated to the coastlines where they found success in the mangrove swamps and brackish streams. American Crocodiles have nearly the identical diet to that of Alligators with the exception being that Crocodiles will make marine animals prey items. The physical differences between the two species are well notated and easily found with a simple web search. The main issue haunting the Crocodile is how its habitat, compared to that of the Alligator, is being protected.

Coastal, brackish areas in Florida are under constant assault not only from human intrusion, but from pollution. Many of the mangroves in Florida are dying because of increased pollution in the Gulf of Mexico. This directly affects the Crocodile as they use the cover of the mangroves to breed and build their nests. Agricultural runoff from the Mississippi River delta is wreaking havoc across the Gulf and water tests show that the pollution trail reaches as far as Puerto Rico. As people in and around the state continue to push Florida to its physical limits, the Crocodile will be one of the first large animals to feel it.

People ask questions like, “Why is the Crocodile even important? The Alligator is there.” These questions are simple to answer if a person is willing to accept a few notions: 1) The natural world is essential for our existence. 2) Humans live within the natural world, not above it. The Crocodile’s role in the ecological balance in Florida is well documented. They are the top predator in their habitat and provide the typical benefits any top predator does. Just like the wolves in Yellowstone actually increasing the health of the Elk populations, Crocodiles have much the same effect.

The bigger picture is that the United States has been blessed to be the home to 1000s of unique species, and the biodiversity in places like southern Florida is one of the nation’s greatest natural wonders. If our society continues on the current path, we may eventually lose jewels like the American Crocodile. The tragedy of this is best describe with the following analogy: How great would a zoo be if it had only 10 types of animals on display? And what if every zoo had the same 10? This is the drastic end of the direction society is going. With habitat destruction and degradation, species’ populations are being fragmented and destroyed. Soon, there may be nothing left but lands with few, if any, native animals.

The Crocodile is a poster child for these issues. While rarely seen in the wild, the Crocodile is there, surviving in the brackish waters of southern Florida. Hopefully, it will still be there for our children’s children. Take the time to do some simple research on our native habitats and species and what you can do to help them survive. Whether it be donating a small sum, making minute lifestyle changes, or imploring your congressman, being stewards of our national treasures is a responsibility we all share.

Save the Wolves

September 10, 2009

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Over the course of a century, American society will have publicly (and privately) bountied, extirpated, protected, reintroduced, and then hunted one of the great mammals of the world. The Gray Wolf was once the most widespread mammal species in the world, covering enormous portions of all three continents encompassing the northern hemisphere. In North America, the wolf struggles to regain a foothold in portions of its historical range, and in the United States there is an ongoing legal battle over the status of the gray wolf going forward.

While the wolf population is stable and relatively healthy in Alaska and various eastern states (Michigan, Wisconsin, etc), the wolf’s future is decidedly unknown across the Rocky Mountain west. In Idaho and Wyoming, the wolves are considered experimental and nonessential, and can therefore be killed by private citizens without legal ramifications. In 2008, the federal government attempted to relax the protections for the wolf populations, as the government had decided that the populations, as a whole, had recovered to the point that a blanketed national protective law was no longer necessary. Various environmental groups filed for an injunction in federal court and have proceeded with a lawsuit to re-instate full federal protection for the species.

The biggest point, which is often overlooked, is that the wolf is not a solitary, singular animal in the vein of bears, big cats, and most other predatory mammals. Gray wolves live and die as a team of hunters, with a specific and legendary social hierarchy. If the balance of this hierarchy is altered, the pack itself can falter. Killing a single, seemingly lone wolf can destroy a pack of up to 20 animals. Biologically, the wolves have shown again and again that they are the “personal trainer” of the ecological world they exist in. After wolves were re-introduced to Yellowstone National Park, the elk, bison, and deer populations became healthier, leaner, and less diseased. The same effects have been seen throughout the west. Losing the efficient predatory machine of the wolf pack because of the intentional killing of 1-2 animals will prove a tragic effect over the course of time.

Unfortunately, politics always plays a role in ecological issues of the modern day, and the gray wolf has certainly not escaped this reality. The state governments of the Rocky Mountain region have come down consistently on the side of the private citizens, including the ranchers and other livestock owners. The wolves have been deemed a threat to the safety and profitability of a large industry. These industries do have legitimate concerns as packs of roving predators cross their ranch lands, but there is a balance to the financial impact versus the biological necessity of top predators.

In time, it is hoped that all facets of society could understand and appreciate the importance of a healthier ecosystem. The gray wolf is a top predator who not only keeps prey populations in check, but also makes the forests, grasslands, and alpine regions healthier. The human intervention on behalf of the wolves is certainly not over, but it must said that future decisions must be made based on sound science instead of political whims from government officials at the local, state, and federal levels. All of us will be impacted by decisions like these as our ecological world continues to degrade from society’s encroachment, both intentional and unintentional. We all need to educate ourselves, make educated opinions, and openly support whichever side with which we find agreement.

Canyonlands and Arches

July 22, 2009

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The National Park system of the United States is one of the great jewels that citizens of the USA should be proud of. It is wide-ranging, well funded, and spectacular from a conservation perspective. 27 states are home to at least one park and many states have multiple parks, with the greatest concentration in the west. Recently, myself and three others took a meandering trip that visited six of these great coliseums of nature. Over the course of 13 windy, asphalt packed days, we visited: Wind Cave N.P in South Dakota; Yellowstone and Grand Teton N.P.’s in Wyoming, Arches and Canyonlands N.P.’s in Utah and, finally, Rocky Mountain N.P. in Colorado. Yellowstone, Grand Teton, and Rocky Mountain are three of the most visited conservation areas in the world, and are consistently among the top-15 most visited national parks in the U.S. As much as the four of us loved those parks, our hearts were truly stolen by the grandeur of the desert plateaus in southeast Utah defined by Arches and Canyonlands national parks.

After leaving Provo, Utah we took a more direct route southeast along Highway 6, which cuts through the mining towns of Thistle, Price, and Wellington. Dirt roads, broken signs, and sagebrush litter the dry, dusty hills as you descend towards Interstate 70. Between Price on Highway 6 and Green River, just off I-70, we did not pass a single gas station or convenience store, so be sure your fuel is sufficient to make the 90-minute trip. Turning south onto Highway 191 towards Moab, Utah, one sees high tabletop mesas, long windswept valleys, and the occasional lush green patch where a natural spring bubbles to the surface. The southeast portion of the state near Moab is dominated by the two national parks and various other recreational activities that are available inside and outside of the parks. There is an annual Jeep-fest where enthusiasts try their skills at navigating the area’s slick rock outcroppings. The same features draw thousands of mountain biking fanatics who pedal and climb through a labyrinth of trails. The Colorado River runs just north of Moab, forms the southern border of Arches N.P., and runs for nearly 35 miles through Canyonlands N.P. (including a major confluence with the Green River). The Colorado is available for rafting for most of the year through various independent outfitters in the area.

We took the right off Highway 191 onto State Road 313 and began the slow incline towards Canyonlands National Park. Unfortunately, many visitors to the Moab area miss out on Canyonlands and its epic views because the entrance to the park is some 12 miles off the main drag that runs through the town. We camped at Canyonlands the first night, taking the last campsite available, and walked the quarter-mile to the “Island in the Sky” overlook. On a clear day, like every day during our visit, one can see upwards of 50 miles to the south and west, overlooking the great Colorado and Green Rivers, while standing on a cliff whose precipice is some 1500 feet above the canyon floor below. We visited in late May, and the weather was perfect with temperatures in the mid-80’s and almost no humidity. While some may think of the desert as a barren, identity-less place, we found it to be more expressive and dynamic than expected. Beautiful desert roses bloomed, lanky jackrabbits scampered, and a night sky, unleashed from any urban presence, filled the late evening with undefinable numbers of glistening stars. In the morning, we retraced our route down 313 and took Highway 191 towards Moab for lunch and then to spend the afternoon exploring the bounties of Arches national park.

Arches covers some 310 square miles on a plateau that is reached by driving a series of switchbacks from the visitor’s center some 600 feet below the plateau. Arches is most often enjoyed as a day hike park with various 3-4 hour long hikes throughout different areas. While the park does contain nearly 2,000 individual arches made of eroding sandstone, the great attractions are the “Devil’s Garden” and the “Fiery Furnace”. These two areas have accessible parking areas and miles of hiking paths which meander between steep columns and cliff faces of sandstone intermingled with various arches, large and small. Each major column (some rising hundreds of feet) on the main park drive has been named and there are parking areas for photographers at nearly all. We found the natural arches to be impressive and overwhelming in size, with even famous Delicate Arch standing over 50 feet high.

The Utah portion of our trip was certainly eye-opening, as the desert’s sweet poetry was taken to heart. I encourage all the adventurous to visit the Moab region to admire spectacular views, visit unique phenomena, and rest the soul. And if you have time, stop for a meal at Zax’s Restaurant for the best fire-grilled pizza in the southwest.