Tag Archives: Animals

Salmon? In Berkeley?

Chinook Salmon (adult) Photo Credit: Roger Tabor (USFWS)

Not Codornices Creek, but you get the idea.

This is happy news, though someone needs to tell the salmon it’s the wrong size for the creek:

First Chinook salmon reported in Codornices Creek

Codornices Creek is a little creek, mainly year-round, that flows off the Berkeley Hills and through the Hills’ populated alluvial fan to the east shore of San Francisco Bay. It’s pretty much the same as any of thousands of small creeks in Urban California, except for one thing: it’s in Berkeley, and so there have been people working to restore it for a generation.

Chinooks are more usually associated with large main-stem rivers like the Sacramento: little coastal streams like Codornices Creek are more suited to smaller coho salmon, and steelhead for that matter, which have in fact been seen in the creek for some time, though apparently not in a self-sustaining spawning population.

Then again, the fish set the rules, not us, and the Codornices Chinook’s more likely destination in the Sacramento-San Joaquin watershed has been, as the fisheries biologists would put it in technical terms, massively fucked. This chinook was probably born in a hatchery instead of a leafy rill with a nice cobble bottom; all but one of the Sacramento and San Joaquin’s major tributaries have been plugged with giant concrete dams, cutting off access to something like 99.9999996 percent of the watershed’s spawning habitat. Agricultural runoff of pesticide-laden silt and silt-laden pesticide fills the water along the way to the dams.

But at least it’s a small, one-fish vote of confidence in the good work my former neighbors have done trying to keep Codornices Creek alive, and until we can engineer precisely targeted earthquakes at the bases of the big dams, that’ll have to do.

(Special homechild points if you heard this post’s title in Mel Blanc’s voice.)

Devil’s Hole pupfish losing struggle for survival – News – ReviewJournal.com

A depressing take on the Devils Hole pupfish by Henry Brean in the Las Vegas Review Journal:

Ted Koch, supervisor of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Nevada, said this week he doesn’t know whether the tiny fish can be saved.

“I’m worried it may be an emergency,” said Koch, “and I don’t know whether there are enough of them left to still be viable. We’re definitely very concerned.”

I wrote a bit of the background of this piece a couple weeks ago at Pharyngula. Sad all around.

Protect Gold Butte

Most of you have never heard of it, but northeast of Las Vegas, in one of the least-visited parts of the continental United States, a desert treasure in Nevada needs your support.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q6_x0k_In6g&hl=en&fs=1&rel=0]

I visited Gold Butte for the first time in 1997. I was just passing through, heading for a tiny outpost in the Arizona Strip called Pakoon Springs, which later became part of the Grand Canyon Parashant National Monument. A fire there had damaged a Joshua tree forest some years before, and I wanted to take a look at the recovery so far. My old truck carried me up over the slopes of Virgin Peak and across the state line, where I took some photos that turned out to be abysmally fuzzy. Joshua tree near Pakoon Springs, AZ (The fire had burned patches of the landscape, but not all of it. Much of it looked intact. In this shot, taken facing eastward into the Arizona Strip, the long ridge in the background is the Grand Wash Cliffs escarpment. The notch in the Cliffs toward the right? That’s the downstream end of a rather famous natural landscape feature. )

My old truck was a four-cylinder 2WD, so my relief at not getting stuck in the Pakoon’s washes was considerable, and I headed back across the line into Gold Butte to explore the Whitney Pockets area for a little while. I’ve always meant to get back to Virgin Peak and do some hiking, like these folks did:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4vdYXbFovD4&hl=en&fs=1&rel=0]

It’s one of the best places I’ve ever been. It’s wild, wide, open, and spacious. Gold Butte is a botanical, geological, and archaeological treasure. It’s priceless habitat for desert tortoise and bighorn sheep. It’s also within a couple hours’ drive from two fast-growing cities — the metastasopolis of Las Vegas, and the smaller but even more enthusiastically desert-defacing St. George, Utah — and the almost-city of Mesquite NV. As a result, those who use the desert as a blank slate across which to scratch their grubby fingernails pose a significant and increasing threat to the landscape:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7ycNu9FLipU&hl=en&fs=1&rel=0]

And unlike the Pakoon and other adjacent lands across the Arizona line in the Parashant NM, Gold Butte is essentially unprotected.

Nevada environmentalists and land managers are working with local elected officials to change that. Last year Representative Shelley Berkley introduced HR 7132, a bill that would have given Gold Butte National Conservation Area status, like the Red Rock Canyon area on the other side of Las Vegas. The NCA would have covered 362,177 acres, with 200,000 more acres of BLM and Park Service lands in the area declared wilderness. The bill did not pass, and must be reintroduced in this theoretically more receptive Congress.

The Nevada Wilderness Project has an action site where you can find ways to help them protect Gold Butte, from writing letters to sharing your hard-earned cash.  The Friends of Gold Butte has a website and a companion blog where you can stay informed, and if you’re in the area, there are events listed in which you can take part.

And if you’re not a local, you can still let people know Gold Butte exists. It’s one of the last best places, a forgotten puzzle piece in the Grand Canyon biome, and it deserves protection.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JwIufsaBGFc&hl=en&fs=1&rel=0]

Coyote-killing “tournament” in Idaho

From our friends at Project Coyote, this upsetting press release.

Wildlife advocates are condemning an upcoming coyote killing “tournament”, scheduled for Saturday, Feb. 21, and sponsored by the Bent Rod Outdoors, a Challis business.

“This event has no place in the 21st Century”, said Brian Ertz, a Hailey resident, and president of Wildlife Watchers, a group that says wildlife viewing, rather than killing, is preferred by the majority of Idahoans. “We are urging concerned citizens to contact the Bent Rod Outdoors [(208) 879-2500], and also the Challis Chamber of Commerce [(208) 879-2771] to protest this day-long coyote slaughter.”

The coyote “tournament” was publicized through ads in the Challis Messenger on Feb. 12 and 18. When contacted, a Bent Rod employee stated that there would be prizes including cash for the most coyotes killed, the largest and smallest coyotes, and other categories. Coyote killers would enter the Bent Rod’s “tournament” by paying $25 per person, or $50 for a two-person team. The “contest” starts Saturday morning and ends that evening at Bent Rod Outdoors.

The full release is below the fold. You have time to make a call: I know it.

No, seriously, you do. Don’t make me pull out the pictures.

OK, fine.

coyote and raven

Idaho coyote and raven. Photos by Lynne K. Stone.

Challis Chamber of Commerce (208) 879-2771
Bent Rod Outdoors (208) 879-2500

Also, please note the ORV-related item in the release. Yeah, class acts, those guys. Respecters of wildlife, those guys.

Continue reading

Best field guide ever

I don’t do paid reviews of books nor other products, and I think bloggers who do are unethical — whether they disclose that the review is paid or not. I say this because I’m about to rant about how amazingly cool iBird Explorer Plus is, to the point where people might start to wonder. In fact, I didn’t even get a review copy: I paid full retail.

I used to fantasize about having a field guide that took advantage of high tech data storage and retrieval wizardry. Imagine: a hand-held, interactive and searchable database field guide, with range maps, identifying information, sound, and sharp images both drawn and photographed. (When I used to daydream about such a thing it generally weighed five pounds and was about the size of a standard box of Kleenex.)

I have that field guide now.

iBird Explorer browse screeniBird Explorer Plus, an application for the Apple iPhone, is a database of 891 North American bird species. (There’s a Windows Mobile version, Winged Explorer, which I haven’t seen, and a handful of smaller regional versions for the iPhone.)  You fire up the application and — after a splash screen displayed while the app loads — you find yourself at the browse window. You can select any of the 891 species, scrolling through the long alphabetical list, or you can hit the “search” button at the bottom and bring up the interactive key.

iBird Explorer key screen If you know that the bird in question is a swallow, say, or a wren, and you’re just not sure which one, you can enter some of the word in that text field at the top to narrow down your choices. You can then select known information from the fields below, which include location by state, general shape of the bird (is it hawk-shaped or duck-shaped or wren-shaped, and so forth), size, habitat (coast, desert, etc.), whether or not the bird frequents feeders, patterns and coloration of the suspect’s plumage, bill shape and size, and family. With each selection, the app narrows down the list of possibilities. Given the size of the database and the number of entries, the app processes your selections relatively quickly.

iBird Explorer individual species treatment The individual species accounts are well-designed if, for obvious reasons of data conservation, a bit cursory. Each individual page has links to succinct and well-organized species information, a more extensive treatment of the species on the web, range maps, a photo to complement the drawing, a list of similar species and — coolest of all for people like me who tend to bird by ear — recordings of each bird’s voice. These recordings are clear enough, and loud enough, that you could use them to attract birds of the appropriate species — and the software provides a reminder about the ethical implications of doing just that. The sound page also features a list of similar-sounding birds, if appropriate, and you can hear each similar recording without leaving the page.

iBird Explorer range map screen The guide has been compiled by the committed birders at whatbird.com, and they show their experience in the birding community by assuming they’re going to get flak for inaccuracies, die-hard ornithophiles picking nits of varying size over rangemaps and descriptions, descriptions of behavior, and the like. They’ve already heard from birders that the app doesn’t provide enough detail on seasonal variations in plumage, for instance. This is where the concept of the app really shines: the purchase price includes a lifetime subscription to updates, and the developers promise to incorporate users’ criticisms to make the app more and more useful with each iteration. Personally, I’d like to see the developers make use of the iPhone’s GPS functionality and calendar, so that one could rule out goshawks and cardinals when one’s phone happens to be in the Mojave and Scott’s orioles if it’s winter in the Mojave. Even better, the app could use those functions and flag species as “uncommon,” “occasional vagrant,” and “hurry up and call the Audubon Society hotline.”

This app is brilliant, and it’ll get better. It’s a clever use of the iPhone’s technology that will actually increase people’s knowledge of, and appreciation for, the planet they’re on. How often does that happen? I suspect that there will be people who’ll buy the iPhone (or iPod touch) solely to use this app, and I have trouble saying that’s a completely bad idea.

Available through the iTunes store, the full version of iBird Explorer costs $19.99.

Tortoise alert: letters needed

From the Center for Biological Diversity:

Last year, the Army moved more than 750 tortoises off of pristine desert lands in order to expand its Fort Irwin army base in California’s Mojave desert. Not all tortoises were monitored, but of those that were, more than 90 of them died—many eaten by starving coyotes who had lost their typical prey base of squirrels and rabbits due to epic desert drought. Also, the Army moved healthy tortoises into populations known to have the often-deadly upper respiratory tract disease, against the recommendations of epidemiologists. Because of the high tortoise death toll and legal action by the Center, the Army temporarily suspended the translocation of tortoises in 2008.

Now, the Army and the Bureau of Land Management are rushing to move more tortoises in 2009 in order to rid the expanded Army base of more of their tortoises. The federally threatened desert tortoise population cannot withstand yet another ill-conceived and hastily implemented translocation. Please write to the Army and Bureau of Land Management today asking that they implement a full environmental review process based on a comprehensive Environmental Impact Statement.

The accelerated comment period is a joke. It was announced by press release on the weekend of February 7, set for February 18 — eleven days’ notice.

Take action here.


Here is a fine, very well-fed individual of the species Spermophilus variegatus, also known as the rock squirrel. This one happened to be working the crowd outside the El Tovar on the south rim of the Grand Canyon, but the species ranges throughout the Southwestern states and Mexico, edging just barely into that part of the state of California that fronts the Colorado River, for instance my neighborhood here.

The rock squirrel is one of 18 or so Spermophilus species in the western part of North America. There are currently 42 species worldwide.  Spermophilus itself — the name means “seed lover” — is one of three genera of true ground squirrels, along with Ammospermophilus, the antelope squirrels of the desert Southwest, and Cynomys, popularly known as prairie dogs. Close relatives of the three genera include marmots and chipmunks. Taxonomists group ground squirrels, chipmunks and marmots into a “tribe” within the squirrel family called Marmotini, which sounds like something you’d find on the menu in a spaghetti joint in Bozeman, or maybe a mixture of gin and wheatgrass juice.

Anyway, there are Spermophilus of various species living everywhere in Western North America from the beaches of the Arctic Ocean to southern Mexico. Their appearances vary widely, with some looking very much like your basic tree squirrels, some — the golden-mantled ground squirrel, S. lateralis, for instance — looking like glorified chipmunks, the flickertails (S. richardsonii) essentially trimmed-down prairie dogs, and the thirteen-lined and Mexican ground squirrels (S. tridecemlineatus and S. mexicanus, and I bet you can guess which is which) looking like nothing I’ve ever seen.

I found myself facing down a Spemophilus day before yesterday up at Cima Dome. I didn’t get a chance to ask it to display its tail. A tail with short hair would have made it a round-tailed ground squirrel, S. tereticaudus. Rock squirrels have bushy tails like tree squirrels. On reflection, though, I’ve decided it was probably a rock squirrel. Round-tails are low-elevation denizens, from what I can tell, preferring warmer, sandy wastes like the one I nearly got the Jeep stuck in about two hours before I saw the squirrel. The squirrel and I were up a bit, at around 5,500 feet. Also — another clue — it was hanging out in a big pile of rocks.

Still, I was a little hesitant to make the call because my squirrel field guide, Tamara Hartson’s Squirrels of the West, has a range map for the rock squirrel that implied it was unlikely I’d find any Spermophilus variegatus near Cima Dome. I decided, though, that the maps in Hartson were — how do I put this kindly? — drawn without reliance on primary sources. The range map provided for the one other Spermophilus living in the Mojave Desert, Spermophilus mohavensis, was, well, inaccurate. It shows the Mojave ground squirrel as ranging south and east of Joshua Tree National Park, almost to the Colorado River at Blythe. The actual southeastern limit of the Mojave ground squirrel is pretty much the Mojave River. That’s about a 130-mile error, about a two-fold increase in the actual range of the species.

The southeastern limit of the Mohave ground squirrel’s range is, and not by coincidence, the northwestern limit of its closest relative, the round-tailed ground squirrel. To a first approximation, each species lives on its own side of the Mojave River and nobody fishes in the middle. This becomes a little confusing when you remember that while there is water flowing in the Mojave River, it mainly does that flowing beneath several feet of gravel and sand. There’s nothing in that riverbed, 364.5 days out of your typical 365, that would provide the kind of barrier to migration — and thus gene exchange —  that usually causes one species to diverge into two sibling species. A squirrel spotting a likely mate on the other side wouldn’t even have to get its feet wet to exchange some genes.

And in fact, there is a little bit of interbreeding going on along the river, which is a pretty romantic spot when you get right down to it, and squirrelologists have found a few hybrids between the two species here and there, mainly in disturbed areas where the typical behavior of each species may have been disrupted. The breakdown of the natural order of things has likely resulted in interspecies mating, and yet the Mormon church is strangely silent on the matter.

If there’s no barrier to the populations of squirrels meeting, and they can still interbreed, what was it that split the original species in two in the first place?

The Mojave River is still a possibility despite its current lack of, well, current. Before 6,000 years ago there was water flowing in the river, lots of it, running down off the slopes of the Pluvial-era San Bernardino and San Gabriel mountains, filling what are now dry washes and alkaline playas with water too broad for a squirrel to ford. There was a vast network of lakes and streams in the Mojave then, with water off the east side of the Sierra Nevada joining in from the northwest, filling Owens and Searles lakes and spilling over into the Panamint Valley and Lake Manly on the floor of Death Valley. For its part, the Mojave River filled immense lakes where Harper Lake is now, near Hinkley, and Coyote Lake, north of Yermo. Its main flow continued past them and cut a gorge now called Afton Canyon, filled up Soda and Silver Lakes near Baker, and ended up in Lake Manly as well.

It may be that there were other factors beside swollen rivers keeping the squirrels apart. The heart of the Mohave ground squirrel’s habitat in the northwestern Mojave, smack dab in the rainshadow of the Sierra, is thought to have remained somewhat arid during the Pluvial, and may have been a refugium of sorts where desert-adapted critters were able to escape competition from less-droughty species taking advantage of the wetter Mojave elsewhere. But when you map out the boundary between the ranges of the Mohave and round-tailed ground squirrels, it’s never farther than about 30 kilometers from the Pluvial Mojave River System waterline. Things dried up 6,000 years ago, so that’s a migration rate of about five meters a year, not unlikely given ground squirrel behavior as we see it today.

I love this kind of story so much. Who but a complete geek would take note of seemingly arbitrary boundaries between the ranges of two very similar squirrel species? The Mohave is a little more pink-gray than the round-tailed, and the underside of its tail is white where the round-tailed’s is solid cinnamon-colored; the first likes gravel and the second sand. These are differences all but invisible to the vast majority of people, especially in a genus as diversely-appearanced as Spermophilus.

But when you start paying attention to why the ranges of animals and plants and other living things are the way they are, when you start paying attention to how the arrangement of life on today’s Earth came to be the way it is, epics unfurl themselves before you. Caruthers Canyon, a valley near here full of incongruous oaks and manzanitas and other usually-coastal chaparral plants, reveals itself to be a redoubt, a place where hundreds of generations of plants have held on as mountain ranges rose, blocked the rain, made two hundred miles of desert between them and their nearest kin. Uninspiring, ratty rings of creosote bush become impossibly ancient matriarchs, already 5,000 years old or more when the First Dynasty struggled to power in Egypt.

And a vague line between the ranges of two drab species of burrowing rodent becomes mythic, Noachic, the heavens opening up, a millennia-long flood separating brother from brother, sister from sister, two histories diverging from a common root, one nation cleft into two and the two meeting again as strangers.

The desert is woven of these stories, and I could spent the rest of my life reading them and be content.