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Monday, October 22, 2012

Industrial-Scale Response to Save Yellowstone Cutthroat Trout

This is not a local conservation story like a lot of what I write.  But I think it's really a great story about trying to take back an ecosystem from an invasive species, so I wanted to spread the word to some of my readers who might not have heard about this project.  This tale should appeal to ecologists, anglers, and likely to anyone who marvels at the delicate balance that nature sets up and we humans knock down like a house of cards.

We've all got a stake in this invasive species project, because it involves a sparkling jewel in one of our national treasures.  The setting is Yellowstone Lake, in Yellowstone National Park, and the invasive species playing the part of the antagonist in this story is the lake trout (Salvelinus namaycush).  Most people, fishing enthusiasts included (particularly easterners like me), probably would not think of a lake trout as an invasive species in any North American lake, including Yellowstone Lake.  But as I learned just a few months ago when I stumbled onto this story, lake trout are not native to Yellowstone Lake.  And the National Park Service's effort to eradicate (yes, I said eradicate) them from Yellowstone Lake is far more than just a matter of ecological anal retentiveness.

The Problem
Lake Trout taken from Yellowstone Lake.
 (National Park Service photo)

Lake trout are believed to have been introduced to Yellowstone Lake in the mid-1980s.  The first recorded lake trout caught in Yellowstone Lake was in July 1994, and within weeks several more lake trout catches were documented by park rangers.  Lake trout are native to the northeastern U.S., the Great Lakes, and Canada.  They live in big lakes, because they require high levels of dissolved oxygen found in the cold depths of big lakes.  So Yellowstone Lake probably seemed like a logical location for an unwitting angler to surreptitiously introduce lake trout.

The problem with lake trout, which grow much larger than other trout species, is that they don't work and play well with other fish.  They are piscivores, meaning that they feed almost exclusively on other fish.  And that dietary preference has been bad news for the cutthroat trout native to Yellowstone Lake. 

Yellowstone Cutthroat Trout. (National Park Service photo)
Cutthroat trout (Oncorhynchus clarkii) are a beautiful fish that we in the eastern U.S. have to go west of the Rocky Mountains to experience.  They get their name from the red slash of color along their lower jaw.  The ecologically cool thing about cutthroats is that, through geographic isolation in various major drainage basins throughout the western U.S., they have evolved into at least 10 distinct subspecies.  And Yellowstone Lake, the source of the famous Snake River that slithers through Idaho and eventually into the Columbia River in Washington, is home to the Yellowstone cutthroat subspecies (Oncorhynchus clarkii bouvieri).  This subspecies is found only in Yellowstone Lake, Yellowstone River, and the uppermost Snake River. 

Yellowstone Cutthroat Trout. (National Park Service photo)

Yellowstone cutthroats are stream spawners.  That means that the cutthroats will leave Yellowstone Lake and swim up one of the lake's 126 tributaries when they get the urge to spawn.  During their spawning runs up the tributaries, cutthroats become an integral part of the the natural food chain as they become readily available to several other animal species:  white pelicans, osprey, river otters, and grizzly bears are some of the species most reliant on Yellowstone cutthroats.

Lake trout spawn deep in the lake, so they will never be present in the shallow parts of the lake or in the tributaries to be a dietary opportunity for their bird or mammal neighbors in the park.  The Park Service estimated in 2010 that the lake may have lost up to 99% of its spawning cutthroat trout because of predation by lake trout.  Not only did the introduction of lake trout into Yellowstone Lake deal a significant blow to the lake's cutthroats, the depletion of cutthroats rippled throughout the Yellowstone ecosystem to species that had depended on feeding on the cutthroats' spawning runs.  There were even reports of grizzlies coming down from the hills in search of food when they formerly would have been content in the upper reaches of tributaries chowing down on spawning cutthroats.  So the need for the Park Service to address the plummeting population of Yellowstone cutthroats was far more than an attempt to save an important sport fishery in a popular national park.  The balance of the greater Yellowstone ecosystem was threatened by the loss of native cutthroats.

The Solution (eventually, hopefully)
The National Park Service has been gill-netting lake trout in Yellowstone Lake since 1995.  The Service operates its own boat that deploys a chain of gill nets through areas that are known lake trout migration routes in the lake.  The nets, many set as deep as 150 to 160 feet and left in place for several nights, recover hundreds of mostly dead lake trout when pulled up.

The Park Service also contracts with a commercial fishing company that operates a trap-netting boat in the lake.  These trap nets are designed to recover the fish alive so that cutthroats that are caught along with the lake trout can be released.  It's estimated that about 50 lake trout are caught in the trap nets for every one cutthroat.

Whether the lakers are caught in the Park Service's gill nets or in the contractor's trap nets, all recovered lakers are killed, weighed, and sexed by Park Service staffers and student volunteers before having their air bladders punctured and being tossed overboard deep into the lake.  It's likely that trying to dispose of the huge volume of dead fish on land would soon create a solid waste headache that would attract bears like a moth to a flame.

Any lake trout caught by anglers in Yellowstone Lake are required to be killed by the anglers. Catch and release of lake trout is prohibited at Yellowstone.

Yellowstone fisheries program supervisor Todd Koel estimated that there were probably around 500,000 catchable lake trout in Yellowstone Lake this spring.  Contrast that number with an estimated 4 million cutthroats, at their peak numbers prior to the introduction of lake trout, in Yellowstone Lake and its tributaries.  Now, however, Koel estimates there may be only around 400,000 cutthroats in the lake and its tributaries, and those cutthroats continue to be preyed upon by the lake trout.

The Park Service acknowledges that there is only a slight chance that lake trout can be eliminated from Yellowstone Lake, but experts think that aggressively removing large numbers of lake trout is feasible to keep their population in check in the lake.  According to a newspaper story last month from nearby Powell, Wyoming, last year's lake trout harvest totaled 224,000 fish, and this year's total was 274,000 lake trout killed by the cutthroat restoration program.  And the Park Service is looking at ways to kill lake trout eggs in their spawning beds to increase the program's effectiveness.

The Park Service had budgeted $1 million this year for the cutthroat restoration (ie. lake trout elimination) program.  That budget has been supplemented by an additional $1 million from the Yellowstone Park Foundation.  Other conservation organizations, such as the East Yellowstone Chapter of Trout Unlimited, the National Parks Conservation Association, and the Greater Yellowstone Coalition are also stepping up to help out.

The kind of public/private collaboration that has come together to save the Yellowstone cutthroats has been reassuring, and the program's results over the past 18 summers have been encouraging.  And if I had to identify a take-home message from this story, I think it would have to be:  An ounce of education is worth a pound of cure.  In this situation, it is likely that anglers, ignorant of the effects of their actions, were the source of the original lake trout planted in Yellowstone Lake.  The resulting crash of the Yellowstone cutthroat population, after nearly 20 years of earnest restoration efforts, and tens of millions of dollars invested, could have been avoided if anglers had been better educated about the ecology of the sport of fishing that they presumably love.

Ecology is a science.  Whether we identify ourselves as anglers, exclusive fly fishers, conservationists, ecologists, or something else, we need to advocate for quality science education in our schools.  Science-savvy students grow up to be science-savvy adults who can be careful and effective stewards of our natural resources.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

When Were the Good Old Days That Our Land Conservation Ethic Idealizes?

As I was preparing for an Outdoor Open House that I coordinated last week at one of my township’s open space properties, an 86-acre, historic farm, I marveled at the farm’s appearance in a faded photo probably, at the latest, from the very early 20th century.  This photo was what the good old days looked like in this neck of the woods.  Or so myself and most other folks around here might have assumed.  But the first thing that seemed a bit odd to me was how few trees were present in that 100-plus year old photo.

Undated photo courtesy of Lower Macungie Township Historical Society, with
the springhouse in the center of the photo.  The barn, which is still standing,
can be seen behind the trees in the center of the shot.  The 1-1/2 story farm-
house is on the right and was replaced by a modern dwelling in the latter half
of the 20th century.    
I’ve read in local history books that, by the early 19th century, the farmers had felled nearly every large tree that was in sight, except for a few nut trees that provided an addition source of protein in the Fall.  Those original-growth trees were needed for lumber to build log cabins, barns, and outbuildings.  Eventually, shade trees were something that grew primarily on property lines where farmers could not plow and plant.

I wasn’t really surprised that the photo showed there was no riparian buffer, so the meadows were probably grazed right up to and into the creek.  The springhouse sits prominently in the center of the photo, adjacent to the creek.  I was glad to see the springhouse, because it would have protected that seep of fresh, cold water springing out of the ground from getting fouled by ever-present animal manure.

Lithographic printmaking company Currier and Ives were based in New York City from 1834 to 1907 and were self-described "Publishers of Cheap and Popular Prints."  When I was very young, my family had some dinner plates with Currier & Ives prints of idyllic scenes of 19th century country life.  recall eating whatever a picky five-year old would have eaten from those plates and marveling at the scenes on them.  Farm fields being plowed by a team of workhorses, cattle grazing in a stream, a horse and sled standing on an ice pond.  Now that I think a little more critically about some of those Currier and Ives scenes, I realize just how screwed up the good old days of 19th century farm life were from the perspective of 21st century conservation standards.

There are lots of Currier and Ives scenes with cattle standing in steams.  If a farmer let his herd do that now, he’d have any downstream user of that surface water reporting him to the County Soil Conservation District or Health Department for fouling the stream with sediment and fecal coliform.  And there were many prints that showed a bucolic old mill with the adjacent river dammed to provide hydropower to the mill’s water wheel.  Two hundred years ago, millers didn’t concern themselves with the floods that would ensue from them altering the surrounding floodplains by damming the river.

There is even a Currier and Ives print titled, “Home from the Brook,” which shows two, well-dressed, 19th century anglers who have each brought home a bushel basket full of trout.  Back in the good old days, before those overbearing government regulators invented daily creel limits.

I guess ignorance really is bliss.

Looks like stormwater runoff passing right through the middle of this barn yard.  Who wants to guess how high the fecal coliform counts are in whatever body of surface water is receiving THAT runoff? 
Fortunately, by the latter third of the 20th century, we began to acknowledge and employ better land management practices than they had in the good old days.  Fewer farmers planted their fields right up to streams.  Refrigeration replaced the need to harvest ice from ponds – ice that may or may not have been tainted by horse manure.  We eventually realized that strategically placed trees can keep our houses (and springhouses) cooler in summer.  Stormwater runoff is now at least partially regulated.

Looking at the same farm as in the undated photo above, taken from

adjacent to the modern bridge that now spans the creek.  Lots more

trees in 2012 than there were 100 or more years ago.
By the way, the location of the old springhouse is now an overgrown, one-foot high pile of limestone blocks that appears to have collapsed into itself sometime in the past 50 years.  The structure’s debris may have sealed off the spring that was there, but the groundwater surely has found its way to the surface to create another seep or two somewhere nearby.  Just as the trees have also returned. Nature always wins like that.  I'm guessing that if we could ask Nature herself when the good old days really were, she would probably say prior to 1492.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Can We Trust Our Parks to Our Politicians? Crisis Looming in PA

Update: The PA Senate did not vote on HB2224 before the end of the 2012 legislative session, so the bill is dead.  For now.  Stay vigilant.  If it came up once, it can come up again in a future legislative session.
(Also, I added a mea culpa to the sixth paragraph, 3/25/13)
Last week I coordinated an Outdoor Open House, essentially a nature walk, at an 86-acre, historic farm that my municipality currently owns as "Open Space."  The Open Space designation means that the public is welcome to use the property for passive recreation, like hiking, biking, birdwatching, or fishing.

Open Space also means that, with no official “XYZ Park” sign advertising its presence, stating that it is a municipally-owned, passive recreation property, not many township residents might notice if our municipal officials decided to sell off the 86 acres to a developer.  Do I sound a bit paranoid?  Keep reading.

Currently, if the township wanted to sell it, they would have to go to the county orphans court and demonstrate that they have a financial hardship and need to liquidate the property for cash to meet expenses.  But, as unbelievable as it may sound, there is currently a pending bill in the Pennsylvania state senate that would remove the requirement for court approval for counties or municipalities to sell off public park or open space land.  HB2224, which has since been nicknamed the Cash for Parks Bill, somehow got railroaded through the state legislature with bipartisan, unanimous approval.  I've been unable to determine how the bill's sponsors represented, or quite possibly misrepresented, this bill to secure unanimous passage in the lower house.

The only speed bump to municipal liquidation of lands that were obtained to be held in public trust for public use is a requirement for the "cash-strapped" municipality to hold a public hearing to hear the public's comments on their pending sale.  The municipal officials are not obligated to respond in any way to concerns raised by the public at those hearings.

If HB2224 passes the Senate, it will surely be signed by Gov. Tom Corbett, who has proven time and time again that his loyalties are to business interests and lobbyists rather than to the people of Pennsylvania.  And if HB2224 passes, would any municipality REALLY have the balls to sell off one of its parks or passive use open space areas for some quick cash?

 Well, I can think of one municipality in particular where it could happen with ease.  The unnamed municipality I'm thinking of has three realtors on their board of five township commissioners. (Please note: one of the commissioners pointed out to me this afternoon that  only two of them have real estate licenses.  Duly noted, sir.  In my defense, however, the commissioner whom I had counted among the licensed Realtors previously had a PA real estate instructor's license, but it is no longer active.  He is currently employed as CEO of the local Association of Realtors.  But he does not have a current PA real estate license of any kind.  So I stand corrected.  SAA, 3/25/13) 

And, while it would be nice to give them the benefit of the doubt, they proved themselves undeserving of the public's trust with a backroom deal they did two years ago with the biggest land developer in the area.  Although the developer did not prove any hardship to warrant rezoning nearly 700 acres of land zoned agricultural preservation, they granted the developer rezoning to commercial/light industrial with a sprinkling of residential.  In exchange, the developer promised to deed the adjoining floodplain land to the township for a greenway park.  But if township residents were not screwed sufficiently by this deal which will soon clog narrow local roads with tractor trailers going to and from the new warehouses, the agreement with the developer requires the trails in “his” section of the new greenway to be named after his family.  Do you still think I’m too paranoid?

Would township commissioners who were not employed in real estate been as willing to make a sweetheart deal like this with a major local developer?  I wish I knew.

The take home message here is that, yes, there certainly are municipal officials who would be sleazy enough to sell off municipal property – land that had been bequeathed or dedicated to the public for parks or open space lands – under the pretense of municipal austerity.  But municipal austerity is not the true driver of the Cash for Parks Bill.  I think the more likely driver of park liquidation would be the politicians’ ability to help political contributors or silent business partners benefit financially from former parkland coming onto the market.  Can’t you see the ads in the real estate section of the local paper?  Get your own custom-built McMansion nestled in a park-like setting … because it used to be a PARK.

If you live in Pennsylvania, please write to your state senator TODAY to tell him or her that HB2224 is a ready-made abuse of the public trust.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Death to LadyBugs

I have nothing against ladybugs.  Kids love them and sing about them, and they aren't destructive if they get into your home.  So my jaw dropped last week when I drove past a local exterminator's office and saw the sign on the side of their building.  They had declared ladybugs as the pest of the month for September.  So, of course, I doubled-back and took a photo of the sign with my phone so that I could share my consternation with my readers.

A local exterminator apparently has declared war on ladybugs in general.  I've obscured the company's full name to avoid a potential nuisance lawsuit for publicly embarrassing them with this photo.
Most semi-serious gardeners know that ladybugs are the best natural means around for controlling aphids in the garden.  And that goes for any species of ladybug found in North America, and there are several ladybug species living here in North America.  There are, however, a few species of lady bugs now found in North America that did not originate here.  Unlike some of our other, more notorious, insect pests today (e.g. brown marmorated stink bug and Japanese beetle) which hitched a ride to the States via cargo ship, thMulticolored Asian lady beetle (Harmonia axyridis) was purposely introduced in the U.S. by none other than the United States Department of Agriculture between 1979 and 1981 to help control aphids.  However, the current populations of the Asian ladybugs are thought to have been supplemented by stowaways in shipping containers coming from Asia into the port of New Orleans.

Regardless of the particular species of ladybug that you find around your home, or congregating on your window screens at this time of year, ladybugs are not going to chew holes in your wool coats or infest your flour and other grain products in your pantry.  If a swarm of the multicolored Asian lady beetle does find its way into your home, shame on you for having uncaulked openings through which you have been losing heat in the winter.  I hear they can stink if you crush them, so try to exercise some restraint if they do move inside of your home.  Experts typically say that the best way of dealing with the Asian ladybugs is simply to prevent them from getting though the cracks into your home.  Caulk any gaps where utilities go through your wall and around where the window trim meets the siding on your home.

If thousands of any kind of lady beetles make it into your attic or the space between the studs in your house walls, an insecticide is that last thing that you want to use.  If you have an exterminator treat the voids in the walls and treat your attic and wherever else the ladybugs might want to congregate for warmth in the fall and winter, you will be left with thousands of ladybug carcasses in those inaccessible spaces.  The next bug to move in would be carpet beetles as then begin to feast on the dead ladybugs.  That's the real problem, because after the carpet beetles have eaten their fill of dead lady bugs they will move on to the woolen coats in your closets, the dry goods in your pantry, and even dry dog food.  So if you are concerned about any ladybugs you see in your house, it's already too late to exclude them.  So you might just want to live with them (or suck them up with a shop vac).

I would hope that most exterminators are more straightforward in their marketing efforts than to deliberately imply that all bugs of a certain taxonomic family are deserving of extermination, when, in fact, a few specific species can be a mere annoyance.  Indiscriminately applying chemical pesticides to eliminate bugs that are no real threat to human health or property seems reckless to me -- and rather immoral.

The motto, "Better living through chemistry," began to go out of vogue in the 1960s.  The 60s ushered in a lot of enlightenment that now seems like common sense.  For example, starting in 1968, new cars were required to be equipped with safety belts.  In 1964 the Surgeon General's report was published stating that smoking cigarettes is harmful to one's health.  And in 1962, Rachel Carson's best seller, Silent Spring, was published and warned of the cumulative toxic effects of pesticides in our environment.  Avoiding pesticides and most herbicides in my yard seems totally logical to me.  So when anyone questions me as to why I try to keep a chemical-free yard, I think of my little friend who I bumped into while mulching around my deck on Saturday.  This little guy (below) and his family appreciate that I don't use pesticides around my house and yard.  And he and his family return the favor by keeping the bug population around my patio in check.  Thanks buddy.

I keep a clay dish filled with rainwater under a bush at the side of my deck so that my toad friends can cool off while they chow down on insects around my deck and patio.