Live Freein' or Die in Deseret

With just enough time to unpack the parkas and load up the bike and climbing harness, I went south from polar bear country to Zion National Park with Josh and Katie from Mountain Time. Katie grew up in New Hampshire, so her state motto, for good reason, was a recurring motif throughout the week.

Fleeing religious persecution, the Mormons packed up their wagons in 1847 and left the Midwest. They traveled westward, looking for a place where they could live as they pleased, and on their own terms. One day, they came through a mountain pass and found themselves in an endless expanse of towering, snow-dusted mesas, lazuli skies, and vivid, glowing earth, painted with every color of the sunset. And they had this expanse all to themselves! So here they settled, and named this place “Deseret*.”

I can begin to imagine what the Mormons felt when they first saw this landscape. We drove through the night to get to Zion, so our first look at its gargantuan cliffs was upon exiting our tents at first light. The Tetons welcomed me from my tent door the first time I visited that park as well, and the experience felt very similar: Expansiveness, exploration, solitude, self-reliance, possibility, freedom. The sight of Zion Canyon was an affirmation that everything unwanted in life could be put on hold for a brief time. Everything else must be relevant to the immediate present.

I'm sure the Mormons felt the same relief when they first rolled into the desert. Live Free or Die, they probably thought as they trudged across the continent, looking for their new home. The three of us weren't escaping anything in particular, but like the Mormons, we wanted to have everything on our own terms and live as we pleased. When I was a kid I would "run away" from home a lot. This usually took me as far as the back yard, and only for a few hours, but there was a sense of adventure about it, so I kept doing it. That's what we were doing in Deseret, just enjoying the feeling of running away. Live Freein'.

Here are a couple highlights from the adventure.

Mountain biking atop Gooseberry Mesa, with Zion Canyon in the background.
Near The Big Bend in Zion National Park, taken from the base of a climb.

Enjoying a sunset along the Virgin River. Zion National Park

Virgin River in Zion National Park

*Deseret was the Utah Territory’s original name for only a short time, but the Mormon’s “Deseret” is still an unofficial name for the desert southwest.

The Great White Bear

For most of the year, Churchill, Manitoba is your standard, picturesque tundra town. Located on the western edge of Hudson Bay, Churchill was once a critical hub of the Hudson Bay Company, an English fur trading empire. Now it is a big seaport for exporting central-Canadian grains to the Atlantic. But for six weeks every year, it is the polar bear capital of the world. 

Polar bears are seal specialists. They spend all winter and spring patrolling the edges of the sea ice for the breathing holes of unwary ringed seals. During the bountiful seal season, bears will almost double their body weight. The seal season ends as the ice on the Hudson Bay breaks up around mid-July. Then the bears surf southward on ice floes, pushed by the north winds until they run aground at the southern end of the Bay. For the next four months, the bears wander around in a state of “walking hibernation,” eating practically nothing for about four months while daydreaming about seals and waiting for the sea ice to re-form. 

The bears know that solid ice means seal hunting, so they trek up the coastline to the place where they know the ice will form first. Churchill is this place. Four different major rivers flow into the Hudson Bay here. This freshwater lowers the salinity of the seawater around Churchill, allowing it to freeze much more readily than elsewhere. Come mid-November, a nice, thick layer of ice extends into the bay from Churchill, weeks before the rest of the bay begins to freeze. The bears want to be in position for the big day when the ice becomes thick enough to hunt on, so 600 to 1,000 bears arrive at Churchill weeks in advance.

There are no seals around before freeze-up, and mating season isn't until May, so the bears take advantage of the downtime by socializing. Polar bears roam over hundreds, even thousands of square miles over the course of the year, so this is a great opportunity for males to see who else is in the neighborhood. Two evenly-matched males will size each other up with a sparring match. Though they look brutal, and sometimes draw blood, these matches only serve to assess the strength of their competition come mating season. Fights during mating season are terribly vicious and very dangerous for both contenders, so friendly sparring matches right now help males avoid injury in the spring.

Female bears also wander around Churchill during this period. Non-pregnant females are waiting for freeze-up just like the males. Females that ARE pregnant are headed to den areas where they will hibernate under the snow until March, giving birth to cubs in the process. Think about that for a second. Pregnant bears miss out on several months of prime hunting while everyone else is out at the seal buffet. She heads into hibernation in November, without having eaten since August. When she emerges from her den, she hasn't eaten in seven months, and there are only a couple more months of prime hunting ahead before the sea ice melts again.

At first glance, this makes little evolutionary sense. Females should hibernate during the off-season, and give birth in time to take advantage of the whole hunting season. Why don't they? Here's my guess: 
Polar bears and grizzlies are very closely related. Fossil and genetic records indicate that polar bears may have diverged from grizzlies as recently as 200,000 years ago. Polar bear hibernation is timed almost exactly the same as grizzly hibernation, and grizzly hibernation makes perfect sense. Grizzlies hibernate over the dead of winter, a nice strategy to budget energy during a time of food scarcity on land. The fact that polar bears' hibernation schedule is decoupled from their maritime food calendar is evolutionary baggage from their grizzly ancestors. Males and non-pregnant females have done away with hibernation entirely, suggesting that it is not evolutionary advantageous for them. Thus, we are right in the middle of a "half-finished" adaptive trajectory. If we fast-forwarded through time, I imagine we would see pregnant females hibernating much earlier in the season, or not at all.

One cannot discuss polar bears without discussing global climate change. Most skeptics have an attitude of "I'll believe it when I see it."  Truly, any one storm, one bad winter, or one unprecedented heat wave cannot be blamed on climate change. Anecdotes are not data, and single events considered independently cannot support a scientific theory. That is why storms like Hurricane Sandy and this year's crippling droughts in the west cannot be paraded around by scientists as the silver bullet equivalent of conclusive evidence. Meanwhile, skeptics refuse to consider all the statistically rock-solid trend graphs that scientists constantly release, mostly because of a cultural distrust of science and ignorance of the scientific method. This is quite a bind: Skeptics want convincing, but refuse to be convinced with science.

(Un)fortunately, climate change has become such a reality that we no longer need graphs and figures to do the convincing. Instead, dumbfounding and obvious changes in natural processes reveal sobering truths. We can look at some ecosystems and immediately notice that something is seriously out-of-whack. Regular readers of this blog will remember the relationship between the pine bark beetle, whitebark pine trees, and Clark's Nutcrackers. That is one great example of how warming temperatures have clearly resulted in the collapse of a normally self-regulating balance.

The polar bears of Churchill are another example. The sea ice around Churchill freezes later and later each fall and thaws earlier and earlier in the spring, to the point that our company's Churchill tour calendar is 2 weeks earlier than 12 years ago. Fewer cubs are seen in Churchill because fewer females can put on enough body weight in the shortened hunting season to become pregnant. The Hudson Bay polar bears are predicted to be the first population to go extinct by 2050, due to a seal hunting season shortened by 7-9 weeks, 75% pregnancy failure due to low female weights, and dwindling sea ice. Every time the average extent of arctic sea ice is measured, it is the lowest ever recorded. In my lifetime, the polar bear season in Churchill will probably cease to exist. Out-of-whack indeed.

In the summer of 1832, nearly a thousand fur trappers and native Americans trickled into present-day Driggs, Idaho, for the famous Pierre's Hole Rendezvous. Hundreds of camps were scattered across 7 square miles of the western foot of the Tetons. The trappers traveled hundreds of miles from as far as Colorado, Utah, and Montana, carrying last year's bounty of pelts in on over three-thousand horses. Representatives from every major fur company were on-hand to exchange money and goods for the pelts. The event was what can only be described as a giant trapper party. After a few short weeks of festivities, story-swapping, and cordial camaraderie between rivals, the trappers dispersed to their respective territories across every nook and cranny of the Rockies to begin the fall hunt.

Churchill lies at the heart of one of the most significant fur trade hubs in the planet's history, and the polar bears continue to rendezvous here every year, getting ready for the coming hunting season, not unlike the trappers of not-too-long ago. May they continue to do so.

Autumn in Yellowstone

Summer is over in the Tetons and Yellowstone, and winter is quickly approaching. The following photos were taken on a single three-day wildlife tour in the parks, and capture the classic autumn behaviors of these animals. I enjoyed taking these photos, and I think you'll enjoy viewing them.

Disclaimer: Some of these photos were taken closer than the 25 yard minimum (or 100 yard for wolves and bears) that is enforced by the park service. I do my best to adhere to these distances whenever it is prudent to do so for the safety of my guests and the animal. The parks depend on our organization as a role-model for responsible wildlife watching. In all cases where we are within 25/100 yards of these animals, the wildlife approached us to feed in nearby habitat. We did not approach them. In many instances, staying put causes less disturbance to the animal than turning on a vehicle, slamming car doors, and maneuvering ourselves outside of the 25/100 yard zone. If the animals are comfortable, the guests are safe, and other onlookers are being respectful, I am happy.

The elk are in the middle of their mating season right now. Males have shed the velvet off their full-sized antlers, and now posture and display them to females, rival males, and human onlookers. Sounds of bugling males fill the woods as they compete for females and defend their harems. The biggest bulls look impressive and intimidating, but spend so much time courting, fighting, defending, and mating, they have little time left to eat food, and enter winter already starving.

Like the elk, bull moose are courting females and showing off their new antlers. Moose don't shepherd harems like elk, and instead follow around females in estrus one-at-a-time, hoping for a chance to mate while fending off all other bulls looking for a chance.

Pika are fattening up for the winter and drying out the the final layer of forbs for their massive haypiles. Once the snow sets in, they will eat from their stored larder all winter long. On the bottom of the pile one might find poisonous or noxious plants that, while not very nutritious, will keep all the way until the end of the winter. The poisonous compounds in these plants are often natural preservatives, so the pika keep these around as a last-resort food source.
The berry season is almost over, and black bears are searching the woods for any remaining hawthorns and snowberries. Here, a black bear has discovered a bush full of fresh rose hips. While not the most nutritious, they are ripe and plentiful, and a welcome food source. Bears must put on 30% of their body weight before hibernation, and have an insatiable appetite as a result.

The trees are turning brilliant yellows and oranges as the green chlorophyll pigments die within the leaves' plant cells. A tree can be torn down by the weight of heavy snow settled on leaves, so these cottonwoods and aspens opt to shed their leaves to prevent permanent damage. Meanwhile, a mother moose feeds on calcium-rich underwater vegetation to recover some of the nutrients she has lost by nursing twin calves all summer long. 

Wolves are becoming more active in the prey-rich valleys and meadows of Yellowstone. Elk and bison fight viciously for mating rights, and wolves patrol their territories looking for the injured losers of these fights. We are days away from our first snowstorm, and the wolves look forward to this. Elk are slow and clumsy in the deep and crusty snow, while the giant paws of a wolf act like snowshoes to keep them up on the surface.

A good guide will always be in the right place at the right time to see whatever the park has to offer. This time, the park had a lot to offer.

On the Job: Photography

Having a wonderful time leading wildlife trips through Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks. Here are some photos from the last 2 weeks in the field. Enjoy!

Bull moose

Grizzly #610 checking us out

Great Gray Owl

Yearling cub of grizzly #399 (above and below)

A wolf-watching sunset.

Speed Goats

These are pronghorn antelope:

But they aren't actually antelope like the ones in Africa (Antilopinae). Pronghorn are all by themselves in their own taxonomic family of American antelope (Antilocapridae), roaming the sage flats around the Wild West, including here in Grand Teton National Park. They used to have about 12 other brother and sister species (some the size of small rabbits!), which, for whatever reason, didn’t have the evolutionary edge to survive the last two ice ages. The lone surviving species, however, is probably the park’s most spectacular example of adaptive success.

Most animals exist in constant stress with not enough food. Imagine being a ground squirrel in this ecosystem. Your preferred plant food is only available for a few short months, and everything is trying to eat you: wolves, bears, cougars, bobcats, hawks, falcons, badgers, coyotes, fox, weasels, etc. Your best bet to avoid becoming dinner is to spend a few short weeks aboveground to frantically gather and store food, then return to your relatively safe burrow for the next 8 months. If you are an elk and don’t even have the luxury of hiding underground, you now have to deal with 6 feet of snow and -40 degree nights.

Pronghorn seem to be the impressive exception to this stressful reality, so if I had to be any animal in the park, it would be a pronghorn. For starters, they almost always have more than enough food. Despite growing everywhere here, sagebrush is only eaten regularly by one mammal: pronghorn. Sagebrush leaves are full of noxious alkaloids that mildly poison most herbivores, but pronghorn have the right complement of intestinal bacteria to break down and digest this otherwise unpalatable forage. And if I were a pronghorn in a vast expanse of sage, I would almost certainly be able to see a predator coming. My eyes would be so big and set so far to the side, I could see more than 270° without even turning my head.

Now suppose a pronghorn was so focused on its sagebrush lunch that a wolf managed to wind up within 50 yards of it. The wolf starts the chase, running flat-out at 42 mph towards the surprisingly unconcerned antelope. At this point, if I were a pronghorn, I would take a few more bites of sagebrush, chew for a while, scratch an itch, stretch my legs, look at some clouds, and maybe decide what direction I should move. No need to panic, because when I do decide to distance myself from the wolf, I could do so at 60 mph, and I could keep up this speed for a very long time. Within seconds I would leave the wolf in hundreds of yards of dust, and merrily return to eating sagebrush.

Why evolve the ability to run so fast? It reminds me of the wily coyote vs. the roadrunner. Natural selection in a predator/prey relationship results almost every time in a prey species that is just barely faster than its predator. If you could run, say, 45 mph, you could easily outrun the fastest thing chasing you in the western hemisphere. Nothing requires a pronghorn to run 60 mph, so, ostensibly, there is no evolutionary advantage to do so. Well, not anymore at least.

This is (a rendering of) a North American Cheetah:
File:Miracinonyx trumani.jpg
Once the fastest thing in the world, it went extinct during the last ice age.
 The pronghorn has outlasted its only historical predator, and now enjoys a life of bountiful food and virtually no threat of predation.

The pronghorn in Grand Teton National Park have one more trick up their sleeve. In the winter, the snow gets too deep for the antelope to move around in. So they migrate. They head east over the Gros Ventre mountain range, 150 miles southeast into central Wyoming, where the snow is thinner and the temperature ever-so-slightly warmer. It’s the second longest land migration in the western hemisphere (after caribou in Canada). The “Path of the Pronghorn” is known only by the 400 antelope that summer here in the park. They learned this ancestral trail from their parents, generation after generation, and walk such a reliable route every year that they leave, in some places, a trail as wide as a road.

Isn’t nature awesome?

In the Food Chain

How do you compare the Appalachians to the Rockies? In describing the Appalachians, you often hear words like bucolic, pastoral, rolling, comfortable, beautiful, peaceful. What about the Rockies? Striking, grandiose, intimidating, spectacular, sublime. At some level, one of the biggest instinctual differences between the two landscapes is what lurks within them. In Vermont, and most of the East, there is nothing wandering around the woods that will kill you. Out here, there are several options to choose from.

Mountain Lion=Cougar=Catamount=Puma=Panther
4.0" across at widest point.
Here’s a mountain lion track, just a few hours old, crossing my path on a big ridge jutting into the Bridger-Teton National Forest. The cougar biologists here say that there are only about 14 mountain lions in the Tetons and surrounding national forests. That’s well over a million acres, which is a lot of space, but a female needs over 100 square miles to roam in, and a male needs five times that space! I realize how lucky I am to have stumbled across the footprints of such a rare predator. On the other hand, one begins to wonder if it was really just coincidence. Seriously though, unless you find yourself hiking alone at night on game trails with a dim headlamp, you will probably never come within spitting distance of this track’s owner. If you ARE doing all those things, you may be within spitting distance and never know it. Creepy. And awesome.

not the clearest track, but claws and heel visible

a bit clearer track, but not a full imprint of the heel and claws

Here’s a grizzly bear track, which is something to be taken extremely seriously around here. To the right of the track is a can of bear spray, which is as essential as water and shoes on a hike around here. Bear spray is a non-water-soluble, industrial-strength pepper spray that has a range of about 25 ft. As the clerk at the local gear store told me: “if that stuff goes off in your backpack, you buy a new backpack. If it goes off in your car, you buy a new car.” Having had a minor accident with this stuff last year, I am totally confident in its abilities to ward off anything living (or dead). Statistics show it is far more effective than guns in preventing bear attacks. Bears only really attack people when they are threatened or surprised, so I spent most of my morning singing, shouting, and clapping while hiking through the thick brush, and hopefully to an empty house.

Yes, nothing quite like being in the midst of the food chain to keep you feeling alive and alert.

To participate in the local food chain, you have to either eat or be eaten, and fortunately (for us) there are still many more ways to do the former. The cutthroat trout below shows that my fly fishing success rate is already improved over last year. However, this is one of the only places in the country where cutthroat aren’t being perilously outcompeted by all their invasive brethren (rainbow, lake, brown, brook, and golden trout). I am still trying to decide on the ethics of eating this threatened species (which is perfectly legal), so this fishy went back into the river.

Most people today exist entirely outside of a food chain (a factory-farmed cow crossing your dinner plate doesn't count). Don't get me wrong, we should all continue avoiding bears and crocodiles on a daily basis. But you don't have to be under threat of predation to feel alive and connected (though it works like a charm). Grow a garden, catch a fish, hunt, help a friend carry his deer out of the woods. Engage your food from the middle.

Make Way for Buffalo

The bigger male bison weigh 2,000 lbs. My car is 3,000 pounds, and about the same dimensions. Perhaps they are aware of this fact, since they have no qualms about occupying the road. And sometimes it seems like the biggest bison don’t even cross the road. They mosey into both lanes of traffic and just stand there for minutes. Here, “bison jam” is an acceptable reason to be late to work. So while I waiting for 100 bison to get out of the way, I thought I’d take a couple photos and ponder this unusual animal.

Bison are about as winter-specialized as those groomer rigs at ski resorts. They appear awfully front-heavy, and you wonder if their back legs will come off the ground every time they put their head down. They have evolved to be nature’s snowplows.  All this forward power helps them muscle through the snow, and their huge heads can easily sweep aside 3 ft of snow to expose the grass and sedge beneath. And under all that snow, the dead and dormant grasses have about the same nutritional value as paper. Bison are equipped for this problem too: they have a ruminant digestive system, meaning they have 4 stomach chambers to extract every last bit of nutrition from each mouthful (this is an adaptation shared by all bovine animals).

In these photos, you’ll notice that the bison look pretty fluffy. In fact, their winter coats are so insulative, they start overheating at -5°C. Their winter layers hold in so much heat, the snow doesn’t even melt off their backs. Hence, many iconic Yellowstone winter photos feature bison looking like giant snowballs. With the last couple weeks of 60-degree weather, maybe this guy is just fussing about how hot it is. When they get uncomfortable enough, they’ll start rubbing up against trees, stumps, fenceposts, signs, or unattended cars, trying to shed all that fluff. By May or June, winter fur is stuck to anything sharp and pointy near the plains.

Bison are not to be bothered. They can run 35 mph, and tend to have sour tempers, especially in the July-September rut. In fact, most predators won't even mess with them. There is only one wolf pack in the whole 6-million-acre Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem with the nerve to take on a bison. And the wolves accepted into that pack are actually bigger than any of the other wolves around. Now that's pretty badass.

Bison kill more people around here than all other animals, including bears. Way, way more than bears. For some reason, tourists have a bad habit of trying to go and pet them. Bison don't like to be pet. Please enjoy responsibly.

However, I can understand why they might be a bit disgruntled with us. Back in the day, there were so many bison across the West that Lewis and Clark described them as "the moving multitude that darkened the plains." Thirty to 60 million, to be precise. As we expanded westward, we systematically and recreationally killed just about every single bison left in the world. Native Americans relied on them for food, so we killed them to starve out the tribes. When we built railroads, gentlemen would put on their Sunday best and, for 'sport,' gun down the herds from the caboose.

The only surviving bison, about 1,000 of them, were those of Greater Yellowstone, and that's where about 2,500, the vast majority of wild buffalo, still roam today.

Notice the half-shed winter fur. Yes, I know this is a recycled photo from last year.


In Ecology we talk about a sterile yet captivating concept called the Trophic Cascade. It is really just an imposing term that describes fancy food webs. Energy enters our atmosphere as sunlight and gets converted into many different forms by the time it winds up as a handful of wet dirt. In a textbook, this ultimately gets boiled down into calories of energy being fractionally converted from one stage of life to the next (using words like primary autotrophs, first-order heterotrophs, second-order heterotrophs, etc.). At best, you are already bored reading this paragraph. At worst, you were affronted by the scientific jargon and dismissed the whole thing as abstract and heady. 

The reality is that things happen in our world that cannot be fully absorbed by the naked eye, and scientists happen to be in the business of figuring out these things. Trouble is, scientists generally describe findings in exacting, sterile, and valueless terminology. This jargon is necessary to properly document their studies, but it generally hides what that scientist wants to come right out and say: “WOW, check this out! This is AMAZING! Can you believe this?!”

I want to share with you a jargon-free story about the Trophic Cascade that shows just how awesome and complex our planet is. It’s a story about a bird and a tree, and how their relationship affects everything else living around them. 
It’s also happens to be a story about the bird and the tree that I am currently employed to study.

This is a Whitebark Pine:

This is a Clark’s Nutcracker. It’s related to ravens, crows, and jays. And like ravens, crows and jays, it’s pretty smart:
Photo courtesy of US Fish & Wildlife Service

And this is the ecosystem in which they both exist:
As it so happens, this is the ecosystem in which I also currently exist on work days.

The Clark’s Nutcracker is virtually unstudied in the wild. Almost everything we know about it is either based on lab studies or general observations from a couple guys in the 1950s. But here’s what we do know: They spend their autumn caching whitebark pine seeds in holes in the ground. Every year, each bird makes over 7,000 caches, and stores anywhere from 30,000 to 98,000 seeds over an area at least the size of Manhattan! At the end of the winter when food becomes scarce, it remembers, revisits, and digs up about 70% of these caches! And it’s not just guessing where it put its seeds 6 months ago: It can find them under several feet of snow, and on hillsides that have no outstanding features to cache next to. Nutcrackers have been seen digging diagonally through several feet of snow to hit their cache dead-on... and I can barely remember where I put my chapstick 5 minutes ago.

But 30% of the seeds it never digs up. It probably forgets about them, which is understandable when you’re trying to keep track of 60,000 other seeds across the landscape. This act of forgetting or neglecting turns the Nutcracker into a little, feathery gardener-- It is the only animal tasked through evolution to plant whitebark pine. Without nutcrackers, very few whitebark seeds wind up underground and ready for germination.
And here’s something pretty cool: Sometimes Nutcrackers don’t “plant” those whitebark seeds in the best places for germination. Enter squirrels, mice, and all sorts of other rodents: Though not very adept at harvesting whitebark seeds right from the cones, rodents will often raid Nutcracker caches and re-cache them elsewhere for themselves. These critters have comparatively terrible memories, so they forget where they put a lot of them. AND, for some reason, the places they prefer to re-cache the seeds are often much better for germination!

But for every hero there is a villain. This is the mountain pine beetle:
Photo courtesy of
It bores holes into trees, lays eggs, and its larvae eat the tree from the inside out. The beetle also carries a little blue fungus that blocks up the tree’s tubing, preventing water from flowing up the trunk, and killing it from dehydration.

Now here’s where it gets really interesting. This beetle is NATIVE to the Rockies, and as of 2009, has made over half of the whitebark stands around Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem look like this:

And with few exceptions, any tree not already dead is infected. In some places in Montana and Colorado, over 90% of the whitebarks are dead. While you process that sad statistic, also keep in mind that these trees grow very slowly due to the short growing season and harsh climate where they live. The living whitebark in the first picture above (which is, by the way, infected), is probably about 500 years old. To make matters worse, another separate, introduced disease called blister rust plays cleanup batter, sickening or killing anything that has managed to evade the pine beetle devastation.

But let’s stick with the beetle, because, like mosquitoes and poison ivy, it has evolved as a native yet pesky member of our community. The beetle has not always caused so much damage. In fact, up until the mid-90s, it only infected a small percentage of the sickly trees in the landscape. But our climate is changing, and North America has been experiencing some undeniably and unusually mild winters. Historically, Mother Nature’s winter cold snaps killed off all sorts of overwintering insects. Our beetles can withstand some pretty cold nights, but it only takes one night of extreme cold (like -25°F to -40°F) to kill off almost all the beetle larvae hunkering down inside the whitebarks. You can imagine what happens after winters when the coldest snaps weren’t quite cold enough. This winter was, at some points, kind of chilly. I’m sure the beetles loved it.

We now have 5 characters: Nutcracker, Whitebark, Pine Beetle, and the supporting roles of Blue Fungus and Blister Rust. Let’s add some more.

Whitebark are excellent at germinating in bare soils in full sunlight, much like you would find after a fire passes through, after an avalanche wipes out a swath of forest, or after a bunch of clear-cut logging. Other trees in the Rockies—most of them, in fact—can’t germinate in such exposed conditions, and rely on “nurse trees”  — a.k.a. young whitebarks —  to provide a shady and climate-controlled patch of earth to get started. Englemann spruce, douglasfir, subalpine fir, limber pine, and a whole bunch of other forbs and shrubs may eventually outcompete the whitebark for that little patch of earth, but without the whitebark to get those plants started, our forests wouldn’t be nearly as diverse.

Each blueberry-sized seed contains about 1.2 calories of nutrition. The next closest conifer seeds contain, in order, 0.4, 0.2, 0.05, and 0.02 calories. As you can see, the whitebark seed is by far the best food around for lots of animals. Grizzly bears, in years of high whitebark cone crops, will spend most of their fall in the whitebark forests gobbling up these extremely calorie-dense seeds before hibernation. Nutcrackers don’t even breed in years of low whitebark cone crops, because there simply isn’t enough other food around to for their chicks to survive!
To string this circle back together: Whitebark dieoff means fewer whitebark seeds for Nutcrackers to eat, which means that many of these birds may leave for greener pastures or look elsewhere for things to eat. Without Nutcrackers, the Whitebarks have lost their main steward, so fewer seeds will be planted and germinate.

This even affects the nearby trout! With all the old trees dead and needle-free, and no young whitebarks germinating, the shade-free snow in these forests melts a lot faster, dirtying the streams long before the normal spring runoff season, and making it much harder for the already-near-endangered cutthroat trout to feed and spawn.

Why can’t the beetles and whitebarks just mind their own business, and not drag the rest of the ecosystem into their brawl? But no, thanks to some unseasonably warm winters and hungry larvae, suddenly a lot of creatures have to start thinking about other ways to get by: nutcrackers, squirrels, rodents, bears, trout, spruces, firs, and a whole lot more. Things that depend on or are eaten by these animals are also affected, and so on. The altered interaction between a bird and its tree, a tree and its beetle, has cascading impacts on everything else around.


Hi All,
One silver lining of underemployment is having large chunks of time to fill with travels. Seeing little snow on the horizon in this curiously mild VT winter, I flew down to Panama for 3 weeks to visit my buddy Jason in Panama. He is currently serving as a US Peace Corps volunteer in organic agriculture, and you can follow his blog here. Apologies in advance for the photo resolution, which is less than my usual standard on this blog. Due to the circumstances of our trip, most photos were taken on a phone or a bad point-and-shoot. Still, one would have to work very hard to make Panama look ugly.
More narrative about the trip to come. Enjoy!

Panama protests my arrival
Hours before embarking, the indigenous communities began widespread protests and demonstrations causing the blockage of the Pan-American Highway, the only conduit for east-west transportation across the country. Everyone seemed to be in support of these protests (except the government) despite their inconvenience on trade and tourism, as they were calling for the halt of illegal strip-mining and hydro-electric projects proposed for these autonomous tribal lands. In any case, I wound up in-country in the middle of all these protests (quite literally, as this photo indicates), making it very difficult to make predictable travel arrangements for the rest of the journey. Not only were roads closed, but the news was full of burning tires, tear gas clouds, and police vs protester standoffs.

No protests on the beach!
The first real destination of our trip was Las Lajas, a town an hour south of the ground zero of the protests. Fortunately things cleared up for a couple of days to allow us to get through, and we were delivered to this relaxing pacific locale. Not much to do here but swim a bit, play chess on the beach, and watch pelicans on the surf. What a difficult life. We spent a couple days here, then went up to Jason's site.

In site
After an hour long bus ride,  a 30-minute open-air-truck-taxi, and a 2 1/2 hour steep hike up a long-abandoned dirt road and trail network, the jungle opened up into a half-acre clearing that is home to Jason and his neighbors. Most of the dozen or so folks that live around him are one big family unit, all related in some way to the slightly senile grandma and grandpa. These folks are part of the Ngabe-Bugle tribe, one of 5 groups indigenous to Panama. All the women are excellent seamstresses, and wear these handmade, colorful dresses. This woman was nice enough to add some fancy decorations to one of my dress shirts!
Life was pretty mellow here. The excitement of the day was the newly-carved seat for the pit toilet. When there is no harvesting to be done, folks mainly sit around the hammocks drinking cacao tea and listening to the radio. Jason taught some of the men to play chess, and I had the pleasure of playing several games against them. At various points throughout the day, someone would make a big pot of rice and beans for everyone to share, then we would resume drinking tea. We spent a while gathering leaves and litter to mulch Jason's vegetable garden, and one of the kids came along with a large machete to help us chop down the vegetation. 

View from a high point on the hike out of Jason's site. We spent 4 or 5 nights there, then headed on to our next destination.

We spent one indulgent night on Boca Brava, an island with a mid-priced hostel with fruity island drinks, monkeys howling in the woods, and lovely sunrises and sunsets over the lagoons. Not much to report on here.
Our next stop was Boquete, a high-elevation touristy town known for its fabulous coffee and striking mountains.

While in Boquete, we toured an organic coffee plantation that made the world-renowned Gesha coffee, which sells for around $180/lb. Favored with high elevation, lots of precipitation, cool temperatures, and volcanic soils, the coffee grown in this region has a tart and fruity flavor that needs no cream or sugar. Above is a selection of freshly-dried beans that were light-, medium-, and dark-roasted for us. The cooky owner of this small farm kept appearing over our shoulders, pouring us coffee from a full french press.

The highlight of our trip was certainly the hike up Volcan Baru. At 11,398 ft, it is Panama's highest point, and on a clear morning the Atlantic and Pacific oceans can both be easily seen from the peak. We began our 17-mile hike at midnight, and arrived just in time for dawn at the summit. Hummingbirds and butterflies joined us the entire hike down, as the trail weaved through farms, pastures, and cloud forest.

Cerro Punta, our last big destination, is on the opposite site of Volcan Baru from Boquete,  and we could have hiked between the two towns on a famous little trail had we been prepared for it. Instead, we took a 3 or 4 hour bus ride to reach this end-of-the-road town, which is known for its fresh strawberries and ubiquitous flowers. The town's agriculture is precariously situated on steep slopes, and creative contouring and irrigation ditches seems to reduce the inevitable erosion risk from catastrophic to worrisome. Even though the watershed was surely not in the best shape thanks to these questionable farming practices, it was sure a gorgeous looking town!

The only thing more beautiful than the town of Cerro Punta was its rainforests.  We spent two mornings hiking deep into the cloud forests in search of the Resplendent Quetzal, which did not disappoint, and we were also rewarded with waterfalls, dramatic vistas, and 1,500 year old trees.