Thursday, September 20, 2018

An Entomological Who Dunnit

Jeff Lockwood's book, Locust: The Devastating Rise and Mysterious Disappearance of the Insect That Shaped the American Frontier is available on Amazon, where I reviewed it.

Scientific understanding usually shuffles along in the two-to-three-year steps of graduate student research projects. Big, intriguing mysteries take longer to resolve, but are more fun to research—and more interesting to read about.

Jeff Lockwood tackled the mystery of why the Rocky Mountain locust went extinct at the dawn of the 20th century. The species' periodic irruptions rivaled the bison in terms of biomass and the 1875 outbreak still horrifies young readers of Laura Ingles Wilder's, On the Banks of Plum Creek. Then the insects disappeared.

In his book, Lockwood recounts the challenges of sleuthing out a big mystery. Big research projects require new research techniques and years of soul-crushing data collection. Papers describing new research findings are sometimes rejected by academic journals; colleagues sometimes snicker. Unearthing the Rocky Mountain locust's secrets required field work at remote high elevation "grasshopper glaciers" reached by difficult climbs in foul weather.

Big research projects need lots of brains and lots of backs. Lockwood doesn't hog the limelight; he credits his employees, students, and colleagues for their inventions and insights. Field research is carried out by people, so it's a social activity, which Lockwood captures. A twenty-five-mile hike, completed in the dark, isn't quite as bad when you're not suffering alone, and joy shared at discovery is joy multiplied.

Other ecological changes in the late 19th century might have been linked with the locust's disappearance: decline of the bison, changes in climate, or reduced burning by Native Americans. Lockwood guides readers through the possibilities and explains why he rejects each. He focuses instead on the ecological bottleneck of limited egg-laying sites in valleys of the northern Rocky Mountains. Lockwood determines that when settlers plowed and grazed these areas, they destroyed the locust's eggs, and with them, the species. The culprit was settlers, in valleys, with plows, by accident.

Although the Rocky Mountain locust's sky-filling swarms are gone with the thundering bison herds, Lockwood ends his book by wondering if a few individuals may live incognito in less disturbed valleys of the Rockies. Another big, intriguing mystery.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Marathon health, lava stroke, and natural resources

Mike Medberry's book, On the Dark Side of the Moon is available on Amazon, where I recently reviewed it.

Mike Medberry's legs carried him uphill to finish a half marathon the day before a clot in the 44-year-old's brain stopped blood flow, immobilizing his right side and scrambling his speech. His was the kind of stroke you want to have in the ER parking lot. But Medberry was hiking across lava at Craters of the Moon National Monument in Idaho. He spent most of a day waiting to be found and whisked to a hospital.

Medberry "became pure observer" while wounded and waiting on the lava. He describes the stroke clearly enough that I don't have to experience one myself to feel I have a working knowledge of the condition.

Recovering, Medberry learned to brush his teeth, drive, navigate phone trees, speak, and write. His struggles to organize his thoughts are heart-breaking. "…[T]he pieces of [his] brain were a blizzard of blowing pages ripped from a book." Medberry's emotional struggles are inspiring. His falling in love and recovering enough to say, "I do," are triumphs.

Interwoven with Medberry's own story is the story of Craters of the Moon. He was working to expand the national monument when the stroke found him. Even after the stroke, he hiked and found peace on the lava.

I enjoyed Medberry's descriptions of Idaho landscapes, but I wondered about a few points in his discussion of cheatgrass. He's correct that the exotic annual grass fuels wildfires that damage native vegetation and the wildlife habitat it provides. But I cringed when I read that cheatgrass is "[a] poison brought here by cowboys, for cows." In its native range, cheatgrass is an insignificant grass that doesn't inspire purposeful sharing. Researchers understand that the grass was inadvertently introduced to the U.S. West.

The stark black and white cover photo of a hiker leaning against gravity to climb lava echoes the contrast between Medberry's marathon health and lava stroke. Natural resource issues are rarely as clear cut and the actors, both people and plants, are rarely completely good or evil.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Hawley Creek fish habitat work, Lemhi Valley

Chinook salmon by the thousands used to leave the Pacific Ocean to struggle 800 miles up the Columbia, Snake, and Salmon rivers. Where the Continental Divide blocked their way, they hung a left and swam up the Lemhi River and its tributaries to spawn. Spawning fish jammed the waterways. Their thrashing and splashing kept the human residents of the valley away at night.
The Lemhi River south of Salmon, Idaho, in summer.
Europeans settlers changed the waterways of the Lemhi Valley. They rerouted tributary streams and the mainstem Lemhi to irrigate the hay fields that grow winter feed for cattle. Returning salmon found earthen dams and dry river bed blocking their way. Young fish, starting their trip to the ocean, found the same.
Angus cattle in the Lemhi Valley.
Bruce Mulkey, a rancher and chair of the Lemhi Soil Conservation District sounded the alarm in the 1980s. He urged the group (now the Lemhi Soil and Water Conservation District) to do what they could to help salmon. I wrote about ranchers saving Salmon's salmon for Hakai Magazine last fall.
The Lemhi River north of Leadore, Idaho, in fall.
Today, the LSWCD works with federal and state agencies and private landowners to return streams to their original channels and reconnect them to the mainstem Lemhi. The groups install more efficient irrigation structures and systems, which leave more water in the streams for fish.

In June, 2018, the LSWCD hosted a tour of improvements on Hawley Creek, near Leadore, Idaho. This tributary of the upper Lemhi has been returned to its original channel, after being diverted to a ditch, which left the creek bed dry for more than a century.
The LSWCD tour started where Hawley Creek enters the Lemhi Valley.
A new structure on upper Hawley Creek sends irrigation water through a pipeline to center pivot irrigation systems in the Lemhi Valley. The new pipeline loses less water during the trip than the open ditch it replaced. The pipeline delivers water directly to the center pivots, saving thousands of dollars per year formerly spent to pump water out of the ditch and onto the hay fields.
Paddle wheels power rotating drum fish screens to keep salmon out of the pipeline--and fields.
Center pivot irrigation uses less water and is far less work than flood irrigation, the former method. Flood irrigation required hours of hand work—hands with shovels in them. Ranchers also find that hay crops grow more evenly and that yields are higher with center pivots.

The pipeline and center pivot systems take less water out of the creek than the systems they replaced. This leave more water in Hawley Creek, which now adds more water to the Lemhi River.

Cumulatively, improvements on tributaries and the mainstem river have greatly increased flows in the Lemhi system. The reconnected waterways provide spawning sites for chinook salmon, steelhead, and resident trout, and nursery areas for young fish. The numbers of native fish in the Lemhi Valley are steadily increasing.
Sack lunches; come and get 'em.

Trampled grass at Homo spaiens feeding area.











The Upper Salmon Basin Watershed Program (USBWP) is installing beaver dam analogs (BDAs) in Hawley Creek, where it flows across the broad Lemhi Valley toward the mainstem river. These post and stick structures create pools that provide excellent fish habitat. Young cottonwoods trees are protected inside wire cages.
USBWP manager, Daniel Bertram, describes beaver dam analogs (BDAs) on Hawley Creek.
The last tour stop overlooked lower Hawley Creek where it has been returned to its original, winding channel. Willows trees still lined the original channel when the work started. Skilled backhoe drivers scooped up each willow, moved it out of the way, and replanted it after excavating work was done in the redesigned channel.  Light-colored gravel now fills the straight ditch, through which Hawley Creek used to flow.
Replanted willows line the original--and current--channel of lower Hawley Creek. 
Leadore rancher, Merrill Beyeler, listed five or six local families that are being supported by work on the numerous fish habitat projects in the Lemhi Valley. These families are able to stay in the Lemhi Valley and raise their children here.
Rancher Merrill Beyeler shares his local knowledge.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Uber drivers and long hours: Did NPR miss the bigger story?

Uber drivers can spend up to 14, or even 20, hours a day on the road. A recent NPR story highlighted the safety risks of the long hours. The story blamed Uber’s variable pricing and pay, which make it hard for drivers to know how much they’ll make in a shift.

As alarming as NPR’s report was, the financial reality for Uber drivers might be even worse than described. The figures presented suggest Uber drivers could make more asking McDonalds’ diners if they want fries with their burger.

NPR followed a Muncie, Indiana Uber driver on a Friday night. Driver Kyle Reninger prefers working weekend nights, when surge fares are most likely. These “nuggets of the Uber gold rush,” as the story called them, are the higher prices, and higher pay, that kick in when demand is high and supply low.

The story mentioned only the number and level of surge fares as sources of variability in Uber drivers’ earnings. The story overlooked variations in wait time between fares, distance to pick up fares, the value of each fare, and the size of tips. These are largely random. Drivers can't control where their next customer will be or where they'll want to go.

Random events hold the possibility of unexpected rewards. The uncertainty of a random reward is more addictive than the certainty of a known payment. Maybe the next customer will be just a block away, maybe they’ll want a ride to the next state, and maybe they’ll tip with a fistful of $100 bills. It could happen!

At the end of his shift Reninger had been in his car, either delivering a customer, waiting for a customer, or driving around looking for one, for 14 hours and 9 minutes. He drove 401.2 miles and made $165.30 from Uber. With tips, he “nearly hit his goal of $200.” That was “nearly” $200 before expenses.

The story noted the figures didn’t include the cost of gas, but it also overlooked other vehicle expenses. Every mile a car is driven moves it closer to maintenance, repair, and replacement costs. The IRS calculates that operating a vehicle costs 53.5 cents/mile. This means that Reninger's 401.2 miles cost him $214.64—more than he earned.

Uber drivers should be able to deduct business mileage expenses. Reninger and his wife make and sell vegan baked goods; perhaps his Uber driving losses offset bakery earnings. But is the hefty time investment worth it?

Did NPR wait for an unlucky driver on an unusually slow day? I can’t tell. If NPR's figures are correct, Uber drivers make appallingly little. Why do people choose to drive when they could make more at a minimum wage job? Reninger said, “If you don't enjoy doing it, then what's the point, really?” Does he drive for Uber as a hobby? To get out of the house and meet people?

I wonder the hope that the next customer will be the big one, the meter-busting fare with the outlandish tip, keeps Uber drivers in their cars hour after hour. The company seems to have plugged into our love of uncertainty and dream of hitting it rich. It’s the same dream that keeps poor people buying more lottery tickets than the affluent. But the fact is, buying lottery tickets keeps poor people poor.

Monday, January 9, 2017

The oldest profession?

Rancher Glenn Elzinga says herding might be the oldest profession. I wonder if he also knows shepherds have a long record of improving human culture. Shepherds brought civilization to people in the 4,000 year-old Epic of Gilgamesh. A couple thousand years later, shepherds starred in many Greek myths. One story traced the roots of cowboy poetry to the shepherd Daphnis, who composed the first pastoral poem on the island of Sicily.

Today, the profession doesn’t maintain the workforce it did in ancient times and it provides fewer cultural innovations, but shepherd still watch flocks of sheep in the U.S west. Herders live 24/7 with bands of a thousand animals. With the help of herding dogs, the shepherd guides the flock to browse a variety of plants and avoid poisonous fare. The animals are watched at all times and can be kept away from areas protected for other uses. The herder sleeps nearby to help the guard dogs protect the sheep from predators and theft.

For years, I wondered why herding sheep made so much sense, but herding cattle was, well, unheard of. I wondered until I heard Glenn Elzinga’s keynote address at the 2015 Idaho Sustainable Ag Conference. He's developing a "new" approach to ranching: he's herding his cattle.

After lunch, I lurked with intent and buttonholed Glenn as we walked back to the afternoon session. I followed up with an email. Later, I asked if I could write about him. He and his wife Caryl agreed. My story on Alderspring Grassfed (and herded) Beef was in the Fall 2016 issue of Edible Idaho.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Local land trust helps Swift River Farm grow in Salmon, Idaho

Local food used to be the only food in rural central Idaho. People living in isolated mountain valleys grew and shared most of what they ate. When paved roads and trucks arrived to stock grocery store shelves, residents shopped more and farmed less.

Jessica McAllese and Jeremey Shreve are (re)creating local food networks in Salmon, Idaho. The couple settled in the Lemhi County town in 2013 with a border collie named Nora, a tractor named Fergie, and years of experience farming in Pocatello.

Salmon has been fertile ground for Shreve and McAllese’s Swift River Farm. Other small farmers, a local foods group, and a farmers market are reviving small scale production and distribution systems.


Ranchers started the Lemhi Regional Land Trust to protect local landscapes and rural lifestyles. The trust found a way to help McAllese and Shreve buy land to expand their farm and build a home together.

I told the Swift River Farm story in the Summer issue of Edible Idaho.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

The vineyard is a-LIVE

Vineyards are evocative, pastoral landscapes that invite visitors to linger and relax with a glass of wine. These agricultural fields can be more or less environmentally friendly, depending on how they are managed. Bitner Vineyards is the first and, so far, only Low Input Viticulture and Enology (LIVE) certified vineyard in Idaho.

Ron and Mary Bitner use science-based practices to protect water, soil, and pollinators. The couple provide habitat for pollinators and use cover crops, integrated pest management (IPM) techniques, and biological control methods to reduce their use of pesticides. Embracing science comes naturally for Ron Bitner--his first career took him around the world as an expert on leafcutter bees for pollinating alfalfa.

I wrote about the Bitner’s LIVE vineyard in the Spring issue of Edible Idaho.