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 work counting, dissecting, measuring, and recording data. 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 there. 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.