Category: conservation

Some years ago I mentioned Pleistocene Park, a project in Siberia attempting to recreate what scientists call the Mammoth Steppe, to reduce combat global climate change. Please join me in making a donation, even two dollars can help. More information about Pleistocene Park and how to donate is available here.

yakut horses at pleistocene park in siberia

Yakutian Horses at Pleistocene Park

I thought a digital rendering of a pine cone that I picked up in Ma’alot in northern Israel, would look nice with a quotation from naturalist John Muir. Muir was an early advocate of wilderness preservation in the United States, particularly in the west.

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john muir quote and pine cone

Preaching of Pines

Where the slopes are covered with pine forests, the Galilee reminds me very much of the western parts of North American. Jews began planting pines in the 1930s to reforest lands damaged by neglect and overgrazing by goats when under Turkish rule. Pines were chosen, in part, due to the fact that most of the “olim,” Jewish immigrants, were from Europe and pines looked normal to them. Eventually, the pine forests came under criticism, referred to as pine tree deserts, monotonous and sterile. Many people wanted to see native species reintroduced. However, in recent years much of the criticism has died away. It seems the pines have promoted the rebuilding of the soil. Native undergrowth and tree species, as well as wildlife, are making a comeback. And I can attest that sometimes the smell of pine resin is just wonderful.

The cone pictured is from from one of those pines, an Aleppo Pine (Pinus halpensis), also known as the Jerusalem Pine, is the only species of wild pine that grows in Israel. It is commonly accepted that the tree now called “pine” is the Biblical “oil tree”, as mentioned in Isaiah XLI, 19:

“I will plant in the wilderness the cedar, the acacia tree, and the myrtle, and the oil tree…”

It is also mentioned in I Kings VI, 23:

“And inside the sanctuary he made two cherubs of oil wood, each ten cubits high.”

The oil tree is also mentioned verses 31 and 33 of the same chapter, as well as in Nechemia VIII, 15.

The oil tree features close to other impressive trees in the description of the vision of the redemption, in the blossoming of the desert and the arid land. In the Mishnah and other rabbinic literature, the oil tree is mentioned as a tree that was used for kindling the beacons that were lighted to announce a new month.

The pine, in its present name, is mentioned in the Bible just once, in the Book of Isaiah XLIV, 14:

“… and takes the cypress and the oak, which he strengthens for himself among the trees of the forest; he plants a pine, and the rain nourishes it.”

There is a mention of pine trees in the Mishnah in the context of the various trees which were used for burning the “red heifer”. There are also those who hold that pines were among the trees used for kindling the beacons to announce a new month.

Here is another view of the cone, superimposed on fallen needles.

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pine cone and needles

Pine Cone and Fallen Needles

The Aleppo pine blossoms and flowers in the spring. The male cones are shed after the flowering while the female cones develop into fruit. The cone stays closed on the tree until a heavy sharav [hamsin], when it opens and its seeds are scattered.

Several versions of these images are available on a wide variety of items at one of my Zazzle. stores. Search for “pine cone” or “muir.”

This is a follow-on to the most recent post.

Alaska already has one Copper River; it does not need another. Here’s a Pebble Mine Penny made from copper to be taken from the mine. As copper leaching from mine tailings will seriously impact salmon spawning grounds the coin features a fish skeleton. It also features text reading “IN PERPETUITY” (forever), which even the mine developers admit is how long the tailings pile will remain dangerous. And when the Salmon are gone that will be in perpetuity as well.

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stop pebble mine - a pebble mine penny

Pebble Mine Penny

A penny for your thoughts. Write the EPA and ask them to disapprove the Pebble Mine.

As with the earlier Pebble Mine graphic I will donate a hefty percentage of any proceeds from the sale of items bearing this image to organizations fighting Pebble Mine. The more items sold the greater percentage I will donate. Search “Stop Pebble Mine” at my Zazzle store.

In any event, please help stop Pebble Mine. For starters find more information here and here

After the Salmon are gone what will we eat? A depiction of a Sockeye Salmon in its red spawning phase.

stop pebble mine

Stop Pebble Mine

Miners want access to a very large deposit of gold, copper and molybdemum, located in the headwaters of the Kvichak and Nushagak Rivers, two of the eight major rivers that feed Alaska’s Bristol Bay. Bristol Bay is home to one of the world’s few and most productive wild salmon strongholds that supports a $500 million commercial and sport fishery. Plans for the mine include the world’s largest earthen dam to be built, some 700 feet high and several miles in length. Independent scientists have questioned whether the dam could withstand the force of a massive earthquake, such as the 9.2 quake that devastated Anchorage in 1964. The dam and 10-square-mile-wide containment pond are intended to hold between 2.5 billion and 10 billion tons of mine waste that Pebble would produce over its lifetime – nearly enough to bury Seattle, Washington.

Mine tailings would include sulfides, which become sulfuric acid, as well as copper. The area around the mine is a spawning ground for salmon. Salmon are highly sensitive to pollution, especially copper. If salmon are exposed to even miniscule amounts of copper (parts per billion), their sense of smell is interfered and impairs their ability to locate spawning grounds and identify predators. By the consortium’s own admission the earthen dam will need to be maintained in perpetuity (i.e. forever) in order to ensure acid-generating tailings do not damage the environment. Activity at the mine will last for approximately thirty years until the ores are exhausted. And, we are supposed to believe that the consortium will still be around ten thousand years from now protecting the environment; or maybe just one thousand years from now, or even fifty years from now. Forever is a long time. After the mine is played out the consortium will be gone leaving an inevitable catastrophe in its wake.

In addition, the mine is to be sited in an active geological zone, but we are told the fault line miraculously goes around the site and poses no threat.

The consortium, the Pebble Limited Partnership (PLP), includes the world’s second largest multinational mining corporation, London-based Anglo American, along with Northern Dynasty, a junior mining company headquartered in Canada. Anglo American’s environmental track record does not bode well for Bristol Bay and Northern Dynasty has little experience safeguarding the environment having never developed a mine to date.

Anglo has a disastrous track record on the environment and worker safety at its worldwide mines, including:

Zimbabwe – Acid runoff contaminated groundwater and polluted the Yellow Jacket River from a mine owned by Anglo American until 2003
Nevada – Anglo American is responsible for the largest source of mercury air pollution in United States history. Recommendations to limit fish consumption have been issued for downwind fisheries.
Ireland – Lead and zinc contaminated river sediments and sections of the river were closed to anglers.
Over 220 mine workers have died at Anglo American mining operations in the last five years.

This image is available on many items at my Zazzle store, search under “After Salmon.” I will donate a hefty percentage of any proceeds from the sale of items to organizations fighting Pebble Mine. The more items sold the greater percentage I will donate – even up to 100 percent. In any event, please help stop Pebble Mine. For starters find more information here and here

Cover art for double platinum album “Anthropocene” by the mythical rock group The Carbon Footprints. It portrays a dystopian future of burning, abandoned cities, rusting automobiles, oil and nuclear waste drums; polluted skies and water, and denuded landscapes resulting from humanity’s disregard for the environment. The album includes the hit songs “Meltdown,” “Extinction Event” and “Drill, Baby, Drill.”

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As early as 1873, the Italian geologist Antonio Stoppani acknowledged the increasing power and effect of humanity on the Earth’s systems and referred to an “anthropozoic era.” Anthropocene is a term proposed by Nobel Prize-winning scientist Paul Crutzen, to describe a geological epoch of human dominance of biological, chemical and geological processes on Earth. The term, like other time period designations (Pleistocene) has Greek roots: anthropo meaning “human” and cene meaning “new.”

The designation Anthropocene” would serve to mark the evidence and extent of human activities that have had a significant global impact on the Earth’s ecosystems. Crutzen regards the influence of human behavior on the Earth’s atmosphere in recent centuries as so significant as to constitute a new geological epoch. To date, the term has not been adopted as part of the official nomenclature of the geological field of study.

In 2008 a proposal was presented to the Stratigraphy Commission of the Geological Society of London to make the Anthropocene a formal unit of geological epoch divisions. A large majority of that Stratigraphy Commission decided the proposal had merit and should therefore be examined further. Steps are being taken by independent working groups of scientists from various geological societies to determine whether the Anthropocene will be formally accepted into the Geological Time Scale.

Many species have gone extinct due to human impact. Most experts agree that human beings have accelerated the rate of species extinction, although the exact rate is controversial, perhaps 100 to 1000 times the normal background rate of extinction. In 2010 a study published in Nature found that “marine phytoplankton — the vast range of tiny algae species accounting for roughly half of Earth’s total photosynthetic biomass – have declined substantially in the world’s oceans over the past century. Since 1950 alone, algal biomass decreased by around 40%, probably in response to ocean warming – and the decline has gathered pace in recent years. Some authors have postulated that without human impacts the biodiversity of this planet would continue to grow at an exponential rate. The implications being that climate change is accelerating due to, or exacerbated by, human activities.

One suspected geological symptom resulting from human activity is increasing leves of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere. During glacial-interglacial cycles of the past million years, natural processes have varied CO2 by approximately 100 parts per million (ppm) (from 180 ppm to 280 ppm). At the onset of the Industrial Age atmospheric concentration of CO2 was approximately 280 ppm. Recently CO2 levels monitored at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii reached 400 ppm. This signal in the Earth’s climate system is especially significant because it is occurring much faster, and to an enormously greater extent, than previous, similar changes. Most of this increase is due to the burning of fossil fuels. Smaller fractions are the result of cement production and land-use changes such as deforestation.

The Anthropocene has no precise start date, but based on atmospheric evidence may be considered to start with the Industrial Revolution (late eighteenth century). Other scientists link the new term to earlier events, such as the rise of agriculture and the Neolithic Revolution (around 12,000 years ago). Evidence of relative human impact such as the growing human influence on land use, ecosystems, biodiversity, and species extinction is controversial; some scientists believe the human impact has significantly changed (or halted) the growth of biodiversity. Those arguing for earlier dates posit that the proposed Anthropocene may have begun as early as 14,000 to 15,000 years ago, based on lithospheric evidence; this has led other scientists to suggest that the Anthropocene began many thousand years ago; this would be closely synchronous with the current term, Holocene.

Bee Nice

Bee nice to the bees. A bumblebee does its work on Fireweed in Alaska.

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bumblebee on fireweed

A bumble does its work on Fireweed in Alaska

Bees are the primary pollinators in ecosystems containing flowering plants. Bees and other insects pollinate 70 per cent of cultivated plants, accounting for 35 per cent of overall food production. Fewer bees means smaller harvests. Bees are in trouble; that means we are as well.

There are nearly 20,000 known species of bees. They are found on every continent except Antarctica, in every habitat on the planet that contains insect-pollinated flowering plants. Bees feeding on nectar and pollen, the former primarily as an energy source; the latter primarily for protein and other nutrients. Most pollen is used as food for larvae. The best-known bee species is the European honey bee, which, as its name suggests, produces honey, as do a few other types of bee.

Bees either focus on gathering nectar or on gathering pollen depending on demand, especially in social species. Bees gathering nectar may accomplish pollination, but bees that are deliberately gathering pollen are more efficient pollinators. It is estimated that one third of the human food supply depends on insect pollination, most of which is accomplished by bees, especially the domesticated European honey bee.

Bees have a long proboscis (a complex “tongue”) that enables them to obtain the nectar from flowers. They have antennae almost universally made up of 13 segments in males and 12 in females. Bees all have two pairs of wings, the hind pair being the smaller of the two; in a very few species, one gender or caste has relatively short wings that make flight difficult or impossible, but none are wingless.

Most bees are fuzzy and carry an electrostatic charge, which aids in the adherence of pollen. Female bees periodically stop foraging and groom themselves to pack the pollen into the scopa, which is on the legs in most bees, and on the ventral abdomen on others, and modified into specialized pollen baskets on the legs of honey bees and their relatives. Many bees are opportunistic foragers, and will gather pollen from a variety of plants, while others concentrate on only one or a few types of plant. A small number of plants produce nutritious floral oils rather than pollen, which are gathered and used by some bees.

Visiting flowers can be a dangerous occupation. Many assassin bugs and crab spiders hide in flowers to capture unwary bees. Other bees are lost to birds in flight. Insecticides used on blooming plants kill many bees, both by direct poisoning and by contamination of their food supply. A honey bee queen may lay 2000 eggs per day during spring buildup, but she also must lay 1000 to 1500 eggs per day during the foraging season, mostly to replace daily casualties, most of which are workers dying of old age.

Bees are in trouble; that means we are as well.

Colony collapse disorder (CCD) is a phenomenon in which worker bees from a beehive or European honey bee colony abruptly disappear. While such disappearances have occurred throughout the history of apiculture, and were known by various names (disappearing disease, spring dwindle, May disease, autumn collapse, and fall dwindle disease), the syndrome was renamed colony collapse disorder in late 2006 in conjunction with a drastic rise in the number of disappearances of Western honeybee colonies in North America. European beekeepers observed similar phenomena in Belgium, France, the Netherlands, Greece, Italy, Portugal, and Spain, and initial reports have also come in from Switzerland and Germany, albeit to a lesser degree while the Northern Ireland Assembly received reports of a decline greater than 50%.

The growth in the use of neonicotinoid pesticides has roughly tracked rising bee deaths since 2005. In 2012, several scientific studies showed that neonicotinoids had previously undetected routes of exposure affecting bees including through dust, pollen, and nectar; that very small amounts were sufficiently toxic to cause failure to return to the hive without immediate lethality, the primary symptom of CCD, and indicated environmental persistence of neonicotinoids in irrigation channels and soil. These studies prompted a formal 2013 peer review by the European Food Safety Authority that said neonicotinoids pose an unacceptably high risk to bees. CCD is probably compounded by a combination of factors. In 2007, some authorities attributed the problem to biotic factors such as Varroa mites, Nosema apis parasites, and Israel acute paralysis virus. Other contributing factors may include environmental change-related stress, malnutrition, and migratory beekeeping. Another study in 2012 also pointed to multiple causes, listing pesticides behind the varroa mite, genetics, habitat loss, and poor nutrition.

In April 2013, the European Union announced plans to restrict the use of certain pesticides to stop bee populations from declining further and by the end of the month passed legislation which banned the use of several neonicotinoids for the following two years. Shortages of bees in the US have increased the cost to farmers of renting them for pollination services by up to 20%

Since about 1972 there has been a dramatic reduction in the number of feral honey bees in the US – they have largely disappeared. And the number of colonies maintained by beekeepers has also declined. This decline includes the cumulative losses from all factors, such as urbanization, pesticide use, tracheal and Varroa mites, and commercial beekeepers’ retiring and going out of business. However, in late 2006 and early 2007 the rate of attrition reached new proportions, and the term colony collapse disorder was coined to describe the sudden disappearances. After several years of research and concern, a team of scientists headed by Jerry Bromenshenk published a paper in October 2010 saying that a new DNA-based virus, invertebrate iridescent virus or IIV6, and the fungus Nosema ceranae were found in every killed colony the group studied. In their study they found that neither agent alone seemed deadly, but a combination of the virus and Nosema ceraneae was always 100% fatal. Bromenshenk said it is not yet clear whether one condition weakens the bees enough to be finished off by the second, or whether they somehow compound the other’s destructive power. “They’re co-factors, that’s all we can say at the moment. They’re both present in all these collapsed colonies.”Investigations into the phenomenon had occurred amidst great concern over the nature and extent of the losses. In 2009 some reports from the US suggested that 1/3 of the honey bee colonies did not survive the winter, though normal winter losses are known to be around 25%. At the end of May 2012, the Swiss government reported that about half of the bee population had not survived the winter. The main cause of the decline was thought to be the parasite varroa.

Apart from colony collapse disorder, many of the losses outside the US have also been attributed to other causes. Pesticides used to treat seeds have been considered prime suspects.

Native pollinators include bumblebees and solitary bees, which often survive in refuges in wild areas away from agricultural spraying, but may still be poisoned in massive spray programs for mosquitoes, gypsy moths, or other insect pests. Although pesticide use remains a concern, the major problem for wild pollinator populations is the loss of the flower-rich habitat on which they depend for food. Throughout the northern hemisphere, the last 70 or so years have seen an intensification of agricultural systems, which has decreased the abundance and diversity of wild flowers.

What you can do to help:

You can help bees by planting bee-friendly flowers and shrubs in your garden or outside space. A garden or patch devoted to plants that are attractive to bees can be a source of great pleasure to any beekeeper, as much for the riot of color as for the activity of the bees.

Two other important factors contribute to a successful bee garden: The flowers should be in full sunlight and should be planted in groups. Flowers grown singularly or in twos and threes may fail to attract bees. A decent-sized clump of a suitable plant, such as lavender, is much more valuable. Likewise, bees often overlook flowers grown in shade even though they may produce nectar and pollen.

Unfortunately, some of the most spectacular-looking garden flowers are of no use whatsoever to the honeybee. Double-headed roses, chrysanthemums and dahlias, for example, provide no nectar and hardly any pollen. In contrast, many flowers that are often discounted as weeds, such as dandelions and forget-me-nots, provide a rich source of food. That is why one of the best and easiest things you can do to make your garden more bee-friendly is to throw away the weedkillers that maintain those immaculate-looking lawns and instead let your lawn and flower beds go wild.

If you are not quite ready to hand over your well-tended garden to the vagaries of nature, the next best thing is to leave just a patch to run wild. One way to get your wild garden started is to sow wildflower seed mixtures. The flowers will be a useful source of nectar and pollen.

Information drawn from multiple sources.


The Icelandic whaling ship Hvalur 9, sailing a blood-red sea, fires an explosive harpoon at a group of fleeing Fin Whales.

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ragnarok for the fin whales

Iceland resumes killing Fin Whales

Iceland is set to resume killing Fin Whales this year in contravention of an International Whaling Commission (IWC) moratorium. We learned recently that meat from the endangered Fin Whale was being made into luxury dog treats in Japan. “The most likely reason for shops to sell the whale meat dog treat is to target affluent Japanese who want to show off their wealth with something different,” said Nanami Kurasawa, executive director of the Japan-based Dolphin and Whale Action Network. “The product description identifies the meat as being Fin Whale of Icelandic origin. Its use in pet food suggests that new markets are being explored.”Due to international public reaction the company has just announced that it will cease manufacturing the treats, but Fin Whale met will still be imported and sold for human consumption.

The same firm also makes dog treats from Mongolian horses and kangaroos.

It seems to me that the much-touted Japanese love of nature stops at the waters edge of the home islands.

Ragnarok is the Norse end times legend. Ragnarok will be a great battle resulting the destruction of Valhalla and the deaths of several of the Norse gods: Odin, Thor, Týr, Freyr, Heimdallr, and Loki. A number of natural disasters will occur, and the world will be submerged in water. The catastrophic nature of Ragnarok seems appropriate given the resumption of hunting this endangered species.

The Fin Whale is believed to be the second largest animal ever to have lived on the planet after the blue whale. A full-grown adult can be almost 90 feet in length and weigh 75 tons. Fin Whales are extremely fast, they can outrun most any vessel. They usually ignore ships, but will occasionally race vessels, smashing into waves on a parallel course at a safe distance.

Such speed enabled them to avoid the near extermination suffered by the slower Right Whale until the invention of steam, and later, diesel engines; and the introduction of explosive harpoon heads.

In the 1950s and early 1960s, 30,000 Fin Whales were killed each year. Between 1905 and 1976, 725,000 Fin Whales were reportedly caught in the Southern Ocean, 74,000 in the North Pacific between (1910-1975) and 55,000 in the North Atlantic (1910-1989).

Japan has killed 18 Fin Whales in the last eight Antarctic whaling seasons (ten in the southern summer of 2005-6, three in 2006-7, zero a year later, one in both 2008-9 and 2009-10, two in 2010-11 and one in 2011-12). The score was zero again this year. Since the season of 2007-8, they had allocated themselves a quota of 50 Fin Whales per year, but the ever more effective interventions by Sea Shepherd have prevented these slaughter numbers.

Greenland has an IWC quota of 19 Fin Whales, the North Atlantic subspecies, per year. Greenland wanted to increase their ‘large whale’ quota, but this was refused, because investigations showed that whale meat was freely sold in over a hundred stores in Greenland and was served in tourist restaurants as ‘whale barbeque’ or ‘Greenland sushi.’ Greenland kills whales under an aboriginal permit that demands that all the products from the killed whales must be used for the subsistence of the original human population. The Greenlanders however went commercial with whale meat even making it available in Denmark shops.

Earlier this year, Greenland did what all the whale poachers of the world do when they disagree with the IWC – they ignored this impotent body’s decision and set their own quota – but they kept their fin whale take at 19.

Commercial whaling was discontinued in Iceland in 1986 when the IWC moratorium came into effect, but they used the familiar so-called scientific whaling excuse until 1989. Most of that catch was used as feed on fur farms in Iceland. In 1992, Iceland left the IWC, but could not resume whaling as IWC member Japan was not allowed to import whale meat from a non-member. They rejoined in 2002 with a reservation to the moratorium. In 2009, they set their own quota at 154 Fin Whales per year. That year, they caught 125 of these animals; 148 a year later.

In 2012, Iceland decided for the second consecutive year not to kill Fin Whales. In 2011, there was no demand for whale meat in Japan as a result of the earthquake and tsunami occurring in March of that year. The earthquake reportedly damaged two of the whale meat processing plants with which the Icelanders do business. Business? Yes! Where the appetite for Minke whale meat is small in Iceland, the market for fin whale meat is non-existent. The hunt is only pursued for the export profit from Japan, a glorified subsidizing scheme as Japan’s warehouses are full of unsold whale meat, but that nation fears the day that they are the last slaughterers of whales on the planet.

Sea Shepherd is in the forefront of the effort to protect whales and other marine life. Visit Sea Shepherd’s web site and/or support them by buying t-shirts here.

Compiled from multiple sources.

I am fond of images on leather. Plains Indians often painted on buffalo hides. You have probably seen such images; they often depict historical events; battle or bison hunts.

Here a galloping bison is painted on the skin side of a beaver pelt stretched on a willow hoop.

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Bison paintong

Bison bison bison

The bison (Bison bison), the largest land mammal in North America, is considered a keystone species: they once roamed the continent in great herds, and their grazing pressure helped shape the ecology of the Great Plains. Two subspecies or ecotypes have been described: the plains bison (Bison bison bison), smaller in size and with a more rounded hump, and the wood bison (Bison bison athabascae) – the larger of the two and having a taller, square hump.

The bison is a relative newcomer to North America, having originated in Eurasia and migrated over the Bering Strait About 10,000 years ago it replaced the steppe bison (Bison priscus), a previous immigrant that was much larger. It is thought that the steppe bison became extinct due to a changing ecosystem and hunting pressure following the development of the Clovis point and related technology, and improved hunting skills. During this same period, other megafauna vanished and were replaced to some degree by immigrant Eurasian animals that were better adapted to predatory humans. The extant bison, technically a dwarf form, was one of these animals.

There were once an estimated 20-30 million bison, also referred to as buffalo, roaming North America. Their range once roughly comprised a triangle between the Great Bear Lake in Canada’s far northwest, south to the Mexican states of Durango and Nuevo León, and east along the western boundary of the Appalachian Mountains.

The first thoroughfares of North America, except for the time-obliterated paths of mastodon or musko, were the traces made by bison and deer in seasonal migration and between feeding grounds and salt licks. Many of these routes, hammered by countless hoofs instinctively following watersheds and the crests of ridges in avoidance of lower places’ summer muck and winter snowdrifts, were followed by Native Americans and were invaluable to explorers..

The term “buffalo” may be considered a misnomer for this animal, as it is only distantly related to either of the two “true buffalo,” the Asian water buffalo and the African buffalo. However, “bison” is a Greek word meaning ox-like animal, while “buffalo” originated with the French fur trappers who called these massive beasts bœufs, meaning ox or bullock – so both names, “bison” and “buffalo,” have a similar meaning. In reference to this animal, the term “buffalo,” which dates to 1635, has a much longer history than the term “bison,” which was first recorded in 1774.The American bison is more closely related to the wisent or European bison.

Unregulated shooting of bison, which culminated in mass slaughters during the 1870s, reduced the population to 1,091 in 1889. Today, approximately 500,000 bison live across North America. Most are not pure bison but rather have been cross-bred with cattle in the past and are raised as livestock on ranches. Fewer than 30,000 bison are in conservation herds, and fewer than 5,000 are free-ranging and disease-free. Today bison are ecologically extinct throughout most of their historic range, except for a few national parks and other small wildlife areas. Yellowstone National Park has the largest population of free-roaming plains bison (about 4,000), and Wood Buffalo National Park has the largest population of free-roaming wood bison (about 10,000).

A bison has a shaggy, long, dark brown winter coat, and a lighter weight, lighter brown summer coat. The winter coat is so thick and well insulated that snow can cover its backs without melting. Male bison are slightly larger than females. Plains bison typically weigh from 700 to 2,200 lbs. The heaviest wild bull ever recorded weighed 2,800 lbs. When raised in captivity and farmed for meat, the bison can grow unnaturally heavy and the largest semi-domestic bison weighed 3,800 lbs. The heads and forequarters are massive, and both sexes have short, curved horns that can grow up to 2 feet long, which they use in fighting for status within the herd and for defense.

Bison are herbivores, grazing on the grasses and sedges of the North American prairies. Their daily schedule involves two-hour periods of grazing, resting and cud chewing, then moving to a new location to graze again. This regular motion ensures that bison seldom overgraze an area.

Bison often rub and roll on the ground creating shallow, saucer-like depressions called wallows. Bison roll in wallow, wet or dry, covering themselves with dust or mud. Past explanations and current hypotheses suggested for wallowing behavior include grooming behavior associated with shedding, male-male interaction (typically rutting behavior), social behavior for group cohesion, play behavior, relief from skin irritation due to biting insects; reduction of ticks and lice; and thermoregulation.

Wallows were once a common feature of the plains. In winter, bison can dig through deep snow with their heads to reach the vegetation below.

Bison have poor eyesight, but have acute hearing and an excellent sense of smell. Bison can reach speeds of up to 35 mph.

Bison have a life expectancy of approximately 15 years in the wild and up to 25 years in captivity.

Bison mate in late spring and summer in more open plain areas. During fall and winter, bison tend to gather in more wooded areas. During this time, bison partake in horning behaviors. They will rub their horns against trees, young saplings and even telephone poles. Aromatic trees like cedars and pine seem to be preferred. Horning appears to be associated with insect defense as it occurs most often in the fall when the insect population is at its highest. Cedar and pines emit an aroma after bison horn them and this seems to be used as a deterrent for insects.

While often secure from predation due to their size and strength, in some areas, bison are regularly predated by wolves. Wolf predation typically peaks in late spring and early summer, with attacks usually being concentrated on cows and calves. Observations have shown that wolves more actively target herds with calves than those without. The length of a predation episode varies, ranging from a few minutes to over nine hours. Bison display five apparent defense strategies in protecting calves from wolves: running to a cow, running to a herd, running to the nearest bull, running in the front or center of a stampeding herd, and entering water bodies such as lakes or rivers. When fleeing wolves in open areas, cows with young calves take the lead, while bulls take to the rear of the herds, to guard the cows’ escape. Bison typically ignore wolves not displaying hunting behavior. Wolf packs specializing in bison tend to have a greater number of males, as their superior size compared to the females allows them to wrestle their prey to the ground more effectively. The grizzly bear can also pose a threat to calves and sometimes adult bison, especially infirm specimens.

Bison were a keystone species, whose grazing pressure was a force that shaped the ecology of the Great Plains as strongly as periodic prairie fires and which were central to the lifestyle of Native Americans of the Great Plains. However, there is now some controversy over their interaction. “Hernando De Soto’s expedition staggered through the Southeast for four years in the early 16th century and saw hordes of people but apparently did not see a single bison,” Charles C. Mann wrote in 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus. Mann discussed the evidence that Native Americans not only created (by selective use of fire) the large grasslands that provided the bison’s ideal habitat but also kept the bison population regulated. In this theory, it was only when the original human population was devastated by wave after wave of epidemic (from diseases of Europeans) after the 16th century that the bison herds propagated wildly. In such a view, the seas of bison herds that stretched to the horizon were a symptom of an ecology out of balance, only rendered possible by decades of heavier-than-average rainfall. Other evidence of the arrival circa 1550–1600 AD in the savannas of the eastern seaboard includes the lack of places which southeast natives named after buffalo. Bison were the most numerous single species of large wild mammal on Earth.

What is not disputed is that before the introduction of horses, bison were herded into large chutes made of rocks and willow branches and then stampeded over cliffs. These buffalo jumps are found in several places in the U.S. and Canada, such as Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump. Large groups of people would herd the bison for several miles, forcing them into a stampede that would ultimately drive many animals over a cliff. The large quantities of meat obtained in this way provided the hunters with surplus, which was used in trade.

Later, when Plains Indians obtained horses, it was found that a good horseman could easily lance or shoot enough bison to keep his tribe and family fed, as long as a herd was nearby. The bison provided meat, leather, sinew for bows, grease, dried dung for fires, and even the hooves could be boiled for glue. When times were bad, bison were consumed down to the last bit of marrow.

The only continuously wild bison herd in the United States resides within Yellowstone National Park.[23] Numbering between 3,000 and 3,500, the Yellowstone Park Bison Herd is descended from a remnant population of 23 individual ‘mountain’ bison that survived the mass slaughter of the 19th century by hiding out in the Pelican Valley of Yellowstone Park. In 1902, a captive herd of 21 plains bison was introduced to the Lamar Valley and managed as livestock until the 1960s, when a policy of natural regulation was adopted by the park.

The end of the ranching era and the onset of the natural regulation era set into motion a chain of events that have led to the bison of the Yellowstone Park Bison Herd migrating to lower elevations outside the park in search of winter forage. The presence of wild bison in Montana is perceived as a threat to many cattle ranchers, who fear that the small percentage of bison that carry brucellosis will infect livestock and cause cows to abort their first calves. However, there has never been a documented case of brucellosis being transmitted to cattle from wild bison. The management controversy that began in the early 1980s continues to this day, with advocacy groups arguing that the Yellowstone Park Bison Herd should be protected as a distinct population segment under the Endangered Species Act.

For more information concerning Yellowstone bison visit the Buffalo Field Campaign.

Bison are now raised for meat and hides. The majority of bison in the world are being raised for human consumption. Bison meat is lower in fat and cholesterol than beef,a fact which has led to the development of beefalo, a fertile crossbreed of bison and domestic cattle. In 2005, about 35,000 bison were processed for meat in the U.S., with the National Bison Association and USDA providing a “Certified American Buffalo” program with birth-to-consumer tracking of bison via RFID ear tags. There is even a market for kosher bison meat; these bison are slaughtered at one of the few kosher mammal slaughterhouses in the U.S., and the meat is then distributed nationwide.

A proposal known as Buffalo Commons has been suggested by a handful of academics and policymakers to restore large parts of the drier portion of the Great Plains to native prairie grazed by bison. Proponents argue that current agricultural use of the shortgrass prairie is not sustainable, pointing to periodic disasters, including the Dust Bowl, and continuing significant human population loss over the last 60 years. However, this plan is opposed by some who live in the areas in question.

Two Native Americans paddle their canoe across a lake, just offshore, on a foggy morning. A black bear sow is none too pleased and has sent her cub up a nearby birch tree for safety.

Click on image for full-size view.

Black bears on a lake shore

A Black Bear Sow And Her Cub

The American black bear, Ursus americanus, is the smallest of the three bears species found in North America, and are found only in North America. Although they all live in North America, black bears are not closely related to brown bears and polar bears; genetic studies reveal that they split from a common ancestor 5.05 million years ago. Black bears can be distinguished from brown bears by their smaller size, their more concave profiles, their shorter claws and the lack of a shoulder hump.

Black bear fur is usually a uniform color except for a brown muzzle and light “crescent moon” markings that sometimes appear on their chests. Despite their name, black bears show a great deal of color variation. Individual coat colors can range from white, blond, cinnamon, or light brown to dark chocolate brown or to jet black, with many intermediate variations existing. Bluish tinged black bears occur along a portion of coastal Alaska and British Columbia. White to cream colored black bears occur in coastal islands and the adjacent mainland of south-western British Columbia. Albino specimens have also been recorded. Black coats tend to predominate in moist areas such as New England, New York, Tennessee, Michigan and western Washington. 70% of all black bears are black, though only 50% of black bears in the Rocky Mountains are black. Black bears with white-bluish fur are known as Kermode (glacier) bears and these unique color phases are only found in coastal British Columbia, Canada.

Black bears are omnivorous: plants, fruits, nuts, insects, honey, salmon, small mammals and carrion. In northern regions, they eat spawning salmon. Black bears will also occasionally kill young deer or moose calves.

The American black bear is distributed throughout North America, from Canada to Mexico and in at least 40 states in the U.S. They historically occupied nearly all of the forested regions of North America, but in the U.S. they are now restricted to the forested areas less densely occupied by humans. In Canada, black bears still inhabit most of their historic range except for the intensively farmed areas of the central plains. In Mexico, black bears were thought to have inhabited the mountainous regions of the northern states but are now limited to a few remnant populations.

Black bears are extremely adaptable and show a great variation in habitat types, though they are primarily found in forested areas with thick ground vegetation and an abundance of fruits, nuts, and vegetation. In the northern areas, they can be found in the tundra, and they will sometimes forage in fields or meadows.

Black bears tend to be territorial and non-gregarious in nature. They mark their territories by rubbing their bodies against trees and clawing at the bark. They are strong swimmers, doing so for pleasure and to feed. Black bears climb regularly to feed, escape enemies or to hibernate. Their arboreal abilities tend to decline with age. Adult black bears are mostly nocturnal, but juveniles are often active in daytime. The bears usually forage alone, but will tolerate each other and forage in groups if there is an abundance of food in one area.

Most black bears hibernate depending on local weather conditions and availability of food during the winter months. In regions where there is a consistent food supply and warmer weather throughout the winter, bears may not hibernate at all or do so for a very brief time. Females give birth and usually remain denned throughout the winter, but males and females without young may leave their dens from time to time during winter months.

Black bears were once not considered true or “deep” hibernators, but because of discoveries about the metabolic changes that allow black bears to remain dormant for months without eating, drinking, urinating, or defecating, most biologists have redefined mammalian hibernation as “specialized, seasonal reduction in metabolism concurrent with scarce food and cold weather”. Black bears are now considered highly efficient hibernators.

Black bears enter their dens in October and November. Prior to that time, they can put on up to 30 pounds of body fat to get them through the seven months during which they fast. Hibernation in black bears typically lasts 3–5 months. During this time, their heart rate drops from 40–50 beats per minute to 8 beats per minute. They spend their time in hollowed-out dens in tree cavities, under logs or rocks, in banks, caves, or culverts, and in shallow depressions. Females, however, have been shown to be pickier in their choice of dens, in comparison to males. A special hormone, leptin is released into their systems, to suppress appetite. Because they do not urinate or defecate during dormancy, the nitrogen waste from the bear’s body is biochemically recycled back into their proteins. This also serves the purpose of preventing muscle loss, as the process uses the waste products to build muscle during the long periods of inactivity. In comparison to true hibernators, their body temperature does not drop significantly (staying around 35 degrees Celsius) and they remain somewhat alert and active. If the winter is mild enough, they may wake up and forage for food. Females also give birth in February and nurture their cubs until the snow melts. During winter, black bears consume 25–40% of their body weight. The footpads peel off while they sleep, making room for new tissue. After emerging from their winter dens in spring, they wander their territories for two weeks so that their metabolism accustoms itself to the activity. They will seek carrion from winter-killed animals and new shoots of many plant species, especially wetland plants.In mountainous areas, they seek southerly slopes at lower elevations for forage and move to northerly and easterly slopes at higher elevations as summer progresses.

Up to 85% of the black bear’s diet consists of vegetation, though they tend to dig less than brown bears, eating far fewer roots, bulbs, corms and tubers than the latter species. Young shoots from trees and shrubs during the spring period are important to black bears emerging from hibernation, as they assist in rebuilding muscle and strengthening the skeleton and are often the only digestible foods available at that time. Berries, fruits, grasses, nuts and buds are often eaten. During this period, they may also raid the nut caches of squirrels. Black bears are fond of honey, and will gnaw through trees if hives are too deeply set into the trunks for them to reach them with their paws. Once the hive is breached, black bears will scrape the honeycombs together with their paws and eat them, regardless of stings from the bees.

The majority of the black bear’s animal diet consists of insects such as bees, yellow-jackets, ants and their larvae. Black bears will fish for salmon during the night, as their black fur is easily spotted by salmon in the daytime. However, the white furred black bears of the islands of western Canada have a 30% greater success rate in catching salmon than their black furred counterparts.They will also prey on mule and white-tailed deer fawns in certain areas. In addition they have been recorded preying on elk calves in Idaho and moose calves in Alaska. Black bear predation on adult deer is rare but has been recorded. They may hunt adult moose by ambushing them as they pass by. Black bears often drag their prey to cover, preferring to feed in seclusion and frequently begin feeding on the udder of lactating females, but generally prefer meat from the viscera. The skin of large prey is stripped back and turned inside out with the skeleton usually left largely intact. Unlike wolves and coyotes, black bears rarely scatter the remains of their kills. Vegetation around the carcass is usually matted down by black bears and their droppings are frequently found nearby. Black bears may attempt to cover remains of larger carcasses, though they do not do so with the same frequency as cougars and grizzly bears. They may climb up to bald eagle nests to eat the eggs or chicks. Black bears have been reported stealing deer and other animals from human hunters.

It is estimated that there are at least 600,000 black bears in North America. In the United States, there are estimated to be over 300,000 individuals. However, the Louisiana black bear (Ursus americanus luteolu) and Florida black bear (Ursus americanus floridanus) are threatened subspecies with small populations. The current range of black bears in the United States is constant throughout most of the northeast (down to Virginia and West Virginia), the northern midwest, the Rocky mountain region, the west coast and Alaska. However it becomes increasingly fragmented or absent in other regions. Despite this, black bears in those areas seems to have expanded their range during the last decade. Surveys taken from 35 states in the early 1990s indicate that black bears are either stable or increasing, excepting Idaho and New Mexico.

Black bears currently inhabit much of their original Canadian range, though they do not occur in the southern farmlands of Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba.

Mexico is the only country where the black bear is classed as endangered.

Black bears feature prominently in the stories of some of America’s indigenous peoples. One tale tells of how the black bear was a creation of the Great Spirit, while the grizzly was created by the Evil Spirit. In the mythology of the Haida, Tlingit, Tsimshian people of the Northwest Coast, mankind first learned to respect bears when a girl married the son of black bear Chieftain. In Kwakiutl mythology, black and brown bears became enemies when Grizzly Bear Woman killed Black Bear Woman for being lazy. Black Bear Woman’s children, in turn, killed Grizzly Bear Woman’s own cubs. The Navajo believed that the Big Black Bear was chief among the bears of the four directions surrounding Sun’s house, and would pray to it in order to be granted its protection during raids.

Morris Michtom, the creator of the teddy bear, was inspired to make the toy when he came across a cartoon of Theodore Roosevelt refusing to shoot a black bear cub trapped up a tree. Winnie the Pooh was named after Winnipeg, a female black bear cub that lived at London Zoo from 1915 until her death in 1934. A black bear cub who in the spring of 1950 was caught in the Capitan Gap fire was made into the living representative of Smokey Bear, the mascot of the United States Forest Service.

Unlike grizzly bears, which became a subject of fearsome legend among the European settlers of North America, black bears were rarely considered overly dangerous, even though they lived in areas where the pioneers had settled. Black bears rarely attack when confronted by humans, and usually limit themselves to making mock charges, emitting blowing noises and swatting the ground with their forepaws. However, according to Stephen Herrero in his Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance, 23 people were killed by black bears from 1900 to 1980. The number of black bear attacks on humans is higher than those of the brown bear, though this is largely because the black species outnumbers the brown rather than them being more aggressive.

For more information, to include conservation efforts, visit both The North American Bear Center and The Great Bear Foundation.

I do not know if you have ever heard the term “roaring silence.” Roaring silence is encountered only when it is extremely quiet; no cars, no airplanes, none of the typical man made sounds. You can hear the stillness and it is quite loud. It’s the sound of the planet, or the universe. I am not sure what causes it. It is becoming ever harder to experience.

The wolverine is one of those species which inhabit the roaring silence; they require large quiet spaces to survive. More about the animal after the newspaper article.

Click on image for full-size view.

A wolverine,Gulo gulo, in the wilderness


Is Silence Going Extinct?

Peter van Agtmael/Magnum, for The New York Times

Davyd Betchkal, sound catcher, in Denali National Park and Preserve in Alaska.

From the New York Times; March 15, 2012

Davyd Betchkal, sound catcher, in Denali National Park and Preserve in Alaska.

March 15, 2012

Setting off in the predawn gloaming of central Alaska, we were the sounds of swishing snow pants, crunching boots and cold puffs of breath. As sunrise gradually lightened the late November sky, we took visible shape: a single-file parade on a narrow white trail traveling west, deeper into Denali National Park and Preserve. It was three degrees and so still that when we pulled up to rest, I heard no wind, no sibilant leaves, just a barely perceptible ringing in my ears. Tundra swans, kestrels and warblers had all flown south. Grizzlies were asleep in their dens. We tramped over frozen streams and paused to discover water still trickling faintly in hollows below. To the north, a morning blast of pink and orange brightened snow-shrouded Mount Healy at the edge of the Alaska Range; to the south — where the sun is always rising or setting during winter at a latitude just three degrees shy of the Arctic Circle — an alpine ridge remained covered in shadow and alder.

We saw a beaver hut on a frozen pond and moose tracks in snow. Ice frosted the nettles of black spruce and the beard of our leader, Davyd Betchkal, the park’s physical-science technician. Betchkal’s beard recalled that of his hero, the naturalist Henry David Thoreau, at the start of the Civil War. Otherwise he was a 25-year-old Wisconsinite wearing a lime green hat knit by his mother. He and I shouldered backpacks each weighted with 30 pounds of recording equipment. Far up ahead, a park ranger on skis towed more gear by sled.

Our destination was a ridge above Hines Creek, where Betchkal planned to assemble a station to collect a month’s worth of continuous acoustic data documenting an intangible, invisible and — increasingly — endangered resource: natural sound. Our mission was not only to trap the ephemeral but also to experience it ourselves, which at the moment was impossible for three reasons: 1) the chafing of our nylon outfits; 2) the chunking of our military-issue Bunny Boots on ice; and 3) planes.

“If you’re on foot and you choose to focus on the natural quality of the landscape, you’re completely immersed in nature; nothing else exists,” Betchkal said to the back of my head, letting me set the pace as we traipsed steadily uphill. “Then a jet will go over, and it kind of breaks that flow of consciousness, that ecstatic moment.” Meditating on our surroundings, I became a little curious how much farther we had to go. “Don’t think about that — that’s my answer,” Betchkal called ahead cheerfully. “Another answer is that I don’t know.”

An undeveloped swath of land nearly the size of Vermont, Denali should be a haven for natural sound. Enormous stretches of wild country abut the park in every direction save east, where Route 3 connects Fairbanks to Anchorage. One dead end and mostly unpaved road penetrates the park itself. Yet since 2006, when scientists at Denali began a decade-long effort to collect a month’s worth of acoustic data from more than 60 sites across the park — including a 14,000-foot-high spot on Mount McKinley — Betchkal and his colleagues have recorded only 36 complete days in which the sounds of an internal combustion engine of some sort were absent. Planes are the most common source. Once, in the course of 24 hours, a single recording station captured the buzzing of 78 low-altitude props — the kind used for sightseeing tours; other areas have logged daily averages as high as one sky- or street-traffic sound every 17 minutes. The loudest stretch of the year is summer, when hundreds of thousands of tourists flock to Denali, embarking on helicopter or fixed-wing rides. Snowmobiles are popular with locals, and noise from the highway, the park road and daily passenger trains can travel for miles. That sort of human din, studies are beginning to suggest, is imperiling habitat — in Denali as well as wilderness areas around the world — as surely as a bulldozer or oil spill. But scientists have so little information about what landscapes should sound like without human interference that trying to correct the problem would be like a surgeon’s wielding a scalpel without knowing the parts of the body, let alone his patient’s symptoms. To restore ecosystems to acoustic health, researchers must determine, to the last raindrop, what compositions nature would play without us.

For more than 40 years, scientists have used radio telescopes to probe starry regions trillions of miles away for sounds of alien life. But only in the past five years or so have they been able to reliably record monthslong stretches of audio in the wildernesses of Earth. Last March, a group of ecologists and engineers taking advantage of advances in collecting, storing and analyzing vast quantities of digital data declared a new field of science: soundscape ecology. Other disciplines have long observed how various sounds affect people and individual animal species, but no one, they argued in the journal Bioscience, has yet studied the interconnected sounds of whole ecosystems. Soundscapes — composed of biological utterances like birdcalls, geophysical commotions like wind and running water and anthropogenic noises like motors — are “an acoustic reflection of the patterns and processes of the landscape,” the paper’s lead author, Bryan Pijanowski, an ecologist at Purdue University, told me. “And if we can take sound samples and develop appropriate metrics, we might be able to say, ‘Hey, this is a healthy landscape and this is an unhealthy landscape.’ ”

Indeed, though soundscape ecology has hardly begun, natural soundscapes already face a crisis. Humans have irrevocably altered the acoustics of the entire globe — and our racket continues to spread. Missing or altered voices in a soundscape tend to indicate broader environmental problems. For instance, at least one invasive species, the red-billed leiothrix of East Asia, appears to use its clamorous chatter to drown out the native European blackbird in Northern Italy. Noise can mask mating calls, cause stress and prevent animals from hearing alarms, the stirrings of prey and other useful survival cues. And as climate change prompts a shift in creatures’ migration schedules, circadian rhythms and preferred habitats — reshuffling the where and when of their calls — soundscapes are altered, too. Soundscape ecologists hope they can save some ecosystems, but they also realize they will bear witness to many finales. “There may be some very unique soundscapes around the world that — just through normal human activities — would be lost forever,” Pijanowski says — unless he and colleagues can record them before they disappear. An even more critical task, he thinks, is alerting people to the way “soundscapes provide us with a sense of place” and an emotional bond with the natural world that is unraveling. As children, our grandparents could hope to swim in a lake or lie in a meadow for whole afternoons without hearing a motorboat, car or plane; today the engineless hour is all but extinct, and we’ve grown accustomed to constant, mild auditory intrusions. “Humans are becoming an increasingly more urban species, and so we’re surrounding ourselves with concrete and buildings” and “the low hum of the urban landscape,” Pijanowski says. “We’re kind of severing the acoustic link that humans have with nature.”

In Denali, silence and solitude define the winter. Fall, Betchkal says, is the departure of the sandhill cranes — an urgent, lonely trilling of flocks taking flight. Spring returns with wood frogs, the park’s only amphibian. “They’re a riotous little chorus of fellows,” Betchkal told me the day before our expedition, as I watched him assemble and test, in an empty library across from his office building, the station he planned to deploy. Outfitted in a flannel shirt and jeans, he could have been a woodsman readying his traps if not for the headphones he wore. “It’s like a really organic, biological sounding rasping, but it’s really nice, like krrrup, krrrup,” he continued, pausing amid a tangle of wire to roll his R’s. In high school, Betchkal’s band teacher told him that before he could play a note on his trumpet, in order to appreciate how the instrument produced the syllable, he needed to articulate the sound himself. Betchkal thinks the same is true of wildlife sounds: “To understand what they’re all about, you have to make them,” he said. “You’ve got to. People think it’s goofy, but it isn’t. It’s studying.”

Sounds are remarkably difficult to describe without onomatopoeia. Defining the resource he wants to protect — in words and numbers, to scientists and policy makers — is a fundamental challenge for Betchkal and other soundscape researchers. Betchkal, though, is well suited to his role. As a boy, he went camping in Wisconsin’s Devil’s Lake State Park with his father, an amateur ornithologist who taught him the pleasures of lying in a sleeping bag listening to birdcalls. At the University of Wisconsin, Madison, he majored in biochemistry and botany while running soundboards for indie bands at the King Club downtown. For Betchkal, whose office bookshelf holds titles as various as “An Introduction to the Psychology of Hearing,” “Statistical Treatment of Experimental Data” and “Glacier Travel and Crevasse Rescue,” perhaps the greatest appeal of soundscape ecology is the way it intersects other fields of study. “It’s almost like going back to old-school naturalism,” Betchkal said, “where you paid attention to anything and everything that was fascinating. That’s totally what I’m into — interdisciplinary science.”

Surprisingly, soundscape ecology, with its focus on the natural, got its start in the streets. An M.I.T. city planner first applied the word “soundscape” to habitat analysis in 1969 for a study he did on the “informativeness” and “delightfulness” of various sonic environments around Boston. Pushing volunteers about in wheelchairs, first blindfolded, then ear-muffled, then without sensory checks, he discovered that the sounds of seaports and civic centers were just as important as their appearance in influencing how much people enjoyed being there. This was a novel notion, even though objections to undesirable sounds date back to the invention of neighbors. In his influential 1977 work, “The Tuning of the World,” the Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer charts man’s relationship with noise. As long ago as 3000 B.C., he notes, the Epic of Gilgamesh discussed “the uproar of mankind,” which aggravated the god Enlil. “Sleep is no longer possible,” he complains to the other gods. In the second century A.D., wagon traffic “sufficient to wake the dead” ruined the Roman poet Juvenal’s ability to rest between Satires. Many English towns were sequestering their blacksmiths by the 13th century, and Bern, Switzerland, passed its first law “against singing and shouting in streets or houses on festival days” in 1628. Over the next 300 years, it also legislated against “barking dogs,” “singing at Christmas and New Year’s parties,” “carpet-beating” and “noisy children.” In 1972, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency declared noise a pollutant.

Only recently, however, have governments from Japan to the European Union begun to recognize natural sounds as a resource requiring protection. When Woodrow Wilson created the National Park Service in 1916, it was to “conserve the scenery”; not until 2000 did a Park Service director issue systemwide instructions for addressing “soundscape preservation.” In 1986, a midair plane crash above the Grand Canyon National Park — where sightseeing tours had operated virtually unchecked for almost 70 years — prompted Congress to pass the National Parks Overflights Act, requiring the Park Service to work with the Federal Aviation Administration in remedying the “significant adverse effect on the natural quiet” that aircraft there appeared to be having. The act also called for studying the impacts of overflight noise on other parks.

Initial research returned alarming results. In Yosemite, planes were heard 30 to 60 percent of the day. In the Haleakala volcano crater in Maui, 8 to 10 helicopters passed overhead per hour. What’s more, other experiments showed, much as the M.I.T. study did, that noise affected the way visitors saw landscapes: when volunteers viewed photos of natural vistas while listening to helicopters on tape, they rated the scenes less picturesque than they did under quieter conditions. By 2000, the National Park Service had staffed a division to gather data on park soundscapes nationwide and create, with the F.A.A., air-tour management plans at 100-plus locations. More than a decade since — partly because of disagreements between aviation and conservation interests — no such plan is in place, though many parks have begun looking for ways to trim other noise, turning off idling shuttle buses, curbing car traffic and investing in less uproarious maintenance tools. Grand Canyon managers, after nearly 25 years of laboring, last year proposed amendments to the timing and routes of sightseeing flights that would make the park somewhat more serene.

When Denali fielded its first sound station in April 2001, far earlier than nearly every other park in the country, the primary concern was determining the level of annoyance caused by planes and snowmobiles. But scientists were about to realize the damage society’s widening sonic footprint could do to natural ecosystems. In 2003, a Dutch team studying a common songbird, the great tit, reported in Nature that males of the species shifted their calls to a higher frequency in cities, where low-frequency human noise masked their normal song range. Further proof that urban sounds cause wild creatures to adjust their vocal styles quickly followed. Nightingales sing louder in louder environments. Robins — usually diurnal singers — switch to nighttime in areas that are chaotic by day. Subjected to constant mechanical whirring, certain primates, bats, whales, squirrels and frogs all change their cries. Many other animals, it seems, lack the physical equipment to adapt, and perish or move away. Not only are individuals editing their tunes in real time — as the great tits did — but natural selection is also rewarding louder, higher-frequency singers, redirecting the course of evolution.

Species can fight for airtime in a limited bandwidth by changing their volume or frequency, or by rescheduling the timing of their calls. But there’s no way animals can alter their ability to listen — for their very survival — if human noise conceals, for example, the twig-snap of a prowler or the skittering of prey. In the United States, where more than 80 percent of land is within two-thirds of a mile of a road, the listening area available to most creatures is rapidly shrinking. Beyond hunting and hiding, even invertebrates use the gabbing of unwitting cohabitants for navigation. Sightless, earless and adrift in the open ocean, coral larvae seek to settle on tropical reefs by swimming toward the throbs of muttering fish and snapping-shrimp claws. Eurasian reed warblers en route to southern Africa at night flutter blind over pine forests, sand dunes and the Baltic Sea until, hundreds of feet below, the cheeping of other warblers signals the presence of sustaining wetlands. If those aural cues disappear, the species that heed them may be floating and flying without a compass.

Explosive human sounds can have catastrophic impacts, especially underwater, where they travel faster and farther than they do in the air. Porpoises and whales have beached themselves fleeing the high-pitched shrieks of U.S. Navy sonar, researchers believe; they also blame the low-frequency booms ships use to search for oil and gas for fatally ripping through the organs that cephalopods like squid use to detect vibrations. Fewer studies have examined the health impacts of more mundane, chronic noises on terrestrial species, but proof is emerging that the droning of freeway traffic and the 24/7 rumbling of natural-gas-pipeline compressors directly harm the ability of birds nesting nearby to reproduce. Jesse Barber, a biologist at Boise State University who is the co-author of two recent papers about the impacts of noise on land-dwelling animals, writes that “it is clear that the acoustical environment is not a collection of private conversations between signaler and receiver” but a network of broadcasts reaching both intended and invisible listeners. Like pulling Jenga blocks from a teetering tower, removing sounds from soundscapes — or adding them — he warns, “could have volatile and unpredictable consequences.”

In the library across from his office building, Betchkal crawled among cables, politely probing each instrument with a voltmeter like a plaid-clad doctor with a stethoscope. The park has been able to take continuous recordings since only 2010 (previous setups recorded five seconds of audio every five minutes), and the scale and quality of its efforts in the wilderness are among the most advanced in the world. Though each station costs about $12,000, glitches are common: the instruments still aren’t designed to work together, or in outdoor conditions. Wind has toppled them; rivers have flooded them; grizzlies have mangled microphones. Betchkal fiddled much of the morning before he felt satisfied that the station was running properly and began to break it down, packing it methodically away and carrying it to his office. Pulling a checklist from his desk, he started filling bags with tools he might need the next day: blue crystal desiccants in vials to keep the air in the equipment boxes dry, wire strippers, extra cable. He’d never set up a station in November and December before. Part of the point was to add to baseline measurements of the park’s overall soundscape — another was to measure just how quiet the winter could be and preserve that sensation for posterity. “I suspect that it gets down below the threshold of human hearing,” Betchkal said, adding duck seal, Gaffer’s tape and an Exacto knife to the bag. “Below zero decibels.” If he did manage to capture a stretch of quiet that extreme, I wondered, what would it reveal?

“Openness!” Betchkal exclaimed. He paused to chase his thought. “Quiet is related to openness in the sense that the quieter it gets — as your listening area increases — your ability to hear reflections from farther away increases. The implication of that is that you get an immense sense of openness, of the landscape reflecting back to you, right? You can go out there, and you stand on a mountaintop, and it’s so quiet that you get this sense of space that’s unbelievable. The reflections are coming to you from afar. All of a sudden your perception is being affected by a larger area. Which is different from when you’re in your car. Why, when you’re in your car, do you feel like you are your car? It’s ’cause the car envelops you, it wraps you up in that sound of itself. Sound has everything to do with place. What is beautiful about this place? What is interesting or iconic about Alaska? Anyway,” he bowed apologetically at the waist, “that’s a lot of words. What I’m really measuring is the potential — the potential to hear natural sounds. If you’re choosing to listen, what are you actually going to hear?”

Around noon, nearing Hines Creek, we halted on the trail. The afternoon was windless. We were warm from walking but rapidly started to freeze; feeling left our fingers and noses first. Betchkal pointed off the path to the south, across a field of tangled willows, to a steep, snowy ridge, atop which he wanted to put the station. We shook up chemical hand warmers so they’d be hot when we reached the summit and charged into the thicket after Jeff Duckett, the ranger. Branches crashed against jackets and backpacks. We tripped on roots and fell. The sled proved too awkward to carry, and after retrieving two solar panels and a box of gear, Duckett and Betchkal abandoned it. At the foot of the hill, we began switchbacking upward through knee-high snow drifts. A Piper Cub skirted low over our heads, the roar of the engine momentarily blotting out the sounds of our breathing. Reaching the top, we dumped the audio equipment and threw on extra jackets. Betchkal got to work quickly, arranging tripods and running Arctic cable designed not to snap in subzero weather. Below, miles of black spruce spanned the valley separating us from Mount Healy.

Ostensibly, Betchkal’s stations capture exactly what we would hear if we could stand invisibly in the wilderness for a month. The recordings can reveal the sonic relationships that play out in our absence — and help us to modify our acoustic footprint. But our understanding of sound will always be limited by our perception of it. We will never experience the ultrasonic cries of insects, lizards or bats without distorting them. Decibels are self-deception. Bell Telephone Laboratories conjured them to measure loudness in the 1920s (the “bel” honors the company’s eponymous founder), but they represent volume as our ears register it, and the louder a sound is, the less of it we actually take in.

Hearing arguably fixes us in time, space and our own bodies more than the other senses do. Our vitals are audible: sighing lungs, a pounding pulse, a burbling gut. John Cage, the composer, once tried to observe complete silence in a soundproof room, but he still heard distinct noises — made, it turned out, by the nerves and blood of his own body. “Until I die,” he concluded, “there will be sounds.” We can shut our eyes at will, but not our ears, and what we hear is penetrating and physical — a wave entering our head. Even the deaf perceive internal jangling and external sonic feedback. The tactile nature of sound — the way it bounces back to us from other surfaces — helps us locate ourselves in relation to our surroundings and to know what’s behind us or around a corner. Fast asleep, our heartbeats quicken at a loud noise. In the womb, before we are aware, we hear the cacophonous exertions of our mother’s body. Returning from a field trip to the Potomac River refuge in Northern Virginia last year, a fourth grader wrote — in a passage that eventually reached a biologist in Soldotna, Alaska — that “the best thing about this place is that it has such nice noises you don’t feel alone when you are alone.”

In a series of gloveless maneuvers, Betchkal screwed together a weather station that would measure temperature, wind speed and direction, plus humidity. He arranged the solar panels, connected them to a box of batteries and sent power to the instruments: a sound level meter that continuously logs decibels at specific frequencies and an audio recorder. The meter powered on. The recorder did not. “Come on, you little stinker!” Betchkal said. Thinking it might be frozen, he slipped the device under his long johns, yelping when it met his thigh.

The next day, Betchkal showed me on his computer how he uses a program called Splat to analyze the data he gets. “Like in farming,” he said, “you’ve made the harvest, and now we’re going to take that raw thing and cook it or refine it down into something that can be used for different products.” Splat takes the data from the sound-level meter and arranges it on a spectrogram: a blue field of time on which sounds appear as orange shapes, their height representing their frequency, their brightness showing loudness, their length duration. Scrolling through the month, Betchkal labels many sounds by sight. Once he’s done tagging, the data can take on meaning, morphing into a graph of the circadian rhythms of wood-frog calls, say, or a park map of helicopter audibility.

Betchkal also listens to a subsample of the recordings. “I love this clip,” he said, pressing play on his computer. We heard a snuffling at the microphone and, nearby, the bellowing of babies that were actually bear cubs. “Part of my job is to go around and document these rare sounds,” he said, “to better understand the resource that needs to be protected — are there really important sounds out there that are disappearing?” He clicked again, and the tinny gurgle of an ice cave filled the speakers. “There’s thousands of little bubbles,” he said in narration. “I imagine like a big cave, and each room of the cave probably has different ways of reflecting sound. We can share sounds with people who might not be able to walk up to that ice cave and go hang around inside of it. Maybe even better, it excites them enough that they’re like, All right, let’s go on a hike! We’re going to check out an ice cave! Or whatever.”

Listening to Betchkal’s recordings of people passing his stations in the course of their travels can be unexpectedly elegiac. Tents flap, camp stoves hiss, people laugh, sniffle, adjust their packs. Once, trolling through audio from a mountain site, Betchkal happened upon a two-man concert, climbers duetting on guitar and mandolin. Another time, he discovered a rocky summer avalanche, an escalating rumble so deep it shook his desk.

On the ridge top, Betchkal’s body heat and hand warmers failed to revive the recorder. After more than an hour of troubleshooting, a spare pair of AA batteries succeeded in getting the device to work — but that meant, unlike the rest of the solar-powered equipment, it would run for only about a week. “It’s disappointing to me — really disappointing,” Betchkal said. “But that can happen — that does happen. If things go wrong, I’ll come back, and I can fix them.” He wrestled the instrument case closed and sealed it against the snow and wind of the coming month. The weather had begun to seep through our Polartec defenses, numbing our joints; water and pen ink were solids; cheese sticks gonged against canteens. “One last thing we need to do,” Betchkal said, shaking off defeat. “I know everyone’s probably cold and tired, but we’re going to listen. Get comfortable, be sure you’re not needing to fidget with stuff — ” A zipper zipped. Two magpies chirped. I lifted my arms from my sides to shush my sleeves and closed my eyes.

Night fell as we retraced our steps along the trail. The sky turned from lavender to indigo while the snow on the ground and the mountains glowed even when the last of the sun was gone. We headed for Jupiter, hanging low above the trees, and as we walked, I pictured the station back on the ridge, wrapped in the same darkness. When Betchkal harvests the audio, he will find us repacking our packs, exclaiming over our frozen apparatuses and sliding down the hillside into the willow field below. He will also, for three minutes, witness us still our movements and attune our ears to one of the quietest places left on Earth. In that window, I could hear the vastness of the valley — no sound marks materialized, like buoys bobbing on an empty ocean, to segment the sense of infinity. The landscape enveloped me, as Betchkal said it would, and I felt I was the landscape, where mountains and glaciers rose and shifted eons before the first heartbeats came to life.

“Standing in that place right there,” Betchkal told me later, “I had a complete sense that I was standing in that place right there and not drawn or distracted from it at all.” I felt located, too, but I could also imagine that if I hollered, my voice might not ever bounce back — that where I was, precisely, was a ridge top in a wide wilderness on a spinning rock in outer space. Ahead of me on the trail, as we neared our destination, Betchkal’s figure blurred in the darkness. The trees around us disappeared. There were, at last, only our footsteps. Then, barely audible, an inevitable airborne murmur — a sign from the civilized world.


The wolverine resembles a small bear. The animals frequent remote boreal forests, taiga, and tundra in the northern latitudes.

The wolverine, Gulo gulo (Gulo is Latin for “glutton”), also referred to as glutton, is the largest land-dwelling species of the family Mustelidae (weasels). It is a stocky and muscular carnivore, closely resembling a small bear. The species has a reputation for ferocity and strength out of proportion to its size, with the documented ability to kill prey many times its size. With short legs, broad and rounded head, and small eyes with short rounded ears, it resembles a bear more than other mustelids.Though its legs are short, its large five-toed paws and plantigrade posture facilitate movement through deep snow.

Wolverines are solitary, requiring much room to roam. Individual wolverines may travel 15 miles (24 kilometers) in a day in search of food. Because of their habitat requirements, the animals are found primarily in remote reaches of the Northern boreal forests and subarctic and alpine tundra of the Northern hemisphere, with the greatest numbers in northern Canada, the U.S. state of Alaska, the Nordic countries of Europe, and throughout western Russia and Siberia. Their populations have experienced a steady decline since the 19th century in the face of trapping, range reduction and habitat fragmentation, such that they are essentially absent in the southern end of their European range. It is, however, estimated that large populations remain in North America and northern Asia.

Recently compiled genetic evidence suggests that most of North America’s wolverines are descended from a single source, likely originating from Beringia (the area of the Ice Age land bridge between present day Alaska and Siberia) during the last glaciation and rapidly expanding thereafter, though there is considerable uncertainty to this conclusion due to the difficulty of collecting samples in the extremely depleted southern extent of the range.

The adult wolverine is about the size of a medium dog, with a length usually ranging from 26–42 in., a tail of 6.7–10 in., and a weight of 20–55 lbs, though exceptionally large males can weigh up to 71 lbs The males are as much as 30% larger than the females and can be twice the female’s weight. Shoulder height is reported from 12 to 18 in. It is the largest of terrestrial mustelids; only the marine-dwelling sea otter and giant otter of the Amazon basin are larger.

Wolverines have thick, dark, oily, fur which is highly hydrophobic, making it resistant to frost. This has led to its traditional popularity among hunters and trappers as a lining in jackets and parkas in Arctic conditions. A light silvery facial mask is distinct in some individuals, and a pale buff stripe runs laterally from the shoulders along the side and crossing the rump just above a 9.8–14 in. bushy tail. Some individuals display prominent white hair patches on the throat or chest.

Like many other mustelids, it has potent anal scent glands used for marking territory and sexual signaling. The pungent odor has given rise to the nicknames “skunk bear” and “nasty cat.” Wolverines, like other mustelids, possess a special upper molar in the back of the mouth that is rotated 90 degrees, towards the inside of the mouth. This special characteristic allows wolverines to tear off meat from prey or carrion that has been frozen solid.

Wolverines eat a bit of vegetarian fare, like plants and berries, in the summer season, but this does not make up a major part of their diet. —they are tenacious predators with a taste for meat. Prey mainly consists of small to large-sized mammals and the wolverine has been recorded killing prey such as adult deer that are many times larger than itself. Prey species include porcupine, squirrel, beaver, marmot, rabbit, vole, mice, shrew, lemming, caribou, roe deer, white-tailed deer, mule deer, sheep, moose, and elk. Smaller predators are occasionally preyed on, including martens, mink, foxes, canada lynx, weasels, Eurasian lynx, and coyote and wolf pups. Wolverines often pursue live prey that is relatively easy to obtain, including animals caught in traps, newborn mammals and deer (including adult moose and elk) when they’re weakened by winter or immobilized by heavy snow. The diet is sometimes supplemented by bird’s eggs, birds (especially geese), roots, seeds, insect larvae and berries. A majority of the wolverine’s sustenance is derived from carrion, which they depend on almost exclusively in winter and early spring. Wolverines may find carrion themselves, feed on it after the predator is done feeding (especially wolf packs) or simply take it from another predator. Whether eating live prey or carrion, the wolverine’s feeding style appears voracious, leading to the nickname of “glutton” (also the basis of the scientific name). However, this feeding style is believed to be an adaptation to food that is scarcely encountered, especially in the winter.[14]Wolverines easily dispatch smaller prey, such as rabbits and rodents, but may even attack animals many times their size, such as caribou, if the prey appears to be weak or injured. These opportunistic eaters also feed on carrion—the corpses of larger mammals, such as elk, deer, and caribou. Such finds sustain them in winter when other prey may be thinner on the ground, though they have also been known to dig into burrows and eat hibernating mammals.

Males scent-mark their territories, but they share them with several females and are believed to be polygamous. Females den in the snow or under similar cover to give birth to two or three young each late winter or early spring. Kits sometimes live with their mother until they reach their own reproductive age—about two years old.

Wolverines inhabiting the Old World (specifically, Fennoscandia) are more active hunters than their North American cousins. This may be because competing predator populations in Eurasia are not as dense, making it more practical for the wolverine to hunt for itself than to wait for another animal to make a kill and then try to snatch it. They often feed on carrion left by wolves, so changes in the population of wolves may affect the population of wolverines.

The world’s total wolverine population is unknown. The animal exhibits a low population density and requires a very large home range. The range of a male wolverine can be more than 240 sq mi., encompassing the ranges of several females which have smaller home ranges of roughly 50–100 sq mi. Adult wolverines try for the most part to keep non-overlapping ranges with adults of the same sex. Radio tracking suggests an animal can range hundreds of miles in a few months.

Female wolverines burrow into snow in February to create a den, which is used until weaning in mid-May. Areas inhabited non-seasonally by wolverines are thus restricted to zones with late-spring snowmelts. This fact has led to concern that global warming will shrink the ranges of wolverine populations.

The PBS series Nature released a documentary, “Wolverine: Chasing the Phantom” as episode #166 on 14 November 2010. This 53-minute documentary focuses on the efforts of a number of naturalists in the United States to track wolverines, collect genetic data, and learn more about wolverine populations, individual behavior and social behavior. It also tracks the raising of two male wolverines in captivity at an Alaska nature reserve from birth to maturity, and profiles the naturalists making these efforts.

For more information concerning the wolverine and conservation efforts visit the Wolverine Foundation