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Goats receive book award

It’s been some time since I’ve posted a new entry on the blog.  Not that there hasn’t been significant news about wildlife and wildlands conservation, but I’ve been preoccupied elsewhere, especially with mountain goats.  And that’s what I have to share today.  Life on the Rocks: A Portrait of the American Goat received two awards yesterday.  The book won best book in both the Nature and Environment and in the Design and Artistic Merit categories of the National Outdoor Book Award Foundation’s annual competition.

This is really a win for the mountain goats.  The recognition accorded the book will hopefully translate into more readers learning of the mountain goat’s story and the conservation challenges this remarkable animal and other alpine species face.  I’ve included the announcement by the foundation’s chairman here:

 National Outdoor Book Awards:  Nature & Environment Category

Winner. (Also tied for first place in the Design & Artistic Merit category).  Life on the Rocks:  A Portrait of the American Mountain Goat.  Written and photographed by Bruce L. Smith.  University Press of Colorado, Boulder, CO.  ISBN 9781607322917.

Life on the Rocks is not only the winner of the Nature & Environment Category, but it also tied for first place in the Design & Artistic Merit Category.  This double win represents the first time in the history of the National Outdoor Books that a title entered in two categories has won both.  One peek inside this large format book, and you’ll see why.  You’re immediately drawn to dramatic photographs of mountain goats perched on lofty cliffsides, photographs which hint at the enormous patience that author and photographer Bruce Smith had in trying to get close to these elusive subjects.  From the very first page, Smith draws us into a unique world, one that few have ever seen, the high mountains and the resplendent white goats that have adapted to life there.  Smith, a wildlife biologist, writes that his desire is to help bring greater appreciation and attention to the conservation needs for this “American athlete of the Alpine.”  To that end, his book has accomplished those goals brilliantly.  http://www.noba-web.org/books14.htm


Harvesting or Killing?

An article I published in the July/August 2014 issue of Natural History magazine (Life on the Edge), prompted a comment from a reader.  A Mr. Palmer wrote:

Dear Editors,NH Cover 7814

The article “Life on the Edge” by Bruce L. Smith in your July-August issue (adapted from his book on mountain goats) is excellent, except that it is marred by his abuse of the word “harvest” as a euphemism for thrill-killing of animals.  “Harvest” is properly used to describe gathering a crop that has been planted for that purpose, or the whole scope of food gathering (animal and plant) in the hunter-gatherer tradition. Killing animals for fun is not “harvesting.”

I was sent Mr. Palmer’s letter by the magazine’s editors, and because his viewpoint is shared by others, I offered the following response, which I’m sharing here:

I thank Mr. Palmer for his comment about my use of the term “harvest” in the article about the mountain goat.  As he correctly points out, our species has a very long history of harvesting plants and animals from the land for our uses, and the term harvest has a long history in the wildlife management/conservation profession.  Hunted species of herbivores produce an annual, harvestable surplus; that is, populations reproduce at a rate that if unchecked by mortality would exceed available habitat and resources.  Predation, disease, accidents, etc. dampen such growth, and regulated hunting by humans to harvest this surplus has a long tradition in the North American model of wildlife conservation.  My intent was not to sugar-coat hunting by humans in calling it harvesting.

However, harvest of any species of the public’s wildlife (or population thereof) must be justified—justified by rigorously-collected data that demonstrate that hunting is consistent with a species’ conservation.  Accordingly many wildlife species are not subject to hunting in North America, most bird species for example.  At the extreme among large mammals, white-tailed deer are highly fecund and produce a large surplus each year.  Their harvest (even culling in some state and national park units and municipalities) has been justified to reduce damage to natural habitats (and consequent impacts on other animal species) and suburban landscape plantings, limit roadway hazards, and forestall disease outbreaks in the deer.  Of course human reduction of most large predator species has removed a significant constraint on increasing deer populations.

Mountain goats have been hunted for food and sport, including as wildlife trophies.  Where this recreational pursuit is justified, the low reproductive rates and high juvenile mortality of native populations require conservative hunting prescriptions.  In Life on the Rocks: A Portrait of the American Mountain Goat, I describe the reasons for historical overharvest of many goat populations, how wildlife managers are taking corrective actions, and the sensitivity of this species not only to hunting but to other human impacts on the animal and its environment.  As a unique and integral thread in the fabric of our public, wildland landscapes, mountain goats afford many values compelling our attention to their conservation.

Hoof rot in elk

Since 2008, reports and documentation of a disease called hoof rot have been on the increase in the southwestern part of Washington state.  The disease results in lameness, and state authorities have decided to euthanize symptomatic animals.  See details here.

Interestingly, elk on the National Elk Refuge have suffered from a similar malady caused by a baterium of a different genus, Fusobacterium, in recent years .  Foot infections produce lameness in several dozen elk and as many as three dozen of those afflicted have died each winter when the infection becomes septic.

As in southwestern Washington, wet, muddy conditions on the NER likely contribute to the disease.  The accumulation of manure on Wyoming feedgrounds–where thousands of elk congregate for months each year–likely favors culture of Fusobaterium and the opportunity for infection of elk.



Record Migration Discovered in Africa

With all the bad news about environmental damage, species extinctions, and disrupted ecosystems, some good news about the natural world is always welcome and a reminder that there are many mysteries that remain to be discovered.  As a follow-up to my April 22 posting about discovery of the longest mammal migration in the lower 48 states comes this report of the African continent’s longest mammal migration discovered to date.




Keystone XL Pipeline

This is somewhat far afield from the theme of my previous posts.  Yet the ongoing development of tar sands-based carbon fuels in remote Alberta has implications for us all.  The green link below provides a glimpse of the scope of the environmental damage occurring in the Canadian boreal forest.  However the air that’s polluted by these operations is breathed by everyone downwind in Canada and the U.S.

As the Obama administration moves nearer to a decision on approval or denial of construction of the pipeline that will carry an estimated 830,000 barrels of this oil to market every day on the American Gulf Coast, the reality of the carbon pollution added to our atmosphere and the potential for damage when pipeline leaks occur (as they inevitably do) in America’s heartland should be foremost on our minds.  Another email to the administration to express your opinion on Keystone XL is time well-spent.

Photos of tar sands petroleum extraction in Alberta


Life on the Rocks

My first presentation associated with the release of Life on the Rocks: A Portrait of the American Mountain Goat was May 16th in Bozeman.  An audience of 80 learned about the mountain goat’s natural history and the conservation challenges it faces across its U.S. and Canadian range.  The PowerPoint images of this supreme mountaineer and the wildlands it roams were a hit.

Visit the News and Resources page  on my website (under the Blog and News tab above) for dates and locations of upcoming book events.

With the parade of hot issues surrounding threatened and endangered species, land and resource development, and conflicting uses of public lands, the mountain goat has been left off the conservation radar screen.  Mtn Goat064 eLiving in its remote mountain strongholds, it perseveres out-of-sight, out-of-mind.  Yet it is not without challenges to its long-term well-being.  With so little written about the animal for a general readership, and with so few people having even seen a mountain goat, it’s not surprising that this charismatic cliff-walker  has suffered from conservation neglect.  Life on the Rocks seeks to change that: http://www.brucesmithwildlife.com/?page_id=1204


Migration Can Lower Risk of Disease

As a follow-up to last week’s post about the newly-discovered, long-distance, mule deer migration, new research offers insight into why marathon migrations may be adaptive–benefiting those who migrate versus those who do not in a species or population.  The well-known and accepted explanations for the evolution of migratory behavior, whether it be large mammals, birds, insects, sea turtles, or whatever are that:

  1. By travelling between seasonal ranges animals optimize food available to parents before giving birth or laying eggs, boosting reproductive success and survival of offspring.  This is particularly true of species that occupy seasonal environments, whereas migration is a less common phenomenon in the tropics where the climate is more homogeneous year-round.
  2. Migration promotes outbreeding, or gene flow, and therefore vigor among individuals that migrate and breed with mates that less closely share their same genetic make-up.  Those that remain in their parents range are more likely to mate with more closely related individuals, potentially a problem over time in small populations.
  3. Although long distance migrations are energetically costly and can be hazardous as animals encounter man-made obstacles during their travels, they escape severe weather (think of birds leaving arctic nesting grounds once their young can fly in fall) and may experience higher survival in more benign winter destinations.

In addition to these and other fitness benefits, a new study offers another explanation for the evolution of migratory behavior: lowered risk of disease transmission and infection.  Ecologists Richard hall, Sonia Altizer, and Rebecca Bartel showed that monarch butterflies that undertake the longest migrations (at the extreme, from eastern Canada to central Mexico) tend to have lower levels of pathogens then those that migrate shorter distances or not at all (Journal of Animal Ecology).  Lead author Hall explains that there are two mechanisms at work:

  1. The first, known as migratory escape, occurs as animals periodically leave crowded, contaminated sites where there are many opportunities to pick up pathogens.
  2. The second, called migratory culling, happens when infected individuals are too sick to survive migration, meaning that they—and the pathogens they carry—drop out of the population.

“What this research shows is that by migrating a long way, some species might be buffered against the worst effects of pathogens,” Hall said.  The authors intend to test their theory with other migratory species.

In western Wyoming, mule deer that migrate from winter range in Wyoming’s Red Desert to summer ranges as much as 150 miles to the north may serve to spread diseases to other herds across their yearlong distributions.  However, it would be interesting to know if these epic travelers harbor fewer pathogens than less migratory deer.  In other words, might those individuals and herds that are programmed to travel far and wide also, through natural selection, have acquired greater resistance to infectious disease?

Preserving long-distance migrations for their previously-documented biological values, as well as their natural wonder, may serve yet another conservation purpose.




Long Wildlife Migration Discovered

Research in western Wyoming has revealed the longest seasonal migration of a mammal species remaining in the continental US (http://america.aljazeera.com/features/2014/4/mule-deer-longestmigration.html).  This 300-mile, round-trip trek by some 500 mule deer that winter in the Red Desert of the state’s semi-arid southwest to summer ranges in several mountain ranges to the north has trumped the previously believed longest migration of a mammal: some 300 pronghorn antelope.  Ironically, the pronghorn migration parallels the deer migration in western Wyoming.  It just loses out by a nose traversing some 250 miles round trip from the Green River basin in winter to summer habitat in Grand Teton National Park and then back again each fall.

Both of these long-range migrations are remarkable for several reasons:

  1. Both the deer and the pronghorn must negotiate a gauntlet of fences, highways, subdivisions, and other man-made obstacles each spring and again when they retrace their steps southward each fall.
  2. The migrations cross various jurisdictions: federally- and state-managed public lands and a patchwork of private lands.
  3. Long-distance migrations of land mammals in the 48 states are all but a thing of the past, a victim of the near total destruction of elk, deer, pronghorn, bighorn sheep, and of course bison during the late 1800s by the western expansion of Euro-Americans.  One study indicated that 78 percent of migrations in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (the largest remaining, relatively-intact ecosystem in the contiguous US) no longer exist (http://noss.cos.ucf.edu/papers/Berger%202004.pdf), the migrating herds and their memory of distant seasonal ranges wiped out more than a century ago.

The Jackson elk herd that I studied for 22 years is but one example.  That herd’s current migrations—extending as much as 60 miles from the National Elk Refuge near Jackson, Wyoming, to the southern reaches of Yellowstone National Park—are but a vestige of the past.  As recently as the turn of the 20th Century, elk migrated from Yellowstone in summer to the Little Colorado and Red Deserts of southwest Wyoming—nearly 400 miles round-trip.  As such, those travels would have dwarfed the newly discovered route of the mule deer herd, with as many as 20,000 elk making the fall journey to flee the deep snows of northwest Wyoming’s mountains for more favorable winter grazing to the south.  That flight for food was honed by natural selection to enhance survival and reproduction, rather than bet-hedging that the coming winter would be a mild one.  Where Elk Roam: Conservation and Biopolitics of Our National Elk Herd describes that migration and the forces that ended it with the last migrants in 1913.

Majestic, long-distance migrations are becoming fewer each year, and not just for large mammals, but for birds, insects, fish, sea turtles, and others as well.  For more about the biological and ecological importance of migrations, I suggest you have a look at David Wilcove’s excellent book No Way Home: The Decline of the World’s Great Animal Migrations.

Disease threats to wildlife

On April 12th I’ll be speaking at the annual meeting of the Montana Wildlife Federation on disease threats to our wildlife.  With only 20 minutes allotted for my comments, I’ll provide a brief overview of the three general categories of diseases affecting wildlife species: endemic, exotic, and emerging.  Then I’ll focus on just two diseases bovine brucellosis (exotic) and chronic wasting disease (emerging) that pose threats to Montana’s and the Greater Yellowstone Area’s bison and cervid species.  Enough time to provide only a few basics, but hopefully more will come out in the question-answer session.  The other two speakers will be discussing equally significant threats to the public’s wildlife: invasive species and climate change.

Disease Threat to Our Wild Elk

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is an emerging infectious disease of North America’s deer family species.  Since the early 1980s, when it was first detected in wild, free-ranging animals in Colorado and Wyoming, the disease has spread to mule deer, white-tailed deer, and elk in 22 US states and 2 Canadian provinces.  More recently it has infected wild moose.  Experimental work suggests that caribou, the continent’s only other deer species, may also be susceptible.

This is a particularly nasty disease for several reasons:

  1. Once clinical signs of the disease appear, infected animals always die.
  2. The disease is transmissible by animal-to-animal contact but also indirectly when environments become contaminated with the disease-causing agent, called a prion.  Infected animals continue to shed infectious prions for months until they die.
  3. Populations of susceptible animals have shown no indications of developing immunity to the disease.  The disease agent, or pathogen, that causes CWD is a protein particle that contains no DNA, thus failing to illicit an immune response in susceptible hosts following infection.

Any disease that is infectious, transmissible, and causes mortality is of concern to wildlife managers and to conservationists alike.  But a disease that’s 100% fatal and to which whole populations may be susceptible is simply frightening.

The only good news here is that CWD spreads relatively slowly among animals once a population of deer of elk becomes infected.  However, a new publication in the Journal of Wildlife Management is anything but comforting about the trajectory of the disease over the course of an epidemic.  Ryan Manello and his coauthors studied the effects of CWD on the elk population that spends much of the year in Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park.  Their paper summarizes a good deal of our current knowledge about CWD’s impacts on deer and elk herds, and reports the following on their study of Colorado elk:

“We found CWD-caused mortality can exceed natural sources [predation, accidents, and other diseases] and, at the rates observed in our study, could result in either an unsustainable population or necessitate declines in hunter harvest.”

They note, as have other authors on the subject of CWD’s impacts on populations, that increased densities of animals likely exacerbate transmission, infection, and mortality attributable to CWD.  And this is of particular concern in regard to the 22,000 elk of western Wyoming that are crowded onto winter feedgrounds for 6 months each year.  Their densities far exceed those in Rocky Mountain National Park or any other wild elk herds.  And we know from the history of wildlife ranching (where elk are confined in fenced enclosures) herd infections can exceed 50 percent, requiring the killing of entire herds to rid these privately-farmed elk of CWD.

CWD is a serious threat to our public herds of deer, elk, and moose.  The story of how this disease epidemic will progress is still unfolding.  There’s no instance of the disease diminishing in any herds that have become infected, even after 25-30 years.

In artificially crowded conditions, such as western Wyoming’s elk feedgrounds, prospects for the health and conservation of these precious resources are truly in doubt.  As CWD marches ever closer to those elk (it’s now infected deer and moose within 45 miles of the elk feedgrounds and also Yellowstone National Park), time is growing short to implement management that will lessen the disease’s impact.

First and foremost, many disease experts recommend ending Wyoming’s unnecessary feeding programs, which would require reducing the artificially high numbers of elk.  The Wildlife Society, a professional society of 11,000 wildlife scientists, managers and educators, likewise has advocated that both government agencies and the general pubic should phase out the feeding of wild ungulates (hoofed animals) to reduce the spread and impacts of CWD and other diseases.

For a summary of how artificial feeding will likely exacerbate the effects of CWD on wild populations, seeElk Winter Feeding = Disease Facilitation in The Wildlife Professional.

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