Monday, April 9, 2012

Hunters, predators and the blind eye

Grizzly bear in Yellowstone National
Park.  Credit: Oregon State Univ.
Full disclosure, here: I'm an avid hunter (and fisher), I harvest a number of animals every year and, as a practicing fish ecologist, I'm a (nearly)full-blooded conservationist. Yes, by most accounts, that last one in the list is seemingly at odds with the first two. But it really doesn't have to be (and, I'd argue, shouldn't). In fact, it didn't use to be. < Side note: among some of the more famous conservationist hunters were  Teddy Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot. end SN > It's the respect for life and nature and the understanding of the connectedness of everything that weaves the three together.

Which is why I'm still puzzled that so many of my hunter friends do not understand that the removal of large, native predators such as wolves, cougars and bear (add Northern pikeminnow to the fish list) has a negative consequence on the ecosystem they inhabit. Repeatedly, peer-reviewed, scientific studies have shown this. Moreover, a recent, comprehensive study from Oregon State University's Dr. Bill Ripple confirmed this in Northern Hemisphere forested ecosystems - loss of predators is affecting ecosystem health.
by Oregon cartoonist T. McCracken

And yet, many of my hunter friends still bang the gong for State-supported predator removal programs like those in Idaho, Montana and Alaska. Why do the States support them, you ask? Because the hunters demand them. Why do hunters demand them? As far as I can tell, it's because they want larger animals and more of the game they seek. Sure, I like "the hunt" and bagging the big bull elk, buck deer or long-bearded tom turkey. But I'm not in it for trophies. I'm in it for hormone- and antibiotic- free meat to feed my family - and how more "natural" of meat can you get?! But I don't like seeing all the hunter-wounded animals out there, the unnaturally large elk herds artificially supported by alfalfa fields or costly winter feeding programs and the thick herds of deer with hair loss syndrome or chronic wasting disease problems. Numerous studies have found top-level mammalian predators target wounded, aged or infirm individuals, sometimes with little appreciable change in populations size (see a nice review study from 2001; the old adage of "It all depends" holds here, too). Sure, it often takes time to find that equilibrium (or at least a semi-fluctuating state with variations around a baseline). But left to its own devices, nature does find that 'sweet spot'.

Discussion from my Twitter feed...
So what's stopping us from letting these predators do their jobs? Are hunters turning a purposeful blind eye? Are they misinformed, getting their information from a biased news source? Is it the whole Biblical Genesis dominion theology thing? Have they just lost touch? Regardless of the why (but I AM curious), we do seem to have lost touch with the natural way of things. But for me, hunting and being outdoors helps bring me back to a better understanding of how the natural world works. After all, as one Twitter friends says, "responsible hunting is another way to put humans back in touch with nature and help restore a lost connection." Amen, LookinAtItANS brothers! Amen.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Weather and climate are not the same

Magnificent clouds and sun over the Willamette Valley

I'm constantly frustrated at the popular media's flawed insistence on interchangeably using the terms "weather" and "climate". They are NOT the same thing. Are they related? Yes. But they are not the same. The (intended?) result of this synonymizing is a relative dumbing down of the public's understanding of the two...and the subsequent dismissal of the realities of a changing climate. I can't tell you how many times I've heard people say something to the effect of "We set record low temperatures here for the month of (pick one)! You can't tell me the earth is heating up!"

Well...yes we can.

You see, it's really not the average global temperature that's the most interesting (but it's what many media outlets report and what many scoff at - "Psh! Who cares if the average temperature increases by 2-3 degrees?!"). Really, it's all about the extremes - the lows and the highs, not averages. So it's the variation around the average that really matters.

Think about it this way. Consider an average of 50 degrees F (close to the average annual temperature in Eugene, OR) derived from an average yearly low temperature of 40F and an average yearly high of 60F. If you're more of a mathematical learner, it'd look something like this:

(temp1+temp2) / number of temps = average temp

OR, from our example above,


But monkeying with the low and high can still produce the same result. For example,


A world in which this low-high scenario plays would be a very different one to live in than the one provided in the first example, no? And while I've exaggerated the low-high in the second example for demonstrative purposes, this low-high concept turns out to be incredibly important to the critters living in an area (i.e., the physiological thermal tolerance range of a species), especially for critters that are already living in environments at or near their ability to survive.

Now let's assume the average goes up a few degrees, as average annual global temperatures are predicted to do (see the most comprehensive report to date). Since it's really the low and high temperatures (the variation) that drive the average, doesn't it make sense for us to be more concerned about these two ends of the spectrum - the extremes? And as it turns out, those two ends are getting further and further apart with only a slight change (an increase) to the average. In other words, the variation around the average is increasing...and we're seeing more and more "extreme weather" events the world over. Welcome to the new norm.

But back to the topic at hand...

Weather takes place on relatively short timescales (e.g., days to months) whereas climate takes place on longer timescales (e.g., seasons and years to millenia). A newsy Q and A blurb from NASA's Global Climate Change program did a good job of explaining it in text. But for many, it's often more helpful to visualize an idea. This short animated video does a good job explaining the difference between the two.

Another analogy would be to think about weather as what clothes you might pack for a weeklong Spring vacation trip to Florida. I'd probably pack a couple of pairs of shorts and a couple of pairs of warmer clothes in case it turned off cooler (weather). But if I were planning to move to Florida, I'd likely get rid of most of my cold weather gear in favor of the shorts and shirt sleeves - so it's the proportion of cool and warm clothes (climate) that would matter to me more.

Perhaps if the popular media could get this little synonymizing nuisance cleared up, we might be able to better understand and accept these extreme weather events (anomalies that are becoming more commonplace) as part of our changing climate.

We all know smokers who live into their eighties, and health nuts that drop dead in their forties. Most people understand and accept anomalies in fields like health care and economics, and we need to do the same with climate issues. ~ Eric Fetzer