Monday, November 29, 2010

I'm rooting for the deer hunters, again

(White-tailed deer congregated in a feeding yard.  The number of deer here suggests a high density of deer in the area.)

I am a wildlife biologist, so I like all forms of wild animals and plants.  I don’t think there is an organism that I don’t appreciate biologically, including mosquitoes and deer ticks that cause Lyme disease.  I also love white-tailed deer; after all, I conducted my Ph.D. research on this species in the 1970s. But enough is enough.

Whitetails are probably about 10 times more abundant in the Northeast now than they were before whites arrived here.  Long story, but humans have inadvertently created fantastic deer habitat by breaking up the original forest, which is not good deer habitat, into a mosaic of cropland, fields, and forests of several age classes, which is great deer habitat.

The result of the high deer density is that they exert tremendous browsing pressure on native plants in the forests. The species composition of future forests is being determined by the selective removal of certain kinds of trees by deer that is occurring today.

In addition, damage to vegetable gardens and ornamental shrubbery by deer results in a significant cost to homeowners; New York State residents in two areas of the state paid $200-$500 per year to replace lost trees and shrubs due to deer. Deer browsing is a general frustration to hobby horticulturists throughout much of the country.

I could hunt deer to help contribute to herd reduction, which I used to do. But after chasing deer around with a dart gun every day for two years during my research days, chasing them around with a rifle is simply too much like work. Besides, my wife doesn’t even like venison, so what is the point?

We live on 12 acres of mostly wooded land in upstate New York. When the deer season opens, deer tend to congregate on my little “refuge” to escape hunters. So I chase them off and into the surrounding “killing fields” in hopes of seeing a reduction in the herd overall. But, of course, this is all like spitting in the ocean.

White-tailed deer have been a part of my life for 40 years. It is truly a species I love to hate and hate to love. I guess I am just hoping we find a balance. You know, not too hot, not too cold; not too hard, not too soft; not too many, not too few.

Article first published as I'm Rooting for the Deer Hunters, Again on Technorati.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Bristol Palin and the muddled American viewer

(Bristol, the dancer?  There is more going on in this competition than just dance.)

I was forced to watch Dancing With The Stars this year against my better judgment. I couldn’t stand to hear my wife screaming from the living room as Bristol Palin, who was absolutely terrible at the beginning, made it through each subsequent week. My wife has a bit of a heart condition, so I thought I needed to be by her side to keep her calm. But as I watched, I began to worry about my heart, which is perfectly fine.

Sarah Palin’s daughter displayed no rhythm, clumsy footwork, and a tendency to walk through steps that should have been danced, if you know what I mean. There is no doubt that she got better, as almost anyone would with intense training for weeks by a dance expert. But she should have been eliminated weeks ago, before Brandy and at least one other contestant were voted out. I’m no dance expert, but after having spent the past 25 years in latin dance clubs in four countries, I can see who has the moves and who doesn’t.

How do we explain this interesting result? There are only two explanations that I can imagine. First, the American public does not have the ability in general to judge dance or almost anything else critically. The plethora of really bad movies, tv shows, books, websites, and music of the past two decades would argue for this explanation. It may just be that there are too many people with too much money to spend on entertainment to allow natural selection to do its job efficiently. As my mother used to say about certain people, “their taste is all in their mouth.”

The second possible explanation is that politics was at work in the Bristol Palin case. Right wingers, or tea partyers, or whoever voted for her to show their political support indirectly for Bristol’s mother by usurping a popular tv program that is supposed to be about dance. Of course, none of this is Bristol’s fault; she is mostly just a clueless kid from Alaska.

Either explanation is disappointing to me. Come on America. Put on your crap detector and think straight. Let’s give credit where credit is due. If something is lousy, let’s call it lousy. If something is good, let’s call it good. It’s simple, really.

Article first published as Bristol Palin and the muddled American viewer on Technorati.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

The milkman's son

(The milkman, a sight that most Americans have never seen.)

My father was a milkman. He drove a panel truck for Meadow Gold Dairy in northwestern Ohio to deliver dairy products to his customers, a job he held from the time he left the Navy after WWII until his death in 1961. You don’t see this kind of thing much anymore, but until the second half of the 20th century, delivery men were a common sight in America. There were men who delivered bread, tea and coffee, and ice before refrigerators were common. In addition, we had a guy who showed up regularly to pick up junk, like old metal, and another man who often stopped by to pick up old rags. There were others who sold crayons, brushes, vacuum cleaners, and encyclopedias. My dad delivered milk.

My father’s truck did not just contain one product. It was a veritable mobile dairy store. There was whole milk with the cream that settled at the top of the glass bottle in that “bubble” at the top of the container, skim milk, chocolate milk, cream, orange and grape drink, cottage cheese, butter, and even eggs. And during the summer months, he also sold ice cream, ice cream bars, fudgesicles, and drumsticks (now called nutty buddy). A couple of times a year, Meadow Gold cleaned out their freezers at the plant and my father would bring home dozens of these ice cream products. The weeks following a big score like that were full of happy days (usually after dinner) visiting our old chest freezer to see what sugary gem my brothers and I could find.

My father had a predetermined route that was his. He visited his customers several times per week, delivering whatever they ordered or needed. He knew each customer personally, by name, and he knew their families. Most of the time, he simply put what they had ordered in an insulated box on their front porch or inside their front door. At other times, the customer was home, and my father would spend several minutes talking to them about the affairs of the day, or how their children were doing in school, or about the weather. In those cases, he usually brought the product into their house and inserted it right into their refrigerator.

Our house was in town but, of course, we also had a Meadow Gold delivery man who brought our milk. His name was Elmer. Until the late 1950s, the in-town men used a horse-drawn wagon to carry the milk. The kids in my neighborhood loved to visit Elmer’s horse when we heard it clomping up our street. The horse knew exactly where each customer’s house was, and so it stopped in front of each, just as it had done thousands of times before. Elmer stepped out of the wagon with his metal cases of glass bottles while the wagon was still coming to a stop. The clacking of glass against metal and of horses’ hooves on the pavement are synchronous sounds I can still hear when I close my eyes. But even in those days, this system of horse-drawn milk delivery was considered an anachronism. Other dairy companies had long since phased this out. On occasion, our father would take us to the Meadow Gold horse barns downtown to see the entire collection of neighing relics that had no idea their working days would soon be up. I always loved that trip.

In those days, my grandmother, who was a severe diabetic and totally blind, lived with us. During the day, she was the only one at home. On milk delivery day, Elmer brought the milk up to the house, opened the front door, which was never locked, and put the milk in the kitchen fridge. But the verbal exchange usually went something like this: “Hi Mom”, says Elmer. “Hi Elmer, how are you?”, my grandmother would repeat, while sitting in her rocking chair in front of the radio, where she listened to Paul Harvey about this time every day. They would talk for a few minutes. “It seems cold today. Be careful out there Elmer”, she would say. “I will Mom”, and off he went. It was taken for granted by us then, but my mother relied on Elmer to be an additional check on her invalid mother during the day when my mother had to work. It takes a village to raise our seniors or, at least, it used to.

The best part of my father’s job for me was the day he would let me go with him on his appointed rounds. This did not happen very often, and in later years the company forbade this practice. But on certain summer mornings when I was 7 or 8, my father returned to our house in his truck after having loaded it at 4am while I slept. It was exciting to check out the inventory in the back of the truck before we embarked. Then, my mother sent me off, and for the rest of the day I was Bob Gavin’s boy, the milkman’s son.

I remember speeding from house to house down country roads traveling 50 mph. I stood in the passenger-side doorway, which was completely open, and my father either stood or sat in a swivel chair as he drove. Seat belts did not exist then. Sounds crazy dangerous, but I remember how exciting it was to watch the ground fly by as I stood in that open door, holding on for dear life. When we got to a house, I went with my father and helped carry a quart or two, unless he warned me to stay in the truck because of an unfriendly dog. He had a variety of techniques for fending off the meanies. On occasion, we raced each other back to the truck. How can it be that these races always ended in a tie?

In general, I felt useful, and I got to see first-hand how much people genuinely liked my father. I believe this is an extremely important attribute of parenting. When a child sees that other adults like and respect their parents, the child is even more likely to believe that the parental instructions they receive daily are sound.

And then we had lunch. My mother packed her artery-clogging bologna sandwich (we now know); I always had mayo but my father only used mustard. I got to pick any drink I wanted from the back of the truck. Orange or grape drink or chocolate milk. What kind of a mood am I in? My father and I drank straight from the same bottle. We were working men, and real men don’t need cups. But the very best of all, and that which I remember to this day, was the way the cottage cheese tasted. It came in cardboard cartons with a pull-top cardboard lid. I never seemed to have a spoon, so my father showed me how to fold the lid into a scoop and to dip out the goodness with that homemade implement. Once again, I don’t know if this is a romantic memory, or a fading memory, or actual fact, but cottage cheese has never tasted as good to me to this day.

By mid-afternoon, we had finished the route and my father dropped me off at home. He returned to the plant to empty the truck and turn it in, then to do paperwork. My father worked about 14 hours a day, six days a week. I have never been able to comprehend how he was able to do that, week after week. I do remember how common it was to watch him napping on the living room couch in the evening.

Years later when my wife and I were living in Tucson, Arizona, I came home from the university to what my wife thought would be a pleasant surprise. She had flagged down the local milkman and signed us up for home delivery. I got a huge smile on my face until she showed me the bill. It was much more expensive than what we could buy dairy products for from the store, so I made her cancel the arrangement. All across America, people were making this same decision, which led to the extinction of delivery men of nearly every stripe. I was being practical, and I felt sick about it.

I was always proud of my father and the work that he did. I didn’t learn until I was a teenager that he held a job that most would consider to be low-status. When I was young, it seemed important and it was a job the value of which anyone could understand. My father promptly delivered a commodity that you needed, to your house, with a smile and with good humor. And what could be more genuine than that? At any rate, for me, the memory of it all will always remain as pure as the sight of cold, white milk in a clear, glass bottle.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Biodiversity trade-offs

(A large Chinook salmon found dead after spawning in a stream in California.)

Sometimes the decisions we have to make to conserve biodiversity are not pleasant.  I remember a news article that came to my attention last year titled “Appeals court stays execution of sea lions: Killing was set to start Thursday to save salmon in Columbia River”.  The title pretty much sums up the dilemma.  Salmon in the Pacific Northwest have been in trouble for years, due primarily to overharvesting by humans and the dams on rivers that “frustrate” their upstream migration to spawn.  In the case at hand, it is the spring run of the Chinook salmon that is imperiled, which is made worse by hungry sea lions that are camped out at the base of the Bonneville Dam.

The necessity to control one species of native plant or animal to help out another is much less common than controlling a non-native species to benefit one that is indigenous.  But there are many examples of this unpleasant trade-off when attempting to conserve native biodiversity.  Predators are sometimes controlled in an area where biologists are attempting to reestablish a species that could be taken as prey by the predators.  Snow geese are having a decimating effect through their grazing on areas of the Arctic tundra ecosystem and white-tailed deer suppress many species of woody and herbaceous plants in the eastern U.S.  Although there are not control programs for these two species as far as I know, agencies rely on the public hunting season to reduce populations of these popular game species in the hopes that the legal “take” will alleviate the problem.  Those harvests barely make a dent in the problem, however.  So the damage continues, while the public is clueless and the ecologists lament.

Good people are usually trying to do the right thing, but it is often a lose-lose situation in the eyes of the public.  “Don’t let the salmon run be extirpated, but don’t harm the sea lions.”  The public often replies that wildlife managers should just move the offending or overabundant animals.  Trapping and moving the sea lions, or any large mammal, is time-consuming, dangerous to the animal being trapped, and sometimes dangerous for the trapper.  It is expensive and it seldom seems cost-effective to me, given that conservation dollars are always scarce.  Money spent trapping and transferring animals that are neither rare nor threatened is money that could be spent to buy habitat or protection for a suite of species that is in greater need. 

As I see it, the problem is really a paradox.  Biologists are willing to sacrifice some, even many, individuals of abundant species A to help out endangered species B.  Most biologists care about individual animals just as much as animal lovers do.  But biologists are even more concerned about the genetic and demographic viability of the populations of which those individuals are a part.  Without that viability, the population goes extinct and there are no individuals to worry about.  So sacrificing individuals in a common species is a relative no-brainer if that sacrifice helps ensure the survival of another population or species that is in real trouble.  As I see it, biologists and the public are usually talking past one another on this issue.  Perhaps the public understands the trade-off perfectly, but their emotions demand that we not harm some individuals in one species now in the hope of saving all the individuals of another species later.

In the seal-salmon example at hand, the Humane Society brought the case to court, which ruled that no sea lions can be killed now, but a few can be trapped and removed.  Once again, the concern for some “individuals” by the Humane Society puts an entire “population” of another species at risk.  Any real solution will have to wait until next year’s run, so Nero continues to fiddle.