Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Beautiful armadillo

Many years ago I found a treasure trove of fossil animal bones in a cave. Scattered on ledges, encased in mud, lay the remains of dozens of animals that roamed the earth over 11,000 years ago. Ten foot long giant ground sloths. The largest lion that ever lived. A giant short-faced bear, a giant that stood 13 feet on its hind legs. Another animal was a giant armored creature called the beautiful armadillo (Dasypus bellus). I've always loved that name.

Beautiful armadillos were much like armadillos getting run over by cars all over the United States right now. However, the beautiful armadillo that disappeared from the earth 11,000 years ago was quite a lot bigger. The beautiful cousin of today's little armored mammal was over three feet tall. It was covered with bony plates to protect it from all of the sharp toothed and long clawed predators roaming the earth so long ago.

I'm writing an article about the cave that harbored so many ancient bones. When I came across the list of all of the bones pulled out of the cave, which probably represent so many more that are still there, sleeping in the inky blackness, I remembered the name beautiful armadillo. I bet it was beautiful indeed.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

WNS in Europe

When WNS was discovered in 2006, it was thought to be a problem unique to the northeast. Of course, the syndrome then proceeded to creep south, and it's currently lurking pretty close to my playground on the Cumberland Plateau. But in a surprising twist, French biologists found several bats coated with a white fungus in 2009, and when they studied the DNA, the fungus on bats in France was identical to the fungus affecting bats in the US. The French bats didn't seem sick, though. Weird. Researchers then started to look back through their records and found photos from the mid 1990s of other bats with a white fungus. Back then, nobody paid much attention to this weird fungus since the bats were perfectly healthy. Fungi is really common in caves, so seeing some is usually no cause for alarm. Now, as a result of the revelation that WNS has likely been in Europe for some time, researchers started to theorize that WNS originated in Europe, perhaps many thousands of years ago, and bats co-evolved with the fungus. Perhaps that's why it's not deadly there.

But is it harmless to European bats?

A new paper out today on PLoS ONE titled "Increasing Incidence of Geomyces destructans Fungus in Bats from the Czech Republic and Slovakia" describes how WNS has been found in many new locations in the Czech Republic and Slovakia over the last several years. What these researchers found is disturbing and fascinating at the same time.

The first thing in the paper that interests me is how the number of European caves affected by the WNS fungus increased last winter. At the beginning of the winter, researchers found 33 sites with possibly infected bats. At the end of the winter, they checked again, and found 76 sites. That's a huge increase! But why? But even more disturbing is that some of these bats did appear sick. Some were emaciated or had skin lesions, just like bats in the US. And even more disturbing, bats populations had been growing very slowing, but starting in 2008, bat populations declined. The declines aren't catastrophic as in the US, but rather by a less shocking 8 to 11%. Maybe it's a coincidence. Maybe it's because of WNS. Maybe it's because of something completely unrelated. They don't know.

Even though WNS now appears to be having a negative impact on at least some of Europe's bats, researchers still think it's been there for a very long time. The paper even speculates that the reason European bats don't typically hibernate in huge clusters like in the US is because of evolutionary pressure from WNS. The idea is bats that hibernate in huge clusters are much more likely to be disturbed by other sick bats wiggling around during hibernation. Bats that hibernate in dense clusters also certainly spread disease very effectively among the group, too. So perhaps if WNS affected European bats tens of thousands of years ago, the bats that could adapt to roosting alone or in small groups were better able to deal with the WNS fungus and evolved into the species there today. Perhaps here in the US we're simply witnessing evolution in action. Neat idea, even though that would really suck for our bats.

But there are many unanswered questions with this study, just like there are many unanswered questions about WNS in general. First, if WNS has been in Europe for a long time, why is it showing up on bats right now? Why is it suddenly spreading to new roosts and affecting the health of bats? Is there some kind of environmental disturbance going on? Is there a common denominator between bats or their habitats on both continents? 

The mystery of WNS continues to deepen. I just hope biologists don't start to blame American cavers for this.

Effective communication

I attended the Land Trust Alliance national conference this year and learned all about new ways to protect and conserve land. One of the most interesting sessions I attended was a presentation by two professional pollsters discussing how the public perceives environmental topics. One of the first surprises was that a huge majority of the public supports protecting the environment. Yay! Another surprise was how few people are familiar with many common terms people in the environmental movement (including me) use to describe their work.

Is this a watershed?
What does the word "watershed" mean? Over 70% of the people polled thought it was a shed in your backyard to store water. What does the term "ecosystem services" mean? Most people had no idea, but didn't care for it. It sounds too complex. I have to admit I don't care for the term either. For some reason, it makes me think about economics. When the pollsters asked about other phrases that could be used in place of the disliked ecosystem services, people overwhelmingly liked the phrase "nature's benefit." Well, that sure does sound a lot nicer, and makes me think of the beautiful things in nature instead of someone sitting in an office writing convoluted reports about nature. I started to think of other terms I frequently hear or use that people might not immediately understand. What about karst, or sedimentation, or mitigation banks? I know that the first time I heard the phrase mitigation bank the image that popped into my head was a river bank that someone was reinforcing with big rocks. I bet others think of a bank dealing with money. But mitigation banks are really restored wetlands and streams. So why not just say "restored wetlands and streams?" Why do we come up with convoluted and confusing phrases when clear language would be so much better?

So what did I learn from the session? I learned that in order to effectively communicate about complex topics we need to make sure the language we use is easy to understand. That doesn't mean we need to dumb down our message. What it does mean is that when I'm writing any kind of outreach or educational materials for the general public, I'm now paying more attention to the language I'm using. I'm also making a point to use words and phrases that people can connect to easily and in a positive way.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Muddy Water Watch

Can you name the most common water pollutant? You might think pesticides, animal manure, or industrial chemicals. Nope. The most common water pollutant is plain old dirt. Take a look at your local creek or river the next time it rains, and note whether or note the water is still fairly clear, or looks like the color of mud. I know in my state, creeks look like liquid red clay after every major rain storm. I usually have an urge after a heavy rain to collect some water and see what the mud to water ratio really is.

Why is dirt harmful? I mean, it's a natural substance, and dirt gets into streams and creeks no matter what we do. That's true. The problem is when excessive amounts of dirt, also called sedimentation, washes into streams. It chokes plant and animal life, and can even cause problems for water treatment plants.

One of the last times I kayaked a major rivers in my area, the water was so red and soupy that I couldn't see more than an inch under the surface. Usually I don't want to fall out of my boat because I worry about water snakes. That day, I didn't want to fall out of my boat because it looked like quicksand. I had visions of the muddy water sucking me down into the depths. My friends would never find any trace of me, just a lonely kayak aimlessly floating down the river. I decided to put on my life jacket pretty soon after getting on the river.

Sedimentation causes problems for native fish and other animals by ruining their habitat. Many types of fish  live and lay eggs around loose gravel or cobblestones littering the bottom of streambeds. Sedimentation will fill in all of the gaps between small rocks, eliminating good fish habitat. Dirt can infiltrate fish gills, making them suffocate. Sedimentation also ruins habitat for other types of aquatic animals, like invertebrates that burrow underneath rocks. All of that dirt and silt will smother any kinds of plants growing in the stream. Plants are often either hiding places for fish, or food for a variety of animals. Sediment in the water is no good for any type of creature or plant that calls the water home.

Sedimentation is also expensive for people. It mucks up water treatment facilities, increasing the cost of cleaning up our drinking water by up to 60%. Excess dirt in the water also means other nasty things have been washed in too. Usually, sediment can carry pollutants that we typically think are main water pollutants: oil, grease, fertilizers. When dirt runs into the creeks, everything sprayed on or in contact with the dirt washes in too.

Polluted runoff from construction sites sends about 80
million tons of sediment into the nation's water bodies
each year. Credit: Waterkeeper Alliance
So how does all of the dirt get into the water? There are a couple ways. In my area, farmers sometimes till up their fields right up to the edge of a creek. That means when it rains, the water runs through the fields, picks up all that loose dirt, then flows right into the creek. Luckily many new initiatives are educating farmers about the benefits of leaving a buffer zone between fields and any water body. The most common way dirt gets into water is from housing developments. In these cases, developers bulldoze land right to the edge of a river, causing lots of problems even after the new homes are completed. If ground cover is removed right to the river's edge, there is nothing to hold back the dirt. Sometimes it can be hard to get grass or other ground covers to grow back right next to an active stream. But developments don't even need to be right next to a river to cause big problems. Developers like the one shown in the above photo make tons of dirt wash into storm drains. All that mud then flows straight into the nearest creek.

Regulations are supposed to prevent this kind of development, but in my state many developers either aren't aware of the laws, or just ignore them. Luckily, there are several new programs in the works to educate the development community and to report construction sites that aren't doing enough to stop dirt from flowing into our waterways. Muddy Water Watch started in North Carolina, and was so successful that Alabama has started its own program. The program educates developers about the real truth of effectively controlling sedimentation: it's cheaper for them. Yes, that's right, keeping sediment under control actually decreases long-term construction costs. But few developers seem to know that.

Check out the Muddy Water Watch site, and read up about sedimentation. If it's a problem in your area, find a local river conservation group and see if you can get involved in educating the public and the development community about the damage sediment does to our rivers and to our economies.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Caving and WNS policy

Autumn leaves fall like snow as I walk downhill in a dry, rocky creekbed. Ahead of me, I see a gaping hole in the sharply sloping mountainside. I hear the sound of water falling onto hard rock, echoing through the woods. It's the cave. This past weekend I visited a beautifully stunning cave in the remote hills of Alabama, a cave recently opened by the efforts of the Southeastern Cave Conservancy. It was wonderful feeling the cool autumn breeze as we tied a rope to a tree to descend into the enormous sinkhole, then continued to rappel into the dark limestone crack leading deep into the mountain. After descending almost 200 feet straight down, we find passage sculpted over the eons by flowing water, formations clinging to the rock walls, and swiftly flowing streams descending farther and farther down into the rock. We follow the water, pushing ourselves deeper into the cave.

I explore caves for many reasons. I love the physical and mental challenge of reaching remote and inaccessible places deep within the earth. I love being nestled among hard rock, flowing water, and delicate formations hundreds of feet below the sky and trees. I love the beauty of caves, their bizarre and unique life forms, and their wild nature. I love the camaraderie and shared experiences of working together with other cavers to reach places that most people in this world will never see. But most of all, I love the sense of calm and my sense of connection with the wildness of our world when I am caving.

Unfortunately, caving is now under attack. I've been deeply involved in efforts to understand and track white nose syndrome for several years. I've worked closely with state and federal biologists to try to understand the disease, but recently I've become convinced that federal policy designed to stop the spread of WNS is not only completely ineffective, but is systematically destroying caving in the United States. Perhaps I'm overreacting. But I doubt it. 

Gear getting ready for cleaning and decon
Wired Science recently published an article about efforts of the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the US Forest Service, and other federal and state agencies, to close every cave they can in the US. The blog Behind the Black discussed the article in a post titled Closing caves for the convenience and power of the government. Trying to close every cave in the country is not only dumb, it won't work, it's alienating the organized caving community, and cavers not plugged in to the caving community probably don't even know that all federal and state caves are closed. So they keep visiting caves. Organized cavers (including me) are still visiting caves in "WNS positive" states (in my case, Tennessee), as well as "adjoining" states (for me, Alabama and Georgia), despite FWS policy that says I shouldn't go into any cave, anywhere in those states, for any reason. A couple of years ago I drastically changed my caving habits to eliminate any risk I'm spreading WNS. Instead of never cleaning my gear unless it was coated in an inch of mud and simply whacking my muddy gear on rocks every Saturday morning before venturing into a new cave, I started thoroughly cleaning every bit of caving gear I own and soaking everything in Lysol. I no longer track any mud, dirt, or foreign material into any cave. The risk of me ever picking up a single WNS spore then carrying to a new site is essentially zero.

So why are federal rules so heavy-handed? What will closing every cave mean for conservation, science, or simple enjoyment of wilderness? Will federal actions even have an impact on slowing the spread of WNS? As I watch the slow, creeping spread of WNS down bat migration routes, I know that nothing we do will slow or stop WNS. Nature is much more powerful than humans, and in the case of a virulent wildlife disease affecting tiny, highly mobile animals, we are powerless. Humans don't like to feel powerless against nature. So policies now in place are designed to try to create the illusion that humans have control over WNS, over bats, and over cave ecosystems. But in the case of WNS, we don't. Instead of focusing time and money on trying to tell people to stay out of every cave, I wish federal biologists would instead focus all of their energy on truly understanding how WNS is spread, trying to find a way to treat at least some bat colonies, and figuring out how to keep bats in captivity to ride out WNS. 

In the meantime, I'm going to continue cleaning my gear, continue going into caves, and continue trying to push for more common sense policies. 

Friday, October 29, 2010

Mourning bats and caves

I’ve been a caver and a bat conservationist for the majority of my life. I first saw a bat clinging to gray limestone cave walls, covered with glistening dew, at the tender age of 12 (I'm now over 40). From that moment on, I’ve loved bats. I’ve tried to tell others about all of the great things bats do for people and the environment, how they’re really not scary or dangerous, and why we should protect them. I’ve given presentations about bats, written articles about them, and been a strong promoter of bat conservation and research.  I’ve observed bats in a variety of caves, read books and scientific papers about them, and even wrote college research papers on bat migration patterns. I've helped with numerous winter surveys of hibernation caves, worked closely with government agencies, and helped with bat research. I have bat stickers on my car and a bat stuffed animal on my dashboard. I feel like I know more about bats than many people with biology degrees.

Then white nose syndrome entered my vocabulary. WNS, as I’ve written before, is a deadly contagion decimating bat populations across the country. I watched WNS creep down the Appalachian flyway with deep apprehension, unsure about whether or not people who explore caves were contributing to the disaster. I started thoroughly cleaning and decontaminating my gear between trips. But last winter, when the syndrome was still creeping slowly along migration routes, and was not in the popular caving region in Alabama and Georgia, I decided cavers aren’t contributing to this problem. If we were, it would be in all of our hundreds of popular caves right now. But it's not here. Of the few caves in Tennessee that are currently affected by WNS, only one is popular with cavers. The other hundreds of popular recreational caves in Tennessee are still free from WNS--at least for now.

But unfortunately for recreational cavers, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, by starting down the path of linking us to WNS, started a rumor that has been hard to squash, the rumor that cavers are responsible for WNS.

We’re not responsible.

There is no evidence we are spreading WNS; in fact, available evidence points to bats spreading it quite efficiently among themselves. Not a single scientific study has ever been published that links WNS to a human vector. So why do so many news reports, U. S. Forest Service official documents, and various other reports, say that WNS is our fault?

Back in the early days of worrying about WNS in the southeast, my main fear was what would happen to the bats I so love. Would the huge colonies that I’d helped study be wiped out? Would the gentle gray bats that hibernate in massive southeastern caves even survive this wildlife catastrophe? Will they go extinct? Was there anything anyone could possibly do to help them? Could we save them?

As time has passed, my concern grew to not only include all of the questions about what will happen to bats, but what will happen to caving in the United States. As FWS rules swept across the country, other state and federal agencies started to close every cave they manage--even caves with no bats. Huge tracts of land are now off-limits to recreational caving, even though there has still not been a single scientific study that links cavers to spreading WNS. Agencies are pressing private landowners to close their caves. Why? If biologists really tried to understand caves and caving in this country, they would see that there's practically no way that cavers have anything to do with WNS. In my part of the country, there are well over 15,000 caves. Hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of them are popular recreational destinations. Cavers from all over the country explore, photograph, and map caves all across the southeast. I know cavers from states hard-hit by WNS who have been in southeastern caves repeatedly since this disaster started. Yet,  WNS is not in any of the caves they visited. If recreational cavers are responsible for spreading WNS, it would be moving like other easily communicable diseases, like the flu. Hotspots would pop up where cavers visited. WNS would be in the most popular caves in TAG. That hasn’t happened, which to me shows that the notion that cavers are spreading WNS is wrong. It's certainly possible for a person to transport WNS. But it's obviously not happening. Where is the science to prove me wrong? There isn’t any.

One of my favorite caves to visit is a vast system in Alabama. The cave features miles and miles of intriguing passages, pits, and beautiful formations. Huge numbers of bats hibernate in one isolated section of the cave. And no, WNS isn't in this massive bat hibernaculum, even though portions of the cave are popular caving destinations (or were until the cave was closed). Hmmm. In the part of the cave I typically visited, I would see a couple of small pipistrelle bats, but I have never once seen one of the endangered gray or Indiana bats. Yet, I am no longer confident that I will ever again visit the part of the cave with few bats, even after WNS sweeps through my region. As WNS creeps closer and closer, I am starting to preemptively mourn for not only bats that I love, but also for caves that I love. Why? I am sure that bureaucracy and red tape, not science, will keep cavers out of underground wildernesses. Bureaucrats who know nothing about caves and cave resources will punish cavers for this disease, despite the lack of a single shred of evidence that we are contributing at all. They will banish those of us who know the most about caves and bats from the places we love.

I hope I’m wrong.  But if I'm not, I've decided I'm not going to sit by and let bureaucrats ban me from places I love without putting up one heck of a fight.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Southwest drought

I love to visit the southwestern deserts. I'm used to lush, forested areas in the east that are full of rivers and streams, so going to a place of bare rock and plants that can cling to life on only inches of rain every year is like visiting another world. Whenever I go out west and hike in the desert, I'm amazed by the hardiness of life. Trees take root in small cracks in bare rock. Flowers spring up from the middle of vast expanses of sand. Cacti flourish in areas that reach well over 110 degrees in the summer. In the desert, life finds a way. I am also equally amazed when I visit cities like Las Vegas. I will never forget the first time I visited Vegas. My first shock was seeing slot machines at the airport that accepted $100 bills. My next shock was seeing water  fountains everywhere on the downtown strip. I watched, mesmerized, at the fountain display at the Bellagio, as water whipped around like liquid ballet dancers. I watched pirates prance around on a ship in the middle of a fake lake at Treasure Island. Water flows through that city like liquid gold. But the next day when I headed towards Utah for a backpacking trip, I noticed that Vegas really and truly is in the middle of a desert. Not a drop of water can be seen for miles around the city. The road towards Utah is bleak, barren desert. Why was a city in the middle of a desert wasting so much water?

Today I read that Lake Mead, the huge lake formed by Hoover Dam, fairly close to Las Vegas, is at an all time low. It's actually 15 inches lower than the all-time low level recorded in 1956. The drought, now into its 11th scorching year, is likely to continue for at least another couple of years. All the while, the population and water demands in the west continue to increase. And to add to the water woes is the fact that the west is subject to extreme and lengthy droughts. The last 100 years may actually have been an abnormally wet period in an otherwise dry and parched history.

In an interview with the New York Times, Pat Mulroy, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, said "if the river flow continues downward and we can’t build back up supply, Las Vegas is in big trouble.” Indeed.

What will this mean for the west and for its dwindling water resources? Will states figure out ways to slash wasteful or unnecessary water use as water resources dwindle? Will they find other sources of water? Will they outlaw grassy lawns (I've never understood why people in the desert feel compelled to plant grass)? I've actually heard that many western states are investigating options that might seem nutty, like piping in water from the Mississippi or other far rivers, to meet demand. Heck, maybe they should consider importing water from the Amazon. Water will soon be the new oil.