Smoke gets in our lives

When we left Montana in early September, smoke from local and regional forest fires was thick, for the second summer in a row.

My tomatoes hung, unripe, on their bushes, a disappointing reminder of how little direct sun we had received this year. Dips in the lake were always accompanied by the throb of helicopters and light aircraft overhead.

The sorrow of losing the last bluebird days of summer to smog was nothing compared to the suffering of those who couldn’t go outside because of compromised lung function [there’s a few of them in Lincoln County because of a vermiculite mine that operated in Libby in the 70’s and 80’s].

When we returned to Australia a few weeks ago, we returned to smoke from bushfires. The Yankees Gap fire – a highly unusual winter fire which started last month and has burnt for over 30 days, flared up again on the day of our welcome-back picnic at Kianninny bay, driven by strong warm winds.

It’s unsurprising, given how dry it is, especially for this time of year [you can read my first impressions of arriving home to drought here]

When my brother drove us from Canberra to my parent’s place in rural NSW for the first time, the dry was evident, especially after living in the relatively wet and green forests of northwestern Montana.

As Laurie drove us closer to mum and dad’s house, along their dirt track driveway, and saw the bush full of tall, dead wattles draped in long strands of crackly bark, I said: “you know what this place needs?”.

My brother and I looked at each other and at the tinderbox out the car windows and said in unison “a good fire.”

Despite summer after summer of preparation for the inevitable, for over 30 years the bush around my parent’s place has never burnt. Perhaps this will be the year.

In many ways, in Montana and in the Bega Valley, it’s the same story. A noticeable increase in the frequency of wildfires year by year. An increase in how hot each fire burns, and in how long it’s out of control for – and in how many structures are lost.

But the narrative I hear about wildfire is vastly different in each country, in each place. Here on the far south coast of NSW, a dominant narrative is about human-induced climate change – words that are never spoken in rural Montana.

Instead, the narrative in conservative Montana is that because environmentalists [often presumed to live elsewhere/in California] have held up logging operations with litigation, causing economic decline, the loss of a beloved timber industry and now ever-worsening wildfires.

A Facebook post that circulated a month ago showed the rage felt by some rural Montanans towards this “other”: “…. all you environmentalists that wanted to save our forests up here, I’m inviting you to live in what we have to now, you think air pollution is bad right now where you are? Let me tell you, when you can smell smoke from your basement, and you have ash raining down on you on a daily basis, then we can talk. I invite you to our state of Montana, so you can see what your responsible for. You might think lightning is responsible, but in all reality it’s your ignorant thought processes that hold up timber sales and logging in litigation that leads to disasters like this.”

Ironically, the environmentalists living in California and trying to stop logging in the north-west are living in a state that has had a hell of a fire season for the last few years, so it’s safe to say that smoke gets in their eyes too.

In the last few days, firefighters have finally contained the Mendocino fire, the largest and longest burning fire in California’s history. The blaze has killed a firefighter, destroyed 280 structures and covered an area about the same the size as California’s beloved sprawling city, Los Angles.

While everyone looks for someone to blame for the increase out-of-control wildfires, one thing is clear: the fires affect everyone, rich and poor. While money, to some extent, can provide an escape, our recent global trip showed a sameness about this year’s extreme heat and dry that is unavoidable.

A quick peek in the Guardian this morning confirmed the global nature of this year’s heat – Africa recorded it’s hottest ever temperature [of 51. 3C! that’s 123 F] at a weather station in the Sahara desert, and Sweden, a country which usually experiences an average of three wildfires in a summer, has had over 50 this year.

While global warming is certainly implicated, other weather factors, such as a weak jet stream [a core wind pattern that moves weather around the globe] and changes to sea surface temperatures in the North Atlantic [known as the Atlantic multidecadal oscillation] are at play as well.

[Thanks to Simon at simonsweather.org who first explained these concepts to me].

The Facebook post which circulated this summer in Montana ends cheerfully and with an admirable maturity level: “We as Montanan’s, and I as well, think I can say this for the entire state to personally hold you responsible for what our living conditions are. And you wonder why we don’t like you!

On the subject of heat and fire, it’s clear that my Montana community is not alone in searching for someone or something to blame.

But we must think globally on this one – humans don’t like extreme heat and dry and we don’t like how accustomed to the milky blue haze we are becoming.

Smoke is in our lives and it makes us all anxious, searching for an escape route, or an escape goat, or a scapegoat.  Like the animals we are.

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Smoky goodbye party at beautiful Milnor Lake, Troy, Montana. Late August 2018.

 

 

 

 

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For roadkilled native animals, the problem is the solution.

It’s an iconic Australian sight – the solid dark mass of a dead wombat on the side of a dusty country road, one stout leg thrown up as if in warning to other animals.

One every now and then, sure, but the sheer number of roadkill deaths hit me as we drove from Canberra to my parents’ place with my brother last week – kangaroos and wombats in various stages of decay were clustered along the roadside in groups of four, five, six.

My family and I have just moved back to my hometown of Bega, NSW from Montana, a US state which has a strong culture of hunting [and has had a hunting season in effect since 1872!] a fact which means the native animal populations of common animals like deer, elk and bighorn sheep there are kept in check.

There are, of course, roadkill deaths in Montana but a new scavenging law introduced a few years ago means that those who are hit are quickly moved off roadways – and eaten.

When we left Montana, the contents of our freezer included white wrapped packages labeled “roadkill buck,” meat that was gifted to us by a friend who saw a deer hit and salvaged it.

[Thanks to our friend Ben’s humor, we also had packages of meat in our freezer labeled “tender meat snake” (instead of the more conventional “backstrap” and “tenderloin”)]

“Were there always this many roadkill animals?” I asked my brother, wondering if three years away had caused me to gloss over the reality of the situation.

“Nah, it’s just really bad at the moment because of the drought,” Laurie answered.

It is dry. It’s not the driest I’ve seen this land, but the grass is shorn down to brown stubble and the creek makes a narrow path through its bed.

The dry is causing animals to roam further to find food and water, crossing more roads in the process.

Looking out the car window at the carnage, I can’t help but wonder: could Australia learn from Montana’s long history of managing its native animal populations?

On the same road we were traveling – the Snowy Mountains Highway – our mate Zac counted 200 dead roos one night this winter driving the 20 minutes between Canberra and Michalago.

“It was the combination of it being a Friday night and there being lots of snow traffic,” Zac said, “I stopped counting when I got to 200.”

Zac also told me that the owner of the Tathra caravan park had mentioned that her international visitors had been distraught at seeing so many roadkilled animals – the very animals they had come to see and hoped to see hopping and fluffy, not smeared on the highway.

Australia’s success as a tourism destination relies, at least in part, on healthy populations of native animals. But historically, white settlers have not been good stewards to native animals – the Tasmanian tiger was declared extinct in the early 1930’s, the result of overzealous hunting and koalas were taken to the brink of extinction, shot for their thick fur.

Australia protects by law the majority of native plants and animals. In my state, NSW, native animals are currently protected under the biodiversity conservation act of 2016.

But have we taken it too far?

Australians eat vast quantities of meat every year, more than any developed country in the world, according to the world economic forum website. Reading this, a gem from a permaculture course I took years ago in New Zealand floats to the top of my mind: the problem is the solution.

Although Aussies have come to terms with the idea of eating native animals [kangaroos are now hunted commercially and roo meat is commonly available in supermarkets and restaurants] the mainstream has yet to embrace the idea of harvesting the meat ourselves.

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Roo meat is very similar to venison – lean and dark – but in recent years, I’ve not heard of anyone eating other Aussie animals.

Wombat, by folklore, is tough and chewy [there’s a song about wombat stew: “ewey gooey yummy chewy wombat stew”] and tales of early white settlers include despondent descriptions of living on nothing but pumpkin and bear [koala].

While we may not be able to do anything to make wombat taste good, a roadkill salvage culture and the associated laws or indeed, a huntings season similar to Montana’s would at least save some kangaroo meat from being wasted.

Meanwhile, good people ease the suffering of animals by doing clean up on our roads, rescuing infant kangaroos and wombats from the pouches of their road killed mothers and euthanizing where necessary.

This morning we went to see an old family friend, Pauline, who is 76 and a very busy volunteer with WIRES, a wildlife rescue organization.

Pauline has five babies in her care, four kangaroos and one wombat, which she keeps in woolly shoulder bags to mimic a pouch.

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Pauline’s orphans were rescued out of their mother’s pouches or found wandering on their own but still needing milk to survive. Once they hit the magic weight of six kilos, they will be weaned and released onto the bush property of another WIRES volunteer and eventually into the wild.

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The work that Pauline and her fellow volunteers do is pressing right now [she said WIRES takes in several new animals every day in this region] and her access to these cuddly animals delighted my American tourist children, who, two weeks into our time in Australia, still shriek every time they see a kangaroo or wombat.

 

 

But the work of WIRES doesn’t address the overall problem – which is that the populations of these animals continue to grow in good seasons unchecked, leaving a large population to die slowly when the drought inevitably returns [Australia has a shortage of native predators, with birds of prey and the dingo at the top of the chain].

Native animals are officially protected in Australia, but the way I see it, we’re not doing everything we can to protect them.

But we can – we have hardworking scientists at our disposal who could come up with a sustainable solution for kangaroo and wombat populations which would thrill animal lovers, meat lovers and your car insurance company in equal parts.

 

Thanks for reading!

 

 

 

 

 

Bear dogs – a boon to a recovering grizzly population?

Living in northwest Montana, there are times I feel nervous hiking or berry picking in bear country.

So often I’ve thought: there’s got to be a better solution to my nerves than clutching bear spray as I round every corner and singing Madonna songs at full volume to try to prevent surprising a bear.

The risks of being attacked by a bear are low, but the stakes are high.

Early this spring, a woman working as a field assistant for U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service in a grizzly bear research program was mauled in the woods near our neighbouring town, Libby. The organization issued a news release yesterday about the attack, which confirms that the bear was an adult grizzly bear.

According to Fish, Wildlife and Parks, an estimated 50,000 to 1000,000 grizzlies lived in the lower 48 alongside native Americans. But with the arrival of white folks with firearms, the population plummeted to less than 1000 by 1975, when the species was declared threatened.

Grizzlies are still threatened but in recovery in our area, and locals are still practising doing something we’ve never done before – live with these large predators without killing them when our lives overlap too much.

But how?

I went to our family friend Sierra Owen’s place property in the lower Yaak yesterday to find out more about how she spends hundreds of hours working and playing in the woods free from worry about predators.

Sierra’s predator solution was staring me in the face as soon as I pulled up in her driveway. Four large, incredibly fluffy dogs calmly surrounded the car, not barking or moving.

Their mane-rimmed blunt faces and solemn eyes reminded me of lions.

“The dogs are Ovcharka breed,” Sierra told me as she finished her morning chores, which included a changing of the dogs, kenneling some and letting others out [there are  seven total] “they are an ancient breed – the Persians used them as war dogs – but they were originally bred by shepherds who were dealing with lots of predators, especially wolves.”

Ovcharkas are not herding dogs, Sierra explained, but the dogs will run the perimeter of their territory, catching the wind and driving predators away with their “obnoxious” behaviour.

They also gravitate towards hills and high places, where they can watch and wait.

“When you see them with a bear, it’s amazing how fast they are for a large dog,” Sierra said, “they will circle the bear, nipping it on the butt until it is fed up and eventually moving it along.”

Looking into the dense, dark woods directly uphill from Sierra and her husband Odie’s property, and the area where they keep chickens, dog food and previously, pigs, [all bear attractants] I can see why they wanted to find a predator solution.

“Those woods are a corridor between the second largest and the largest roadless areas in the Yaak,” Sierra said “before we had the dogs, I had no idea how many predators moved through there, but now we have the dogs and we can hear when they have something, we know it’s a highway.”

Sierra and her family – which includes son Diamond and daughter Bella – got their first Ovcharka seven years ago when wolves started coming into her yard to hunt their piglets, and her two Australian Shepards would “hide under the porch,” Sierra laughed.

[What can I say? we Aussies are just not accustomed to living with predators!]

“We were looking for a match for wolves initially,” Sierra said “and our first Ovcharka, Atta, did a great job keeping them at bay. But watching her chase them out over and over, we realized – it’s a big job for one dog.”

As their Ovcharka family grew, and they moved into breeding the dogs [check out their website] Sierra and Odie have had several close encounters with predators which have confirmed their faith in the dogs.

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“A few years ago, we had an older grizzly bear take one of our piglets,” Sierra said “our electric fencing was not high enough, and he just stepped over it before the dogs could even smell him. It was Ares’ only failure [not to smell the bear before it entered the pig pen].”

When the dogs did get wind of the bear, eating his pork in the nearby woods, they pursued him. Meanwhile, Odie and Diamond grabbed shotguns and ran outside, as they had a black bear tag [which means you are allowed to hunt one bear in a particular season].

Odie and Diamond were already too close before realizing they were not dealing with a milder mannered black bear, but a huge, old grizzly bear, who was defending his kill.

“The bear charged Odie, and Ares got between them” Sierra recalled, “Odie told Diamond to get the hell out of there and tried to retreat himself.”

Ares managed to distract the bear and run it into the woods, and the family sought assistance from Fish, Wildlife and Parks, who came to trap the bear.

After the bear was released in a nearby drainage, Sierra half expected it to return.

“But it never did,” she said, “I think this is the best thing about Ovcharkas – they’re not only a deterrent, but it’s enough of a negative experience that even problem predators often don’t return.”

Ares may have saved Odie’s life, but he also saved another life – that of the bear.

Once bears have a taste for livestock, garbage or other food sources, it can be impossible to keep them out, and the bear may end up being euthanized.

Sierra has worked for local non-profit Yaak Valley Forest Council since 2004 as a seasonal field technician, and she told me she and her colleagues never go out alone.

But having her dog Ares along when she’s at work results in the whole crew feeling safer, she said, and the benefits of a bear dog on the crew have been demonstrated several times.

“I’m still alert, but I ultimately feel that it’s not my job to identify when there is a predator in the vicinity,” Sierra explained, “I know that Ares will find it before I do and that he knows what to do.”

Although Sierra trains her dogs in basic commands, the behaviour that Ares displays when he comes up against a predator is not the result of training but is an innate quality, the result of years of breeding.

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Last week, Sierra and her two colleagues were collecting data in the woods when “I heard Ares on the creek bottom doing this crazy barking – different to when he has a bear – and when he came back up the hill, hot on his heels was a full-grown grey wolf,” Sierra told me.

On reflection, Sierra thinks it may have been the wolf barking, not Ares.

“He [Ares] had obviously been scrapping – he wasn’t hurt, but his fur was ruffled and he was covered in slobber,” Sierra continued.

The wolf retreated, and the cool-headed crew continued their work, but soon found they were surrounded by the pack, who were barking “just like my dogs when something comes in the yard,” Sierra said.

The crew decided to move to the next drainage, and the wolves “basically escorted us out” Sierra said, noting that her dog kept close, ready for action but not provoking the wolves.

When the crew consulted a wolf biologist about the incident, she said there was almost certainly a den of puppies the wolves were protecting.

Sierra, along with many who work in the woods they love, is a conservationist at heart and said she believes it is her responsibility to manage her livestock and other bear attractants. “It’s not that the predators are bad for wanting to eat,” she laughed, “if we wanted to never deal with predators we would live in Kansas!”

But when humans and predators are sharing space, having a tool like an Ovcharka could be the key to minimizing human-bear conflicts and preventing situations like the mauling of a Fish, Wildlife and Parks employee on the job.

The reason U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service allowed researchers to hike alone in known bear habitat was likely budget, but if they are not in a position to pay another employee $15 an hour, then maybe a dog at a one-off cost of $2000 plus food and board could be a good comprise.

It’s best for us to avoid surprise encounters. And it’s best for the bears.

Plus, these dogs are mighty cute! check out Sierra and Odie’s website for info about their next planned breeding.

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Thanks for reading!