Category Archives: Wildlife

The bird of many names

Camp robber. Whiskeyjack. Canada jay. Gray jay.  I know of no other bird that goes by as many names as the Canada jay.  In fact, it has so many names it’s possible for two people to be swapping stories and not even realize they are discussing the same animal. Why this sweet-faced bird possesses a number of aliases better befitting an agent of espionage is, in part, the result of a rather fascinating bit of birding history replete with controversy, colonialism, chaos, and a contest of national importance.

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Before we get to the jays though, I want to put in your mind the image of the Ouroboros. If you’ve never seen it before, the Ouroboros is a symbol from Egyptian iconography that depicts a snake or a dragon eating its own tail. The image is meant to imply infinity; the idea that where you end is also where you begin, on and on, forever. Because, as you’ll see, it’s impossible to tell this story without eating our own tails at many different points along the way. So let’s start with the name that’s both the beginning and potentially the end of this story: Canada jay.

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On May 23rd, 2018 the American Ornithological Society announced that Perisoreus canadensis, the bird formerly known as the gray jay, would be officially recognized as the Canada jay.  Although this change felt disruptive to some, for the folks spearheading the campaign, including foremost Canada jay expert Dan Strickland, this was the righting of a historical wrong more than a half-century in the making.

According to Strickland’s research, which he details in a facinating article called “How the Canada Jay Lost its Name and Why it Matters,” one of the earliest scientific references to this bird was in an 1831 zoology book called Fauna boreali-Americana where they name it as a Canada jay. Even James Audubon used the name Canada jay when he described it in the 1840s. From here the story of the jay’s name gets hairier, with lots of different dates, acronyms, and taxonomic nuance, but I want to try and take you through it because it tells you so much about why things ended up as they did.

During the early 1800’s the process of discovering* and naming birds was something of a wild west operation. It wasn’t until 1883 that an official body, the American Ornithologist’s Union, AOU, (now called the American Ornithology Society, AOS), was formed to take leadership and help legitimize the field of ornithology in North America. Part of this goal was to act as the official body for taxonomic and nomenclature decisions. In keeping with this goal, AOS publishes a checklist of North American birds every decade or so. So who is on that list, and what they call it, means a great deal. For the first two publications (1886 and 1895) our bird was called the Canada jay, but then after 1895 all more or less goes to hell.

At the root of this naming disaster was a failure to provide a clear and rigorous English naming system at both the full and subspecies level. Instead, the system (if you could call it that) was that birds with only one species (monotypic species) were given a binomial Latin name and an English common name, but birds with subspecies (polytypic species) like our bird, may or may not be given an English common name or a Latin binomial name. Instead, their subspecies were given Latin trinomial names and English common names. What this meant is that if you saw a Canada-jay like bird, unless you knew which subspecies it was, the best your guide could tell is that it was merely a Perisoreus jay. This also meant that the name “Canada jay” effectively got downgraded to describing a single subspecies: Perisoreus canadensis canadensis. An effort to name yet another Perisoreus subspecies, Perisoreus obscurus griseus, appears to be when the name “gray jay” first comes into play.

I doubt anyone would question why failing to provide common names to full species would cause confusion, but matters were made worse because there was no system in the nomenclature behind the common names for the subspecies. This lead to problems like not being able to identify from the English name alone if you were talking about a species or a subspecies, and having subspecies from different respective species sharing the same root name. For example “clapper rail” could refer to subspecies of either Rallus obsoletus or Rallus longirostris.

In the late 1930s, people grew increasingly frustrated with this system and started to put pressure on AOS to develop a more logical naming scheme. At the forefront of this effort was a recommendation by Alden Miller to adopt a system where full species would be given English common names and binomial Latin names, and subspecies would only be provided a trinomial latin name. For example, Perisoreus canadensis would be given the English common name of Canada jay, and its Alaskan range subspecies would be known only as Perisoreus canadensis fumifrons.

Although this scheme was well supported, during the 1940 vote, it was inexplicably voted down. Instead, in 1947 the committee welcomed a new system where both the full species and the subspecies were given common names but, in an attempt for clarity, required that the subspecies’ common name was both rooted in the full species’ common name and geographically relevant. It’s this decision that officially killed the “Canada jay” because the committee likely felt it would be too geographically awkward to have subspecies names like the “Alaskan Canada jay” or the “Oregon Canada jay” and so instead, they opted for gray jay as the official full-species name.

By 1954, however, this system grew too taxing and the committee essentially adopted Miller’s 1930’s suggestion: only full species get official common names and subspecies are named and identified by their trinomial Latin name. For some reason, though they did not revert back to the original* name of Canada jay as their rules suggested they should, and instead they curiously retained the name gray jay. This may have been the last of it if not for a ~political~ controversy that would rock the nation of Canada a half-century later.

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In 2015 the Royal Canadian Geographical Society sought to declare a national bird of Canada, a spot that remained egregiously vacant, by hosting a massive public vote to choose among 40 potential candidates. As the popular vote neared an end, five front runners had emerged: the gray jay, the Canada goose, the common loon, the black-capped chickadee and the snowy owl. Ultimately, the common loon would go on to win the popular vote by a 10% margin. Once voting closed, however, the RCGS convened a panel of experts to debate which bird they thought was most worthy. To the shock and upset of the voters, in 2016 RCGS ultimately chose the gray jay, a bird many voters complained did not have the connotation of national pride that the loon did. In the end, though, none of it-the year and a half long competition, the 50,000 votes, the ensuing controversy-mattered because the actual Canadian government had no interest in naming a national bird.

Still, the public’s perception that the jay was not a strong enough symbol did not sit well with Canadian jay scientists like Strickland and Ryan Norris who knew of the jay’s more patriotic heritage. Determined to understand and ultimately reverse the 1954 ruling, Strickland set out to show AOS that the decision to retain the name “gray jay” was not in keeping with their own rules. And, as you already know, in 2018 he succeeded; the bird formerly known as the gray jay (which was formerly known as the Canada jay) is now officially reknown as the Canada jay. The Ouroboros has finally caught its tail. Well, for many people it has.  I want to enter yet one more heir into this contest, the one that I believe holds the most legitimacy to the throne: the whiskeyjack.

Unlike the name might suggest, whiskeyjack isn’t derived from campfire tales about these gregarious birds robbing campers of their whiskey.  It’s an English name derived from the indigenous Cree (and other Algonquian family languages) name for the bird, Wisakedjak. In Cree culture (and some other First Nations peoples of the subarctic region) Wisakedjak is a sacred figure who is known as a trickster and in some cases for being among the creators of the world.  It’s a befitting name for this clever little corvid and the merits of its legacy are without question.  In fact “whisker-jack” can even be found in the English literature as early as 1740, nearly one hundred years before the name Canada jay would first be used. I’m not alone in my support either, even during the 1947 debate, L.L. Snyder notes that “‘Whiskeyjack’ is used universally in the north (& will continue to be).”

Throughout this article, you may have noticed the occasional * following words like “original” or “discovered” and that’s because those words are only relevant when thinking about natural history in post-colonial terms. But the truth is that most wildlife were already known, already named, already studied by the various peoples that called this continent home before their lands were taken from them, and their traditional knowledge erased in favor of a Western approach. So if our goal is to honor the heritage of this bird, I can think of no name more appropriate than the “whiskeyjack jay.” That is the return to the beginning that this magnificent bird deserves.

***

 

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Filed under Birding, Canada jays, Science, Wildlife

Watching puppies…for science

When I was still in Alaska back in the fall, my social media was brimming with pictures of the kinds of things you might expect from a biologist studying birds in Denali National Park.  Photos of bears, Canada jays, arctic tundra, caribou, snowshoe hares, ravens, mountain and…puppies? Not just the occasional pupper photo either, but piles of puppies, puppies on parade, and videos of puppies doing the kinds of pupper things that make even the most cold-souled of us go red with glee.

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Most of you were probably thinking, “IDK why this is happening and I don’t care, just give me more,” but a few of you may have found it a bit odd that I appeared to be spending so much of my time with doggos rather than the birds I was in Alaska to study.  But, no matter which camp you were in, let me take a moment to clear the air and confirm that my time around the puppies was purely professional.

Let’s start with a fact that is not well known among the general public, but is crucial to the story: Denali is the only National Park with a full-time sled-dog team.  In fact, Denali has had a mushing team since 1922, starting merely five years after the park’s inception.  At that time, the team was responsible for patrolling the park boundary for poachers.  Today, the dogs help deliver supplies and humans to places within the park that become difficult to reach during the winter months.

 

In any given year, the park is home to about 35 dogs, which when not working live in the kennels near park headquarters.  As a park visitor, you can go to the kennels to meet the dogs and see mushing demonstrations.  Needless to say between its cultural significance and popularity with the public, the kennels at Denali are a source of pride and joy for many park visitors and staff.

 

There is one aspect of the kennels, however, that makes their presence a bit tricky from a wildlife perspective.  Like all US National Parks, Denali maintains a dogmatic “no-feeding wildlife” policy.  This is meant to keep wildlife wild and prevent dependency and human conflict.  Feeding time at the kennels, however, can be a real smorgasbord for the local corvids, particularly if some of the dogs are slow or reluctant to eat.  How such food supplementation may be affecting the breeding success (or mortality) of the jays is therefore of keen interest to my work.

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In partnership with kennel staff, my tech and I sought to document which birds were attending the daily feeding at the kennels. I will do the same come the winter field season, and ultimately we hope to determine if such attendance has any impact on how many fledglings those pairs are able to produce.

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So, as I said, while visiting the kennels and the park’s annual litter is all fun and games for most, for me it was serious, professional science business and nothing more.  Can’t you tell?

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Filed under Being a scientist, Canada jays, Field work, Wildlife

Denali field notes: Wildlife report

One of my followers on Instagram recently requested a list of all the wildlife I’ve seen in the park.  Since my stay has (for now) come to and end, it’s actually a great opportunity to look back on everything I’ve enjoyed while I’ve been here.  Which animal would you most want to see?  Let me know in the comments!

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1. Voles.  Unfortunately this is only animal I neither have photos of nor can ID to species.  When you see a vole the sighting usually goes something like this “look there’s a v-” and then it’s gone. Not much time to even wrap your head around it, frankly.  Though I did get one good look once when I got to see one swim across a puddle at my feet.

2. Red squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus). If you follow me on Twitter you’ll know I was quite enamored with their mighty middens.

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3. Short-tailed weasel (Mustela erminea). Easily one of my favorites of the trip.  They are as hilarious to watch as they are adorable.  It’s like if squirrels rebranded their frenetic stress into something cool.

4. Collared pika (Ochotona collaris). Like hares and rabbits, although pikas may look rodent-like they are actually in the lagomorph family. Pikas can be found on rocky hillsides throughout the park.

5. Arctic ground squirrels (Spermophilus parryii). You can easily find these critters all over the Eielson visitor center, but they’re abundant across most of the park too

6. Muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus). There are at least a half dozen muskrats making their home in Horseshoe Lake alongside the beavers that keep it dammed it up.

7. Snowshoe hare (Lepus americanus).  You can learn more about these animals in this post.

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8. Red fox (Vulpes vulpes). I spotted a fox while en route from Wonder Lake to Eielson, but it was too far off to bother with a photo for.

9. Canada lynx (Lynx canadensis). I was really, really hopeful to see a lynx but until now that’s resulted in nothing more than disappointment.  Finally success!

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The remaining 5 mammals I’ve already dedicated an entire post to.  Check it our here!

10. Grey wolf (Canis lupus)

11. Dall sheep (Ovis dalli)

12. Caribou (Rangifer tarandus)

13. Girzzly bear (Ursus arctos horribilis)

14. Moose (Alces alces)

Birds
15. Boreal chickadee (Poecile hudsonicus). These little winter warriors are everywhere, and are always tricking us into thinking they’re jays and then laughing at us for confusing such a tiny bird with a corvid.

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16. Common redpoll (Acanthis flammea).  I didn’t see any when I was here last March, so this was a lifer for me!

17. Dark-eyed junco (Junco hyemalis). A familiar face from Washington.

18. American tree sparrow (Spizella arborea).  I spotted this one with help from birder extraordinare Noah Strycker, who joined us for a few days to help with data collection.

19. Lincolns sparrow (Melospiza lincolnii).  These birds joined us on one of my favorite hikes of the trip.

20. White-winged crossbill (Loxia leucoptera).  Like all crossbills, these birds use their amazingly adapted bills to fiddle with spruce cones.  They move through areas in fairly large flocks chattering up a storm and raining cones down in their wake.  Then like a flash they are gone.

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21. Pine grosbeak (Periporphyrus erythromelas). The males can be easily mistaken for a crossbill at first glance, but their bulky size and beautiful song distinguishes them.

22. American dipper (Cinclus mexicanus). America’s only aquatic songbird.  We saw a pair of these birds mulling around Horseshoe Lake.

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23. Varied thursh (Lxoreus naevius). If you’ve never heard it, the varied thrush produces a very whistle-like tone sung in a single pitch for about two seconds. For me, these sounds are familiar forest sounds, but for many visitors these birds and their calls are completely foreign. As a result, evidently it’s not uncommon for visitors to mistake their calls for emergency whistles and report them to park law enforcement!

24.  American robin (Turdus migratorius). A turd I can’t live without.

25. American three-toed woodpecker (Picoides dorsalis).  For all the dead trees around here I am frankly surprised we didn’t see more woodpeckers.  It took about five weeks before I finally saw my first one!  Then it was like we couldn’t shake them.

25. Canada jay (Perisoreus canadensis). It would have been kinda a problem if these birds hadn’t made the list.

26. Boreal owl (Aegolius funereus).  This sleepy bae was very rudely awakened by some cranky Canada jays.  It just gave them a few robotic blinks and went back to sleep.

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27. Merlin (Falco columbarius).  These birds are so fun to watch, but I only ever caught the occasional glimpse while driving through the park.

28. Black-billed magpie (Pica hudsonia). For such a pretty bird they are darn camera shy!

29. Greater scaup (Aythya marila).  I was a little late to see much in the waterfowl department but we did see a few of these in the kettle ponds near Wonderlake

30. Northern hawk owl (Surnia ulula).  This picture is from last spring, but I am claiming the right to never need another hawk owl photo again.

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31. Northern goshawk (Accipiter gentilis). Don’t let their scientific name fool you.  These are serious murder birds and probably the number one killer of hares that we encountered.

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A goshawk chases a raven. 

32. Gyrfalcon (Falco rusticolus).  Man I wish I have been able to capture one of these in full glory.  Such beautiful falcons.

33. Willow ptarmigan (Lagopus lagopus).  The state bird of Alaska! Like the hare and the stoat, these birds adopt a new look during the winter.  This one was early in the transition.

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34. Spruce grouse (Falcipennis canadensis).  I wrote about a cool encounter with these birds in an earlier post.

35. Common raven (Corvus corax).  Somebody find me a project so I can study these next!

36. Great-horned owl (Bubo virginianus). It’s within the realm of possibility that this particular GHOW killed one of our jays, but the evidence was circumstantial so I won’t hold them to account just yet.

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37. Sandhill crane (Grus canadensis).  Listening to them fly over the park as they begin their fall migration is a sound so beautiful that it hurts to think how few people will get to hear it in their lifetime. 

38.  Golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos). Okay, so I didn’t take this picture in Denali, but I couldn’t have ended on a picture-less note! Plus, look at that handsome devil.  My goodness.

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Filed under Birding, Denali Diaries, Field work, Just for fun, Photography, Wildlife

Denali Diaries Part II: The Wildlife

While Denali is worth visiting on the basis of its scenery alone, it’s the wildlife that will truly shape your experience.  In the summer, Denali is host to some eight species of medium to large sized mammals, including foxes, lynx, wolves, grizzly bears, black bears, caribou, Dall sheep and moose.  Among those, the moose, grizzly bear, caribou, wolf, and Dall sheep make up what’s known as the “Denali Big 5.”

Seeing wildlife in Denali is mostly about luck and timing, but the longer you’re in the park the more chances you have to view wildlife.  As I described in my earlier post, I scheduled and bus hopped my trips in such a way that I stayed in the park most of the day.  This is particularly important for moose, which are generally crepuscular, meaning they are more active in the morning and evening . Everything else is really just a gamble. Sometimes the odds are in your favor and sometimes they’re not. For what it’s worth, though, out of my four all-day trips into the park I got The Big 5 twice, both during the times I stayed primarily on the bus.

While I always left the park having experienced something new, there were definitely trips that were more memorable than others, and the range of experiences really made me appreciate the luxury of being able to go multiple times.  Whatever wildlife you do have the privilege of encountering is sure to fan the flames of your love affair with this park, but I imagine for many people that affair starts first and foremost with the most visible and charismatic of Denali’s wildlife: The grizzly bears.

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I took this photo in late August, just as the colors started to change.

By late July, bears across Alaska are gearing up for hibernation by entering a phase called hyperphagia, where they basically eat constantly and gain somewhere on the order of 400 pounds.  In the park, their diet consists mostly of blueberries, soapberries, and roots, but they will gladly eat whatever mammals they can catch, including small rodents, caribou, moose and even other bears.

A big highlight when bear watching is seeing sows out with spring cubs. Unlike mom, the young are generally a lot darker in color, prompting people to sometimes mistake them as black bears.  Observing cubs playing, foraging, and trying to keep up with mom is definitely the kind of experience that will make you wonder if you were somehow transported, Truman style, to some kind of nature documentary, but in the best kind of way.

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While I won’t pretend for a second that seeing bears ever gets old, they honestly weren’t the animal that I was most looking forward to encountering when I arrived in Denali.  Maybe it’s because I’d never seen one before, or because of some deep affection instilled by decades of Christmas marketing, but something about caribou utterly charms me.

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Unlike many of Alaska’s other herds, the Denali caribou do not undertake an immense seasonal migration, opting instead to remain almost exclusively within the bounds of the park year round. Unless you can travel into the interior of the park, however, you’ll have little luck seeing them in the winter.

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Denali used to play host to a herd that ranged in the tens of thousands, but after decades of over hunting followed by a mysterious period of low calf survival and harsh winters, Denali’s herd has dwindled to around 2,000 individuals.  Fortunately, things seem to have stabilized for the time being. I wish I had seen more before the end of the season, but I’ll never forget what it was like watching this small herd move through this painted hillside.

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The ungulates that seemed to most delight my fellow visitors, however, were the moose.  For all of Denali’s hooved animals fall is the rut, which means males have grown out their antlers or horns and are putting them to use in sparring (practice) matches, as they ready themselves for the violent matches to come.  I only saw such behavior between moose once.  They locked antlers for a few seconds and went back to grazing shortly thereafter.  Unfortunately it was too far away to bother with any photos.  I’ll admit, seeing a bull moose, particularly on foot, is a gripping experience.  However big you imagine them to be, they’re bigger in person.  The rack alone can be 40lbs.

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In Denali, the stakes of these fights are high, as the moose here operate in a polygynous system, where the victor will mate with and defend an entire heard of females.  In other places, moose form monogamous pairs for the breeding season.

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It was early morning still when we watched this cow move her two calves across the valley. They seemed pretty wary of our bus, though her biggest real threat is the park’s main carnivorous predator: The gray wolf.

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Even in Yellowstone I don’t get my hopes up about seeing wolves despite there being far more individuals there. Across the Denali’s 6 million acres, there are only 30 known packs comprising about 75 adults. You can imagine my delight then, when, as we were making our way out of the park at dusk on our first trip, we rounded a corner to see this rump trotting up ahead of us. As it happens, I had been walking the road on foot only minutes before. I probably wouldn’t have caught up with it had I not gotten on the bus, but it’s still pretty incredible to imagine that I more or less went hiking with a wolf. We must have followed this adult for about a mile. It stopped a few times, evening giving it’s signature mournful howl a before it disappeared off the side of the road. Honestly, that would have been enough for me, but our second to last trip had something really special in store.

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I had heard whispering about wolf pups back at our housing campus but I never thought much of it. I figured that was deep interior kind of stuff, the kind of trek our field schedule just wouldn’t permit. So while I figured it was something exciting when we arrived at a jam packed road, I just wasn’t picturing this…

Cue total F-ing meltdown on my part.

This pup was born sometime mid-may to the single male and female that comprise the Riley Creek West pack.  By around four months the pups start venturing away from their den site.  Lucky for us, for a few day stretch the area they were exploring was right near the road by Toklat.  After a few days, they moved away from the road, which was no doubt for the best.

The last animal I have the great pleasure to highlight is the most iconic of Denali’s wildlife.  In fact, it was this animal for whom the park was dedicated.  The endemic Dall sheep.

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In 1906, hunter and conservationist Charles Sheldon noticed a worrying decline in the Dall sheep favored by hunters.  He feared that without protection, they would be hunted to extinction. Now this is an all too familiar concept, but coming off the heels of the “era of abundance” this was actually a revolutionary way of thinking in western culture.  Until 1900, colonists/settlers in the United Stated hunted without regulation and, seemingly, without much thought or worry as to the integrity of ecosystems. As a frame of reference, the field of wildlife management wouldn’t come onto the scene for another two decades.

Sheldon, however, had the foresight to recognize that something must be done and set out to establish Denali as a national park.  It took 11 years, but in 1917 Woodrow Wilson signed the bill into law. Since that time Dall sheep populations rebounded and are currently considered healthy.

Despite their robust numbers, however, most of my experiences of seeing Dall sheep in the park were “technical”.  As in, “technically those white specks on the mountain side are Dall sheep”. So on our last day as we traveled out of the park, I couldn’t believe my eyes when a ewe and her lamb were jogging down a hillside close enough that you could judge their forms as Dall sheep even with your naked eye. For the minute or so that we were able to watch them, I felt myself overcome with equal parts joy and despair.  I was profoundly grateful for the gift of such beauty and yet so sad that once again its integrity is under such threat.

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Driving home one night, my fellow passengers and I shared our backgrounds and motivations for visiting the park.  Some came to experience mammals the size of which dwarfs anything in their native country, some were fulfilling missions to visit all the National Parks, while others had arrived with a spirit of adventure and little else.  Together, we marveled at the unforgettable things we had seen and shared our anxieties that future generations may not be so lucky.  We discussed our anger and disappointment (or among some of the foreign tourists utter bafflement) at the US government’s unwillingness to act more effectively on climate change.

One hundred years ago someone looked at this land, recognized that change must be implemented, and fought for over a decade to convince congress that in fact wild spaces and wildlife mattered enough to act.  As a result, my fellow passengers and I got to see and experience things that will bring us joy the rest of our lives.  The question now is whether we will wage our own fight for the future, or if we will watch from the sidelines as it turns to ash in our warming world.

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For information about climate change in the arctic please visit the following resources

NASA’s Arctic-Boreal Vulnerability Experiment

The National Snow and Ice Data Center

Chasing Ice

And remember…
~PLEASE VOTE ON NOV 6TH~

 

 

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Filed under Climate change, Conservation, Denali Diaries, Ecosystem, Photography, Wildlife