Saturday, December 4, 2010

A Panther, in Alabama?

One of the worst examples of journalism I've seen in a long time is this story from WHNT (a Huntsville TV station) in which the overly credulous reporter writes, "A Marshall County man is recovering after being attacked by a panther." The Associated Press has since picked up the story, which is unfortunate, but they at least show a smidgen of skepticism with "An Alabama man says he's recovering after being attacked by a panther near his Marshall County home." And of course it was a black panther, which is always the tip-off that it wasn't some escaped western cougar or wandering Florida panther, like this one that turned up in Georgia a couple of years ago. The article is accompanied by a photo, stamped March 2006, of a cat of some sort walking away, but there is no mention of where it was taken or if it is supposed to be the animal or one like it.

Not having a perspective from a wildlife biologist is a glaring omission. The only background information provided is the claim by unnamed locals that "panthers" have been seen in the area for years and that "they tend to stay around the bluff areas leading down into the cove, but do come out looking for food."

The story sets off my baloney detector in several ways. First off, there are no black panthers in Alabama. At least not outside of zoos. The only black panthers are melanistic jaguars or leopards, neither of which are likely to be encountered in Greenbrier Cove. There is only the remotest chance that an escaped black panther is on the loose anywhere in the whole Southeast at this moment. The details of the incident strike me as odd, as well: If a big cat is chewing on you, do you think you'd be able to get a knife out of your pocket, open it, and stab the animal? Maybe. Also, if this was a big cat, wouldn't it be more likely to pounce on the guy's dog (which he was walking) and not him? Probably.

Good luck telling country folk that there are no black panthers running around. It's ingrained in the folklore. Biologist Frank Allen of ADCNR does a good job of explaining it here. More here.

I don't know what bit this guy, but it wasn't a panther. If only he hadn't said it was black, I might be willing to cut him some slack. [HE MAY NOT HAVE CLAIMED THIS--SEE UPDATE BELOW]

12/7/10 UPDATE: More has come to light, including this video interview with the victim. It appears that the cat was NOT black as the original WHNT reporter said. I now think the guy might actually have been clawed by an escaped pet. It didn’t attack so much as it clawed him when he kicked at it. Not the kind of aggression you’d expect from a truly wild creature, but it is what you might get from a hungry escaped pet who is looking for a handout and might even have been “set free” by its previous owner due to behavioral problems. Emmett's comment below is well taken. He works with wild Florida panthers each winter in Florida's Big Cypress Preserve, and knows a thing or two about their behavior.]

(I also removed the "A Tiger, in Africa?" Monty Python YouTube clip, but here's the link)

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Ghost Birds

I just received a copy of Stephen Lyn Bales' excellent book on the story of Jim Tanner's work with the ivory-billed woodpecker. Even better, this was a gift from my friend Mike Martin, who had the author and Nancy Tanner (whom I've also met) inscribe it for me at a book signing in Tennessee (thanks, Mike!). Mike has gotten to know Mrs. Tanner in recent years, and she has followed with considerable interest the ivorybill reports and searches in both Arkansas and Florida. It's been four years now since I was gearing up with Mike, Geoff Hill, and others for a months-long search on the Choctawhatchee, and I plan to get back down there some again this winter. I'm not ready to say I think the birds are still there, but I do want to continue looking.

Stephen has a blog relating specifically to the book here.

Monday, October 11, 2010

The Church Sign Song

Auburn zoology grad students Christina Schmidt and Sean Graham (collectively, "Olin Howlin"), along with professor Craig Guyer, greatly entertained the Gopher Tortoise Council at our annual meeting this past weekend. A highlight was Christina and Sean's performance of this original composition, featuring the infamous W.S. Newell I-65 sign (previously featured on this blog), which is the only sign shown that is not actually in front of a church. I did the best I could capturing it on my Droid, but I missed a little of the beginning. Great job, Christina and Sean!

Sean tells me they adopted the name Olin Howlin from a 1930s to 50s-era movie actor.

This is my excuse to share one I photographed just down the road from here. I had to wonder how the appropriation of an old Budweiser slogan went over with some in the congregation. Then again, I suppose those most likely to take exception would be least likely to get the reference.

Feel free to use in your next version, Christina and Sean...

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Rare Plants of Lake Guntersville State Park

Following up on the previous post, many thanks to botanist Dan Spaulding of the Anniston Museum of Natural History for sharing with me his 1995 Jacksonville State University master's thesis titled The Vascular Flora of Lake Guntersville State Park, Marshall County, Alabama. Dan reported 1,076 plant species, a remarkable diversity for an area the size of the park. Of these, 30 are today tracked as species of conservation concern by the Alabama Natural Heritage Program. They are listed below, followed by their state NatureServe rank (S = State. 1 = critically imperiled, 2 = imperiled, 3 = vulnerable).
  • Allium speculae, Little River Canyon Onion (S2)
  • Aralia racemosa, American Spikenard (S1)
  • Aster (Eurybia) surculosus, Purple Aster (S1)
  • Bigelowia nuttallii, Rayless Goldenrod (S3)
  • Castilleja coccinea, Indian Paintbrush (S1)
  • Corallorhiza wisteriana, Spring Coral-root (S2)
  • Coreopsis pulchra Woodland Tickseed (S2)
  • Croomia pauciflora, Croomia (S2)
  • Cuscuta harperi, Harper's Dodder (S2)
  • Dicentra cucullaria, Dutchman's-breeches (S2)
  • Diervilla rivularis, Riverbank Bush-honeysuckle (S2)
  • Elodea canadensis, Broad Water-weed (S1)
  • Fothergilla major, Witch-alder (S2)
  • Frasera caroliniensis, American Columbo (S2)
  • Helianthus longifolius, Long-leaf Sunflower (S1S2)
  • Hydrastis canadensis, Goldenseal (S2)
  • Juglans cinerea, Butternut (S1)
  • Monarda clinopodia, Basil-balm (S2)
  • Pachysandra procumbens, Allegheny-spurge (S2S3)
  • Ribes curvatum, Drooping Gooseberry (S2)
  • Rudbeckia heliopsidis, Sun-facing Coneflower (S2)
  • Sabatia capitata, Upland Rose-pink (S2)
  • Schoenolirion wrightii, Texas Sunnybell (S1)
  • Silene caroliniana spp. wherryi, Wherry's Catchfly (S1S2)
  • Silene ovata, Ovate Catchfly (S2)
  • Silphium mohrii, Mohr's Rosinweed (S1)
  • Stewartia ovata, Mountain Camellia (S2S3)
  • Talinum (Phemeranthus) mengesii, Menge's Fameflower (S2S3)
  • Trillium sulcatum, Southern Red Trillium (S1)
  • Veratrum (Melanthium) parviflorum, Small-flowered False-hellebore (S1S2)
Describing the park's diverse forest, Dan writes,
Some of the canopy trees in the park include basswood (Tilia americana), tulip-poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera), white oak (Quercus alba), black gum (Nyssa sylvatica), white ash (Fraxinus americana), black walnut (Juglans nigra), yellow buckeye (Aesculus flava), northern red oak (Quercus rubra), American beech (Fagus grandifolia), chestnut oak (Quercus montana), black oak (Quercus velutina), mockernut hickory (Carya tomentosa), chinquapin oak (Quercus muehlenbergii), shagbark hickory (Carya ovata), and sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua). The understory trees documented from the park include flowering dogwood (Cornus florida), red bud (Cercis canadensis), sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum), chalk maple (Acer leucoderme), ironwood (Carpinus caroliniana), hop hornbeam (Ostrya virginiana), downy serviceberry (Amelanchier arborea), cucumber magnolia (Magnolia acuminata), mountain-camellia (Stewartia ovata), and American holly (Ilex opaca). Many shrubs such as witch-hazel (Hamamelis virginiana), spicebush (Lindera benzoin), drooping gooseberry (Ribes curvatum), leatherwood (Dirca palustris), maple-leaf viburnum (Viburnum acerifolium), mountain rose-bay (Rhododendron catawbiense), and oak-leaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia) are frequently encountered. The herbaceous ground cover is also rich and varied and is characterized by a number of wildflowers, grasses, sedges, and ferns.
Dan Spaulding is arguably the authority on the flora of the park, yet neither he nor any other knowledgeable biologist was consulted during the decision making process regarding the logging there. A poorly publicized "public comment period" hardly counts. ADCNR's Parks Division employs a forester yet has no botanist or community ecologist staff position. Other state park systems with far less biodiversity than Alabama's, like New York, do. I would say that other states might have more money, but what fraction of that $26 million recently spent on upgrading just Lake Guntersville State Park would fund such a position in the Montgomery office?

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Logging Lake Guntersville State Park

Loading large hardwood logs, Lake Guntersville State Park, September 16, 2010

On September 16, 2010 I visited Lake Guntersville State Park in Marshall County, Alabama to see firsthand the logging and herbiciding that I'd been told was taking place on the park's mixed hardwood slopes. I understand a similar logging project has recently been completed at Cathedral Caverns State Park as well. The people of Alabama perceive their state parks as special places deserving of and afforded the highest protections, but unfortunately this is not what they receive. The Department of Conservation operates several of its parks primarily as resorts and convention centers, and revenues from these help subsidize the smaller parks. At Guntersville, for example, ADCNR recently spent $26 million on lodge and golf course renovations. By comparison, natural resource stewardship is a lot farther down the priority list.

According to ADCNR's own
State Wildlife Action Plan (page 63), a
high priority conservation action is for managers of mesic hardwood forests "to favor mature and old-growth hardwood stands (because these are most often in shortest supply on a landscape scale)." This plan evidently was not consulted in the management decisions at Guntersville and Cathedral Caverns.

In a recent interview with a local newspaper, the State Parks Division's forester said, "The work we're doing will create a park full of big, mature trees with open areas underneath that provide more habitat for more wildlife and more opportunities for visitors to see the wildlife." That's a forester talking, not a biologist. I rather doubt wildflowers, ferns, mushrooms, warblers, salamanders, and box turtles are the kind of wildlife he's speaking of. I know what he's saying--you really can get bigger trees faster if you thin some of them out. But who decides which species to shift the tree community composition toward? And has the cost of disturbance been fully weighed? Through soil disturbance you make the forest highly vulnerable to noxious invasive species, such as Nepalese browntop and Chinese privet, which are already established in portions of the park.

Careful cutting of trees in a park is often necessary to remove invasive species, maintain fire lanes, reduce hazards to hikers/campers, etc. But what I saw was a large-scale and in my opinion misguided removal of oaks, hickories, maples, and other trees, large and small. Part of the justification behind this, as a contact in Parks has told me, was that there was a desire to create an open forest experience that was more aesthetically pleasing to the park visitor. I was assured that this was not economically-driven, and that the cost of the specialized low impact equipment, cut-to-length logging practices, mulching, and herbicides would make this at best a break-even deal for ADCNR.
I guess at least the loggers are making a profit.

This is what ADCNR State Parks is "improving." Blue paint and ribbons indicate trees to be cut. The flagged tree in the right background is a 16" diameter white oak.

This area has already been logged through, and a log is being transported to one of many cleared loading decks.

Another "thinned" and mulched area.

To achieve this, however, heavy machinery has crisscrossed much of the forest floor, resulting in untold impacts to soils, plants, and ground-dwelling animals. No pre-logging inventory of sensitive plants or natural communities was conducted. No such inventory has ever been conducted in the park, although the state can find millions to upgrade its infrastructure. [9/22 edit: Dan Spaulding's 1995 JSU thesis was on the flora of the park, and 30 imperiled or critically imperiled species were reported, but few specific locations are mapped.] New forest roads were gouged into the slopes, decreasing the size of roadless areas and further fragmenting the forest. Contract loggers were allowed to work unsupervised, with no park personnel present, on an "operator-select" basis, meaning some of the most mature and economically valuable trees are being removed. Large portions of the park have been all but sanitized, with dead standing trees (snags) removed, along with naturally fallen trees. The woods have been further "cleaned up" following the logging, with virtually all woody debris mulched by yet another heavy machine. My contact in the Parks Division tells me that that this was done in the name of aesthetics, safety, wildlife, and forest health.

In addition to the logging is herbiciding of vegetation that might obscure a motorists' view into the unnaturally thinned forest. I was stunned to see perennial and annual wildflowers and shrubs dead for up to 50 feet out into the woods while the opposite shoulder of the road had thriving stands of the exotic invasive Chinese privet, the only plant in sight that actually
needed killing.

A large stand of herbicide-sprayed fall-flowering Silphium between the road and the golf course. The logic here seems to be that visitors would rather look at a golf course than native wildflowers.

The invasive privet across the road apparently was not sprayed because no visibility into the woods would be gained due to the slope.

This new logging road cuts deep into what had been a mostly unfragmented block of forest.

The upslope part of the road cut is about three feet deep.

It leads to this.

This Facebook group has been set up by concerned citizens, and contains more photographs and links.

I was told yesterday by my contact in the Parks Division that due to the public outcry, the logging has been stopped, at least temporarily, and whether it continues will be up to Representative Jeff McLaughlin (27th District) and others of the legislative delegation. If you find this kind of management of your parks objectionable, below are some people who may need to hear from you.

Jeff McLaughlin,
Representative, 27th District

Barnett Lawley, ADCNR Commissioner

Mark Easterwood, ADCNR State Parks Director

Addendum, 9/19/10
Here is my email to the gentlemen above:
Commissioner Lawley, Mr. Easterwood, and Representative McLaughlin:

The people of Alabama perceive their parks as special places deserving of and afforded the highest protections, but unfortunately this is not always the case. I recently visited Lake Guntersville State Park and was greatly disappointed by the impacts of the logging, new road construction, and excessive herbiciding that has unfortunately been permitted to occur. Detailed comments and photos are posted at my blog here. I am not necessarily saying that some vegetation management is not needed, but now that these practices are at least temporarily on hold, I urge you to enact a policy of no logging or herbiciding of native vegetation in any state park prior to 1.) development and multi-agency/stakeholder approval of a comprehensive plan for all State Parks, similar to the statewide Comprehensive Wildlife Conservation Strategy (Wildlife Action Plan) developed in 2005 by the Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries and the statewide Forest Assessment and Resource Strategy developed this year by the Alabama Forestry Commission, and 2.) a thorough inventory of each park’s biological diversity. Spending $26 million on infrastructure and virtually nothing on inventorying the park’s natural treasures before logging it simply makes no sense. In the words of Aldo Leopold, to keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.

Please take a moment to look at one or two of these detailed park management plans developed by Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection’s Office of Park Planning. If Alabama’s State Parks have anything similar, other than this one (not available through ADCNR’s website) for Oak Mountain, I am unaware of it, but the need is great. If I may be of any assistance, please don’t hesitate to call on me.


Mark Bailey
Conservation Biologist
Conservation Southeast, Inc.
Andalusia, AL

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Post 101

My 100th post here was almost 2 months ago, something I only just realized. I've been remiss in regular postings this summer, but here are some cool things I've seen in the field in only the last two days:

When inspecting a tract of land on Wolf Bay (south Baldwin County, AL) with botanist Alvin Diamond of Troy University on Sept. 2, we heard a loud splashing near the marsh. Upon investigating, there were a couple of dolphins in the shallows chasing fish [edit: John Dindo tells me they were more likely courting]. There are fewer and fewer places left in Alabama where you can see a dolphin near a shoreline of natural forest, but here's one:

The following day (yesterday) I was in Monroe County to conduct the annual monitoring on a 4,000 acre conservation easement. As I drove through a large planted wildlife food plot around 4:00 PM, I noticed a black animal standing at the far end, perhaps 150 yards away. I wasn't sure what I was seeing even as I photographed it:

With a little enlargement, it's evidently a melanistic coyote, and apparently a young one. I've never seen a black coyote before.

As I left the property, I came upon this congregation of Gulf fritillaries on fresh coyote scat in the road. Butterflies on feces make me smile.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

"I Smell Rattlesnake"

Politicians love the Opp Rattlesnake Rodeo. I first saw Richard Shelby 24 years ago right there at Channel-Lee Stadium when he was campaigning for the Senate. This year gubernatorial candidate Robert Bentley brought a camera crew, which is the only reason I'm posting this. It's a glimpse into what happens there.

It's time the folks at Opp moved beyond this. There's no reason they can't have an annual rattlesnake-themed festival, but sensational exploitation is no way to instill a conservation ethic in youngsters.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

A Week to Remember

Breeding male Notropis chrosomus, Monroe County, AL

There's been a colorful creature theme this week. In the past seven days I've seen red-cockaded woodpeckers in Coosa County, Red Hills salamanders in Monroe County, and a southern red salamander in Covington County. I was present for the release of 18 eastern indigo snakes in Conecuh National Forest. I watched male rainbow shiners in peak breeding colors in Monroe County, at the exact spot I featured in July 2009.

Two events made the week particularly memorable. The first was the reintroduction of the indigo snakes last Wednesday. You can read more on that here and Dave Steen's account is here. Gator Pond is only a couple of miles from the release site, and it's exciting to think that someday we might actually see an indigo snake there. Good luck to Jimmy Stiles as he tries to radio-track 18 snakes that potentially could range for miles!

Jimmy Stiles

It's hard to top indigo snakes, but Friday was the 50th anniversary of the June 18 1960 discovery of the Red Hills salamander, Phaeognathus hubrichti. Several months ago JJ Apodaca and I started making plans to do something to commemorate the occasion, and we envisioned maybe seven or eight die-hard Phaeognathus biologists making the effort to show up. To our astonishment and delight, a group of about 40 people turned out for the event, and following a lunch and indoor social nearby, we all piled into vehicles and drove through a severe thunderstorm to the type locality off Highway 31 near McKenzie. As the rain subsided, we toasted the likes of Leslie Hubricht, Richard Highton, Barry Valentine, and Ronald Brandon. Two of Valentine's students who participated in the 1963 "rediscovery" of the species, Steve Tilley and David Dennis, were there, as were Auburn's Bob Mount (my old major prof) and his students Ralph "PeeWee" Jordan and Terry Schwaner, both of whom did extensive field work and research on the salamander in the late 1960s. Some of these guys came from afar: Tilley from Massachusetts, Dennis from Florida, Jordan from Tennessee, and Schwaner from Ohio. The list of other attendees possessing what we called "Phaeognathus bona fides" is long: Ken Dodd, who worked on the original 1976 listing of the species and did extensive surveys in the late 80s, drove up from Gainesville, Florida. Bruce Means, who documented the reproductive biology of the species, came up from Tallahassee with his wife Kathy. Jodie Smithem, USFWS biologist from Daphne who is writing the revised Recovery Plan, was there. UA professor Jim Parham, who co-authored a skeletochronology paper on Phaeognathus with Dodd, came from Tuscaloosa with his wife Sarah. AU professor Craig Guyer and his former Phaeognathus-studying master's student, Kristen Bakkegaard, now a professor at Samford, were there. Leslie Rissler, JJ's major professor at UA, came with her two youngsters Aiden and Amelia, much to the delight of our seven-year-old, Ava (they were The Three A's). My wife Karan, who's done her share of Phaeognathus catching for an AU study, skillfully handled the BBQ catering and other logistics, and was key to the whole thing going smoothly. Roger Reid produced his very first APT Discovering Alabama program on the Red Hills salamander about 15 years ago (Phaeognathus launched his TV career, we joked), and he was there with his crew to get some supplementary footage. The Nature Conservancy has recently acquired over 4,000 acres of Red Hills lands for Forever Wild, and we were delighted to have Chris Oberholster and Bill Finch of TNC there. Jimmy Bullock and Sandy Hindman of RMS, formerly of Union Camp and International Paper, respectively, were there, and these guys were instrumental in a couple of major Phaeognathus Habitat Conservation Plans in the 1990s. RMS currently owns the type locality and we greatly appreciated their letting us on the property.

We missed a few folks, like Jim Godwin and Margaret Gunzburger, both of whom have considerable "Phaeognathus bona fides" but also had family obligations prohibiting them from making it. Here's Margaret's. Many of us went to Gator Pond afterward and the tale-telling lasted late into the night. Here was the scene the next morning:

Gator Pond Cabin, 19 June 2010. Left to right:
David Dennis, Kathy Steinheimer, Steve Tilley, Ken Dodd, Bruce Means, JJ Apodaca

Great memories were made around here this past week, but there's more to come. It's getting late in the afternoon this Father's Day, and I've promised Ava that Daddy is going to take her to Gator Pond for some swimming, fishing, and listening to frogs. We might even stay in the cabin tonight now that all's quiet. Definitely time to get away from computers for a while...

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Chilton County Alligator Shot

This alligator was shot and killed yesterday morning by a Chilton County deputy sheriff.

It may not be all easy, living into the future with the alligator. But by protecting him, we will show that we have the sense and soul to cherish a wild creature that was here before any warm-blooded animal walked the earth, and that, given only a little room, would live on with us and help keep up the fading
color of our land.

According to the Clanton Advertiser, yesterday morning the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources authorized a Chilton County deputy sheriff to shoot a 9-foot alligator "as a safety measure." This animal was reported on a rural dirt road near a wetland at 5:00 AM by locals going fishing. It had no track record as a problem gator. But to justify killing it, the Jemison police chief said he believed it "could have been out searching for food" and therefore might attack a small child.

ADCNR's Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries has good biologists on staff who know a thing or two about alligators, but something went very wrong here. I don't know the details beyond what's in this article, but it appears that none of these biologists were consulted. Had that been the case, they could have assured the local police that this was nothing to be overly concerned about, explaining that it's alligator breeding season now, and this was in all likelihood a male making its way overland in search of a mate. And alligators are protected in Chilton County so just leave it alone.

When a large alligator is encountered out of water like this, mate-seeking is generally the reason, or else it's relocating from a dried wetland to more permanent water. This gator was not "searching for food" and almost certainly posed no threat to anyone with sense enough to give it a little space.

Chilton County is within the natural range of the alligator (see page 151 of The Reptiles and Amphibians of Alabama), and near its northern limit. The police chief said another gator was caught in the area a few months ago. After a long absence, apparently a population is becoming re-established in the area, but by authorizing the removal of a breeding adult, ADCNR is not encouraging its recovery in this part of the state.

An enforcement officer is quoted as saying, "A gator that size, if he's backed into a corner, he can be dangerous." Of course it can. But why back it into a corner in the first place?

Friday, May 14, 2010

"The Gulf appears to be bleeding"

Sobering aerial views and narration by Alabama resident John Wathen, taken a week ago (May 7):

It was reported yesterday that the rate of the oil flow from the ruptured pipe is (and has been) likely around 70,000 barrels a day — much higher than the official BP estimate of 5,000 barrels a day. Let's hope somebody's calculations are off. At any rate, it's coming from this:

More from Bill Finch here.

The short-term NOAA forecast looks grim for Louisiana's marshes and coastal islands, with Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida continuing to be mostly out of the path through the weekend, but for how long?

[UPDATE, 5/29/2010: With a now-estimated rate of flow of 19,000 barrels per day, BP just announced that the "top kill" attempt failed.]

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Campaign of Ignorance

This stupid, embarrassing ad by a conservative group calling itself "True Republican PAC" (backed by Alabama's powerful teacher's union) flat-out equates conservatism with being anti-science, at least as far as evolution is concerned. Not all conservatives share this view, fortunately, but I suspect most of my neighbors find nothing wrong with this.

(Technically, Byrne is incorrect about evolution, as abiogenesis is the correct term for the origin of life. Evolution is the change in the inherited traits of a population over successive generations. But still...)

[Addendum: Byrne, who briefly had my respect, has now lost me with this: "As a member of the Alabama Board of Education, the record clearly shows that I fought to ensure the teaching of creationism in our school text books." Reminds me of how, in former governor Fob James' (father of current candidate Tim James) appearance as chair of the State Board of Education, he "aped" the theory of evolution by slowly crossing the stage beginning in a crouch and ending erect in a widely reported incident that embarrassed more moderate Republicans. "Alabama’s lack of progress," Howell Raines wrote in the Boston Globe in June 1998, "can be linked directly to its penchant for electing buffoons." More here.]

Friday, May 7, 2010

Bill's Gulf Blog

Nobody is writing about the developing disaster in the Gulf like my friend Bill Finch of The Nature Conservancy.

"If those of us along the coast seem more concerned, more frustrated, a little moodier than some, it’s not because we know what the spill will do. It’s simply because we have a better sense of what we have to lose."

May 6: Relax, the Spill Will Get Here

May 5: A New Kind of Nightmare Every Day

May 4: Putting Out the First Line of Defense

May 3: I Think of All the People I Meant to Bring Here

May 2: Waves Too Rough for Booms

May 1: We're Doing All We Can Do

Image: Snowy Plover on nest, Dauphin Island, Alabama. Photo by Mark Bailey

Sunday, May 2, 2010


As I write this, the beaches 60 miles to the south are still clean, and the marine life and birds are still doing as well as they can in an already heavily altered environment. But the Deepwater Horizon disaster is about to change it all for decades to come. A generation of youngsters will grow up never knowing the Gulf Coast I knew. How, with all our amazing technology, can we allow such a thing to happen? It's so senseless. Eleven lives lost, an ecology and economy wrecked, all for that nasty black stuff we should have weaned ourselves from years ago.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Doug Jones, 1930-2010

April 15 2009 at Dogwood Lodge

Alabama has lost a treasure.

I was privileged to spend time last spring with Doug
and brother Warren at their beloved Dogwood Lodge,
a family hunting preserve and retreat bordering
Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge and established in
1963 by their parents, Walter B. Jones and Hazel
Phelps Jones. It was Doug's passion that the property
be perpetually conserved in its natural state as a
tribute to his parents. I hope that can be done, in
Doug's honor as well.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Interesting Concept

click for detail

The above thought-provoking chart is from Chartophilia, and it got me to thinking about my home state of Alabama, and my relatively sparsely populated home county of Covington. If Alabama’s 2008 population of 4,661,900 were as tightly packed as Brooklyn, New York's 35,000 people per square mile, we’d get everybody into just 133.2 square miles, or an area 11.5 miles square. I know a couple of people whose combined landholdings exceed that. Covington County has 37,631 people, so at the Brooklyn density we could all fit on just over one square mile. But as it is we have just 36 people per square mile, about 1000 times less dense than Brooklyn. I kind of like the elbow room.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010


When we had The Nature Conservancy's prescribed burning crew at the 70-acre Gator Pond property last March, the wind shifted and they were unable to burn the area in the northwest portion. Well, a few days ago, I got some help from Kent Hanby and Mark Hainds and we got it burned (thanks, guys!). At 2:00, relative humidity was down to a scary 11 percent and the air temperature was 70 degrees F, meaning we really had to be careful. But the objective was to clear out some of the hardwood scrubby regrowth that had encroached following longleaf pine planting three years ago, and it was largely a success. Coincidentally, pilot/photographer Alex Boldog happened to be flying over and today he sent me the above image. Look, it's still smokin'! Open Pond and Yellow Hill Pond to the north are on Forest Service land.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Good Times

It's been three years now since I was in the middle of the ivory-billed woodpecker search on the Choctawhatchee River in Florida. It was one of the most enjoyable times of my life, despite seeing or hearing nothing strongly suggestive of an ivorybill. Say "Florida" and most people think of Disney World or beaches. As this photo of the tail end of my pickup (with kayak) shows, we were operating in a very different part of the state. If you want to get a taste of it, check out Erroll Morris' film, Vernon, Florida. I'm ready to go back.

"Now, this here's a gopher..."

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Range-wide Listing of the Gopher Tortoise?

Gopher tortoise hatchling, Covington County, AL

As a Coastal Plain herpetologist actively working in longleaf pine ecosystems, I feel compelled to go on record with this issue, but I'm going to confine my remarks to my home state. The US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) has been petitioned to list the gopher tortoise throughout its range, which will affect Alabama, Florida, and Georgia (the species is already listed west of the Tombigbee River in SW Alabama and parts of Mississippi and Louisiana). [Update: Jeff Humphries reminds me that there are a few tortoises in South Carolina, which I knew, but overlooked.] The State of Alabama's Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ADCNR) and the US Forest Service (USFS) got together and submitted very similarly-worded letters (here and here) to USFWS, putting a positive spin on what they are doing for gopher tortoises and outlining why they oppose expanded federal protection. I have good friends in both agencies and privately many will agree with me that neither ADCNR nor USFS earn very high marks for tortoise conservation. Funding and other resources are limited and it simply has not been a high priority.

ADCNR is doing some good things, like translocating tortoises to its lands where they have been extirpated, and funding research. Although it "protects" the tortoise under its Nongame Regulation, (meaning you can't keep, capture, sell, or shoot one), it pretty much ignores habitat degradation and/or destruction, which is by far the greatest threat to the tortoise. If you want to develop a tract of land in Baldwin County for example, and there are 100 tortoise burrows on it, your bulldozers can roll with impunity. Nobody's going to make you mitigate or translocate animals; you can just bury them where they are. The Nongame Regulation does not specifically exempt developers, but if the killing of tortoises is incidental to what would be considered an otherwise lawful activity, the state has traditionally looked the other way. Federal listing would change that. Another symptom of the disconnect with what ADCNR says and what ADCNR does is the agency's own Fred T. Stimpson Wildlife Sanctuary in Clarke County. After spending many days there in 2007, the only tortoise burrows I could find were a few along the margins of cultivated fields and roads, a result of insufficient prescribed fire in the adjacent forest. Federal listing would probably change a few management priorities there.

USFS is responsible for Alabama's largest gopher tortoise population, the one in Conecuh National Forest (CNF). They are restoring longleaf and doing other positive things for tortoises, but the current degraded condition of much of the habitat is preventing the much-reduced population from recovering as it should. No one has a handle on how many tortoises remain on the CNF or what the population trend is. Work on a forest-wide survey began this month by researchers from Auburn University with funding through ADCNR, which will yield valuable baseline information. The gopher tortoise evolved along with longleaf pine in a fire-maintained landscape, and the greatest problem with the CNF in recent years has been that insufficient prescribed burning is degrading the habitat so much that many areas are getting shrubby and no longer capable of supporting tortoises. NOAA's SPOT forecast website records and maps prescribed fires on federal lands in this region, including Eglin AFB and Blackwater State Forest in Florida, which are contiguous to CNF. As of today, January 10, those two nearby areas have conducted a total of 16 burns on the past nine consecutive days, but CNF has not had a single burn. I live here and although I am seeing smoke in the air from prescribed burns, it's all been from private lands so far in 2010. I have complained to the CNF District Ranger before about their not burning during the growing season, but weather permitting, every day should be a burn day, dormant season or growing season. It's just not getting done, and it's really starting to show on the landscape. Again, federal listing would change this.

Non-listed range of the gopher tortoise in Alabama, approximate.
Map by M. Bailey, based on EPA ecoregions.
(Mobile, Washington, and Choctaw County populations, not shown, are listed)

If we were talking about federal protection on public lands only, I would be unhesitating in my support of listing. The state and federal managing agencies clearly need to be prodded into doing better, and I don't see it happening any other way. It's only the implications of federal protection on private lands that give me some pause. Some landowners will view having a threatened species as a hardship, due to restrictions on land use. This constitutes a disincentive to manage in a manner compatible with the tortoise, and that is a clear negative for tortoise conservation. I would like to see landowners with gopher tortoises given tax breaks, provided they continue reasonably sound ecosystem management (i.e., plant longleaf, manage with fire, etc.). Some landowners are saying they have plenty of tortoises, and they can't possibly be threatened, but I suspect in most of these cases you could look all day and find few if any juvenile or subadult burrows. The presence of multiple adult tortoises on a tract does not necessarily equate to a healthy population. This is an animal that can live 80 years or longer. "Gophers" are tenacious, and can hang on in crappy habitat a long time, but they won't be reproducing if conditions are poor. And non-reproducing fragmented populations (i.e., those without a diversity of age classes) are doomed. Populations heavily skewed to old individuals meet USFWS' threatened status criteria of "likely becoming endangered in the foreseeable future."

I do think the gopher tortoise merits listing, but I'm not sure it would be altogether a good thing for populations on private lands unless steps are taken to alleviate landowner concerns. The Safe Harbor approach has been successfully implemented for red-cockaded woodpeckers and other species, and is one option that would be particularly attractive to landowners who currently have no or few tortoises. If listing occurs, I hope private landowners are rewarded in some form or another for maintaining habitat.

Adult gopher tortoise at its burrow, Wayne County, MS

Friday, January 8, 2010

Stephen Lyn Bales' Blog

I just discovered a fine natural history blog titled "Nature Calling" by writer/photographer/artist Tennessee naturalist Stephen Lyn Bales. Lots of very good photography and artwork. This illustration of one of my favorite birds appears to be for an upcoming book. Looking forward to learning more about that one.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Alabama's Endangered Forever Wild Program

I'm all for preserving green space, not just natural areas but also agricultural lands threatened by sprawl. We need to figure out a way to do both, but limited conservation dollars are almost always best spent on natural functioning ecosystems before they are degraded.

I attended the very first Forever Wild meeting at Oak Mountain State Park back in 1992, after 83% of the voters statewide overwhelmingly approved the program. I was with The Nature Conservancy's Alabama Natural Heritage Program which in those days was housed in the ADCNR State Lands Division, and part of our job was to rank nominated sites for acquisition. I recall the excitement in the air as we looked forward to what the next 20 years (the life of the legislation) would bring. Eighteen years and 209,000 acres later, there's much to be pleased with, but so much more to be done. Frankly, the program has been underfunded to do what has really been needed. As Greg Lien of the Lands Division recently said, "We could purchase land at an identical pace for another 20 years and I know we would not have purchased too much land for the citizens of Alabama."

Greg is so right. Countless precious, unique, and absolutely irreplaceable natural and recreational lands across Alabama are being lost each year to development, intensive silviculture, and agriculture. We are nowhere near where we need to be in preserving land. But with the program coming up for renewal in 2012, politically powerful ALFA is suggesting that Forever Wild's protection of six tenths of one percent of the state is enough, and they want the money that's been funding public land acquisition to go toward paying farmers not to develop their private lands.

I recall then-ADCNR Commissioner Jim Martin telling the attendees of that first Forever Wild meeting that politics would never enter into the way the program was run, and indeed there have been no scandals or misspent funds in these 18 years. But with the program coming up for renewal, politics will determine whether the program continues (or is compromised). Legislators need to hear from their constituents on this critically important issue.

Fortunately, the state's newspapers have not been silent on this:

Mobile Press-Register: Leave Forever Wild Forever Out of Politics
"Legislators who understand the environmental and economic value of preserving land for the public should move quickly in the upcoming session to ensure that no special interests destroy Forever Wild and that voters get the chance to again express their support for its mission."
Montgomery Advertiser: Don't Allow Forever Wild to Lapse
"The Alabama Legislature should renew the Forever Wild program, one of the most successful efforts to protect natural resources for public use in the nation. The program must be reauthorized by the Legislature by 2012 or it will expire."

Anniston Star: Hands Off Forever Wild
"When comparing Alabama's efforts to what other states have done, the state is far behind. Consider Alabama's neighbors. Mississippi has permanently protected nearly 6 percent of its land. Tennessee, 7.25 percent. Georgia, 6.99 percent. Florida, more than 21 percent.

And Alabama? Only more than 4 percent.

We have a long way to go before Forever Wild's mission will be served."

Florence Times Daily: Forever Wild Loses
"Forever Wild has performed admirably since its inception by operating scandal-free and never paying more than the appraised value for property. Tens of thousands of people visit the properties every year. The program is government at its best."

Huntsville Times: Forever Wild Land Preservation Program Faces Sunset
"Forever Wild can't continue if its resources are gutted for other purposes. Forever Wild's allocations off trust fund's interest have also wildly fluctuated with the economy ($400,000 in 2008; $10 million in 2007.) The Alabama Trust Fund should be absolutely the last resort if raiding it would jeopardize this vital public land program."