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CollaredJohn E. Riutta reviewed Collared on The Well Read Naturalist book review this week. In his summary of the book, Riutta wrote:

Collared is not only about wolves but people as well; people with astonishingly different views of the world in which they live, who are honestly trying to work together for their own as well as the common good of their families, towns, and the larger society, to establish a set of rules under which they all – and the wolves as well – can live together with a minimal amount of disruption to their respective ways of life.
To see the full review, and to find recommendations for other books within the genre, please check out, The Well-Read Naturalist.

Top: Pups from the Wenaha pack peer out from the den.
Above: A yearling female wolf from the Wenaha pack in northeastern Oregon. As of August 2012, there were a minimum of 9 wolves confirmed in the pack. All images are mine; please do not use without direct permission.

I’ve spent the last several months writing about the politics of wolves in Oregon, and to some degree the West. If everything proceeds as planned my book, Collared: Politics and Personalities in Oregon’s Wolf Country, will be published by OSU Press in Fall 2013. On the new “Collared: Wolves in Oregon” page on this site, I’ll share bits of that story, wolf-related news and my ongoing research.

… For the last eight-months since observing possible wolf sign during elk hunting season, the Oregon Department of Fish Wildlife state wolf coordination, Russ Morgan, has regularly driven deep into this forested area in northern Union County, cupped his hands to his mouth and let out long, loud, AAWWOOOOoooos.

The howls are part of bona fide scientific survey technique used by wildlife managers to identify the presence of wolves in areas too large to visually survey. Territorial wolf packs and individual wolves will often respond, and move toward, the human howlers, across distances of several miles. However, it’s not a perfect tool. Wolves have been known to ignore, or not respond, to the howls of humans and other wolves. In addition, when a response is elicited it provides only general information about whether or not a wolf, or wolves, are present. Deducing more specific information about exact numbers in the population, sex, and age can be a stretch.

Still a response is a response, and howling surveys are a practical, low cost option for trying to determine if wolves are in an area. That viability, and the potential for success no matter how slim is why Morgan’s voice is now hoarse enough to sand paint, and why he has spent the last two-days eating peanut butter sandwiches and sleeping in the dirt next to the truck. Staring blankly out the windshield, sweating, and swatting at bugs he plans for one more night.

Even at 15 mph Morgan can feel the vibration from the washboarded forest road in his kidneys. Dust from the dry fire road comes in through the vents in the truck’s dash coating the interior with the same fine brown film of particulates that covers the brush mallow and Douglas fir trees that border the road. Every ten minutes, Morgan stops, rolls down his window, and howls. He keeps it up for one hour, two hours, four. At about one a.m. he pulls the truck to the shoulder, switches off the engine, and being too tired to even pull out his sleeping bad, lets his head loll back. He sleeps for almost two hours propped in the driver seat. Waking at about three a.m. he decides it couldn’t hurt to howl into the darkness. When a responding howl comes immediately and from less than 25 yards away, he almost falls out of the open window.

Before the call tapers off it’s joined by another deeper howl, punctuated by higher pitched yips – the sound of pups.

– Excerpt from Collared: Politics and Personalities in Oregon’s Wolf Country, Chapter 3: Early Arrivals

I just wrote this email. It’s a follow-up question from an interview I conducted a few weeks ago.

Hi __________,

When you open the main body cavity, you said you make an incision from the jaw to the pubis. This is probably a ridiculous question, but, do you use a scalpel to make the cut?

Thanks! Aimee

I think sometimes it’s these little details that can really round out a story, and they have to be right. I only wish I had thought to clarify at the time, rather than realizing now as I’m trying to write the whole piece that I want the detail. The learning process continues.

Addendum: I’m envisioning a laser being used because then wouldn’t it also act to cauterize as it opened?  I’m 90% sure it’s my imagination going nuts, but I’d rather know for certain.

In the last few days I’ve been doing a lot of reading about the craft and process of long-form science and non-fiction storytelling. I like the bit below from an interview with author John McPhee quite a lot. It’s true — in non-fiction a pepper never gets to be a tomato. It has to be a pepper.

I always say to my classes that [writing nonfiction is] analogous to cooking a dinner. You go to the store and you buy a lot of things. You bring them home and you put them on the kitchen counter, and that’s what you’re going to make your dinner out of. If you’ve got a red pepper over here—it’s not a tomato. You’ve got to deal with what you’ve got. You don’t have an ideal collection of material every time out.

Edited to add – His description of the process is also pretty darn amazing:

It may sound like I’ve got some sort of formula by which I write. Hell, no! You’re out there completely on your own—all you’ve got to do is write. OK, it’s nine in the morning. All I’ve got to do is write. But I go hours before I’m able to write a word. I make tea. I mean, I used to make tea all day long. And exercise, I do that every other day. I sharpened pencils in the old days when pencils were sharpened. I just ran pencils down. Ten, eleven, twelve, one, two, three, four—this is every day. This is damn near every day. It’s four-thirty and I’m beginning to panic. It’s like a coiling spring. I’m really unhappy. I mean, you’re going to lose the day if you keep this up long enough. Five: I start to write. Seven: I go home. That happens over and over and over again. So why don’t I work at a bank and then come in at five and start writing? Because I need those seven hours of gonging around. I’m just not that disciplined. I don’t write in the morning—I just try to write.

In the last few years, I’ve written periodically about the impact of hydrologic dams on rivers and ecosystems. Most recently I put together a piece for Oregon’s Agricultural Progress magazine about the removal of small dams on Calapooia River in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. An excerpt from the piece is below, to view the whole article, visit: The Long Memory of Small Dams.

The Brownsville Dam was soon joined by two more dams—Sodom and Shearer—built to divert water to a local grain mill. The dams became part of the region’s landscape where they helped develop commerce and community.

However, as the reality of a competitive world market set in, the mills eventually closed. The dams became maintenance liabilities, as well as barriers to fish passage and factors in the ongoing degradation of the river channel. The impact of the dams on water flow was so severe and the diversions so effective that the main channel of the Calapooia River was at risk of running dry. Something needed to be done.

Although the details of these three dams were specific to the Calapooia, the general problem of aging and failing dams was becoming a much larger issue. Across the United States, more than 2.5 million dams obstruct waterways. They range from small structures a few feet tall designed primarily for irrigation to 600-foot structures capable of powering cities. …


This graphic was part of a talk given at the recent Science Writers convention, “Science Writing In the Age of Denial,” hosted by the University of Wisconsin Madison. Wired Science has a good recap of the conference, the gist of which is that despite the best efforts of science and science writers, people will hold fast to the beliefs that bring them comfort. It’s interesting, if a little tweety, and worth a checkout.

The winter issue of National Parks Magazine is out, and it looks great. Check it out here: National Parks. For this issue I was fortunate to work with the scientists at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in Michigan to tell the story of the endangered Piping Plover, a small migratory shorebird that makes its nest among the cobbles of the Great Lakes.

Here’s the beginning:

A Shoreline Rescue: The National Park Service fights to bring Great Lakes’ piping plovers back from the brink.

In the morning hours, when the lake and the sky are the same soft gray, Alice Van Zoeren steps among the small stones marking the high waterline at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in Michigan. Van Zoeren walks this route almost every day from late April to June, scanning the beach for signs of newly arrived piping plovers—but this time, the scene looks different: A late-spring storm has repositioned the lakeshore’s cobbles. To most visitors, the disturbance would go unnoticed. But to Van Zoeren, who has been monitoring piping plovers here for the last eight years, it’s as if someone came by and rearranged the furniture without asking permission. Once the plovers build their nests and lay their eggs amid the stones, such a seemingly innocuous event can have disastrous consequences for the small, pale shorebird with bright orange legs. … continued here …

Since bringing Em home back in July running has taken a dive. Those growth plates of hers have us doing a lot more hiking than running, and the running we do do is often slow and easy, or interrupted by frequent breaks. In the long run it’s for the best, but right now I’m wanting more time on the trails. Yet, Em still needs several hours of exercise everyday, and the time on the leash is good for us both. The result for the last week has been a short 2-3 mile hike/run for her, then a longer solo run for me, then more play time for her, then some work for me, and more play/training time for her.

Back to the point of this post. The extra time on the trails, both with Em and without, has me running into a fair amount of other people, dogs and wildlife. A few days ago, I started writing the bit below about predators. I’m not sure what I’ll do with it, but for right now, I thought I’d put it here.

The sound of a woman’s scream breaks through the morning. It’s barely light out, cold enough to see breath, to wish for mittens, yet she yowls as if her feet were touching hell’s fire.

The shriek careens through the park, follows the creek bed, gains the south ridge. On the loop trail stopped dead in my tracks the hair on my neck and on the dog’s shoots up as if we’ve run full speed into an electric fence and rather than jumping back are holding on to the top wire. The scream comes once more, then nothing.

My hearing turns up to eleven heralding the sounds of the creek and the wind in the trees out of the morning. Tightening my grip on the leash and taking a breath I turn around. It wasn’t a woman.

There aren’t many major land predators left in the Pacific Northwest. The ones still holding on can be counted on one hand. Black bears, mountain lions like the one I heard in the park, maybe an angry moose or one rogue Grizzly up in Idaho’s northern interior have survived years of hunting, habitat degradation and human expansion, but barely.  They’ve done it by moving higher into the mountains, avoiding people, scavenging around the edges of what’s been left behind by logging operations and housing developments.

This situation hasn’t just been rough on the carnivores.

The presence of large predators instills fear in prey causing a change in behavior, says Robert Beschta, an emeritus professor at Oregon State University who studies trophic cascades. These behavioral changes are realized in the prey animal’s balance for food and safety and can result in changes to how they move across the landscape.

Without predators, says Beschta, ungulates like elk and deer are more likely to remain in a region with preferential forage. The result is heavy grazing, and the degradation of soil and water quality. Add in the trickle down effect, and everything from butterflies to bull trout feels the loss of predators.

The take home message: From mountain lions to wolves, predators make for a more balanced ecology.