The Science behind OHV Restrictions

Guest Blog: With the creation in Alberta of the Castle provincial and wildlands parks, the proposed parks in the headwaters of the North Saskatchewan River (Bighorn) and the recreation plans for the Livingston and Porcupine areas of southern Alberta, there has been considerable controversy over the use of off-highway vehicles (OHVs) in our wild lands. Unlike many other jurisdictions in North America, OHV users have had few restrictions placed on them in Alberta. The result has been the considerable destruction of fish and wildlife habitat, not to mention the damage to our potable water sources and the wild places where Albertans like to re-create themselves. Fisheries biologist Lorne Fitch (and frequent guest blogger here) has written about the use of OHVs and how they’ve destroyed much valuable fisheries and wildlife habitat (e.g., Tracks and Spoor and Myths about Off-Highway Vehicle Use). Here, he answers the challenges of OHV groups to show the scientific evidence for their destructive use (as if it wasn’t obvious). This piece was first published in the Lethbridge Herald.

The Science behind OHV Restrictions
by Lorne Fitch, P. Biol.
Copyright © 2018

There have been recent cries from some in the Off Highway Vehicle (OHV) community to “show me” the science behind restrictions on motorized recreational use. They should know that their request for “peer-reviewed” science has been heeded and a report from the Environmental Monitoring and Science Division of Alberta Environment and Parks was released in December 2017. The report is titled Ecological Response to Human Activities in Southwestern Alberta: Scientific Assessment and Synthesis . Perhaps the contents have not been widely distributed, or read.

OHV bog

”The sheer force from spinning tires on OHVs further contributes to and intensifies erosion…”

Ten Canadian scientists whose credentials are solid prepared this report. It relies on over 150 references that pertain to landscapes that are ecologically similar to those in southwestern Alberta. No relevant science was left out.

Here are some of the notable quotes from the report to provide a sense of what the scientific consensus is on OHV use:

“OHV use across all seasons causes a disproportionate level of impact and damage compared to non-motorized recreational activities.”

“Impacts are often irreversible.” “…any natural recovery is either slow or non-existent.”

”The sheer force from spinning tires on OHVs further contributes to and intensifies erosion…”

“Vegetation loss and soil compaction associated with OHV use contributes to conditions that favor invasive species.”

“Trail usage can change the overall hydrology of the area by creating new flow pathways and, therefore also result in increased sediment movement.”

“Sediment production from OHV trails was three times greater than from forest roads…”

“Increased sedimentation associated with linear footprints has been linked to population reduction of stream trout.”

Seven hundred peer-reviewed studies “found that both the noise and physical presence of OHVs in wildlife areas effectively reduced habitat connectivity, changed animal movements and altered population and recolonization dynamics.”

The authors have inventoried the amount of access in the Castle area of southwestern Alberta and document 1615 stream crossings. Motorized trails cross some streams more than ten times in a single kilometre. Even streams that provide critical habitat for native cutthroat trout and bull trout have almost one crossing per kilometre of stream length.

Every stream crossing contributes sediment to the system, in excess of natural background levels. This has profoundly negative effects on trout populations, and impacts water quality in an area that is the source for downstream water taps. The existing 50 OHV bridges need to be contrasted against over 1600 other stream crossings in the Castle alone and 3990 in the Livingstone-Porcupine Hills. The reality is that OHV bridges often still have fords beside them, where many users still splash through streams.

Installing a few OHV bridges and cleaning up litter is laudable, but barely begins to deal with the issues created by OHV use. This report should be a wakeup call for the OHV community and not a reason for further entrenchment of attitudes and opinions into a mudhole of denial. OHV users might be able to drive away from this evidence – but they cannot hide from it.

A telling quote from the report is: “The mere presence of OHVs is a greater determinant of the degree of associated environmental effects than varying levels of OHV use.”

This comprehensive, impartial and objective report by qualified Canadian scientists is the definitive assessment of the effects of OHV use. As such, it is time to start an adult conversation about solving the issues rather than continuing to trot out the prevailing myths, misconceptions, distortions and opinions to defend a recreational activity that most Albertans don’t indulge in, but that clearly impairs public lands and waters that all Albertans should be able to enjoy on foot.

Lorne Fitch is a Professional Biologist, a retired Fish and Wildlife Biologist and an Adjunct Professor with the University of Calgary.

Comments are welcome (below); but you may also contact Lorne directly at lafitch@shaw.ca

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How Did They Get Here?

I wrote this piece back in 2005 that describes how our native fish arrived in Alberta. I’m posting it here because I believe it’s important information to understand when we talk about species-at-risk and why protecting habit and wild places is so important, not only for the well being of these species (many of which are species-at-risk), but also for our understanding of our connections with the land and environment. There’s something special about catching a native fish, whose ancestors migrated to the water body a few thousand years ago and subsequently evolved with the water body to best exploit its features. You don’t get that special feeling catching a fish that has been stocked from a hatchery.

[Note: The following was first published in the 2005 Alberta Guide to Sportfishing Regulations.]

Copyright © 2005 Don H. Meredith, All Rights Reserved.

Whether jigging through a hole in the ice, rocking in a boat on a gentle summer lake or casting a fly along a cool foothills stream, my mind tends to wander. Indeed, that’s one of the benefits of a fishing trip—the time it allows your mind to relax and consider things that are not of immediate concern but might broaden your perspective on the world. Being a biologist, I enjoy thinking about what’s going on around me in the natural world. Why is that squirrel chattering, that hawk circling or that coyote howling? Why does a fish like a certain color lure over another? How did the native fish I’m trying to catch get into this particular lake or stream?

Have you ever thought about that last question? It’s an easy one to dismiss by assuming the fish have always been in the particular water body. However, they have not always been here. In fact, like most species of plants and animals in this province, the fish that currently occupy our water bodies have only been in Alberta a few thousand years—barely a hiccup in the vast span of geological time.

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Arctic grayling most likely invaded Alberta from the north as the ice retreated.

Although the fossil record indicates fish have occupied the province for hundreds of millions of years, there have been breaks in that occupation. Over the last one-and-a-half million years or so, Alberta has been covered in glacial ice several times. The most recent glaciation occurred from about 20,000 to 13,000 years ago, and covered much of Alberta in ice thousands of metres thick. Most life was pushed out of the province and took refuge in areas where the ice did not extend.

According to the late Drs. Joseph Nelson and Martin Paetz, who summarized the scientific studies about fish reoccupation in The Fishes of Alberta (1992, University of Alberta Press), present-day fish species reinvaded Alberta from three distinct areas that were ice-free during the last glaciation. Those three areas, called refugia, occurred in the present-day Missouri and Mississippi drainages south of the Canadian prairies, the Columbia River drainage south of British Columbia, and the Yukon River drainage north of British Columbia. As the ice melted, exposing barren land, new drainage systems formed to move the melt-water. The melting didn’t happen all at once. Lakes and streams formed only to be replaced by others as ice or debris dams broke and new heights of land were exposed by the retreating ice.

As the ice retreated, fish from the refugia searched the new drainages to exploit the plant and animal life beginning to take up residence in the water bodies. Some of these drainages led to lakes where substantial fish populations could be sustained. Two large lakes that formed at the base of the retreating ice mass were the Glacial Lake Edmonton complex in Alberta and Glacial Lake Agassiz in portions of Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario. These huge water bodies stretched across present-day drainages and provided routes for many species from the Missouri—Mississippi refugium to occupy new water bodies in Alberta, especially in the Saskatchewan, Athabasca and Peace River basins. According to Nelson and Paetz, well over half (38) of the 59 species of fish that occupy the province today (both game and non-game species) came from the Missouri—Mississippi refugium, including the mooneye and northern pike.

The Yukon refugium shared many species with those found in the Missouri—Mississippi refugium. As the ice retreated from the McKenzie, Peace and Athabasca drainages, such fish as Arctic grayling, burbot, northern pike, lake trout and lake whitefish reinvaded the province from the north. This is probably the chief route the Arctic grayling used to populate northern Alberta. The other fish may have reinvaded from both the north and south.

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Although rainbow trout are found in many lakes and streams in the province, most were stocked from hatcheries.

Nine species of fish invaded the province from the Columbia River refugium, including bull trout, cutthroat trout, rainbow trout and mountain whitefish. These fish followed the retreating ice into British Columbia and up the valleys of the Rocky Mountains. As on the prairies, melting glaciers formed large glacial lakes in the mountain valleys. One of these north of Prince George allowed fish moving up the Columbia and Fraser rivers to invade what became the Peace River drainage in northern B.C. and Alberta. A similar connection between Moose Lake at the headwaters of the Fraser River in B.C. and the Miette River in Jasper National Park explains Alberta’s only population of native rainbow trout in the headwaters of the Athabasca River. Other connections over low passes in the southwest Rockies account for invasions of bull and cutthroat trout and mountain whitefish into Alberta streams.

Today, rainbow trout are found in many streams and lakes throughout the province. However, most did not occupy these areas through invasion. As described above, only the rainbows found in the upper reaches of the Athabasca River invaded the province following the retreating ice. Most rainbows found in Alberta today were originally stocked from hatcheries in the early 20th century to satisfy a growing demand by anglers for more trout in mountain lakes and streams. Many of these introductions were successful with the rainbows establishing breeding populations. As a result, the government developed fishing regulations to conserve these naturally reproducing populations and eliminate the need for costly restocking.

The rainbows found in the so-called “pothole” lakes across the province have also been stocked from hatcheries. However, because these lakes do not have inlet or outlet streams, the fish do not have access to the stream-bed gravels required for spawning. Therefore, these populations cannot reproduce themselves and require regular restocking.

Of the 59 breeding species of fish found in Alberta today, people introduced eight from outside the province and therefore are not native to the province. Two of the most successful introductions were the brook trout which is native to eastern Canada, and the brown trout which is native to Europe, Asia and northern Africa. Both of these species established breeding populations and are prized by anglers. Other introductions were not successful, such as several species of salmon, Arctic char, and large- and smallmouth bass. These species were unable to establish breeding populations for a variety of reasons and illustrate the importance of suitable habitat to an invading or introduced species. If invading species cannot find conditions suitable for feeding or breeding they have to move on. As well, competition with other fish species plays an important role. For example, trout generally do not survive well in water bodies occupied by northern pike.

As you fish your favorite water and contemplate the workings of the natural world around you, you might want to ask just how the fish you are about to catch got into this lake or stream? Did its ancestors come from over the mountains, or from refugia in the north or south? Or was the species stocked from a hatchery? The answers to those questions provide me with the added dimension of time to my outdoor observations, and help me better appreciate what we have and what could happen in the future.

Comments are always welcome (below).

Visit me on my website where you’ll find more stories and pics:
www.donmeredith.ca

Interested in reading an award-winning outdoor adventure novel? Check out The Search for Grizzly One and Dog Runner.

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The Power of Lake Ice

Copyright © 2018 Don H. Meredith, All Rights Reserved.

Lake ice is a wondrous thing. When thick enough, it allows us to walk, skate or ski on it, or even drive vehicles over it to cross a lake or go to a favorite fishing spot. The ice also insulates the water below from freezing solidly to the lake bottom, allowing fish and other aquatic life to survive the winter. But lake ice can also be quite destructive.

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Damage from expanding lake ice on the north shore of Wabamun Lake

On January 2, 2018, the ice on some lakes in central Alberta expanded laterally and encroached the lakeshore, heaving up the ground and damaging property in the process. Along the north shore of Wabamun Lake (from Seba Beach to just west of the Village of Wabamun), there was considerable damage to some buildings and other structures. Long time residents and cottage owners stated that they had not seen such damage from ice in over 60 years.

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In some places the ice heave uprooted trees.

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At the Seba Beach Heritage Pavilion the ice shoved a concrete slab into the building, causing structural damage.

What happened?
When water freezes it expands in volume. That’s why ice floats on water. However, as ice gets colder it contracts (not enough to sink). If lake ice is connected to the shoreline (frozen into the shallow lake bottom there) the force of the contraction exceeds the tensile strength of the ice and it fractures into long and sometimes large cracks. Lake water from below enters the cracks and freezes.

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A pressure ridge over lake water caused by the rupture of expanding ice.

When the temperature of the ice subsequently warms, the ice expands, except this time there is more of it. If the ice is frozen to the lakeshore, the force of the expansion most often causes the ice in the middle of the lake to rupture, buckle and form “pressure ridges” that can be hazardous to travel. However, if the conditions are right and the tensile strength of the ice sheet at a particular moment is greater than the strength of the ice frozen into the shoreline, the expansion shoves the ice into the shore where it buckles and heaves.

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Shoreline buckled and rolled up along Wabamun’s north shore, creating ridges nearly six feet in height in some places.

So, what conditions are right for shoreline encroachment?

Snow Depth
Central Alberta has received much less snow than normal so far this year. The result is the snow depth on lake ice is only a few centimetres thick. Snow insulates lake ice from changes in temperature. The deeper the snow the less heat escapes or enters the ice.

Temperature Change
During the last week of December 2017 in central Alberta, low temperatures dipped to near -30ᴼ C (-22ᴼ F) and highs ranged around -20ᴼ C (-4ᴼ F). On the night of January 1, 2018, the temperature rose dramatically from about -28ᴼ C (-18ᴼ F) to above freezing (0ᴼ C, 32ᴼ F) the following day. During that night, the ice expanded causing the damage. The low snow cover allowed the ice to rapidly increase in temperature and expand. Similar conditions have occurred since, increasing the heaving.

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Ice heave along the shore at Fallis on Wabamun Lake’s north shore. Of note here is the amount of lake bottom pushed up.

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A closer look at the lake sediment pushed up with the ice.

What can be done?
Along a natural shoreline, the ridges formed by the expanding ice are a natural occurrence and actually protect that shoreline from future ice expansions (the ice rising up the ridge and falling back under its own weight). The ridges provide a fertile substrate for natural vegetation to grow and stabilize the ridge and help prevent nutrients from entering the lake.

However, if you own a shoreline cottage, such ridges might prevent you from accessing or having an unobstructed view of the lake. In such cases, you might want to level the ridge or otherwise provide access to the lake. In Alberta, such activity likely requires a permit from either your local municipality or Alberta Environment and Parks or both. You don’t want your actions to affect the health of the lake.

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In this case, the ice did not disturb the property nearest the lake but moved underneath it to buckle a concrete retaining wall that was at least 60 years old.

To prevent damage from future ice heaves, cottage owners should ensure all personal property (e.g., boats, sheds, etc.) is setback a sufficient distance from the shore. Construction of reinforced barriers is an option but they are expensive and often fail. If you are considering such an option, you should consult a contractor or engineer experienced in this area. Permits will also be required.

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The damaged concrete steps through the above retaining wall.

As our climate warms and we are subjected to extreme changes in weather, the chances of this kind of event happening again are good. We are all going to have to adapt to the new reality.

References: Some of the best information on lake ice behavior and how to cope with it is found at the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. I found these documents to be particularly helpful: Ice Power! and Shoreline Alterations: Ice Ridges.

Postscript: If you own property that has been affected by the Wabamun ice heave, go to 2018 Ice Heave at the Wabamun Watershed Management Council website for information about how to repair the damage while protecting the health of the lake.

Comments are always welcome (below).

Visit me on my website where you’ll find more stories and pics:
www.donmeredith.ca

Interested in reading an award-winning outdoor adventure novel? Check out The Search for Grizzly One and Dog Runner.

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Experiencing the 2017 Solar Eclipse

A Photo Essay

Copyright © 2018 Don H. Meredith, All Rights Reserved.

As we followed the long string of red tail lights winding ahead of us in the predawn darkness, it became apparent just how momentous an occasion everyone was hoping this was going to be. We were all driving to one of the most spectacular solar events to take place in most people’s lifetimes: the total eclipse of the sun, August 21, 2017.

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The badlands of central Wyoming, where we viewed the total solar eclipse.

Central Wyoming is a beautiful place and I know we were missing a lot of that beauty traveling down this two-lane highway in the darkness. Although the early light of dawn was just beginning to show in the east, we were only seeing glimpses of the scenery in our headlights and the lighting of farmhouses just waking up. But all of us in this line of vehicles knew we had to get where we were going in sufficient time to find a spot, set-up and be ready for what was to come. In the news media hype that preceded this day, it was reported that an estimated 600,000 people would come to Wyoming to see the solar eclipse, while the state’s population was only 550,000 people.

I’ve been an amateur astronomer since I first saw a dark sky as a young boy in the Sierra Nevada of California, where there was no light pollution, except the gentle glow of our campfire. That was back in the late 1950s and at that time humankind’s knowledge of astronomy was rather rudimentary when compared to what we know today. The myriad planets, stars and galaxies I saw that night and the many other times since then have always fascinated and inspired me. I try to never miss an opportunity to learn how our universe and especially our solar system functions, and a solar eclipse is a phenomenon that highlights the relationships between our Earth, its satellite the Moon and our star the Sun.

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A view of our universe from Jasper National Park’s Dark Sky Preserve

Betty and I did view a partial eclipse in Alberta in the 1990s using #14 welder’s glass, necessary to protect the eyes when staring at any part of the sun. But it wasn’t totality. In totality the sky and landscape go dark and nearly turn day into night. As Don Fleming told me in 1991, a total eclipse had to be experienced to be appreciated. Don is a former colleague and umbraphile (eclipse chaser). He was trying to convince me to go with him and others to Mexico to experience totality. I declined but was intrigued.

It turns out total solar eclipses are relatively rare events. Although they occur about once every 18 months somewhere on the Earth’s surface, the chances of one occurring at any particular place on that surface are one in every 300 to 400 years (depending on where you are). So, chances are good that if you really want to experience one, you would need to travel. Having an eclipse occur within a couple of day’s drive was too attractive to ignore.

As the sun crept over the eastern horizon, the road and landscape slowly revealed itself. We travelled through a beautiful gorge that soon opened up on the desert that is eastern Wyoming. On entering the swath of totality that was about to occur from Oregon to South Carolina, the vehicles ahead of us started dispersing down side roads to state parks and wildlife reserves. Some pulled off onto turnouts along the side of the highway.

We kept on our way to Shoshoni, where we turned east on US Highway 26 to a location where we had agreed to meet Don Fleming, his brother Neil and others to view the eclipse (this would be Don’s 12th total solar eclipse).

The following is a photo essay of our solar eclipse experience:

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Eclipse watchers gather in central Wyoming

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Our site in the desert east of Shoshoni. We were the only Canadians there and attracted a lot of visitors. Visible in the background are mountains shrouded in wildfire smoke.

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Before First Contact, we visited the neighbors.

As we waited for First Contact (when the disk of the moon first starts to cross that of the sun), more parties joined us from across the US. The eclipse in our area was to last about 2 hours and 41 minutes, of which only 2 minutes and 17 seconds would be in totality (2nd Contact to 3rd Contact when the sun is totally blocked by the moon).

One of the concerns we had when we first arrived was the amount of wildfire smoke in the air (from forest fires in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming) as well as some high clouds that could obscure some of the eclipse. As it turned out, the wildfire smoke was thicker when viewed horizontally than it was above us and the clouds dissipated by the time the eclipse started.

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Our group awaiting First Contact. (l-r) Don Fleming, Don Meredith, Don Fleming’s friend Lorne, Don Fleming’s wife Yvonne, Elaine and Neil Fleming

Totality Photo Sequence
After First Contact, I set up my digital Olympus single-lens camera on a tripod to record the event. I decided to use a wide-angle lens (7 mm digital [14 mm film equivalent]) to record the effect of the eclipse on the landscape instead of using my telephoto lens to record the sun and moon. I knew there would be plenty of the latter kind of photographs, and I wanted to capture at least some of what we were experiencing on the ground at our location.

As Don Fleming reminded us, what’s important is to experience the eclipse and not worry too much about recording it. That’s why I set my camera to automatically take pictures at two-second intervals. I placed the camera in aperture priority mode at f2.8 and the ISO at 200 (as advised by Sky News magazine). This allowed the camera to vary the exposure as the light changed.

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The author checking his camera as totality approaches. In his left hand are certified eclipse-watching eyeglasses for use watching the sun prior to totality, not used during totality.

I started the sequence at about two minutes before totality and ended it about two minutes afterward. This produced over three hundred images, from which I picked six of the best for the following sequence.

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About 2 minutes before 2nd Contact (start of totality). Note start of dawn/dusk light on horizon.

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Second Contact, the start of totality (11:40:14 hours). Note the dawn/dusk-like pink-orange on the horizon, enhanced by the wildfire smoke.

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Digitally magnified view of the Sun (from pervious photo) in full totality. The black spot is the eclipsed sun, distorted by the rotation of the earth during the exposure. The white light around it is the Sun’s corona or aura of plasma that is best viewed during an eclipse. It is distorted by the wildfire smoke and the digital magnification.

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Start of Third Contact, end of totality (11:42:31 hours); eye protection required

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About two minutes after Third Contact

The Experience
A total solar eclipse is indeed a unique experience. There’s much to observe and I found  the Solar Eclipse Timer app I downloaded to my smartphone to be especially helpful. The app used my smartphone’s GPS function to locate our position in the eclipse path and then provide the precise times of First (C1), Second (C2), Third (C3) and Fourth Contact (C4, when the eclipse ends). It then proceeded to audibly announce the approach and start of each phase of the eclipse and what to watch for. This was especially helpful prior to totality. As the eclipse begins the light does not change much and it would be easy to miss C1. The Solar Eclipse Timer counted down to C1 and allowed us to view the moon’s black disk just beginning to cut the sun via my 8 x 50 binoculars, shielded with solar filtres. (When not using the binoculars, we wore special certified eclipse glasses to see the sun without magnification.) The timer then proceeded to alert us to different phenomena that might be occurring around us as the moon made its journey across our star.

Light: One of the first things you notice after C1 is the progressive change in the amount of light on the land around you. As the sun turns into a crescent, the nature of the light changes. It is less diffuse and casts sharper-edged shadows. Colors become deeper and slowly you notice dawn or dusk colors appearing on the horizon.

Temperature: As the eclipse progressed from C1 to C2, we felt a drop in air temperature. It was nearly 30º C (86º F) that morning and t-shirts and shorts were comfortable to wear. However, as it got darker many of us felt the need to put on a sweater.

Animals: Unfortunately, there were few wild animals around to observe their response to the eclipse. There were no trees and very few shrubs. As the sky gets darker most animals will assume night is coming and take appropriate action, such as stop feeding and finding a place to roost. We did have a large anthill near us that became active in the early morning as the heat of the day came on. However during the eclipse, as it got darker and cooler, the ants retreated to their hill only to come out after totality had passed.

Shadow Bans are a phenomenon often observed about three minutes prior to totality when the sun is but a sliver of a crescent. This directed sunlight passes through warm and cold sections of the atmosphere to form bans of dark and light shadows on the ground. We looked for these bans but could not find them. Perhaps the atmosphere above us was too uniform in its temperature gradient…?

Eclipse Reflections: Another phenomenon we were unable to detect were reflections of the eclipsed sun on objects around us. This occurs when the light coming from the sun’s crescent passes through the branches of trees, shrubs or other partial obstructions that focus the directed light onto objects, reflecting the eclipsed sun (similar to pin-hole projectors often used by school children to view an eclipse safely). There were no such obstructions where we were. However, when we later visited Marilyn and Rick Harris in Shelton, Washington–where they viewed a 93% eclipse on August 21–Marilyn shared photos she took of reflections of the partial eclipse on her greenhouse and deck. We thank Marilyn for allowing us to share her pictures here.

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Post Eclipse
After the eclipse, we spent a couple of hours chatting with our friends and neighbors. Someone broke out a bottle of champaign that was shared with all in a toast to what we witnessed. We learned that eclipses are best shared with others, whether friends or strangers. It can be a very social event that breaks down barriers.

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For me, the eclipse illustrated just how dependent we, and all life on this planet, are on our star, the Sun. The dimming of the light and the darkening of the landscape, accompanied with the sudden chill, elicits a primal feeling of foreboding or even dread. Of course we know intellectually that the sun is coming back, but our bodies do not. A total eclipse definitely has to be experienced to be appreciated.

Comments are always welcome (below).

Visit me on my website where you’ll find more stories and pics:
www.donmeredith.ca

Interested in reading an award-winning outdoor adventure novel? Check out The Search for Grizzly One and Dog Runner.

 

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Moving On

[Note: The following was first published in the December 2017 Alberta Outdoorsmen.]

Copyright © 2017 Don H. Meredith, All Rights Reserved.

Knowing when to end something you’ve enjoyed doing can be difficult to do. Although I have enjoyed writing Rubs, Scrapes and Tangle these last 19 years, I feel it’s time to move on to other pursuits and projects. So this is my last column. I will continue to write, but having to meet a monthly deadline takes a toll on some of the other things I want to do, both as a writer and citizen.

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The protection of habitat and wild country should be the number one concern of all conservationists.

It’s been a great 19-year run. I thank Rob Miskosky for offering me this opportunity and sticking with me when at times the going got tough. Rob and I sometimes didn’t agree on issues but he never denied my right to express my opinions as long as I could back them up. Indeed, I think that is one of the main reasons this magazine has been so successful: Rob isn’t afraid to publish a wide range of subjects and opinions.

I thank my fellow AO writers as well as members of the Outdoor Writers of Canada for their support, encouragement and suggestions. We outdoor writers are a small group, but we all share similar passions for fish, wildlife and wild places. Most important, we enjoy writing about it and encouraging that passion in others.

I also thank you the reader for keeping me on my toes. Your feedback, either through the magazine, my blog or in person, helped me understand what was concerning you and whether or not I was on track. A few of you didn’t like some of the things I wrote and let me know. Feedback is important to a writer, and negative feedback can be just as important as positive, especially if you are respectful and back up what you say. And yes, you caught me a few times not doing my “due diligence.” It has indeed been a learning experience.

Before moving on, I want to list some of my concerns for Alberta and its wild heritage. Those of you who have been following this column can guess what these are.

Habitat and Wild Places
Habitat has always been and always will be a major concern for fish and wildlife managers. All living creatures require a place to live, where they can find food, shelter and escape from predators, all within a reasonable distance of one another. In 1980 that reality was represented by the creation of the Habitat Protection and Management Branch in the now defunct Alberta Fish and Wildlife Division. That branch survived into the 1990s before succumbing to a flurry of department reorganizations and budget cuts. During that time the branch did a lot of important work in both fisheries and wildlife habitat enhancement and protection, often partnering with conservation organizations, such as the Alberta Fish and Game Association, Ducks Unlimited and the North American Waterfowl Management Plan.

The problem was resource extraction companies considered the branch an impediment to what they wanted to do on the landscape. They lobbied government for less stringent regulations requiring them to get projects approved by the habitat branch. The promise of jobs and money talks and it did with the politicians of the day, who decided a habitat branch was not needed. The result was and continues to be habitat degradation. Today, we see hanging culverts at stream crossings—preventing fish from accessing spawning areas and other habitat, vast forestry cut blocks in prime woodland caribou and fur-bearer habitats, and unrestricted use of off-highway vehicles, just to name a few examples.

The shame is that it is possible to have resource extraction while protecting wildlife habitat. You just have to slow down the amount of extraction happening at any one time in any one place, and ensure the extraction that’s done is done in a manner that respects the landscape and the fish and wildlife within it. That requires a government that understands the importance of having viable wild landscapes, the long-term benefits such landscapes can have on the economy, and the willingness to stand up to those who would sacrifice such landscapes for short-term gain.

The Economy or the Environment?
Often when you discuss these issues with politicians, they bring up the importance of jobs and that resource extraction companies create jobs. They argue that some wild places and portions of the environment must be sacrificed to keep people employed. But what many fail to realize is that it is not an either/or proposition. In reality the economy is dependent on a healthy environment. The lands upon which we gather our resources also supply us with clean air, water and our quality of life. Not requiring (and enforcing) resource companies to respect that environment is just plain negligence on the government’s part.

A good example is what is going on with the management of our fisheries. Instead of addressing the considerable habitat destruction that is occurring on our lakes and streams, our fisheries managers talk about restricting access to anglers: closing certain streams, only allowing catch-and-release on other streams and lakes, the latter ignoring the fact that catch-and-release has its own mortality and to my mind disrespects the fish when not taking a few to eat. When are we going to have an honest conversation about what is happening with our fish and wildlife that includes habitat issues and the true value of natural areas? Only when we respect the land, will we truly have a viable future in this province.

Climate Change and the Future
Anybody who has read this column more than a few times knows my stance on climate change: it’s real, it’s happening now and we humans are the primary cause. The science is indisputable despite what people hear from alleged news sources that have bought into the misinformation fostered by certain petroleum companies and some of their investors.

The real question we must face is what are we going to do about it. The current government has initiated a climate change strategy that is a giant step toward reducing the amount of greenhouse gases we are emitting into our environment. It’s not near far enough but it’s a start. Reducing greenhouse gases is important but, as I’ve related here before, the results of those reductions will not come into effect for 30 or more years. What awaits us within the next 30 years as a result of the emissions over the last 100 years? Neighbouring jurisdictions, like BC and Montana, have given us some ideas of what’s to come, and it isn’t pretty.

One thing is certain: We’re soon going to learn just how important the environment is to our economy and how we work, live and recreate. Wild fires and severe storms are just the beginning.

But it need not be so gloomy if our governments can start planning for the adaptations that must take place. We outdoors people are and will be the first to see these changes on the landscape. We should also be the first to report them to others.

That’s enough from me. Once again, thank you for putting up with me all these years. Although I’m moving on, it won’t be far. I will continue to write and photograph, posting some to this blog, my website and elsewhere. I welcome your feedback!

Merry Christmas and the Best of the New Year to all!

Comments are always welcome (below).

Visit me on my website where you’ll find more stories and pics:
www.donmeredith.ca

Interested in reading an award-winning outdoor adventure novel? Check out The Search for Grizzly One and Dog Runner.

Posted in Alberta Outdoorsmen, Climate Change, Conservation, Environment, Fishing, Hunting, Wildlife | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Where There’s Smoke…

[Note: The following was first published in the November 2017 Alberta Outdoorsmen.]

Copyright © 2017 Don H. Meredith, All Rights Reserved.

Ever since I first witnessed a dark sky on a clear night away from urban light pollution, I’ve always been fascinated with astronomy. On seeing the Milky Way and the myriad stars and planets, I can’t help but be enthralled with the vastness of our universe, our extremely small place in it and the processes that brought us to where we are. That’s why when I first heard about the total eclipse of the sun that would cross the United States this last August 21st I knew I had to witness the phenomenon.

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Totality during he solar eclipse in Wyoming. Fortunately, the wildfire smoke above us wasn’t as thick as it was around us.

One of the better places to view the total eclipse was Wyoming, straight south of Alberta. It had the best chance for a clear sky. Sure enough, when Betty and I arrived at our appointed location in the desert east of Shoshoni early in the morning of the 21st, the sky looked promising, although a few high level clouds did cause some worry. Also of concern was the wildfire smoke in the air that was visible all around us. However, by the time the eclipse got underway, the clouds had dissipated and the smoke between the sun overhead and us was not as thick as it was looking at the horizon. As a result, we had an excellent experience that will not be forgotten.

Also not easily forgotten was the wildfire smoke we experienced throughout our trip. Since driving to the eclipse site was going to take a couple of days and the crossing of a border, we decided to make an extended trip out of it. At first we planned to do some river rafting and fly fishing with friends in Missoula Montana before the eclipse. But as the date approached, our friends informed us that fishing had been closed as a result of warm river water and the thick smoke from local wildfires was impacting outdoor activities. They recommended we postpone that adventure until another time. So, we bypassed western Montana but not the smoke and smell of fire.

After the eclipse, we headed for Grand Teton National Park to continue our tour of the west. Slowly passing through traffic jams as a result of the thousands of eclipse watchers moving on to other places, we finally arrived at the park to see the spectacular views of the Teton Range shrouded in smoke from wildfires in Wyoming and Idaho. When we crossed into Utah and Nevada the following days, smoke was always on the horizon.

Our next stop was Yosemite National Park in California. Yosemite was one of my favorite stomping grounds in my youth. I’ve hiked many of its trails, including the John Muir Trail that starts there. Betty had not seen the park before and I didn’t want her to pass up a chance to experience Yosemite Valley. The spectacular granite domes and monoliths that tower over the valley are somewhat like a dark night sky or solar eclipse; they must be experienced to be appreciated.

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Half Dome and the other iconic granite monoliths of Yosemite Valley were shrouded in smoke this summer.

But alas, smoke plagued the valley just like it had in Alberta, Montana and Wyoming. However, this wasn’t smoke from wildfires but smoke from “management fires.” The park service was burning sections of Yosemite’s forest to reduce the amount of fuel on the ground. In 2016 Yosemite had been threatened by large wildfires west of the park as a result of several years of drought in California. This year wasn’t quite as bad but it still was dry, campfire bans were in effect and the forests were threatened by the large amount of dead, dry wood.

That’s not to say we didn’t see the sights. We did and enjoyed our visit. Indeed, the smoke made for some interesting photographs, though nothing like we’d hoped.

Our trip continued on to the Oregon coast where we had hoped to get out of the smoke and enjoy some of the state’s spectacular beaches. But on crossing the Coast Range we found the smoke to be thicker, obscuring much of the coast’s features. It turned out there was a wildfire in the south Coast Range that was threatening communities and casting smoke up the coast.

That and the smoke of several fires in the Cascade Mountains to the east plagued us all the way through Washington State and into British Columbia. Of course, BC had its worst fire season in history this summer. Fortunately the smoke from those fires had largely dissipated by the time we got there, as cooler and moister weather brought some needed relief. Although Alberta had its share of wildfires this summer, it was nowhere near what BC had endured if you don’t count the fire that came over the divide burning a good portion of Waterton Lakes National Park and some of the Castle region.

It was indeed a fire season for the record books all across western North America. But so were the fire seasons of previous summers in many jurisdictions. What we are most likely seeing is the new normal for summers as climate change keeps on coming. Fire seasons are getting longer and fires more robust.

A few years back I did some research for Parks Canada on what the recent scientific literature was saying about the future of some of our parks with regard to the changing climate. Several of the papers reported that fire would be one of the major agents of change, taking down forests and making room for new growth that might not include the same species of plants that had been there before. Several scenarios predicted that grasslands would replace many forests in the drier eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains as well as those of the parkland and boreal regions of our north. Many parks in the U.S., Russia and Canada, especially in the far north, were already reporting large-scale changes to vegetation: treeline moving up in elevation in the mountains, shrubs and trees invading arctic tundra where they’ve not been seen before. As well, these changes are affecting the movements of migratory animals, such as caribou.

Back in February of 2016, I wrote in this column about the Montana Wildlife Federation 2015 report “The Impact of Climate Change on Montana’s Outdoor Economy” that described how Montana’s economy, and especially its outdoor economy, was and will be negatively affected by climate change. It was a sobering report designed to help governments, businesses and individuals plan for the future.

This year the Montana Institute on Ecosystems (Montana University System) issued its 2017 Montana Climate Assessment. This report focussed on the future of Montana’s water, forests and agriculture. It predicts that Montana’s snowpack will lessen, shifting stream flows and raising water temperatures—all affecting the fish species that currently inhabit those waters. Changes in precipitation will likewise negatively affect both forests and agriculture. The report recommends immediate remedial actions to reduce wildfire risks, plan for less productivity in both forestry and agriculture, and that producers diversify their operations to adapt to the changes.

So far, we haven’t seen a similar report here in Alberta; although it’s not hard to extrapolate what’s predicted for Montana to Alberta. One thing is for sure: climate change is here and the coming changes will be dramatic. The smoke we’ve all witnessed this summer is speaking to us loud and clear. Change is happening and we’re going to have to adapt.

Comments are always welcome (below).

Visit me on my website where you’ll find more stories and pics:
www.donmeredith.ca

Interested in reading an award-winning outdoor adventure novel? Check out The Search for Grizzly One and Dog Runner.

Posted in Alberta Outdoorsmen, Climate Change, Environment | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Nickel and Diming Outdoor Rights

[Note: The following was first published in the October 2017 Alberta Outdoorsmen.]

Copyright © 2017 Don H. Meredith, All Rights Reserved.

Back in May of 2008 the Legislative Assembly of Alberta passed Bill 201, the Hunting, Fishing and Trapping Heritage Act. There was a lot of fanfare and pats on the back in the hunting, fishing and trapping communities because their lobbying to enshrine these rights into law had finally paid off.

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A piece of legislation doesn’t protect our rights unless our governments have the will to enforce it.

The bill is simple enough, only one page of text. After the preamble of requisite whereas statements outlining the role of hunting, fishing and trapping in Alberta’s heritage, wildlife conservation and the needs of future generations, the bill lists only two sections. Section 1 states that “A person has a right to hunt, fish and trap in accordance with the law” and that law includes “the Wildlife Act, the Fisheries Act (Canada), the Migratory Birds Convention Act (Canada) and the regulations made under those Acts.” Section 2 states “Nothing in this Act derogates from any aboriginal right to hunt, fish or trap.”

And that’s it—short and sweet with no confusing cross-references to obscure subsections pages away or in other bills, as often found in legislation. Indeed, the private member’s bill (introduced by the late Len Mitzel) received royal assent less than a month after first reading in the legislature—not an easy feat for any piece of legislation, let alone a private member’s bill. It passed so quickly because there was little or no debate, as the bill was stating what was already a fact in the province: people can hunt, fish and trap, provided they do so lawfully. In reality it was a “motherhood” statement that was now cast into law.

But was it enough? If you read the bill carefully, you realize the legislation does not prevent specific hunting, fishing and trapping rights being taken away through changes to the mentioned provincial and federal acts and regulations. For example, the right to hunt grizzly bears or catch and keep bull trout was taken away via a regulation change. Those and other changes didn’t take away your overall right to hunt or fish, just your right to hunt or fish certain species or in certain locations. If we are indeed to lose our right to hunt, fish or trap, it will most likely occur piecemeal as the government closes the season for each species that can no longer sustain a harvest. In effect, we have already seen that in our fishing regulations. In many water bodies, we can no longer harvest fish. As well, a succeeding government could rescind the bill by the passage of another act. So, while it was good to have our legislature recognize hunting, fishing and trapping as legitimate activities, Bill 201 didn’t provide any real protection for those activities.

2006-09 Meredith-KeithCallingMoose

If we truly want to protect our right to hunt, fish and trap, we need to protect the wild areas that produce game, fish, furbearers and species-at-risk.

What would provide that protection? In my opinion, a better piece of legislation would have also guaranteed the protection of sufficient wild spaces that support diverse ecosystems (i.e., biodiversity) including viable populations of fish, game and furbearers, such that fishing, hunting and trapping in these areas can be sustained. Of course, such legislation would not have passed quite as quickly, but the debate might have educated the legislators in what is needed to sustain a valuable heritage, and that maybe exploitation of our resources needs to be slowed to accommodate that heritage.

The problem with any legislation is that it is only as good as the will to enforce it. As pointed out in Lorne Fitch’s essay, “A Modest Proposal” for Alberta’s Caribou? (July 2017), there are already numerous pieces of legislation and agreements between various governments to protect and maintain biodiversity, including species-at-risk. But where the boots hit the ground, governments are reluctant to enforce those rules for fear of slowing the economy.

One of the best examples is this province’s treatment of woodland caribou, a threatened species that used to be hunted. Despite ample warnings that this iconic species was in trouble, the province granted rights to forestry and petroleum companies to mow down the animal’s prime winter habitat. Then in a desperate bid to show the federal government that they were doing something to protect the caribou, expensive programs to eradicate wolves and reduce moose numbers were employed in the area where the most distressed herds are found. Meanwhile the resource companies continued to tear down the one thing the caribou need to survive: their habitat. The lesson continues not to be learned. If you want a diverse economy and a high quality of life, then you must preserve sufficient wildlands. What’s sufficient? How about protecting enough wildlands to sustain hunting, fishing and trapping, and maintain species-at-risk?

Why are species-at-risk so important? As Fitch stated in his essay, and I’ve said several times in this space, it’s because species-at-risk are the “canaries in the coal mine.” Their impending demise is telling us that our ecosystems (that support all life, including us) are in trouble.

To be fair, our current government has been attempting to provide more protection for our wildlands. The creation of the Castle parks was a good step in the right direction (and despite what you hear, you can still hunt and fish there). But there is still a lot more to do to roll back the damage that previous governments allowed to happen, especially in our headwater areas and the woodland caribou ranges in our north.

Last year, the government announced its plans for woodland caribou, and especially for the two most critical herds (if you don’t count the oil sands herds), the Little Smoky and A La Peche herds. Again, the plans were positive steps forward, especially for the herds in the northwest and north-central portions of the province. However, as I mentioned in my August 2016 column, the plans for the Little Smoky and A La Peche herds (near Grande Cache) are woefully insufficient. Having to depend on a wolf cull and a “caribou rearing facility” to restore the herd, while we wait the 100 or more years for the habitat to grow back after the forestry and oil companies finish their work, is truly a non-starter.

As Lorne Fitch facetiously suggested, perhaps it’s time to write the caribou off and let the business of resource exploitation continue unabated. But that would just continue the nickel and diming away of our right to have wild places and benefit from the species that occupy those places. When we lose a species, we lose a part of what makes us whole as human beings. As ecosystems lose their diversity, they also lose their ability to cope with change, such as the change that is happening with our climate. If we want to continue to have a diverse choice of outdoor experiences, we need to be protecting a diversity of wild landscapes and environments.

Perhaps it is time for the government to start asking its citizens just what kind of Alberta they want to see in the next decades. With our continuing human population growth, climate change and a limited amount of resources, we need to see a vision of the future that goes beyond four years. We need to see how we are going to cope with the coming changes while holding on to what we value in terms of our heritage and human experience. Instead of nickel and diming our rights away, maybe we should be investing in them.

Comments are always welcome (below).

Visit me on my website where you’ll find more stories and pics:
www.donmeredith.ca

Interested in reading an award-winning outdoor adventure novel? Check out The Search for Grizzly One and Dog Runner.

Posted in Alberta, Alberta Outdoorsmen, Canada, Conservation, Environment, Fishing, Hunting, Wildlife | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment