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A BioBlitz Retrospective: Why Everyone Counts

A young naturalist gets a lift up to view surf smelt eggs under the microscope. Photo: Kelly Keenan

Six years ago, I met Vashon Nature Center’s director Bianca Perla at Vashon Tea Shop. I had read about the center in an article in The Beachcomber and I wanted to learn more. I was looking for a new volunteer venture and as a longtime naturalist, the organization’s goals spoke to me. After we introduced ourselves, Bianca dove right into the task at hand: She wanted to hold a BioBlitz the following June—just a few months away. I had heard about these 24-hour species counts, and loved the idea of helping to launch one close to home. I scribbled notes as we sipped our tea, and I left that day with a to-do list. We were going to make this happen!

That first Vashon Nature Center BioBlitz in 2012, held at Neill Point on the south-end of Vashon, was more fun that I ever expected. From finding the first (and only butterfly) species

VNC Director Bianca Perla greets guests at the BioBlitz retrospective show on Nov. 17. Photo: Kelly Keenan

of the day with my 13-year-old—a Western Tiger Swallowtail— to viewing for the first time the transparent sci-fi-esque body of a skeleton shrimp. Though our ages ranged from 2 to 82, we were all like kids that day—playing in the woods and on the beach, discovering pond bugs that breathe by holding little bubble packets to their faces and that chipmunks thrive in certain island forests.

Attendees peruse field guides–important BioBlitz tools! Photo: Kelly Keenan

It seemed ridiculous that we were having so much fun and still doing the work of real science—witnessing and recording the diverse wildness that shares this island with us. Even Homo sapiens was counted—not above, but right alongside the finger-nail sized pond snail and the Bald Eagle. Our slogan of “Everyone counts” perfectly held the event’s delightful double entendre—at a BioBlitz, everyone counts and every one is counted.

For four more years we repeated the fun, growing our team of volunteers and supporters—and recording a total of 1,134 (and counting!) species at five different island locations.

This month we celebrated and shared the accomplishments of this community-driven citizen-science effort at an open house held in the Land Trust’s Heron Room. The “show” will be up for another few weeks, and we invite you to come view hundreds of photos of our island neighbors—web-footed, winged and shelled. Take time to read the posters to learn about the BioBlitz mysteries solved and not. Perhaps you hold one of the answers?

We will begin another BioBlitz series in 2018, and invite you to join us as we continue our quest to record—and in this way honor—as many island species as possible. At this time on Earth—on the edge of what is being called the sixth extinction—it feels more urgent than ever to recognize the brilliant, vital existence of every single being and blade of grass. Every one counts!

Attendees enjoy learning tidbits about each VNC BioBlitz on posters featuring photos of species found during each event. Photo: Kelly Keenan

 

 

Thank you Stream Team 2017!

Over the last few days we had an intrepid team of 10 volunteers join our stream team, rearrange their schedules to beat the oncoming rains, and conduct our 5th annual stream invertebrate survey of Vashon creeks. We finished exactly 1/2 an hour before the fall rains started!

Bianca holds a golden stonefly. Stoneflies are predators eating other invertebrates. They need cold, clean water and are one of the most important foods for salmon and trout. Some fishermen call these salmon flies. photo by: Laurel Saville

 Invertebrates in the creeks are like canaries in the coal mine for detecting the health of streams. They are food for salmon, trout, sculpin, and crayfish among others and different invertebrates are tolerant or intolerant to different stressors (for example temperature, pollution, desiccation). Knowing what animals are living in our creeks helps us know how to better take care of our watersheds. These surveys are long and involved and we absolutely couldn’t do them on the scale that we do without our community pitching in. Thank you!!!
Data for all past years is stored on: pugetsoundstreambenthos.org
We had many interesting finds this time and the stream teams were super fun to work with at all the creeks.
Here are some highlights:

–In Ellis, despite what looked like a good water level, a cursory look at the samples seemed to indicate very low levels of life. This was puzzling. We will see if this is true as we go through the samples more closely.

Pull! Pull! It’s all fun and games until someone gets their boots sucked off in the knee deep mud…well it’s still all fun and games really. This team was a hoot. photo by: Diane Emerson

–In Gorsuch, we were pleasantly surprised to find a healthy population of small trout. Rusty and Adria were able to catch one. Initially I labeled it a cutthroat as it had the distinctive slash on the throat. However, after turning a photo into the county fish biologist it appears there’s a chance it might be a cutbow which is a hybrid between a cutthroat and a rainbow. This would indicate that at some point this creek may have supported rainbows/steelhead or maybe still does.

It was THIS BIG! Say Adria and Rusty about the cutthroat trout they caught. While it is a little fish it is a super cool find. Last official record of trout in Gorsuch creek was 2001 so it’s great to know they are still around. Also, this might be a cutthroat/steelhead/rainbow trout hybrid as it has characteristics of both. This is significant because while there are stories from old-timers of steelhead in our creeks, there has never been a confirmed record. photo by: Bianca Perla

Small trout in Gorsuch creek. The slight orange chin slash identifies this as cutthroat. However the dorsal parr marks, the white tip of the dorsal that spans more than 3 fin rays, and the solid black outline on the adipose fin all identify this as rainbow/steelhead. Could we have a hybrid “cutbow”? This is a very small fish so it is really hard to tell but it is a possibility.

–In Judd, we found a lot of life! Many caddisflies and stoneflies. This was balanced out with a heavy load of black flies (probably due to the higher temps in the water this year). However, overall the creek looked pretty good. It has consistently improved in quality since King County put logs in this stretch. We also found sculpin, small salmonids (we couldn’t catch them so don’t know whether they were salmon or trout), and a native signal crayfish in a deep pool!
–Plants: we found a small knotweed infestation on Gorsuch (this is highly invasive). In our other stream surveys we found significant patches of morning glory and holly. We will notify the proper management agencies to see if we can get these removed. We might be calling on the community for help if agencies are too booked or under-funded to get it done.
The samples from Ellis and Judd will make their way to the 6th grade science classrooms this fall where Vashon Nature Center scientists will work with students to sort and classify the samples. After this the samples classification is verified by a professional lab and data is uploaded onto the Puget Sound Stream Benthos database (link in text above).  This stream survey work and the classroom unit is supported by Schools Foundation, PIE, King County Groundwater Protection Committee, and the Rose Foundation.
Here is a photo album with more from our time on the creeks. Enjoy!
 
Thanks again to everyone for a great and productive trip to the streams. We could absolutely not do this on the scale that we do without the help of our community. Thank you for helping take care of our streams. 
We do this every year. If you’d like to be involved please email: info@vashonnaturecenter.org

Why? A wildlife management perspective on Vashon’s late cougar

by Bianca Perla  

As I left the wilderness and drove back into cell service my phone exploded with texts. The cougar had been killed. Both kids and adults cried at the news, wondering why. Many in our community disagreed about this cougar but most people seemed to agree on one thing, they did not want this cougar’s stay to end in death and the question of why it did still lingers. Here I draw on my experience as VNC director and as an ecologist to attempt to shed light on why.

We live in a pivotal time of change in large carnivore management. For the past 50 years management has been heavily focused on predator control. Because of this we’ve discovered what happens in areas where predators are absent. Consequently, the books of predator ecology and human-wildlife conflict are being re-written. Yet many management frameworks, societal values and public opinions have yet to reflect this.

In the 1990’s, I helped run howling surveys for wolves in the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness, a wolf reintroduction effort concurrent with Yellowstone. Through tracking the effect of these reintroduction programs, we’ve learned that top predators can have trickle down effects called “trophic cascades” that promote everything from healthy song bird populations, to diverse forest understories, to less erosive river courses that make better habitat for fish.

We’ve also learned about how traumatic relocation can be. Yellowstone developed a soft release technique that moved family units together and kept them in an enclosure for months before release into the wild. Otherwise wolves scattered from the stress and many eventually died. Wolf reintroduction has also taught us a lot about wildlife conflict and how societal attitudes about predators can sometimes be harder to change than the ecological landscapes themselves.

A Yosemite bear breaks into a car. photo from: SF Gate

In the early 2000’s I worked in Yosemite right at the time when bears discovered they could open cars like a human opens a soda can—curl your paws around the top back edge of a door, peel back and pull. Pop! Treats galore. At first, problem bears were relocated. They either found their way back to the valley, or fled the release site to places no one wanted them to go. They also taught their new bear friends and families how to steal food from humans.  Problem bears got three chances and then they were euthanized. Of course, bears did not know or care about this rule of 3.

Then, a light bulb went off in some wildlife biologist’s head. This is not a bear problem, this is a people problem! We need to manage people better. Bear boxes were installed in parking lots.  Fines were instituted for leaving food in cars. Garbage cans were retrofitted with locks. This considerably reduced damage to cars. However, some bears persisted. It was so easy and they had become habituated. So, snipers were installed in parking lots to shoot rubber bullets at offending bears. Through this combined effort of human behavior management and aversion techniques bears learned that car theft was not profitable anymore and the cultural practice of popping open cars has been practically eliminated (reduced by 96% since 1998).

As the above story shows, we are learning that conflicts between wildlife and humans can be solved most effectively most of the time by modifying human behavior. However, for years management focus has been on eradicating or relocating “problem” animals. So, the public is usually still conditioned to expect that wildlife managers do something about the animal even if the problems originate in part from human action.

A print in the sand of Vashon’s late cougar. photo by: Bob Lane

At this crossroads in wildlife management history, the Vashon cougar swam to us. He crawled out onto the shore of an island that had not experienced living with large predators for at least 3 generations. We were not prepared for the cougar. We were already reeling from having to learn about and adapt to the new coyote population, and even that was not going so great.

During my studies at Stanford University I got a rare opportunity to live on the Zuni Indian Reservation. I worked at the Zuni Conservation Project—one of the first tribally run natural resource agencies. One meeting changed my thinking about wildlife management considerably. It was a meeting between farmers and ZCP biologists. Beavers had arrived and were building dams in the same streams that Zuni farmers used to irrigate their crops. This was causing conflict especially when water levels were drawn down too low forcing beavers to abandon their dams.

The conversation started predictably blaming the damn Game and Fish commission for these damn beavers and their damn dams. I could predict the rest of the conversation: we didn’t want them here in the first place, they are inhibiting our ability to irrigate. What if they grow in population and take over all the streams? Let’s get rid of them.

But instead the conversation proceeded: well just because they weren’t here before doesn’t mean they don’t belong here now. They are raising families in this place. They are telling us it’s home. How much water do they need? How do we keep from pumping the water levels below what they need? The decision was made to raise the level of the irrigation pipes that drew from the river so that they would leave a base level of water. Then farmers would work together to help each other shift to using more drought resistant strains of corn and seasonally phased planting. This happened in one meeting. I was floored.

Back to the Vashon cougar: The officials at WDFW did not want to kill this cougar. They tried everything they could to encourage us to change our behaviors so that both the cougar and our domestic animals could be safe. They spent countless hours on the phone personally talking with residents. At VNC’s request they gave a talk to the community about how to live safely and effectively with large carnivores, participated in radio shows and newspaper interviews. They visited residences suggesting improvements when animals were killed and helped us fact check our Co-existing with Large carnivores fact sheet. They also clearly stated in their most recent interview with Vashon Nature Center’s Kathryn True (an article that ran in the Beachcomber) that euthanizing was the most likely option if this cat was caught.

Sadly, although we were in the process of making changes to adapt to this cougar’s presence, we were not quick enough in the transformation for he and us to reap the benefits. Those who did make changes, thank you. Your efforts are not in vain. Most, if not all, confirmed attacks by the cougar on Vashon were in pastures with high densities of brush, or where animals could access treed areas or were pastured in the woods. We can learn from these experiences. In the future, clearing pastures of brush, fencing animals out of woods areas, or getting animals used to night pens before an attack occurs could help us live more safely with mountain lions.

I don’t know how WDFW’s decision to euthanize was finally made. But from my best understanding based on my experience and talking with WDFW it was a decision based on quantitative information (how many kills/interactions), an analysis of alternatives (relocation liability and precedent), and qualitative experience (will people here change their behaviors to help minimize these conflicts or will these conflicts continue?) The bottom line is we can not pass all the blame to WDFW on this. Our community is also responsible for the cougar’s death.

Here’s a quick run down on why relocation isn’t as neat and tidy as it seems. Relocation is highly traumatizing to a wild animal. Often a relocated animal will bolt at release so it is hard to predict where they will end up. Furthermore, a young male cougar like ours would likely run to the safest place, another urban fringe, to get out of the danger zone of grown male cougars unless he feels brave enough to fight to the death.

Out of curiosity, I looked up how many cougars are killed each year due to problems or conflicts with humans, pets, and livestock. I could find no clear numbers for Washington state (although I learned we have about 2100 cougars). I did find the statistics for Oregon. Oregon Fish and Wildlife, over a ten-year period from 2004-2014 euthanized an average of 180 cougars per year to manage wildlife conflict in Oregon. If you want to pick relocation over euthanizing where do you draw the line? That is a lot of cougars to relocate and there are not enough zoos or wildlife havens in the world to take that many.

Considering this and the fact we still have coyotes, possibly a bear, and at some low tide in the future another mountain lion it makes the most sense to try harder to make changes in our techniques and behaviors. We can be innovative, work together to protect livestock and pets, and put social structures in place that support those who find it hard to do this. We can also lobby our political leaders to allow wildlife managers like WDFW to use our tax dollars to assist landowners in implementing tools for conflict prevention.

Ultimately, a road map for living with wildlife is something the community needs to decide on together. How this will be done in the absence of a community council or any other governing body that can make these decisions is a mystery to me. But, if we work towards adapting to rather than resisting our wildlife we can create a future on Vashon where we don’t have to choose between the safety of our domestic animals and the lives of wild ones. No technique (lethal control, relocation, modifying human behavior) is fool-proof and pet owners and livestock owners cannot be expected to be perfect 100% of the time but we can minimize conflicts considerably. A few changes now will lead to many benefits down the road for our peace of mind, for our conscience, and for our quality of life.

An active livestock management guide, a collaborative effort between VNC scientists, wildlife experts and farmers is currently going through review and due out in September. This will help with wildlife protection practices for coyotes, cougars and bears. Stay tuned.

RIP Vashon cougar. Your presence taught so many of us so much. We will always remember you. photo: Bianca Perla, by wildcam.

Note: Links point to original sources and scientific papers.  Featured photo by: Jesse Bell