Monday, February 27, 2012

The Fish With Stars On Its Back

Tomorrow I am lucky enough to be heading to Belize, that little Central American country known for its extensive coral reefs, Mayan ruins, jaguar preserve, tourism industry, and shark viewing. And while I fully intend to swim, snorkel, tan, look for spotted kittens to snorgle, and drink copious amounts of fruity rum concoctions while languidly lounging in shady hammocks... there is one thing I am hoping, above all else, to see: a whale shark.

The Fish with Stars on Its Back. The largest living fish in the world, family unto itself, up to forty feet long and over 21 tons. A filter-feeder, living mostly on plankton collected in a capacious sweep of a mouth (yes, over four feet across and big enough for a person to slip in, should anyone get so distracted), it is a shark, but is as giant and gentle as a whale. I have always been fascinated by these creatures--imagine! a map of the universe on your back!--and it so happens they begin to frequent Belizian waters this time of year. Like anything so star-spangled, they are most active at night, especially just before and after a full moon. Their star-spots and stripes are individually unique, and in a poetic twist of science, biologists can identify individuals by using the same star-mapping algorithms NASA employs in its Hubble Space Telescope technology. Strangely fitting, I think, to see the cosmos reflected back into our oceans, stars glowing, burned onto the backs of leviathans, as old as grandmothers.

I know I should not get my hopes up. I know March is just the beginning of their migrational maraudings here, and it may be a long shot. I know tours can be expensive and offer no guarantee. But still. In my dreams, I slip into warm, womb-water tides. I follow the moon. I am frightened, but I am brave. I swim out, but not too far, until constellations shine above and below, until I am cradled in a briny glow. And, because they are dreams, I float, flat as a leaf in the between, until one rises up beneath me, and I am suddenly stretched long across Orion, and our backs glow in the moonlight, fiercely.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Gluttonous Glutton

Hey there, Nasty Cat
Doug Chadwick, local author of The Wolverine Way, calls Gulo gulo--the biggest land-dwelling member of the weasel family--an "unmitigated badass". True that. As evidence of said badassery, I give you some facts: (1) They have one of the strongest bite-forces in the world. They don't just eat bone marrow, they eat whole bones, son. (2) They are voracious eaters. There isn't much of anything, alive or dead, that they won't eat. (3) Among their charming nicknames? Skunk bear. Nasty Cat. Quickhatch. Carcajou. Huge Jackman. (4) They roam insanely large tracts of land. A male's home range can be over 240 square miles. (5) Those home ranges are comprised of primarily high, steep terrain, which wolverines prance and skip around, no problem. M3, a famous Glacier gulo, ran up the steepest face of Mount Cleveland (the highest peak in the park at 10,479 feet) in about 90 minutes. In the middle of winter. Because he could. (6) Females den around the edges of treeline, tunneling burrows in the snow of up to 75 feet long to give birth to their adorable kits.

Because they inhabit high elevation snowy terrain, and because they need so much space to roam, there just isn't that much room for wolverines these days. Glacier is actually the best place in the lower 48 to spot the sassy, solitary beast, although it can only support about 40-45 individuals. Wolverines have been proposed for Endangered Species status several times in recent years. Apparently it has been tossed out of court a couple of times due to "lack of information." Huh. It is up for status again, this time linked to climate change. Here's hoping.

Badasses brush their hair with gun brushes, yo.
Last month I did a little volunteer work for the Park's wolverine DNA project. For the past two winters a dedicated group of volunteers has braved gnarly mountain weather and extra butter portions (for increased caloric intake to deal with said cold weather) to set up hair snagging stations throughout Glacier. We know wolverines are here--and previous projects involved capturing and collaring the animals--but any process that involves building little remote log cabins for traps that an industrious and pissed off animal can actually chew their way out of in a matter of hours is bound to be challenging. Non-invasive sampling through remote camera placement, track surveys, and hair collection (just like the bear and fisher projects) is a much easier way (for animals and people) to keep tabs on a population.

I just called. To say. I love you.
But of course every animal has its own habits, so biologists need to tailor their traps accordingly. Sultry bears enjoy scratching their booties on tree trunks. All we have to do is locate the trees where they've already rubbed, and throw up some barb wire to snag a little fur. Fishers want forest cover. They don't typically run around in the open, so it makes sense to put those enticing tubular stations, equipped with a chicken wing, down on the forest floor. Wolverines go everywhere. And they can climb where local coyotes and wolves can't. So we entice them with a meat flag nailed to a tall pole, covered in wire gun brushes. Because frozen meat doesn't smell much, we augment the whole operation with a little scent lure called "Gusto". Believe me when I tell you I have smelled a lot of bad things through my wildlife work, and this stuff is particularly naaasty.  It is the kind of intense odor that feels almost palpable in your mouth--a solid lump of rotten skunk meat lolling around. If that skunk had been eating garlic and shit sandwiches. And the smell lingers, too. So that is awesome. 

Stinky stick
Still, any chance to get into the woods for a good cause, right? Today I heard that one of the remote cameras crews put out in the Belly River area picked up a wolverine going up a bate pole. The really cool thing is that when folks zoomed in on the photographs, they could see a set of earrings. It was old M3, the badass who ran up Cleveland and was tagged nearly ten years ago, still alive and kickin' it in the park! I hope I'll be lucky enough to run into him by the water cooler sometime. Maybe I need to enlist a little Gusto....

Meat flag

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Roses Come in a Variety of Colors

Last week, straight out of the snowy wilderness, I headed for a different type of crazy. If you have never experienced the madness of a flower shop in early February, you might not fully understand the modern redefinition of the Valentine's Day Massacre. Over the years, I think I've spent ten out of the last fifteen Valentine's Days working at various flower shops, trying to keep the blood from my thorn-raked hands from touching the roses. I worked as a designer at a shop in Madison as an undergrad, then revisited the skill as a grad student in Missoula (with a little pitch-hitter holiday moonlighting along the way).

Because I was already in the area and feeling masochisitic, I thought it would be fun to spend a few days at Bitterroot Flower Shop, punishing my body. And you know what? Sore back, pulled tendons, and scabby hands aside, it was fun. Just how I remembered it. Kinetic, exhausting, hilarious, chaotic. And girly. Look, Mantana if chocked full of dudes. I work and hang out with them constantly, sometimes exclusively, for long periods of time. That is great and all, but sometimes a lady needs to be around her own kind. In my experience, a flower shop is a good place to find them. We discussed the sad death of Whitney Houston and her legacy of sassyness. We talked about Beyonce while listening to the anti-love song station on Pandora. We planned Valentine outfits (which, incidentally, ranged from tranny red fishnets, to black skulls, to elbow-length formal gloves, to pink unitards). It was glorious.

By any other name would smell as sweet
For all my days as florist, I have often pondered where the majority of our flowers come from... what hot and humid lands... and about who sprayed them and with what toxin, and who picked and packaged them, under what conditions. In the summer there are lots of local alternatives, but roses don't grow in Montana winters. I have struggled with the moral and ecological conflicts the flower industry presents for years. (Read Amy Stewart's book Flower Confidential if you are interested in more information.) I've never quite made peace with it. But rather than dig into any of those details here and risk delivering a big ol' buzz kill to any of you dear readers lucky enough to still be looking at a bouquet from your sweetheart, I'll leave it at this: specifics aside, it is both a joy and a gift to be able to creatively contribute so directly to the happiness of others. No one is ever unhappy to see a delivery van pull up. Whether they represent comfort or celebration, flowers are a beautiful reminder that someone is thinking about you, that spring is coming.

Yeah, the Hallmarkian commercialization of Valentine's Day has gotten out of control, and yes, the origins of the day are dark and sordid, but screw it, I'll be a romantic until the day I die choking on cherub-shaped chocolates while taking a champagne bubble bath. Clocking out from a fifteen-hour day of standing on cement, elbow-deep in greenery, I was stupid-tired and communicating from the whimpering end of my whiny spectrum, but I fell asleep in the bathtub knowing I'd help set some hearts a-flutter. Not bad for a day's work.

This showing is just the tip of the pink, heart-shaped iceberg.

Monday, February 20, 2012

I'll Take a Pennanti and a Panini

In keeping with my growing laundry list of random winter work, last week I volunteered for the Forest Service on a forest carnivore monitoring project for a few days. My friends Carly and Shannon work for Lolo National Forest, and the three of us snowshoed in about ten miles to a remote backcountry cabin on the edge of the Scapegoat Wilderness for a couple of nights. We did carnivore track surveys and set up fisher hair snags along the way.

Princess Leia?
It was about five below when we left the parking lot. Obviously my thumbs stopped working, which is really handy when you're fiddling with straps and such. The first mile or two of trail had been walked, and the sound of our creaky snowshoes shuffling along the hard-packed snow was reminiscent of a couple of kittens fighting in a Styrofoam cooler, and noisy enough to prohibit conversation. After that the snow got all fresh and deep and pristine.

Now in the summer, ten miles is a piece of cake, but in the snow, and with an extra fifty pounds stabbing the spine, I am not ashamed to say it feels like a long damn way. We started off alternating who broke trail every fifteen minutes, and by the final mile, we were switching it up every five. I was stumbling around like a drunk guzzling moonshine. We saw marten, lion, lynx, coyote, wolf, and hare tracks on the way in, and set out half a dozen non-invasive hair snagging stations under cozy tree boughs. The concept is pretty much the same idea as my summer grizzly bear work... let the animal do its thang, then just collect its hair and subsequent DNA after the fact, no need to poke and prod. Except that the long and lithe fisher (a larger member of the weasel family) doesn't  get its rocks off rubbing on tree trunks like our hedonistic Ursidae friends. No, these guys like to be romanced. Its like dinner and a movie with them. They want dangling poultry flesh and a high-tech tube to eat it in. So we lugged in said apparatii--requisite frozen chicken wings and collapsable, triangular shelters decorated with pokey gun brushes juting inward, which create a sort of painless gauntlet of small hairbrushes. A snack at the salon. Hopefully the weasel smells the most delicious and p-o-t-e-n-t scent lure (skunk flavor!) suspended from a stripped ribbon on a bit of bright sponge, comes close, sees that irresistable chicken nugget innocently chillin' in a funky space tube, and just weasels right on in to take a bite and get a little fur brushing.

You go back a few weeks later, collect any hair or scat you might find, and bada-bing! you're on your way to a population and distribution estimate. And while we all know I'd rather just scoop up the snugglers and brush them by hand, while cuddling, but this way seems easier.
For now. Still, those fishers don't know what they are missing.

Fact! Fishers rarely eat fish. They're kind of a sham like that. But, they are badass enough to be one of the only predators who regularly hunts porcupine.

Fishers were once widespread throughout North American forests, but like so many fur bearers, they were heavily trapped and their populations plummeted. They have been re-introduced into several states. There aren't a ton of them around Montana these days, which is one reason why we are interested in figuring out exactly who is hanging around, and where, and if they like our cooking.

Beginning of the long trek, a dozen folded fisher traps in tow
Holding Earth up, holding me up
Where the magic happens.
Kind of like a chicken wing docking in a space station
Burnt Cabin Frosted Gingerbread
Manipulating shadows and tonality is like writing music or a poem. --Conrad Hall
The snowbeast cometh
Snow sink
Edges they come, edges they go
What is: the opposite of Bikram
You just can't get away from these guys
Not so Smartwool