Friday, June 20, 2014

Lessons from a Tick

a day at Dodge between deluges
Welcome summer, I think.  

Things are positively biblical around here and my deck furniture at home is literally growing mushrooms.  The Nature Center, like every other place in the metro, is suffering through the side effects of our newest Minnesota season:  Monsoon.  Minnesota seems to have a new set of seasons:  Deep Freeze, Monsoon and Drought (Autumn?  Come on, we admire the leaves for a total of 2.5 days before Deep Freeze).  Our climate now seems to be stuck in toddlerhood.  It seems we will have to adapt, like all flora and fauna to flooding, wicked storms, extreme heat and long subzero stretches.  Ticks love this weather-- warm and wet, wet, wet.  Good thing we're Minnesotans, we have a little more stamina and stomach for this transition (and ticks). Could be Minnesotans and Midwesterners here on the front lines of Extreme Weather and Tick Population Explosion are more inclined to lead the charge in environmental protections and emissions reductions...those floods, tornadoes and ticks give us extra incentive.

Dr. Rolf Peterson
One Midwesterner I met on a recent trip to Isle Royale is raising awareness, not just about climate change, but about the impact of our climate and environment on human development and wellness.  His name is Dr. John Vucetich and he is the lead scientist on the Isle Royale Wolf-Moose Study.  If you've never heard of this study, I'd be a little surprised, because it is pretty famous.  Legendary Dr. Rolf Peterson started the project and it is the longest continuous study of a predator-prey system in the world, spanning five decades.  Dr. John, as he is called by the Isle Royale Rangers, is an Associate Professor at the School of Forest Resources and Environmental Science at Michigan Tech.  Here is what Dr. John has to say about his occupation:

"I am a population biologist. I spend most of my time studying the wolves and moose of Isle Royale. I am also interested in the philosophy and ethics of ecological and conservation science."
Dr. John

Ad vitam paramus

The purpose of the Isle Royale wolf-moose project has been to observe and understand the dynamic fluctuations of Isle Royale’s wolves and moose, in the hope that such knowledge will inspire a new, flourishing relationship with nature. I seek to understand, but thinking that I understand destroys understanding. My approach to this paradox is to wake up every morning and hope to be shown how something - the more basic the better - is not what I think it is. To be shown wrong, repeatedly, is what I hope for as a scientist. This may be the only route to learning and understanding.
Dr. John, live and in-person!
Environmental ethicists and environmental scientists have a common goal, which is to better understand how we ought to relate to nature. Nevertheless, these two groups employ wildly different methods and premises, and sadly these scholars rarely interact. This is the basis for my interest in environmental ethics.

resource management in action
"Ad vitam paramus" is Latin for, "We are preparing for life."  Ah ha!  When Dr. John says that the goal of ethicists and scientists is "to better understand how we ought to relate to nature" I hear an important implication:  Dodge Nature Center is part of this pursuit of understanding.  Here at Dodge, and at all nature centers, people are trying to figure out how we should live with our environment, and having a ball doing so.  Exploration in nature is not only fun, it is important and vital to our own existence.  While I was on the Isle, I listened to Dr. John talk about the impact of the environment (the changing environment) on moose and wolves and about the impact of his study on human understanding and welfare.  One nifty outcome of the study is based on the finding that moose nutrition has a direct impact on the likelihood of the animal developing arthritis later in life.  Turns out that the Wolf-Moose Study has informed important research into human arthritis and treatment, as well as a host of other human ailments.  So the little world of Isle Royale and its animal denizens are teaching us important lessons about our own wellness and relationship to the environment in general.  

Alces alces was here
We might balk at the "crass," ego-centric idea that "nature" is a resource that we mine or exploit for ideas and solutions, but, yeah, nature is a resource for us, an important resource.  When we recognize, with a dose of human morality, that the world around us is inextricably linked to us, we have an obligation to use the environment with care and circumspection.  We have a survival imperative to use the environment as a resource, and we have a moral obligation to use it carefully and thoughtfully.  Viola!  Stewardship.
My husband, playing Devil's Advocate, offered this pointed challenge to me on the boat ride back to Grand Portage:  Isn't the Wolf-Moose Study old news? It isn't exactly considered cutting edge anymore, is it?  

climate change makes ticks happy

The politics of wolf reintroduction (the pack is waning and too inbred) and national park tourism aside, the Wolf-Moose Study may have been going on for a long time now, but that is just why it is so important.  Every day the scientists at work out on the Isle are gathering data that contributes to a very long range view.  Every day that the study accrue, we acquire a more comprehensive understanding of the relationships between species and their interaction with the environment.  And with a global environment that is so rapidly changing, due to climate change, it seems all the more vital to understand the impacts of human behavior on animal populations.  Here are some impacts human behaviors (fuel usage, emissions etc) seem to be having on animals and the environment:
Warmer springs summers and falls mean more ticks; moose are being over run by winter tick, making them sick, hastening death and causing them to be prone to increased wolf predation.

Less moose mean less foraging of their preferred foods of balsam and shrubs; overgrowth of shrubs and balsams means less plant diversity and squeezes out species dependent on those plants.  A healthy moose population helps to keep plant populations in balance.

Warmer springs, summers and falls mean later ice development on the big lake and less likelihood of an ice bridge to Isle Royale; wolf populations suffer from inbreeding and die off when there is a lack of new genes in the pack, when new wolves cannot cross an ice bridge to the island.  A healthy wolf pack helps to keep the moose population in balance.
The wolf-moose study is also provides us with important data that helps us assess air pollution regulations.  Turns out things like lead and mercury show up in moose teeth, giving scientists a long term timeline for contamination levels, almost like the rings in a tree tell us about the tree's history, and give us clues about the environment over the span of that tree's life.  This from Wolves and Moose of Isle Royale:
Isle Royale is an ideal place to observe declines in mercury and lead because there are no local point sources and Lake Superior has a large airshed. That is, about 90% of the mercury that is deposited into Lake Superior comes from more than 200 kilometers away from the shoreline. This means that any decline in mercury would represent declines in pollution over a large region, not just changes in a single point source of pollution.
And there is good news!  Anti-pollution regulations have a direct impact on pollution.  Pollution control can work:
What we found is that mercury concentration dropped suddenly by about 65% in the early 1980s and has remained constant for the following two decades. Lead began declining in the early 1980s and continued declining throughout the next two decades. By 2002 lead concentrations in adult moose teeth were 80% lower than they had been prior to the early 1980s. 

These declines clearly indicate the value of our current anti-pollution regulations. One of the most important remaining questions is whether these reductions in pollution are sufficient...In total, we’ve collected samples from the bones of more than 4,000 different moose. These bones have been valuable for reasons that never could have been imagined when this collection first began.

Imagine the impact further study at Isle Royale will have.
Now imagine the impact that enjoying and studying nature at Dodge will have...
  • on our kids
  • on our future
  • on our community
  • on our knowledge
  • on our innovation
  • on our health
Dodge preschoolers studying a painted turtle
Long live the Moose-Wolf Study!  Long live Dodge!  Long live wonder and inquiry!

If you want to help the Wolf-Moose study, consider joining a Moosewatch Expedition on Isle Royale.

a brisk ride on the Big Lake
sailors on the Windigo dock
from the Feldtmann Ridge

I.R. from Sea Hunter III;good-bye to the Land of 1,000 Moose
A parting thought from Wolves and Moose of Isle Royale:

But pride for our knowledge of Nature, need not become hubris to fuel an obsession with controlling Nature. The wolves and moose of Isle Royale show how it is not so difficult to be proud for all that we’ve learned about Nature, yet humble for knowing how limited our understanding of really is. This is the humility from which a rich relationship with Nature may be rooted.