Top Dogs in Decline

by Susan Laszewski
Gray wolves in Yellowstone National Park.

Gray wolves in Yellowstone National Park. Credit: Jeremy Weber

Last week, in honor of the birthday of one of the greats of conservation history, Aldo Leopold, I found myself drawn into his correspondence with Ovid Butler, editor here at American Forests (then known as the American Forestry Association) throughout much of the mid-20th century. The two wrote many letters back and forth about the needs and future of wildlife management, but one topic caught my eye. In the 40s, large predators were in decline. Sound familiar? I’d like to share two quotes I recently came across:

“The reason for [deer’s] over-abundance is basically the removal of native predators and the fact that game laws and guns are too crude an instrument for the control of deer without the help of native predators.”

“Large carnivores are necessary for the maintenance of biodiversity and ecosystem function. Human actions cannot fully replace the role of large carnivores.”

Awfully similar, aren’t they? Yet, the first is from a letter Leopold wrote to Butler 74 years ago. The second is from a study published just this month in Science.

We’ve made many strides over the past several decades in protecting large predators. Species like the gray wolf and the grizzly bear have made inspiring comebacks thanks largely to their protection under the Endangered Species Act in 1967 and 1975, respectively. But, the study makes clear that our work is not done. Analyzing 31 large carnivores, the researchers found that 75 percent are in decline. The reasons include habitat loss, human persecution and loss of prey.

These majestic animals have gained many an admirer for their beauty, but the reasons to protect large predatory species like wolves go far beyond their charm. When ecosystems lose their top dogs, it has cascading effects. In North America, the loss of wolves and cougars leads to increased populations of browsers like deer. Over-browsing affects all the smaller animals that depend on those plants. It can even affect the course of a stream when riparian plant life declines, leading to erosion of the stream bed.

In fact, the benefits of these large carnivores range from carbon sequestration and biodiversity to disease control and riparian restoration.

As Leopold wisely saw 74 years ago, human hunting can only go so far in mimicking the role of these predators. Our understanding of the ways these species affect their ecosystems is improving, but we still have a lot to learn. As research ecologist Rolf Peterson tells NPR, “We’re dealing with the most complicated systems in the universe, and we hardly even know what the moving parts are.”

The Fruit of Insects’ Labor

by American Forests

By John-Miguel Dalbey

Orchard mason bee on an apple blossom

Orchard mason bee on an apple blossom. Credit: Red58bill/Wikimedia Commons

The recent crisis of “colony collapse,” in which bee colonies have been dying off due to disease, pesticides and other man-made causes, has already begun to have detrimental effects on both fruit farmers and the pollination of natural tree species.

It is possible to artificially pollinate both wild and farmed trees, or allow for wind or birds to do so; however, a recent study published in Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment  shows that apple trees pollinated specifically by insects produce much larger fruit than trees pollinated by other means. In order to conduct this experiment, farmers placed a fine mesh over certain blooming trees, which were then pollinated by hand or wind, leaving others open to insect pollination. In each of the six farms tested, the insect-pollinated trees fared better. Perhaps in the wild, where trees are not pollinated by hand, leaving only dwindling insect populations as sole pollinators, the difference could be even greater.

Artificial pollination with two apple blossoms

Artificial pollination with two apple blossoms. Credit: Abrahami/Wikimedia Commons

As this increase in crop output produces an economic incentive for the protection of pollinator species, it may soon be that more intensive protection measures are undertaken. The study’s lead author, Dr. Mike Garratt of the University of Reading, tells the Environmental News Network that he suggests aiding “pollinators [in orchards] by planting wildflower strips, maintaining hedgerows, and keeping a proper understory layer to the trees,” while “at the landscape level, what the insects really need are more native grass-lands and woodlands.”

At American Forests, projects have been undertaken to protect and restore habitats for  pollinator species such as the monarch butterfly and ruby-throated hummingbird. A strong diversity of pollinator species (insects such as bees and butterflies, bats or birds) will allow for other species to “pick up the slack” should another become threatened.



More about pollinators on Loose Leaf:

The Beauties and Bounties of Nature

by Susan Laszewski
The John Aston Warder award, featuring his likeness.

The John Aston Warder award, featuring his likeness.

Sunday the birthday of John Aston Warder, founder and first president of the oldest conservation nonprofit in the country … You guessed it, American Forests.

Warder was born in 1812 near Philadelphia and enjoyed a childhood of wandering the woods observing the plants and animals there. As a young man, he enjoyed fulfilling careers in medicine and then horticulture before devoting himself to his passion for forests and forestry. He founded American Forests, then known as the American Forestry Association, in 1875.

In August 1883, following Warder’s death, the American Journal of Forestry had this to say in memoriam:

“It is proper that this journal should pay a fitting tribute to the memory of one who was among the earliest, most intelligent, and most active of the laborers on behalf of American Forestry. Of no one can it be more truthfully said, that his life was a blessing to mankind. From early childhood, his great object was to do all in his power to make others happy, by aiding them to find pleasure in the beauties and bounties of nature.”

Today, more than 130 years later, we’re still doing what’s in our power to protect and restore those beauties and bounties of nature for future generations — of people, plants and animals — to enjoy.

Happy Birthday, John!

A Beetle’s Northward March

by American Forests

By Lisa Swann

Southern pine beetle damage.

Southern pine beetle damage. Credit: Ronald F. Billings, Texas Forest Service,

You have no doubt heard by now the story of the mountain pine beetle devastating hundreds of thousands of acres of forests in the western U.S. A similar tale is playing out in the mid-Atlantic, as the southern pine bark beetle has taken hold in the vast and dense New Jersey pinelands. About the size of a grain of uncooked rice, the beetle destroys trees. Sub-zero temperatures used to control it, but now with global warming raising New Jersey’s average temperature by 2.3 degrees Fahrenheit over the last century, scientists believe climate change is to blame for the beetle’s northward march.

According to the U.S. Forest Service, loblolly, shortleaf, pitch, pond and Virginia pines are the beetle’s favored hosts. Its range covers states from Pennsylvania and New Jersey south to Texas, Arizona and New Mexico. The beetles burrow through the tree’s bark and attack tissue that provides nutrients and water to the tree, basically starving it and causing its green needles to turn brown. When under attack, some trees produce enough pitch to force the beetles out but this is not always the case. A massive beetle attack can easily overwhelm a tree.

The other issue with the southern pine bark beetle is fire suppression, which has caused more forest density — which the beetle thrives on. In the New Jersey pinelands, foresters are thinning stands, hoping to keep the beetles at bay. Controlled burns and selective harvesting are considered to be good ways to fight the infestation.

The concern now is that nothing will stop the beetle from continuing to move northward into coastal areas of New England.

Conservationist, Philosopher, Writer: Aldo Leopold

by Susan Laszewski

I’d like to take a moment to belatedly celebrate the anniversary of the birth of one of conservation’s most influential figures, Aldo Leopold, who would have turned 127 over the weekend.

Leopold was a conservationist, forester and philosopher. He was also a father of five and raised his children with the same values of wildlife-friendly land-use as he embraced himself. In fact, his oldest son, Starker Leopold, went on to use those principles in drafting a report for the National Park Service, widely known simply as “The Leopold Report,” using his father’s teachings to shape the future of land-management in a way still reverberating today.

Gila National Forest.

Gila National Forest. Photo by Brandon Oberhardt; Credit US Forest Service Gila National Forest

Aldo Leopold was a part of the early days of the U.S. Forest Service, where he went to work after his graduation from Yale Forest School in 1909. He was also instrumental in securing the first-ever designation of a “wilderness area” for the Gila National Forest in 1924, one year after he published The Last Stand of the Wilderness, an appeal in American Forests magazine entreating readers to recognize the need for such wilderness areas — and offering Gila as a prime example — before it was too late.

Yes, he was also a writer. His most famous work is A Sand County Almanac, a collection of essays published in 1949, a year after his death. He also published several works in American Forests in addition to The Last Stand of the Wilderness. He was a regular correspondent of the editor’s and served as a Vice President in the 1940s. We were then known as the American Forestry Association.

I encourage you to check out The Last Stand of the Wilderness here on or read more on how his son carried his legacy forward in our latest issue of American Forests. Yes, that’s the same American Forests that Leopold published in, now in its 119th year. You can become a member to have it delivered to your mailbox. Of course, things have changed a lot since then. Our magazine these days is in gorgeous full color, printed on Forest Stewardship Council-certified, responsibly-sourced paper. I suspect Leopold would have approved.

Video Break: Grizzly Bears

by Loose Leaf Contributor

It’s break time! Take a 60-second time-out to watch these adorable grizzly bears — and learn about the threat to their food supply and how you can help.

Snow and Ash

by American Forests

By Lisa Swann

Adult emerald ash borer.

Adult emerald ash borer. Credit: U.S. Department of Agriculture

Unless you’ve had your head in the clouds, you know that much of the country is experiencing unusually cold temperatures. Minnesota recently experienced a sub-zero temperature plunge so severe that school was cancelled — a rare occurrence in a state that is no stranger to cold winters. One positive effect of this arctic blast is that it may have killed off a significant tree pest — the emerald ash borer.

Dr. Lee Frelich, director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Forest Ecology, is an expert when it comes to Minnesotan forests, including insect mortality in extreme cold.

According to Dr. Frelich, winter mortality for emerald ash borer is temperature-dependent.  He says the larvae can supercool to a certain point, but they die if they freeze, and cold tolerance varies among insects.

A recent study for the Forest Service in Minnesota showed that five percent of insects die at zero degrees Farenheit, while 34 percent die at minus 10, 70 percent at minus 20 and 98 percent at minus 30 degrees.

There is variance, as some insects are inside bark close to the ground where they are warmer and more protected, and some are insulated by snow.

However, with prolonged overnight and daytime cold like Minnesota has recently experienced, the insulating effect becomes minimal.

There are some 900 million ash trees in Minnesota, many of which grow in the swamps in the northern part of the state. The question is whether the few insects who do survive the recent cold spell might be more resistant to cold weather which could mean a new generation of more cold-tolerant insects.

The Mystery of Utah’s Eagle Deaths

by Susan Laszewski
Bald eagle in Utah

Bald eagle in Utah. Credit: Ken Lund

The national symbol of the United States: a bird with a six to seven-foot wingspan and the largest nest of any bird in North America. The bald eagle’s majesty has inspired people for generations.

American Forests has worked with the Forest Service since 2007 to restore habitat for bald eagles in several Midwest national forests and we’ve seen efforts there paying off. Fledglings have been observed in Superior National Forest every year since 2007.

Lately, it’s the bald eagles in a different part of the country who are making the news. Throughout December, bald eagles in Utah were dying mysteriously. The symptoms sick eagles were displaying — seizures, head tremors and paralysis — seemed to suggest West Nile virus. But the mosquitoes that spread the illness are not active so late in the year. The eagle deaths were a mystery.

Last week, Utah officials announced that they had identified the cause: It is indeed West Nile virus, but the eagles were contracting it from their consumption of dead eared grebes. Around 20,000 of the grebes have died in the Salt Lake area since November and though they may not have died from West Nile virus themselves, many are still carriers.

But the mystery isn’t solved completely. As recently as this morning, the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center of Northern Utah, where some of the sick eagles were taken for care, shared via Facebook that a number of questions still surround the deaths. They ask:

Eared grebe

Eared grebe. © 2012 Andrew A Reding

  1. “Why so late in the year after the earliest and coldest cold snap in years?”
  2. “Are eared grebes truly the culprit — did this species never before known to be affected by West Nile virus suddenly become vulnerable, or are they just a carrier?”
  3. “We’ve been told that the West Nile virus is only viable in a dead body for two to three days, yet here we are 40+ days into a large grebe die-off and still receiving dead and dying eagles. Is it that the virus lasts longer in a ‘cold/frozen’ (grebe) body? Something until now, never before considered due to West Nile virus being a ‘warm weather disease?’”

The tally is now 40 dead eagles, but the loss is not expected to affect the health of the overall eagle population. Rather, it’s the usual circumstances surrounding the deaths that have wildlife experts puzzled and concerned. As Leslie McFarlane, Utah wildlife disease coordinator, tells Reuters, “This is really kind of undocumented. Eagles have been known to feed on birds infected with West Nile virus but the transmission hasn’t happened on this large of a scale. And the total number of birds we’re talking about is on a grand scale that may not have been seen before.”

Bald eagles were removed from the Endangered Species List in 2007 after a heartening return from the brink. Let’s hope this incident serves to further our knowledge of bald eagle health.

Check out these recent American Forests Global ReLeaf projects that benefit bald eagles:

100 Years of an Iconic Park

by American Forests

By Lisa Swann

Rocky Mountain National Park, established in 1915, will begin celebrating its 100th anniversary later this year, so it’s a perfect year to visit. The park was created to showcase the majesty of the Rocky Mountains, with nearly 250,000 acres of the park designated as a wilderness area.

Within two hours of Denver, Colo., the park is accessible with the Trail Ridge Road rising to 12,000 feet and 300 more miles of hiking trails where one might catch a glimpse of elk, mule deer, moose, bighorn sheep, black bears, coyotes, cougars, eagles, hawks and smaller animals. Golden aspen trees are on display in the fall, and in the summer there are myriad wildflowers.

There was early opposition to forming Rocky Mountain National Park in the 1900s from ranchers, cattlemen and miners. However, conservationists prevailed in Congress and helped establish the park. The park has a rich oral and written history including stories of early native peoples, explorers, ranchers, mountaineering, fire ecology and the biology of the native flora and fauna.

One can be sure that in this 100th anniversary year, these oral histories, publications and government reports, artifacts and natural history specimens will be center stage in any visit. Be sure to check with the National Park Service before visiting as some places in the park are still closed due to 2013 flooding.

A young elk runs to join the rest of its herd in Rocky Mountain National Park

A young elk runs to join the rest of its herd in Rocky Mountain National Park. Credit: Vince O’Sullivan

Winter Sunrise

by Loose Leaf Contributor
Inlet to Payette Lake

Inlet to Payette Lake in Idaho at sunrise. CreditL Charles Knowles

We just love this photograph by Charles Knowles of an inlet to Idaho’s Payette Lake at sunrise. We all have things to do and places to be, but don’t forget to stop and enjoy the winter. In the words of Robert Frost:

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

– Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening by Robert Frost