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Release the Connecticut River’s choke-point

Posted by on 26 May 2011 | Tagged as: American shad, Atlantic salmon, blueback herring, Connecticut River, Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission, Conte, CRASC, federal trust fish, Nature, New Hampshire, salmon, Uncategorized, USFWS

The following essay/OpEd appeared in the Connecticut River basin this month–printed in The Recorder, Greenfield, MA; The Daily Hampshire Gazette, Northampton, MA; The Times-Argus, Montpelier, VT; and the Montague Reporter, Montague, MA, among others.  It was submitted with the working title: “A long-owed debt on New England’s River.”  Here I have used the tag-line that appeared in the Gazette.

Karl Meyer                                                                 Copyright © 2011 by Karl Meyer

A long-owed debt on New England’s River

Given a chance to fix the ocean connection on the Connecticut River—the migratory fish link severed at Turners Falls, MA, since John Adams was president, wouldn’t you do it?  If that chance was blown decades back and you had a second shot to rescue New England’s River, you’d do the right thing, right?

The fate of our river for generations to come is currently being decided, out of the public eye.   Agencies responsible for the public trust are negotiating with global giant GFD-Suez/FirstLight.  Negotiators include Caleb Slater of the MA Div. of Fisheries & Wildlife, John Warner of the US Fish & Wildlife Service Field Office, Julie Crocker of NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service, and NOAA attorney Kevin Collins.  Talks center on crippled fish passage at Turners Falls–and the fix, long overdue there under provisions in the current federal license controlling Northfield Mountain-Turners Falls hydro operations.

But the proposals under discussion mirror the worst decision made for the Connecticut River since 1978: continuing to send migrating fish into a trap–the Turners Falls power canal.  The reparation talks were announced at a 2010 Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission (CRASC) meeting.  They should have been in place back in 1998, the halfway point in that license.  Ongoing fish passage improvements are a mandated part of FirstLight’s 40 year license, compensation for profiting from use of the public’s river.  Yet studies from the 1980s proved using that canal as a migration conduit was a mistake.

What’s under discussion appears a surrender of the river to conditions surprisingly well-aligned with the unencumbered water-use desires of a for-profit company.  It forces shad and herring into a stress-laden environment nothing like a river–leading to more roiling waters at the powerhouse, where this run has died for centuries.  The one difference is that fish would get an elevator lift into alien, muck-laden habitat–instead of up useless salmon ladders in place since 1980.  Federal Conte Fish Lab scientists continue repeating studies remarkably similar to those of two decades ago, with FirstLight helping fund them.  Yet “improvements” recently touted at US Fish & Wildlife symposium are worse than numbers seen a quarter century back.

Engineers and biologists refer to it as the “by-pass reach.” It’s the Connecticut’s dead reach, the curving, 2-mile, river chasm of ancient shale directly below Turners Falls dam.  It once teemed with migratory life.  Today, flying in the face of federal law, environmental statute and license requirements, this critical river segment goes largely ignored and unregulated–unchallenged in the courts by public agencies and environmental interests.

The “dead reach” is subject, alternately, to withering, water-starved days when flows are cut to a trickle beneath FirstLight’s gates—or, to punishing, quick-changing flood tides there, pushed downstream from their nearby Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage plant.  Giant surges of water pulse into the river through turbines beneath its 5.6 billion gallon mountain reservoir to take advantage of price spikes on the energy “spot” market.  It wreaks havoc with fish and the river.  Like prior owner Northeast Utilities, GDF-Suez wants to continue its punishing practices below the dam—a crippled trench used by federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon.

Those unchecked operations force most migrants to abandon the river below Turners Falls–tricked out of the channel by out-flow from the power canal downstream, and forced “upstream” into its pummeling flows.  Just a tiny portion of migrants succeed in that industrial “by-pass.”  Stressed, depleted, faced with confused currents and an expanse of muck-filled canal leading to more roiling waters near the powerhouse, the fish simply stop migrating.  Shad and herring surrender their upstream spawning impulse at Turners Falls, languishing for weeks in the wide sections of canal—habitat best suited to carp and pond fish.  Barely three fish in a hundred ever pass toward Vermont-New Hampshire waters.

The solution at Turners Falls is simple: build the long-overdue fish lift at the dam, and return regulated spring flows to the crippled “dead reach.”  That simple solution has been in place at Holyoke dam since 1955–the most successful fish passage on the East Coast.  FirstLight, sanctioned by the EPA for dumping 45,000 cubic square yards of silt pollution into the Connecticut last year, can then use that mid-May-early-June window of low electricity demand for mucking-out their power canal, as well as silt in that mountain reservoir.  They’ll then be in compliance when bids begin on a new license, for 2018.

This is New England’s River; these are New England’s fish.  Biologists agree a lift at the dam with ample water in that riverbed will restore the first a bona fide ocean connection to Vermont and New Hampshire since 1798.  With mega-millions spent on a federal program that produced 51 salmon last year, it’s time both fisheries officials and dam owners got the real job done.  Building that lift makes decades of failure and unfulfilled obligations a thing of the past.

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Environmental journalist and award-winning children’s author Karl Meyer writes often about the Connecticut River from Greenfield, MA:

Rundown on the run–three fishways by bicycle: Holyoke, Turners Falls, and Vernon

Posted by on 24 May 2010 | Tagged as: American shad, Atlantic salmon, blueback herring, Connecticut River, Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission, Conte, CRASC, federal trust fish, Nature, salmon, salmon hatchery, teachers, USFWS

Rundown on the run–three fishways by bicycle: Holyoke, Turners Falls, and Vernon; a.k.a., Thousands, a Handful, and None…

© 2010 by Karl Meyer

May 24, 2010

For a little ground truth this late May, the height of this year’s Connecticut River migratory fish season, I undertook some field work.  On May 21st, I bicycled from Greenfield, MA, south to the Holyoke dam and fishway; then back north to the Turners Falls dam and fishway.  The next afternoon, Saturday, May 22nd, I biked from Greenfield to the Vernon Fishway in Southern Vermont.  On these visits to the three lower-most dams on the Connecticut River, here’s a report on what I found:

At Holyoke, on a Friday morning at 9:15 a.m., the fish viewing windows are full—jam-packed with fidgeting, agitated American shad, nearly two-feet long.  The silvery fish shimmer in nervous schools, veering to and fro–anxious to be set free and upstream of this rectangular trap.  At times the shad literally form a wall of glistening bodies and fish scales pushed against the glass.

The visiting adults and children here are all mesmerized by the life–the seeming plenty, in these windows.  There are many ooohs! and aahhhs!   The fishway guides note that there were a few even blueback herring were in the windows minutes ago.  None are visible now.  But, mixed in, is a good compliment of ghoulish-looking sea lamprey.  Nearly three feet in length, they blindly snake along the fishway glass.  The kids whoop at the sight of them.  A lone smallmouth bass lingers at the bottom of the tank.  There are no salmon in the windows, though one was counted yesterday.  They sent a truck over from Farmington, CT to pick that salmon up and haul it away to one of the hatchery farms for breeding.

The total fish numbers counted here as of May 21st are written on a tally board: American shad 103,216; sea lamprey 9,737; blueback herring 55; Atlantic salmon 23.   Today, I watch as two trucks are loaded with American shad—to be taken to either New Hampshire or Vermont because of the fish passage failures at the Turners Falls-Northfield hydro complex and further up at Vernon dam.  Some of these Connecticut River shad are also be trucked as seed-fish for runs that have failed or disappeared on rivers in Rhode Island and Maine.  This day, with the river temperature nearing 60 degrees and flows low, but steady at peak season, the guides say they may get 10,000 shad today, maybe more.  I head back north, cycling along the east bank of the river past the Holyoke Range.

I reach Turners Falls Fishway in late afternoon.  At 3:40 p.m. the fishway windows are a pale, blank screen, filled with the streaming gold current sent down the Turners Falls Canal via this Northfield Mountain-Turners Falls hydro complex.  Looking closely I pick out the shadows of a few American shad treading water in that current, hovering dimly in the background.  I count five shad, nothing that could remotely be termed a “run.”  They shad try and keep pace with the current, but are soon pushed downstream out of view.

Fully half of the shad that pass the Holyoke dam reach this Northfield Mountain-Turners Falls hydro site.  Studies show that only about two shad out of a hundred make it through these grinding currents of the two salmon ladders built here three decades back.  Those numbers were slightly better here before the site was deregulated a decade ago.  Back then, 5 or 6 fish of every 100 shad might make it through.  Still, these are all terrible odds if you are a shad trying to spawn successfully upstream.  It’s such a poorly designed system–built for the non-existent salmon here (less than 10 salmon came through Turners in 2009), that it’s a bit like water boarding for American shad.  The shad deplete all their oxygen and float back downstream, spent; exhausted.

This is why The US Fish and Wildlife Service traps a few thousand shad at Holyoke and drives them upstream for release above Turners Falls in New Hampshire and Vermont each season.  Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission (CRASC) officials try to lay claim to that as a “run” or “restoration”—but in truth those are terms that shouldn’t be used anywhere but in the stretch downstream–between here and Holyoke dam to the south.  From Turners Falls north to Vernon and Bellows Falls, restoration is an abject failure–over a half century after success was achieved at Holyoke with simple fish elevators in 1955.  Today, with just 2% of the shad reaching Turners Falls successfully passing–and with just 19 shad passing Vernon dam in 2009, dismal is the only word to describe the “restoration” in this–the still remaining 60% of main stem Connecticut River habitat that should have become shad-accessible decades back.  Vermont and New Hampshire would have had something to invest in.

At FirstLight’s Turners-Northfield complex you find a massively failed system that fisheries and power company people have tried to keep quiet for decades.  For ten years the public has had the right to get a new design installed here, but fisheries folks have essentially stayed quiet, with little word to the media or outreach to the public.  Their record of advocacy and effort these past decades on behalf of shad and herring here has been as lifeless as the runs here.  If these were hybrid salmon, millions would be spent on them—millions are spent hatching tiny hybrid salmon to be dumped in the Connecticut annually.

But, as to these runs of native shad and herring—a shadow of what they were twenty years back, our public fisheries guardians appear content to wait another decade to address the failures of restoring federal trust runs upstream here.  No wonder it’s now years since there has been a Massachusetts “public representative” on the Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission–the federal-state entity responsible for the federal trust shad and blueback herring.  People have just stopped believing them, as they’ve watched numbers flatten and wind backward–while hearing tales of promised salmon.  It seems Bay State fishermen have stopped buying the myth Connecticut River salmon.  They’ve been extinct since 1809.

The tens of thousands of shad that reach Turners Falls will try to pass here for days–sometimes weeks, lingering in pools where the pulsing currents of the ladders exhaust them, pushing their oxygen-deprived organs to the limits.  Only the toughest and the luckiest of the lucky make it through Turners Falls.  And it’s impossible to know the damage that exhaustion and all those expended resources will have on their spawning success—for those few thousand that may squeeze upstream here over the course of a season–or those tens of thousands that will be repulsed and pushed back downstream.

In the half hour I’m at Turners Falls, seven shad–after trying, and trying again, actually do appear to make it out the up-side of the “fishway.”  We give them a cheer.  They don’t so much swim through as finally appear to float upwards and out.  I’m on the river deck talking to the fishway guides when a man–the lone visitor at the moment, comes back up from the viewing windows.  He’s puzzled, “Which way are the fish trying to go?”  “Oh,” I say,”actually it’s accurate to say most are heading downstream.  Only about two out of a hundred that try can get by.  They built the wrong ladders 30 years ago, based on salmon.  It doesn’t work.”

The man is surprised and interested–just as the young boys and two moms were when I stopped by here yesterday.  The kids kept trying to cheer the flagging shad up-current, groaning when they got pushed backwards repeatedly.  I offered an honest answer to one’s question, “Why are the fish going backwards?” telling them this system doesn’t work for the fish–a new one is needed, “You should tell your teachers, and write a letter to the newspaper.”  Most often kids have this question deflected here, going without a direct answer, offered instead a ready-tale of excuses and promises of what the future will bring.  I tell this gentleman today about the thousands of shad in the viewing windows at Holyoke this morning, “Check it out tomorrow.  They’ll still be coming through.”  He intends to, saying thank you, “Hey, I live right near there, in South Hadley.”

Reading the Turners Falls tally-board for fish the guides have spotted here is a very short story: American shad today, 28; for the season, 82; sea lamprey today, 12; for the season 23.  Eighty-two shad does not a “fish run” make. None of the nine salmon released upstream at the Holyoke dam have been spotted here, a mere 36 miles upstream.  They have counted six carp however.  Later, someone gets around to viewing the fish videos–used to make full counts here when no one is around evenings and Mondays and Tuesdays.  As of Friday, May 21st, the total numbers of federal trust fish that have passed Turners Falls as of this mid-season point: 303 American shad.  No blueback herring, and not a single salmon–in a fishway built for salmon 30 years back.

The next afternoon I’m back on my bike, heading from Greenfield to the Vernon dam and fishway, just below the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant.  It’s a bit over 40 miles round trip.

I reach Vernon Fishway at 1:50 p.m.  It’s a late-May Saturday; you’d think the site would be bustling.  The place looks derelict.  The gate is padlocked.  A sign on the chain-link fence reads: GATE WILL BE CLOSED AT 3 PM.  I take a picture with my watch in the foreground–1:54 p.m.  I’m left with the feeling nobody gives a damn.  Honestly.  I’d imagine after passing a total 19 shad last year, they are not anxious to have the public see what’s going on here.  Back in the early 1990s they passed 37,000 shad in one season.

Last year I bicycled to this Vernon site a half a dozen times between early-May and late June.  On all but my last visit, the gates were open.  And I did not see a single fish in the viewing windows on those trips.  They were empty–save for swirls of tiny, rising, bubbles.  Below me this day three fishermen are strung out along a sandy stretch of downstream beach.  One, a shirtless guy at the base of the dam, notices me, “You getting anything?” I ask.  “Nah!  The guy down there caught a smallmouth though, about an hour back.”  And that man’s fishing report seems about as good a snapshot of this migratory fish “runs” and “restoration” prospects in May 2010–anywhere from Turners Falls north to here, and beyond, along the Connecticut.

But that’s not completely true…  Sea lamprey—a fish that nobody eats and nobody fishes—and most find them repulsive, do quite well moving upstream past the Connecticut River’s perilous fishways.  Sea lamprey are ancient jaw-less, fish—native migrants here.  They’ve changed little since the time of the dinosaurs.  Though not a named species in the federal trust mandate, they are this river’s accidental restoration success, returning annually in the tens of thousands.

This shouldn’t be embarrassment to public fisheries officials, who are always claiming they’ve turned straw into gold with a couple dozen, million-dollar, hybrid salmon showing up.  Tough as old tow-rope and built for the ages, sea lamprey are one fascinating and integral part of this river’s restored biology.  Though incidental and mostly-unmentioned, lamprey do seem destined to survive and thrive despite the track record of this restoration program and its myopic fixation on an extinct salmon.  So, lamprey–that’s one down!  Now, how about a lift for those shad and herring?

How about it CRASC, FirstLight, Conte–USFWS??  The kids would love cheering on real fish runs at Turners Falls and Vernon.  Kids in Bellows Falls and Charlestown, NH would love that too.  It’s their river, and their future.  It’s time to recognize that, and stop squandering resources on yesterday’s ideas and yesterday’s Connecticut River.

Long Island Sound to Simsbury, CT and the Farmington

Posted by on 20 May 2010 | Tagged as: alewives, American shad, Atlantic salmon, Connecticut River, Nature, salmon

Long Island Sound to Simsbury, CT and the Farmington

© 2010 by Karl Meyer

May 4, 2010:

I wake up early in Old Saybrook, and spend a good hour writing in my journal.  Then, there’s checking the weather, which is not as straightforward on a multi-channel TV as one might expect.  But the weather looks clearing, and humid, with a few, pop-up “afternoon thundershowers possible for those heading north.”  No big deal.  I shower, and sort through the small pile of maps I’ve accumulated.  Brewing the final motel coffee, I down that, pack my bike, drop my key-card at an empty desk, and finally hit the road at 8:45 a.m.  So, I’m not the early bird.

I get my last looks at the mouth of the river off Rt. 154 in the Otter Creek area, and I’m moving north again on a lovely morning.  I quickly scoot by Essex and head north toward Deep River on the left bank of the Connecticut.  Traffic is light.  I’ve already missed the rush to schools and work.  Orioles and yellow warblers chirp.  I hear my first scarlet tanager and prairie warbler of the season.  There’s also a roadside feeding cottontail, and a cutely-clumsy and confused young chipmunk, surprised by an old guy on a bike.

As I near Deep River I take a chance at an intersection and choose what looks like a promising, old “upper” road, which veers a bit west of Rt. 154.  It allows me to miss Deep River center, and will perhaps show me something new.  This is an old thoroughfare, the 18th century houses telling me it won’t take me far from the river’s reach.  I follow Union Street which eventually merges into to Straits Road.  Along the way I’m treated to one of the startling spectacles of the trip: the disaster eliminating the Easter hemlocks.

I’ve written about this in Sanctuary, even spent a day nearby with Harvard Forest biologist Dr. David Orwig in Killingworth, Ct., documenting the devastation of this plague caused by a tiny insect that we imported from Asia–the woolly adelgid.  Here, in stark contrast to a rocky hillside that spent decades sheltered in the shade and diffuse light of hemlock needles, the bare, rock-bone of this roadside escarpment is baking in mid-morning sun.

Bleached and blown-out trunks of hemlock lay quietly scattered up the hillside, as a once-thick forest duff dries to a dusty consistency in May light.  A whole suite of plants, birds, and amphibians will be lost in this corner—one of many thousands of like corners, the result of our heedless globalization and lust for cheap commodities.  This scene will repeat, again and again as I bike northward, but to a lesser scale.  The adelgid is a cold sensitive insect.  But this hemlock plague is an easy case in point: it is creeping ever further northward as we continue our rapid, seemingly-incremental warming of the planet—on a time scale we pointedly refuse to comprehend.

I snap a few photos of this emblem of a global holocaust, and head on beneath blue May skies.  At one point a woman out for a bike ride passes me, and I ask if the road will take me into Chester.  The question is timely, as I’m at the intersections where I should turn east, Spring Street.  I thank her, and head down a shady, winding lane with a stream that trips along next to me wherever it is not ponded by little, colonial mill dams.  This, I know, will be the same alewife stream that bisects Chester itself.

Three minutes later I’m in town–on a Chester, Monday morning.  It’s just after 9:30 and I’m off my bike and ordering coffee and a thick-looking square of bread pudding at Simon’s Market.  I ask for the cook, and am told to find him out back.  There’s Alan Demick, brother of my buddy Tony.  I’d met him on the ride down.  He sits for a few minutes as I try his bread pudding—quite good.

Alan notes I look a lot better this day, but that’s only because I had a shower two hours back.  He takes me out and shows me the scenario on the deck at the rear of the store where he first met one of the State of Connecticut’s prominent fisheries biologists—and likely its biggest, salmon proponent, walking up that alewife stream looking for signs of a run.  They had a very funny interaction over the failures of the restoration—likely quite the surprise to a biologist who thought he was just talking to the odd chef!

I shake Alan’s hand, get some last minute directions, and remind him to email his brother Tony that I’ll be seeing him fishing below Holyoke dam tomorrow, “Tell him not to leave before noon,” I say.  The continuing run up Rt. 154 is pleasant through mid-morning.  There are some wonderful views of the river, and the bridge and Goodspeed Opera House looking into East Haddam.  Coming into Haddam village I just had to take a picture of the old jail, soberly constructed of slate and granite at the foot of Jail Hill Road, sometime in 1800s.

And then there was the town historic marker, quietly not explaining how the town managed to get a small group of Native Americans, mostly matriarchs, to deed over their lands to these colonists in 1660.  The downstream annihilation of the Pequots by the United Colonies just two decades earlier, and subjugation of the nearby tribal people may have played a small part in those concessions.  That story will not be enshrined on a road marker.  We erase and exclude our own history in the landscape in a way that seems to connect to our environmental miasma as to our real predicament here.  Just across the river, tons of deadly nuclear waste containers sit—stored, and largely forgotten by the public, at the site of a nuclear plant that closed after nearly exposing its core through lax safety checks some 15 years back.  There’s no road sign for that either.

Just up the two-lane I note two cars parked along a siding that leads down to a steep pitch over railroad tracks, and to the riverbank.  There’s a big hoop net in the back of one.  I lean my bike on a post and scramble down.  Two retirement age men are talking quietly, one with a line in the water.  I hover above them, and cough to make my presence less surreptitious.

When they give me a hello I ask how the fishing is going.  They are just getting started, says the one—in what I hear as a Polish accent.  He says no, they are not going for shad, he’s after striped bass, fish that are here for the river herring, and to a much lesser extent, the shad.  No luck this morning just yet, but the do pull them in here.  I thank them and head on, soon into more of an urban landscape, as Rt. 154 finally peters out.  This morphs into a poor biking stretch of old macadam that is Rt. 9, south of Middletown.

Middletown Center is dense, and busy, but the construction that is fouling up Main Street slows everything to little more than at crawl–something cyclists get to glide through.  But, I realize I’m a bit information-challenged, and make my way to the tourist info office, at the Chamber.  There, I pick up a newer state map, and a local street map of Middletown and Cromwell, which hopefully will get me out of town going west—with my destination somewhere near Farmington, so I can eventually see Rainbow Dam fishway on the Farmington River.

I get into a conversation with a black man who likely has just a couple of years on me.  He tells me he used to bicycle regularly, for about three or four years running, but it’s been some time since then.  “You can still get out there,” I tell him.  He smiles.

The route is now uphill and away from the Connecticut.  This will be an afternoon that sometimes finds me in knots, and negotiating seeming dead-ends, faced with busy, four-lane traffic and tiny shoulders to ride on.  Its unpleasant, to say the least, at times, but you just persist—turning back and trying again where things get too dicey.  In the world that exists all around me, people would be traveling without taxing their landscape sense and travel wits at all—a cell phone or GPS readout telling them what to do.  All decisions coming from outside.

I clear the density of Middletown, and head through busy Cromwell on a spider web of roads I’m piecing together.   I crisscross the floodplain of the Mattabassett River, a small artery I’ve written about in my work perhaps a dozen times.  I’ve never seen the river though.   At one point, as I’m trying to find my way across the barrier of Interstate 91, I pick a small side-road called Pasco Hill.  Finally cresting it zipping to the bottom, I cross a little bridge in the midday heat.  I look to my right and there’s a small dam, just upstream of the crossroads of what was once a little industrial section, now somewhat derelict.  There’s something about that dam…

I curve back on my bike, and there’s the picture–one I’ve put captions to: the StanChem Dam on the Mattabessett.  This is a tiny dam that–with a fishway project that is currently in something of a stall and waiting for more funding, “will reopen the entire historic habitat range for American shad on the Mattabesset.“  Those are my own words.  Shad would regain over 16 miles of this river, right to their full, historic range.  Were these fish salmon, Connecticut fisheries would have had this site on the fast track decades ago…

This is a very busy travel corridor, and the biking is somewhat less than satisfying at times.  But seeing the dam site is a bonus, offering a bit of quiet in a hurried landscape.  I get directions from a town DPU guy having an ice cream in front of the locked, StanChem property gate, and head off uphill once more.  Ultimately, I’m at a busy spot in Berlin, trying to find my way along busy Rt. 372, when the Berlin Bike Shop comes into view.  The proprietors–like me, solidly in their fifties, are affable and interested in a bike traveler.  Mike takes the time to give me a couple of maps, and point me in the right direction.

Those directions hold through Berlin, and into a corner of New Britain, but my brain can only keep so much in play, and the maps are still fairly general.  Skies that I mistakenly thought were deep blue, are darkening to more of a powdered coal with banks of clouds.

One bonus though, as I make a small rise, is the red barn of an old siding that reads, “Avery’s Beverages.”  I’ve read about them somewhere by some coincidence, likely National Geographic.  It’s a family soda making and local market operation that’s been in business since 1904.  I have to stop.

What I again find is a couple-of-three guys, near my age, two of them from Avery’s, standing inside the old barn filled with wooden crates of soda, and two genuine, old style refrigerators stocked with cold pop in a rainbow of flavors mixed on the premises.  Again I’m treated with some deference, likely due to white hair and my odd journey.  I’m offered the best new directions that these three can chart in a round-robin discussion.  I try to keep it straight in my head as I suck down a tasty Avery’s orange soda.

Soon, I’m following a thoroughfare past hospitals and housing projects that I thought was one marked route, only to find that the street name has become an unfamiliar one.  The skies are spitting, the wind is picking up.  I’m bouncing around like a confused ping-pong ball.  Finally, an old Latino man in a car gives me a good spin and I’m heading in the right direction.  I few more turns and tries and the rains have come.  I take shelter under the large portico of the Connecticut School of Broadcasting—letting the woman at the front desk know I’m out there, and not homeless.  She smiles.  In a half hour, that downpour is done.  I head out.

More crazy roads and bouncy directions come into play as I try and make my way to Farmington, and the Farmington bikeway.  Finally, after a long, curving downhill, I’m in Farmington itself, facing the well-appointed Miss Porter’s School.  Soon I’m heading down a main drag toward Rt. 10, which should bring me up to the bikeway.  It’s drifted into late afternoon now, with a lot of stops and queries along the way, but I’m finally on the trail.  It’s great being out of traffic.

I think of my old friend Carol Hurst, now gone, who wrote a children’s book, “Through the Lock,” about the canal that was the original thoroughfare this rail trail is built on.  She may have even made me a minor character in that book.  I’m in one of them.  I think too, of Sylvester Judd of Northampton, whose journals I studied for my master’s degree.  Judd was an investor in this ultimately cash-poor and failed canal back in the 1840’s.

The real challenges of the day come in Avon.  Tired, I’m trying to make my way through an incomplete section of the trail which sends you briefly onto streets.  I must’ve mis-heard directions from someone and find myself following busy Rt. 44, a real mess of traffic on a four-lane at rush hour.  And, the rains return.  Determined to not soak my entire rig and take on pounds of water, I stop, jumping into the local D’Angelo’s, and ordering a sandwich—both for sustenance and shelter.  It’s quiet at the moment.  The two middle-aged guys behind the counter offer me a phone book when I ask about motels, but one warns that none will be cheap on this stretch.  How true that proves!

Here, I’m stuck for 45 minutes until the next storm clears.  Then I’m off, but still confused, and heading wrong, ultimately finding myself stymied by a sea of traffic.  I pull of into a mall lot, the acres of pavement offering very little in the way of relief.  Happily, a young woman inside the doors of Barnes & Noble takes a minute, and offers me a course that seems promising.  I have to backtrack through the mess I’ve just finished.

Again, finally back on the rail trail, I’m heading north.  But the skies are darkening once more, and the wind is picking up.  I’m hoping to beat them into Simsbury, but its still a few miles away as the storm bears down.  I turn back, recalling a small shelter at the side of a trail intersection about a mile distant.  Here, at a site bordered by a broad field and tobacco barn to the west, I take cover in a lean-to built by the Avon Rotarians.  I share it with sheltering bumblebees as the storm swirls.  It hits hard–almost all wind.  Dust fills my eyes as I peak around at the clouds.  Trees are bending in gusts that near 50 mph.

I snap a few pictures and wait.  And wait, as the wind rages.  I finally take to my bike after almost an hour, thinking it’s done.  Then, the rains finally come.  I run back.

In another ten minutes, all is over.  Unbeknownst to me, trees are down all along the valley heading north.  I’ll see them all the way home–road and utility companies will be out clearing them right up through Sunderland, MA, and I’ll come across one sprawled over this rail trail at the Massachusetts border in the morning.

I head on.  It’s now after 6:30, damp, and still windy, plus its gotten cool–to say the least.  I have nowhere to stay, but I do have my tent and bag for a damp night in the buggy brush if all fails.  Perhaps this trip is conspiring to have me spend a night camping.  This won’t be pretty–or scenic, though, just ditch camping.  At one juncture the trail moves parallel to Rt. 10, and I take to the road, my best shot at finding a room on the edge of town.  I come across a Marriot someone had mentioned, but when I ask the desk woman about a single rate she quotes me $189.00.  A bit much for a few hours and a shower.  Back on the bike.

Simsbury is another private school town, and my hopes for a reasonably-priced stay quickly go south.  A picture perfect history is manicured into the town’s presentation, though its plaque mentions that Native Americans put the torch to it a couple of times– see the first writing on the wall way back in the first part of the 17th century.  I come upon a bed and breakfast.  What the heck?—I set myself a limit; I’ll offer $90.00, take it or leave it.  No one comes to the bell.

As I near the town’s northern edge there is something looming on the left, a blue-gray building, perhaps 1970’s vintage, three stories tall.  The Iron Horse Inn.  It looks a bit like a low-to-mid priced place you might see in the denser towns of Cape Cod.  But it’s mostly empty at 7:05 p.m., just three cars sit in a large parking lot.  Still, I have nothing to lose.  I walk in to a modestly lit lobby, the other corridors are dark.  No one is at the desk, but there’s a phone, and a sign: for service, pick up the phone.

A young woman answers.  I ask if they have a single rate.  Yes, she says quickly, its $84, including tax.  Despite the thin carpet and sparse presentation, this may be something.  I mostly ignore the air that seems like it could use a good venting by merely leaving the lobby door open.  “Where are you?  Downstairs??” she asks.  They are not used to people walking in, apparently.  “Are you interested?”  Yes.  “I’ll send someone down.”

And down comes Melind, perhaps Indian or Pakistani, in his young thirties, I’d guess.  He too wonders, “How did you find us?”  They are right on Rt. 10, but it seems not a popular stop.  I start to give a tale of biking and wind, but cut it short.  “So, what does $84.00 get me?”  “Would you like to see a room?”  Melind takes me up a flight of stairs, then starts toward another, “Do you have anything on this floor?”  The place is empty, after all.  I figure one car is the woman’s on the phone—likely Melind’s girlfriend, the other is his, and the third…is the killers.  “Well, if you don’t need a king-sized bed I can grab another key.”   He runs back down the stairs.

The room is large, suite-sized—long, with a fridge, stove with two burners, microwave, writing table, etc.  I can’t completely ignore the musty air, the stain in the ceiling tiles.  I ask if the doors open.  They do, onto a deck overlooking a pool that doesn’t look like it’s primed to open this spring.  There’s a TV, “but the cable went out about an hour ago.”  “Sure,” I’m thinking.  I’m also thinking this place may be in receivership.  But the bed looks clean, and the price is right, and Melind seems willing to bend the rules a bit and allow me to bring my bike into the lobby for the night.  I guess they worry about the plush state of the indoor-outdoor carpet throughout.  I tell him we have a deal.

In truth, the TV cable did come back up later.  I got to watch the weather.  Melind sent me to a pizza joint that actually had reasonable prices, and I walked out, dead-tired, with a chicken-pesto sandwich on fancy bread, and a dose of curly fries.  That, and a bottle of beer, conspire make my return to the Iron Horse a minor triumph of bike travel for a white-haired guy.  Surviving a rough day on the road is part of the adventure.

I set aside the beer, eat half the large sandwich, and take a satisfying shower.  The double doors are thrown open to the damp, cool, clearing night.  Wrapped in a towel, I take the only two snapshots I have of myself on the journey—reflected in the long bathroom mirror.  A tired man, but satisfied to have pulled this rabbit out of this hat.  Hotel stalkers, be damned!  I sprawl on the bed, write in my journal for most of an hour and a half; then have that beer and a bunch of cold, curly fries while looking at the weather—along with reports of the thickening oil-spill disaster in the Gulf.  Somewhere toward midnight I switch off the light, coming to life again just before 6:00 a.m.

“In encounters where snake identity comes into question, the snakes always lose.”

Posted by on 16 Apr 2010 | Tagged as: Deerfield River, MA Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program, Nature, nighthawks, snakes

The following piece appears in the Spring issue of Sanctuary, Journal of the Massachusetts Audubon Society.

© 2009, Karl Meyer

The State of the Snake

A black racer saved me once.  Not to over-glamorize it, that snake was dead.  Still, it came between me and the fast-closing mongrel bent on ripping me from my bicycle on a lovely spring day.  It was inches from my calf when it suddenly yelped, screeched to a halt, and circled back timidly–the fur raised on its neck.  I too had noted the large snake looped along the pavement.  But I knew something the canine didn’t–I’d examined the beautiful gray-black scales of that mostly-intact black racer corpse the previous afternoon.

Where snakes are concerned, I’m a lot like that dog.  Our shared mammalian fear of snakes, ophidiophobia, appears to be a hard-wired survival trait harkening back to an age when reptiles were far more prominent. “Fables about snakes far outmatch reality,” herpetologist Tom Tyning will tell you.  None of Massachusetts’ fourteen species provoke much fear in Tyning.  He’s studied snakes for four decades and today is one of the Bay State’s staunchest advocates for preserving populations and critical habitats for increasingly rare species, “Since Europeans arrived in North America our response to snakes can be summed up on one word: persecution.”

Tyning authored the Stokes Nature Guide to Amphibians and Reptiles.  His UMass graduate work included radio-telemetry tracking of timber rattlesnakes.  For the past decade Tyning’s been a professor of environmental science at Berkshire Community College–on the heels of 24 years as a touted trip leader and master naturalist with Mass Audubon.  Our inordinate snake fear is evident in the near extirpation of the state’s two venomous species, copperheads and timber rattlesnakes, but all species suffer persecution and, “In encounters where snake identity comes into question, the snakes always lose.”

Common patterned species like northern water snakes and milk snakes are often misidentified and killed—yet the chances of someone happening across a venomous snake, even in their few remaining habitats, are minuscule.  “There have only been two recorded snake bite deaths in Massachusetts in over 200 years,” Tyning notes.  Curiously, venomous species are not even the rarest snakes in the Commonwealth.

Five native snakes are today protected by penalties of hefty fines and/or imprisonment– it’s illegal to “harass, kill, collect, or possess” them.  “Geographically challenged,” is how Tom Tyning describes the state-threatened worm snake’s predicament.  At just 7-11 inches, these sandy soil burrowers both prey-on, and resemble, earthworms.  The worm snake is a more southern and western species whose biological footprint brushes just north into the metro-Springfield area.

As habitat and size goes, black rat snakes are at the other end of the spectrum.  With a few specimens measuring over six feet, they are the state’s longest snake.  Endangered rat snakes are noteworthy for their climbing ability, even laying eggs in the rotting cores of trees.  Black rat snakes are found in pockets of habitat in central Massachusetts and the Connecticut Valley.  But most of us, even if we stare up into the sun-dappled May woods for the rest of our days, will never see one.

“The coolest thing about them is their climbing ability,” researcher Peter Mirick will tell you.  Mirick is widely known for his nearly 30 years as editor of Massachusetts Wildlife, the Commonwealth’s quarterly on natural history, conservation, hunting, and fishing from the Division of Fisheries and Wildlife.  But few know that his biology studies in grad school focused on reptiles and amphibians.  Today, Mirick’s field work continues–including an ongoing study of a population of endangered rat snakes in Sturbridge begun in 1997.

“In spring they are very arboreal, looking for birds and squirrels,” he says, “They’ll stick to a pine tree like Velcro.”  A kid’s enthusiasm creeps into his voice, “They have a whole different set of muscles.  They’re shaped like a loaf of bread in cross-section.”  Peter Mirick devoted nearly an entire issue of Massachusetts Wildlife to a guide describing the Commonwealth’s snake species in 2009.  Thanks to radio-tracking, he once witnessed the combat “dance” between two male rat snakes, “They intertwined from end to end.  They don’t bite each other, they wrestle. The point seemed to be holding your opponent’s head down.”  Once the loser skulked off, the winner went into a hollow log, “Apparently to mate with the female.”

Peter Mirick says common snakes like garter, ring-necked and northern water snakes seem to be doing fine, but populations of state-listed species, including the Eastern hognose snake–which receives only minimum protection, all face challenges.  He notes that decades of public and private land protection work has made great strides in protecting habitats, but speaks at a time when the MA Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program and the state’s ability to protect rare species have come under attack.

The attacks include both a private lawsuit and a legislative challenge to the state’s powers.  House Bill 4167, the Coakley-Rivera bill, was backed by an unusually large and somewhat unlikely group of Western MA state representatives.  The bill is largely viewed as spearheaded by complaints about development rights raised by Springfield WWLP TV Channel 22 Vice President and General Manager William Pepin.  Pepin objects to restrictions or changes that might be required through Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program considerations as he seeks to build a luxury retirement home–plus a second house on a smaller parcel, on 36 acres of land purchased with his wife in April 2009 in Hampden, MA.  Parts of the tract turned out to be the habitat of the increasingly rare Eastern Box Turtle.  Pepin is currently challenging NHESP powers in court.

Many business and development interests—and legislators in the Channel 22 viewing region, are rooting for the heavy-handed challenge to the state’s species protections in Coakley-Rivera.  But those worried about the viability rare populations see the bill as a knee-jerk, statutory-response to problems that could be addressed via minor procedural changes.  If passed as written, House Bill 4167 would strip the state’s NHESP of significant review powers—including long-held-and-rarely-used failsafe tools that are critical to ensuring the Commonwealth’s biological heritage will be protected for future generations.  Peter Mirick describes today’s species protection work in the face of developer demands as doing ‘wildlife triage’, “There’s only so much habitat to go around—with them wanting everything.”

Last September 30th, Dave Small, the state’s Assistant Regional Director of the Ware River Watershed at Quabbin Reservoir, received a call and then an email about snakes.  He was out the door in a heartbeat, “I told my boss I had to leave,” he chuckles.  The reason for the departure: baby Eastern hognose snakes.  Small zipped over to a sandy Quabbin site where friends hovered over marvelously patterned hognoses, each barely six inches long.  The snakes moved cryptically in grass and sand, just off the pavement’s edge.  They counted four in all, but one was dead–likely crushed by a pedestrian or passing cyclist.

Dave Small, President of the Athol Bird and Nature Club since 1988, is also Acting Executive Director of the Millers River Environmental Center.  They stood vigil until the snakes retreated to sandy burrows with the day’s setting sun, but worried more would be lost if they were using the pavement for warmth.  The next morning, October 1, 2009, Small and a friend were back.  Gingerly walking the pavement edge, they spotted three tiny hognoses; then another two—five in all.  They circled outward and returned: and five snakes had morphed into seven.  What happened next is described in Small’s blog, “Almost immediately movement caught our attention as another snake appeared from below ground, than another and another. Fourteen in all!”

The tiny, adult-look-alikes burrowed straight up through sand, moving “in fits and starts out into the undergrowth shedding their skins along the way.”  Bulky-bodied hognose snakes rely on their fabulous coloration—ranging from mustard to gray, to black and brown, for protection.  These harmless snakes specialize in consuming toads in their sandy habitats.  But if surprised or challenged, they will inflate an almost cobra-like hood and hiss, feigning strikes to fool predators.  If that doesn’t work they may simply loll over, playing dead in a singularly unappetizing display.

As the rarity of watching snakes hatch sank in with Small, he phoned Peter Mirick–partly to share the event, but also to check with the biologist about what was taking place, “I was on the cell phone with Peter making sure what I was observing; I wanted to fully understand it.”  In retrospect, “I just felt so privileged to be there,” Small says.  Like many of us, Small has a healthy snake phobia, “I’m definitely not one that has to pick up every snake,” he laughs. Yet if conditions permit each March 31st, he spends his birthday looking for snakes.

Though the Eastern hognose snake is mentioned beside our rare species in NHESP documents, “It’s a snake that is, at the moment, totally unprotected,” says Tom Tying.

At UMass, researchers are currently satellite-tracking six hognose snakes, he notes, “They tend to be big fat snakes that people notice, and kill.  They are truly uncommon.” Peter Mirick says he wouldn’t be surprised if the hognose was proposed for listing as a species of special concern, “It is probably at that level.”  And Dave Small–fascinated for decades by birds, butterflies, and all manner of herps since he was growing up in Athol, agrees about the hognose, and notes anecdotally, “Overall, there just aren’t as many snakes around as there used to be.”

Anne Stengle will also be out on spring’s earliest days searching for snakes.  The UMass undergrad got interested in them partly through her job at a Southampton exotic pet shop (it no longer offers reptiles), and later as a Holyoke Community College student where she signed on to do research work on the black rat snake under Tom Tyning’s guidance.  It was the first study of the black rat snake in the western Massachusetts.  It got into her blood, “Rat snakes are incredibly gorgeous, especially when you see them coiled up in a tree. They can go back and find the same spot year after year.”

At 24, Stengle’s among the new generation of herp researchers.  She worked on surveying native snakes in the Holyoke Range in 2007, incorporating radio-tagging.  That field work is done, but she continues working up data.  Meanwhile, she has moved on to tagging and studying endangered timber rattlers in the Berkshires—snakes Peter Mirick calls, “Our number one wilderness animal.”

Asked about any snake phobias, Stengle replies, “Nope—never,” She notes that most people think of snakes as egg-layers, yet half the state’s species have live births.  Stengle loves getting out to the places where those rare study species reside.  Though she favors rattlesnakes, one of her most memorable sightings was a litter of newly-born copperheads, “There were seven of them they were a muted gray–they hadn’t shed yet.  We just sat and watched.”  What amazes Stengle in her rattlesnake studies is also part of what makes this species vulnerable, “Female timbers go almost two years without eating in order to give birth—they don’t eat their entire gravid year.”

Tom Tyning’s work on snakes is providing new information on timber rattlers, copperheads and rat snakes–some of it through genetics.  In some rugged habitats where populations still exist he’s finding distributions and combinations of co-habiting snakes that begin to look like a little the Galapagos Archipelago, “We don’t know why they all coexist in some places together, but we get these oddball distribution maps that don’t quite fit what we would have guessed.”  Without further habitat protection its unknown how increasingly small, genetically-isolated populations can do, “Work in Sweden has shown that these populations can go fine for a while, and then crash,” he says, “Last year’s cool, wet summer here resulted in lots of reports of dead females or partially developed young.”

Tyning will continue mapping genes on species that can live 20 – 30 years, but only breed every two years.  Swedish biologists are making progress introducing new gene-mixing techniques in their rare populations.  But Tyning also notes a troubling development in some rare species here: anecdotal reports of disease similar to the “white nose syndrome” that has decimated the Northeast’s hibernating bat populations.  “Some claim they are seeing a health issue with some species—a fungus or bacterium.”  The worry again is that human visits and disturbance in these isolated habitats and hibernacula are possible vectors in distributing a catastrophic pathogen.  Global warming could also prove part of the scenario, “If these diseases are a real factor,” says Tyning, “We need to try and get a handle on this and inoculate or isolate populations.”

One bedrock necessity is simple enough: habitat for snakes to go about life cycles unmolested by ever-widening human consumptive patterns.  Smaller, less mobile populations like worm snakes may require just a few protected acres to remain viable.  But, for sunning, hunting, breeding, and hibernating, the sometimes-intermixed populations of copperheads, timber rattlers and rat snakes may require relatively-untrammeled tracts of hundreds—or even 1,000 acre, to continue into the future.  That means an absence of ridgetop houses, ATVs, mountain bikes and poorly chosen windmill sites with attendant road networks.  It may mean leaving the dog at home.

Tom Tyning notes with relief that one notorious rattlesnake poacher, Rudy Komarek–who reportedly removed thousands of timber rattlers from New England sites for his carnival barker lifestyle, passed away in Florida just a few years back.  But what ultimately is most needed is perhaps a simple acknowledgement that snakes have a right to exist as life forms, co-evolved with humans across millions of years on earth.  “We fail to ask the right questions,” Tyning insists, “They have their own intrinsic value. These are creatures that live without arms and legs; they hunt animals, and navigate in complete darkness.  They are nothing short of miraculous.  We are lucky to be alive with them at this time.”

Karl Meyer’s story about an encounter with Common Nighthawks along the Deerfield River will appear in the May/June 2010 issue of Bird Watcher’s Digest.

Salmon eggs in school: a few things schools, teachers, and students should be questioning if they intend to raise salmon in their classrooms

Posted by on 14 Mar 2010 | Tagged as: Connecticut River, Nature, salmon, Salmon eggs, teachers

Salmon eggs in school: a few things schools, teachers, and students should be questioning if they intend to raise salmon in their classrooms

In the last three years, Connecticut River hatchery fish have been found to harbor deadly diseases that could be tragically dispersed through egg, fry, and smolt stocking programs:

Didymo was discovered two years back in the White River’s waters above the White River National Fish Hatchery—water that the hatchery used to grow salmon eggs and fry.  Didymo smothers river bottoms like a gooey sponge and suffocates aquatic habits.  Hatchery eggs and fish can easily be didymo carriers, schools a volunteers could have unknowingly spread this disease far and wide.

Infectious Pancreatic Necrosis: in 2007, IPN—a deadly salmon disease spread to salmon populations mixing in rivers and at sea, was discovered at the Cronin National Salmon Station in Sunderland, MA.  Tests confirmed that Atlantic salmon broodstock used in the Connecticut Migratory Fish Restoration Program tested positive for a viral disease.  Dr. Jaime Geiger announced that 718,000 eggs were destroyed at the White River National Fish Hatchery, in Bethel, Vt. The eggs were collected in the past month from wild salmon, known as “sea-run” salmon, at the Cronin National Salmon Station in Sunderland, Mass., where infectious pancreatic necrosis was discovered in two fish on Nov. 16.  Scientists believe the salmon tested at the Cronin station may have picked up the virus in the Atlantic Ocean.

Hatchery fry are half as likely to survive to reach the ocean as wild-spawned fish that grow with all the environmental influences, signals, and genes they received from evolving in a natural environment over time.

Cataracts: In 2009 a sampling of one of the groups among the thousands of one-year old hatchery salmon raised for stocking each year were examined at the White River hatchery.  Sixty percent were shown to be developing cataracts.  This cripples their ability to feed.  Thousand of fish had to be destroyed.

Dying spawning specimens: Also in 2009, ten of 21 returning adult hybrid salmon recaptured at the Holyoke turned a blood-red and were found to be dying by the time they reached the North. Attleboro hatchery station.   There, they were to be “reconditioned”—bulked up and pampered, before being used for spawning new salmon.  Hatchery managers had no explanation for this deadly turn.

Below, from CRASC Meeting minutes,  July 11, 2007

Cold water disease: Roger Reed State Fish Hatchery experienced an outbreak of cold water disease this spring. The hatchery lost 250-300,000 salmon fry to these bacteria. Losses were curtailed when the hatchery obtained an INAD permit for the use of Chloramine-T and then treated the fish. It is unknown whether the Roger Reed broodstock are carriers of the bacteria.

Foibles of the $47,000 fish: the Connecticut River Atlantic salmon restoration, a poor return on investment

Posted by on 01 Mar 2010 | Tagged as: Connecticut River, Nature

© Karl Meyer 2010

Foibles of the $47,000 fish: the Connecticut River Atlantic salmon restoration, a poor return on investment

(Note: edited versions of the following OpEd appeared in the Daily Hampshire Gazette on February 6, 2010, and in the Greenfield Recorder on February 3, 2010.)

“There will always be a hatchery component to the program.” That statement came at the Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission’s December meeting.  Hatchery production must continue forever in order to produce a few returning salmon—74 fish this year.  The restoration program is now admittedly fish-farming.  This prompted the USFWS Region 5 CRASC representative to ask about hatchery costs: “How much are we spending per year?” Answer: “$ 3 – 4 million, for personnel and supplies alone.” ”How much does that amount to per fish?” That answer was left hanging.

In my dreams the Connecticut is as it was in 1991—a four-state river recovering its age-old biological connection to the sea.  May currents met a run of almost a million fish: 520,000 agitated American shad and 410,000 blueback herring lifted upstream at Holyoke dam.  There were 41,000 lampreys and a tiny return of 200 hybrid-Atlantic salmon.  Fifty-five thousand shad pushed past the dam at the Turners Falls-Northfield Mountain hydro complex; a record 37,000 shad wriggled up the Vernon ladder to Vermont and New Hampshire.  This was a legacy for coming generations.

The answer is $47,000 per salmon.  Federal hatchery expenditures alone came to $47,000 per fish in 2009.  Millions more went to genetic tests, smolt study, inoculations, electronic tagging, tracking and recapture—and state hatcheries cranking out salmon fry.  Add-in infrastructure and personnel and you can guess at a real cost per fish.

More questions arose after a presentation by USFWS researchers investigating if salmon returns would improve if hatcheries raised output–pouring millions more fry and smolts into the river.  Models predicted no more than about 50 additional fish would result from the different scenarios.  In no case would more than about 300 hybrid salmon return upstream.  The study also asked whether costs and low returns would continue to be acceptable to the public—and suggested public acceptance might be swayed if more spawned-out hatchery salmon were dumped in rivers for fishing.  “You are talking about a put-and-take fishery?” CRASC’s Chairman responded, incredulously.

“Put-and-take” is stocking fish in water bodies for anglers to yank out.  This is how the salmon program essentially works now.   Expenses aside, hatchery fish are massively disruptive to ecosystems and natural populations.  The difference here is there are no real returns to catch—though you could start charging $100,000 for a hybrid salmon license.  This led to another question: “What are the goals of this program?”  There was a lot of looking at shoes until the Connecticut representative offered, “Well, we didn’t have a specific number in mind.”

In 1967 this program set 38,000 as its goal for returning salmon–with an annual recreational catch of 9,600 fish.  The target for shad: one million at Holyoke, 850,000 at Turners Falls, and 750,000 passing Vernon dam.  Their objectives were clear: create “high quality sport fishing” and “provide for the long-term needs of the population for seafood.”  Despite its name CRASC remains responsible for all the fish in the herring family here–the core of the runs: alewives, blueback herring and the American shad, “founding fish” of this river’s restoration.  These fish fed people; an extinct salmon strain never anchored anyone’s larder.

But CRASC doesn’t stress accountability—laying claim instead to hatchery output and the latest low figures coming upstream as accomplishments.  A salmon-focused program with “no specific number in mind” costs our river dearly.  Today, two-thirds of that once-riotous shad bloom is gone; a scant 1 – 2 % of the tens of thousands of American shad that reach Turners Falls now squeeze through.  Just 16 passed Vernon dam in 2009–adjacent to warmed effluent poured in the river by Entergy’s nuclear plant.  Only 39 herring swam past Holyoke in 2009.  None have reached New Hampshire in a decade.

Occasionally I talk a little philosophy with Dr. Boyd Kynard of Amherst, MA.  Boyd’s a brilliant guy and a world-class expert on fish behavior, restoration, and the Connecticut’s migratory species.  This “retired” professor emeritus and USFWS biologist has his feet wet most of the year–consulting with China’s EPA-chief about Yangtze dams; fish passage on the Amazon; endangered sturgeon in Europe; or dam-disrupted ecosystems on the Columbia.  Something he once said about the resources going to lab study of juvenile salmon struck me, especially from someone not prone to generality, “I bet more money has been spent studying this single life-stage of this one species of fish, than the money spent on all the fish species in the world.”

It’s all about priorities.  There are bright, thoughtful people at CRASC too–people who say they would like to see a change of course.  I believe them.  The big problems are now acknowledged at the table: fish elevators 10 years past-due at Turners, with fluctuations from the Northfield plant scuttling passage at that dam; thousands of young shad killed when FirstLight drained its canal in September; thermal effluent dumped in at Vermont Yankee—with record low passage at the Vernon ladder.  These are all problems good on-the-ground science could begin turning around–on a path to a river we all could be proud of.

#          #          #

Karl Meyer’s “The State of the Snake” appears in the spring issue of Sanctuary.  He tackles nighthawks and bald eagles for Birdwatcher’s Digest in May and November.

Stagnation at Turners Falls

Posted by on 23 May 2009 | Tagged as: Connecticut River, Nature

An shorter version of this piece appears in the spring 2009 issue of Sanctuary Magazine as “Turners Falls Turnaround”

Stagnation at Turner Falls © 2008 by Karl Meyer

“It will not be forgotten by some memory that we were contemporaries,” Thoreau, on shad blocked by a dam.

I first watched a riot of migrating American shad nervously school in the fishway windows at the Holyoke dam over a quarter century ago. That Connecticut River was brimming with life: agitated blueback herring, slithering sea lamprey, fidgeting American shad. It so inspired me, I have scarce missed a season since, visiting three and four times annually from mid-May to June. Sadly, that great migration is coming undone. Each spring sees less fish. From the first half million shad tallied there in 1984 and 720,000 witnessed in 1992, to just 153,000 arriving in spring 2008. From the 630,000 blueback herring counted at Holyoke in 1985, to just four score and nine last year.

In 1955 the nation’s first fish passage success saw 4,899 American shad lifted past the Holyoke dam, 86 miles from the sea. A simple, bucket-type elevator had restored a spawning run blocked since 1849. From Holyoke it was just 36 river miles to the next dam, Turners Falls—a barrier that would surely fall quickly to this elegant solution. An 1872 Supreme Court ruling against Holyoke mandated fish passage at dams. It recognized shad runs as a rightful resource of hungry upstream citizens. It meant hope for the suite of fish that had used the Connecticut’s spawning highway to and from the sea for millennia. They included federal trust fish—the endangered shortnose sturgeon, the shad, and the blueback herring, plus migrating eels and sea lamprey.

Today, shad runs at Holyoke are half what they were in the 1990’s; herring are gone. The most recent 5-year average for shad has dropped 42% compared to 1999-2003—from 267,000 to 155,000 fish. Thirty-six miles upstream at Turners Falls dam, the center of linked to hydro facilities including Northfield Mountain and Cabot Station, passage has plummeted over 80% since 1999, when energy deregulation came to those sites. Passage there hovers near 1%, yet the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission listed the Connecticut’s shad population as “stable” in 2007

To understand you have to look to the 42 year-old bureaucracy emphasizing the reestablishment of an extinct salmon run on the Connecticut. It began in 1967 on the heels of the 1965 Anadromous Fish Conservation Act, when the US Bureau of Sports Fisheries and Wildlife, the Bureau of Commercial Fisheries and fish commissioners of CT, MA, VT and NH assumed responsibility for the restoration and preservation of migratory fish here. That mission–extended by Public Law 98-138 in1983, recognized the Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission, CRASC, as the agency of record. CRASC has a Shad Studies Subcommittee and a Fish Passage Subcommittee.

Driven by sport fishing interests, that agency focused on the Connecticut’s only missing species—the restoration of a leaping, but extinct strain of cold-loving salmon to a warming Connecticut. Though shad and herring naturally range from Labrador and Nova Scotia south to Florida, they received poor step-child status. Market research for 1967 projected a yearly harvest of 9,600 salmon–bringing $120 per fish from high-end anglers. Two foot long shad were a bargain at $3 each, with a projected harvest of 150,000 annually. After 42 seasons, 82 salmon returned past Holyoke in 2008.

Despite millions spent on research, hatcheries, genetics, and Byzantine stocking programs, more American shad were lifted at Holyoke in 1955 than all the salmon returned there in the program’s history. The Connecticut’s salmon strain was extinct by 1815. A pioneering species, it was a recent transplant–its southward spurt the result of an all-too-current phenomenon: climate change. Salmon biology and archeological data point to an arrival on the changing Atlantic currents of a brief, northern hemisphere climate aberration, the Little Ice Age, 1400 AD – 1800 AD.

In 1992 Catherine Carlson said this in a dissertation in the Anthropology Department at University of Massachusetts. Carlson was doing masters archeology work at the University of Maine when she was surprised by the absence of salmon bones in digs at coastal, estuarine, and inland-river fishing sites. Her work impressed professor emeritus Dena Dincauze, head of UMass, Amherst’s Anthropology Department, who recruited her to continue that research at UMass.

Carlson’s thesis, The Atlantic Salmon in New England History and Prehistory: Social and Environmental Implications, showed the salmon’s importance in colonial New England had been largely over-stated by sport fish minded interpreters. My own research at Antioch New England University in 1995 bore that out after extensive examination of the Sylvester Judd (1789-1860) Manuscript at the Forbes Library in Northampton, MA. Judd is a primary source for colonial history, natural history and genealogy of Connecticut River towns from northern Connecticut to Turners Falls. His records and interviews with men who had fished opposite Holyoke in the 1750s and 1760s led him to conclude salmon “were always few in number compared to the shad.”

Carlson surveyed seventy-five digs across the northeast in which fish bones had been identified at least down to their genus. A 5,000 year record revealed regular use of shad and river herring as a food source at many locations. But just a single salmon bone from Maine was positively identified. At one Turners Falls site, 590 fish bone fragments were uncovered. All were shad or river herring.

Carlson outlined the Little Ice Age here—showing the salmon’s migration this far south was driven by that brief climate oscillation. Dams and pollution were minor factors in its Connecticut demise–as salmon still survived further north on Maine’s long-dammed Penobscot. Her findings were not welcomed at CRASC. Their 25 year-old effort—annually hatchery-raising millions of salmon fry from eggs; fattening smolts, and stocking it all in tributaries was languishing. Carlson had noted the taxpayer costs, $80 million by 1989, and that “One Fish and Wildlife study has predicted that costs between $120 million and $450 million will be spent between 1989 and 2008 to make the restoration effort successful.”

“Some of them were quite hostile to me,” Dr. Carlson recalls sixteen years later. After leading departments at two universities she’s now a consultant in her native Vancouver, B.C. “No amount of manipulating is going to change the environmental conditions for the reintroduction of that fish,” she says. Climate science agrees. Asked why her work didn’t receive its full due, she cites several factors, “First, it was archeology, not biology; you are trying to prove a negative—that salmon weren’t there.” Being female in a male dominated field wasn’t helpful, “It was all political. It didn’t have much to do with the actual science. My sense is that they were just so heavily invested in it.”

But Carlson’s findings couldn’t be rejected out of hand, particularly since Dr. Boyd Kynard, fisheries biologist at the USGS’s Conte Anadromous Fish Lab in Turners Falls was on her committee. An associate UMass professor, Kynard had a reputation as an expert in migratory fish behavior and fish passage. Today he consults with governments on fish passage and rare sturgeon species on major rivers in China, Europe and Brazil. His credentials couldn’t be impugned. Carlson’s work remains largely unchallenged today. In 2002, her “absent-salmon” conclusions received note in John McPhee’s shad tribute,” The Founding Fish.”

This spring thousands of Connecticut Valley kids will raise salmon eggs in school–guided by USFWS personnel, trout organizations, teachers and college instructors who recruit many for fry stocking. Programs like Adopt a Salmon and the Atlantic Salmon Egg Rearing Program (ASERP) are neatly tailored to classroom math and science requirements. It’s an easy fit for teachers and has great PR value for a restoration program always lobbying for funds. The USFWS Connecticut River Coordinator sometimes dresses as a salmon at these programs, which reach into167 watershed schools. In Maryland today, kids are hatching shad and raising American eels in their classrooms—learning, at least, about the real problems of viable species on local rivers.

Adult, spawned-out hatchery salmon are stocked to lakes, ponds and rivers in watershed states here. This agency PR gives weekend fishing families and trophy anglers a taste for big introduced fish, but no context for understanding faltering native stocks. But, complexities are mounting. Didymo, an introduced, smothering algae, a.k.a. “rock snot”, was recently found above the federal salmon hatchery on the White River in Bethel, Vermont. Didymo carpets river bottoms, choking off oxygen. Since the White River is used as a direct hatchery water source, its operations were temporarily shut down–lest didymo be transported via stocking.

This spring none of the eggs; six-million fry, and hatchery smolts seeded into Connecticut River tributaries will come from “wild” salmon stock. All the “wild” sea-run salmon had to be destroyed a year back because a highly contagious virus, IPN, was found in salmon at federal hatcheries. Infectious Pancreatic Necrosis, deadly to fry and smolts, is a by-product of fish farming. Farmed salmon are escaping ocean pens and infecting North Atlantic strains. IPN got into the new salmon hybrids migrating back to the Connecticut—fish that are recaptured for breeding. “Biosecurity” programs are now deployed at all hatcheries, as stocking programs are potential vectors for new disease.

Perhaps the greatest tragedy is that CRASC has known for 30 years that some of the biggest restoration problems center at the fishways and generating facilities linked at Turners Falls dam. They helped create them. In the late 70’s, those state fish commissioners and federal officials insisted Northeast Utilities install fish ladders there based on Pacific salmon runs on the massive Columbia River—this, despite evidence those ladders might not work for shad and herring. Two ponderously-long ladders and a narrow gatehouse exit were installed at Turners Falls in 1980. Millions were spent. The few arriving salmon passed easily, but just 10% or less of arriving shad succeeded.

Kept quiet, that single-species blunder effectively locked meaningful runs out of Vermont and New Hampshire habitats for at least the next twenty years. Completion of those prescribed fishways prevented any revisit of the issue for two decades under the site’s 40-year FERC (Federal Energy Regulatory Commission) license, which expires in 2018. FERC regulates operations at mainstem facilities and is tasked with enforcing protections for federal trust fish. Licenses can be reopened and FERC can halt operations if conditions injure runs. FERC receives information from CRASC–which recently characterized the Connecticut’s shad population as “relatively stable.”

Incredibly, a 5-year, CRASC partnered study begun in 1999 by the USGS’s Conte Fish Lab found that half the shad passing Holyoke “attempt but fail” to make it past Turners Falls: “Passage of American shad through the fishway complex at Turners Falls is poor (less than 1% in some years), and may be having a substantial limiting effect on the Connecticut River population as a whole.” This profound development—shad had plummeted from over 10,000 shad annually to around 2,000, was also left below decks. That drop was on the heels of energy deregulation at the hydro facilities owned by Northeast Utilities throughout the study. Some 70,000 shad were likely turned away at Turners Falls last spring.

What changed to cause the drop between 1999 and 2000 that continues to this day? Possibly something to do with the newly-deregulated, electricity “spot market” generation at the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Project, sister operation to the Turners Falls dam and canal. Just five miles upstream, Northfield generates upwards of 1,000 megawatts of electricity by pumping water out of the Connecticut’s bed and into a 5.5 billion gallon mountaintop reservoir, and sending it back through turbines in downstream surges according to demand and spikes in the market price. Turbines for the 300 acre reservoir can reverse from sucking up water to sending millions of gallons downstream in minutes.

Water level fluctuations in that Turners Falls “pool” average 3.5 feet daily, but can range to 9 – 10 feet in the course of weekly operations. Those pumping and flushing effects through Turners Falls are felt by migrating shad and the river’s only breeding population of endangered shortnose sturgeon–slugs of water that must be reacted-to by operators at the Holyoke dam, 36 miles downstream.

Whatever the cause of the new Turners crash, urgency isn’t apparent at CRASC’s public meetings. Annually there is tinkering at the fishways; and a few truckloads of shad are dumped upstream to maintain a biological pulse for the run. But the partnership–the USFWS, Conte Lab, the National Marine Fisheries Service, reps from CT, MA, NH, and VT, watched this new disaster unfold and never brought it forward as their public trust. They left the public ignorant about the fish; the river. In fact they chose to “throttle back” shad monitoring at Turners, later stating in an April 3, 2008, discussion of failed herring returns, “There is less concern about the shad population since it has been relatively stable, though at a lower level than historic peaks.”

CRASC didn’t press FERC to intervene. FERC–who could reopen the license, shut down operations, or force a return to conditions that recently squeezed 10,000 shad through Turners, didn’t enforce. The eroding shad migration on the Connecticut can apparently wait for 2018.

Recently Dr. Raymond Bradley spoke on climate change here at Greenfield Community College. Decades back Bradley partnered in groundbreaking science–using polar ice core data to substantiate early signs of climate change. Included in those findings was a now-notorious “hockey stick graph,” vividly depicting spikes in greenhouse gases and temperatures. The Bush Administration tried to quash those findings. In 2007 Bradley, who directs the UMass Climate Research Center–along with Al Gore and other partnering climate scientists, received the Nobel Peace Prize.

This night Bradley, my “Climatology” instructor in the late-70s, has more sobering news—that Massachusetts and Vermont temperatures will likely align with the climate of today’s North Carolina and Virginia in just two generations. It’s a cold comfort message to deliver–one that would be small solace to Catherine Carlson, I’m sure. Still, basic biology shows that American shad would be at home in those climates; and, with help, herring could be at home there too.

# # #

Karl Meyer is author of Wild Animals of North America, winner of a 2008 Teachers’ Choice Award for Children’s Books. His latest, Dog Heroes, is out from Storey Publishing.

Towards a new Connecticut River; or, how to keep a dead fish alive

Posted by on 23 May 2009 | Tagged as: Connecticut River, Nature

This essay first appeared in early May 2009 in several Connecticut River Valley newpapers, as well as the Worcester Telegram.

Towards a New River; or, How to keep a dead fish alive

© 2009 by Karl Meyer

Charles Darwin was born in 1809, the year the last wild fish from a minor strain of cold-loving salmon died out on a warming Connecticut River. Half a century later, On the Origin of Species placed evolutionary theory and reasoned science at the forefront of how we perceive our place among the world’s plants and animals. For 42 years now over half a billion public dollars has been spent turning the Connecticut into a four-state science experiment to create a new strain of “wild” Atlantic salmon from hatchery spawned fish. It has failed. It’s time for a new idea on the Connecticut River.

Predictions in 1967 from the bureaucracy that became today’s Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission (CRASC) promised an annual angler’s dream of 9,600 returning salmon. Returns average 140 fish. Einstein said insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Today, without the six-million hatchery fry dumped into tributaries annually by fisheries biologists, trout interests, scout leaders, teachers and school kids, the few fish that limp back each year would die off in an evolutionary heartbeat.

For decades CRASC has been responsible for the Connecticut’s age-old runs of American shad and blueback herring—part of a suite of “federal trust” fish that include the shortnose sturgeon. The herring run is essentially dead—from 630,000 fish passing Holyoke in 1985, to 89 fish returned in 2008. In 1992, Holyoke hoisted 720,000 shad at its lift. A decade back runs averaged 300,000 fish. Just 153,110 American shad returned in 2008.

Two hundred years after Darwin’s birth its time to stop thinking we are smarter than rivers; smarter than fish. The Connecticut was the southern-most river in the salmon’s biological footprint. In 1992, Dr. Catherine Carlson’s UMass anthropology thesis revealed a gaping absence of salmon in the region’s archeological record. Thousands of bones covering a 5,000 year sweep were identified as shad or herring. Across all sites–including 590 bones from two sites at Turners Falls, MA, just a single bone from Maine was positively identified as salmon.

Scores of Connecticut River town histories record 17th, 18th and 19th century farmers crowding riversides each May, confident in leaving with a supply of shad. But salmon was a new visitor. It arrived with the Little Ice Age–a period of cold winters and brief, chilling summers which lasted in New England from the mid-1600s to the early 1800s. When cold conditions warmed, salmon runs died out, helped off the stage by the first dams across the Connecticut. They persisted on the colder, dammed rivers in Maine.

The salmon limping back today are evolved in tanks, their genetics guided by computers. They are not what are best for our river. Hatchery fish mask the real problems of rivers—foundering native populations, warming currents, deteriorating habitats, and blocked access upstream and down. Hatcheries are now potential dispersal points for exotic plagues like deadly IPN and smothering didymo—which recently caused closures at federal sites in Sunderland, MA and Bethel, VT..

The historic significance of salmon here has long been overblown by lobby interests wielding clout far in excess of their numbers. In 2008 CRASC representatives from the US Fish & Wildlife Service scheduled “outreach” visits to Congressional offices at a rate of more than one per week. State fisheries managers annually dump fat, spawned-out hatchery salmon in lakes to whet angler appetites for big, exotic fish. Teachers bring salmon eggs into classrooms, where thousand of kids participate in mini-hatchery programs tailored to math and science goals. Shad and herring losses go unexplored.

It’s time to stop holding the Connecticut hostage to this experiment–conducted largely without public input, published budget data, or notice of public meetings. All but 1% of migrating shad are now blocked at Turners Falls–virtually next door to the Dept. of Interior’s million-dollar Conte Fish Lab created to protect runs of “federal trust” fish. That information never reached the public.

In October, Dr. Ray Bradley, Director of the UMass Center for Climate Studies, spoke at Greenfield Community College. I had Ray for “Climatology” in 1979. He is one of the team of scientists awarded the 2007 Nobel Prize for documenting unprecedented climatic warming—information the Bush Administration suppressed. Our new President believes in evolution, science, and eliminating programs that don’t make sense. Dr. Bradley illustrated his talk that night with a graph showing Vermont and Massachusetts mirroring the climates of Virginia and North Carolina just two generations hence—hardly salmon country. Ages ago shad and blueback herring evolved to spawn in rivers as far south as central Florida. Its time we evolved too.

# # #

Karl Meyer’s Wild Animals of North America won a 2008 Teachers’ Choice Award for Children’s Books. His “Turners Falls Turnaround” is in the spring issue of Sanctuary.

Fall’s well-fed bears

Posted by on 14 Oct 2008 | Tagged as: Nature

The following article appears in the Fall 2008 edition of Santuary, from the Massachusetts Audubon Society.

Fall’s well-fed bears, by Karl Meyer

I live bear country, Franklin County, west of the Connecticut River. Rolling up into the heart of the Berkshires are the deep woods and mature nut and pine tree habitats that state biologists say are prime bear habitat. And black bears are thriving in Massachusetts, after their near extinction here in the 19th century. They’ve long since recrossed the Connecticut, swimming east. And today, though a good deal of it is sub-optimal suburban habitat, most people living beyond the crescent of Boston’s Rt. 128 again reside in towns visited by bears. Fearful of humans; largely hidden, they are out fattening up for hibernation right now.

“For bear, they be common, being a great black kind of bear which be most fierce in strawberry time, at which time they have young ones.” Thus wrote William Wood in New England’s Prospect, published in London in 1634, on the heels of his four-year New World sojourn. Residing in the fledgling settlements along today’s North Shore, of bears nearing winter, Wood observed, “Food being scant in those cold and hard times, they live only by sleeping and sucking their paws, which keepeth them as fat as they are in summer.”

And fat they must be. In late fall bears need to head to den sites with enough accumulated calories to cover the 30% of body weight that simply vanishes with the energy expended in hibernation. That fat is in large part the result of the black bear’s age-old association with nut trees: white oak, beech, red oak, hickory, and chestnut. These are the preferred fall buffet for bears. But if things get tough—if the mast crop fails as it does cyclically, black bears are wonderfully resilient. They’ll make up part of that deficit with grubs, roots, leaves, seeds, and berries, and supplement–or even substitute that lost forage with trips to isolated corn fields, orchards, or unsecured trash bins.

“Bears are omnivores,” emphasizes Massachusetts wildlife biologist Jim Cardoza, who has been the state’s Bear Project Leader since 1970, “They eat almost everything.” But wild game is rare, he says, “It’s hard for them to prey on live animals.” They do some scavenging though, and on rare occasions easy opportunities may tempt older males and they’ll prey on a penned-up goat, or get into a cage full of rabbits. Mostly it’s the nut crop they want in fall—the mast, plus wild cherry and the other succulent forest foods that Cardoza calls soft mast. “If necessary,” he notes, “they’ll eat whatever is: one, abundant; two, nutritious; and three, tastes good.”

Trackers and photographers often study bears. Ask MassWildlife photographer Bill Byrne and retired professional tracker—now turned nature photographer, Paul Rezendes, what would be heaven for a fall black bear, and their portraits nearly merge. Years of anticipating the needs of their quarry solicit these settings, “I think of a beautiful, old beech forest with some big canopies and big, old hemlocks—which are really good for cubs,” says Rezendes, “If there’s trouble the cubs and that bear can go up into the hemlocks and you’ll never see them. We’ll call that bear paradise.” Unapprised, Bill Byrne almost mirrors the image, simply adding in oaks, “A secluded oak and hemlock ridge, with a bumper crop of acorns and a scattering of beechnuts. The hemlock would provide security–I could feed undisturbed all day.”

A few decades after William Wood’s New England’s Prospect was published, a minister’s wife in Lancaster, Massachusetts was roused by a fierce attack on an icy February 10, 1676. It led to her three-month captivity among rebelling Native Americans. Mary Rowlandson lived and struggled alongside the embattled Nipmucs, Narragansetts, Wampanoags, and Pocumtucks of King Philip’s War until she was ransomed in early May. She experienced their desperate, subsistence flight from the standpoint of a virtual slave–retelling her story in The Captivity and Restoration of Mary Rowlandson, a colonial “best seller.” Rowlandson was dealt indignity, abuse and hunger–as well as unexpected kindness, while held by her captors. One turned out to be the Metacom, King Philip himself.

In early March the fat and meat of a bear, likely killed at its den, greatly fortified Rowlandson. She had met King Philip, who she could converse with in English, and did “extra” artisan labor for him and other captors—knitting, in exchange for food and small privileges. She shared a dinner with Metacom, “He asked me to make a cap for his boy, for which he invited me to dinner. I went, and he gave me a pancake, about as big as two fingers. It was made of parched wheat, beaten, and fried in bear’s grease, but I thought I never tasted pleasanter meat in my life.”

Starvation was never far off for the pastor’s wife, or the Indians. Often she was reduced to begging, and hoarding tidbits, “I was fain to go and look after something to satisfy my hunger, and going among the wigwams, I went into one and there found a squaw who showed herself very kind to me, and gave me a piece of bear. I put it into my pocket, and came home, but could not find an opportunity to broil it, for fear they would get it from me, and there it lay all that day and night in my stinking pocket.” Her treasure nearly rancid, she went back, “In the morning I went to the same squaw… I asked her to let me boil my piece of bear in her kettle, which she did, and gave me some ground nuts to eat with it: and I cannot but think how pleasant it was to me.”

Mary Rowlandson survived her ordeal; and those samplings of bear loom large in a hunger-filled memoir. Metacom and many of his people ultimately perished in their struggle for a homeland. Partly as a result, the following century saw the Massachusetts landscape wholly remade in the image of old Europe. Forests fell; fresh farms blanketed ancient woodland terrain. Wolves, beavers, bears, and wild turkeys quickly paid the price for an expanding drive for land and timber. Squirrels, cottontails, and the occasional deer, were what remained for game.

But black bears are survivors in every sense of the word. Nearly extirpated when hunters sought them in their last remaining stands, they somehow hung on in rugged Berkshire reaches into the 20th century. But even in that sheltering place they witnessed the demise of one of their ancient staples, the American chestnut. Still, in the late-1970s when New England forests were slowly reaching maturity once more, those oaks, beeches, and hickories churned out ample mast. That, along with a supply of soft mast, ants, grubs, leaves, shoots, bird’s eggs, berries, mice, frogs, and sundry other omnivorous treats, helped the bear population begin to expand.

Today, from a core population of perhaps a hundred bears three decades back, the Massachusetts black bear population is estimated at nearly 3,000 animals according to Jim Cardoza. It’s thought to be growing by 8 % annually. The densest populations remain west of the Connecticut River, but bears are now fairly common in the central part of the state. Sightings in eastern Worcester County regularly make the news.

According to fact sheets from the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, average weights for Bay State bears are 140 lbs. and 230 lbs., for adult sows (females) and males (boars) respectively. These forest and swamp omnivores–basically the size of adult humans, have evolved a survival strategy that emphasizes retreat, into trees or dense cover. Untempted by the baits of human trash, bird seed, and untended food sources, they skillfully avoid human conflict. But to a bear, the scent of “grill grease” is tantamount to the mention of McDonalds to a 10 year old in a car, says Jim Cardoza. When bears develop a taste for our human food traps, they risk paying a high price as “problem” bears. The problem is that we’re baiting these animals.

Bear sightings are always remarkable. They bring people face to face with the presence of “other.” And when that other is a black bear, it usually stops an observer dead in their tracks. Most sightings are strikingly brief, recounted using terms like “big,” “small,” “lumbering,” or “scampering.” Though the largest, oldest, males may reach well over 400 lbs., most are much smaller. In the Bay State, upright black bears rarely rise to over 5-1/2 feet, and they are notorious for their response to most human intrusions: they run for cover.

Paul Rezendes knows the places where black bears run. He’s tracked them to dens, tree refuges; feeding sites. He knows their resilience—having witnessed their fall movements when food is plenty and noted their resourcefulness when its scarce, “They gravitate to whatever mast crop is producing heavily.” Rezendes says. He remembers one fall in the Savoy area where the mast crop had failed, the acorns and beech, “But there was this enormous crop of ash seeds. And the bears were climbing up in there and tearing those trees apart. I’ve never seen that before or after.” Given a choice though, Rezendes says bears seem to prefer beech nuts, “Even after the snow falls I’ve seen them digging through over a foot of snow to get to beech nuts. They probably smell them–they’ll even put off sleeping if there’s a good crop.”

Rezendes also remembers a particularly difficult fall for bears in New York State, “I used to do some tracking programs in the Catskills, and they had a mast failure there, with the oaks.” But the keen noses of bears led them to a bread bakery, where they repeatedly rifled through dumpsters, “They had a heck of time. When the mast fails, the bears start taking chances—start going places where they don’t normally go.” Bears are generally not risk-takers, they like the security of mature woods. If those woods happen to be oak, “The bears gravitate toward white oaks,” says Paul Rezendes, “If there’s lots of activity in a mixed oak area, you’ll probably find clawing and bite marks on the white oaks.” Another fall favorite is wild cherry, “They just love the stuff.”

State photographer Bill Byrne has been shooting pictures for MassWildlife for over three decades. He’s taken a lot of bear pictures in Franklin County. He’s also witnessed the seasonal diet change, from heavy foraging on late-summer blueberries to a nearly instant switch to mast—in one instance turning to acorns from red oak, “As soon as those first acorns were falling, they lost interest in the berries.“ Byrne says it’s all about getting the best pre-winter calories, “Its like how much fat can I gain before I have to sleep?” He’s witnessed other evidence of the black bear’s fall drive for calories; the signs of their foraging–they rip open paper wasp nests. “Insects are pretty high in protein.” Black bears also dig up ground wasp nests, “The bear will just open that up and expend the energy to consume the larvae. It’s not a big expenditure of energy–but it’s impressive how they’ll accept the pain of the stings.”

When mast and forage is less than optimal, these opportunists sometimes turn to other available soft “mast”: isolated cornfields. “When there is high productivity in berries, in grapes, in acorns, there’s less pressure on the corn fields,” observes Byrne, who says 90% of his observations are in Franklin County. But damage to feed corn is a regular occurrence. Many seasoned farmers just accept it as the price of doing business in bear country, telling Byrne, “I know they get my corn, so I just plant more.” It’s often the secluded fields that are hit most, he notes, “So some are planting more crops that keep an opening around the corn. They’ll seed-in alfalfa.”

Bill Byrne holds black bears in high regard. He wants people to know that conflicts with bears can be minimized if humans make good choices, “The more people can learn about them, the more they can actually protect the bears.” The photographer sees situations where people are actually putting out food to attract them, “That usually spells a death warrant for bears.” Jim Cardoza will tell you that bears have a long memory, returning season after season to check on an easy cache of sunflower seed—long after a wildlife enthusiast may have learned to take down the bird feeders between April and December. For bee farmers with hives and honey to protect, the standards for electric fencing are changing, “Some bears are learning to negotiate anything that is not hugely hot, “says Bill Byrne, “5000 volts now seems to be the standard if you’re going to protect hives. They are right up there with black angus.”

Still, with thick fall woods around, and good mast, most people won’t be encountering bears from year to year—even if they are in the neighborhood. Suburban sprawl and thoughtless human behavior will certainly be a continuing cause for difficulty as bears go about fall foraging. The American beech continues to struggle under a series of weakening plagues, and the relatively rapid loss of the eastern hemlock to the scourge of the wooly adelgid will present these shy creatures with a new security problem: the shielding branches of their favorite refuge trees are disappearing.

But, with winter approaching, it’s pleasant to contemplate this late-fall portrait, rendered by Bill Byrne. A friend had called, saying he’d discovered a bear den. It was basically the remains of an overturned tree–the base of the root ball. The two approached slowly, upwind, and watched a very large male from a distance. “It was December, there was snow on the ground,” Byrne says, “But it turned out to be a warm day, and he was dozing on top.” This bear was “sated,” Byrne recalls, “just waiting to put up the do not disturb sign.” Fascinated, they observed quietly, the photographer noting the impressive size of the head; the creature’s slow movements, “The males tend to hibernate last,” Byrne notes. But this would not be that day. As they stared, the logy bear roused a bit, “Then he turned around, like a dog, and lay down again.” For now, this bruin was just napping on top of the covers.

Homage to a too-long winter

Posted by on 14 Apr 2008 | Tagged as: Nature

© 2008, Karl Meyer                            

This wren uses the stairs

The wren visits on the dreariest of winter days, and it uses the stairs.  I like the wren.  It visited today.  It prefers afternoon visits.  That’s fine with me.  It prefers days that are rainy, and gloomy, and somewhat out of synch.  That’s great too.  And it uses the stairs—did I already say that?  The wren hops down the stairs.  It’s a very orderly wren.  You don’t often think of wrens as house guests, good or bad, but this one is exceptional.  It visits and hops down the deck stairs, inches from my window–on dreary days.  It is quite cheerful.  I like this wren.

You might figure, from its manners and suburban setting, that it is a House wren.  It is not.  It’s a tidy Carolina wren.  It hops down the stairs one at a time, and looks sideways and askance in the window as it passes.  As a wren, it could easily take the steps two at a time—with all the attendant clatter.  My wren does not do this.  It is very polite and quiet as wrens go.  Very southern, I think.

My Carolina wren is a bird of generous character.  Its visits are spontaneous; they are good will offerings of a high order.  This is not a wren here for a hand-out, or a hand-up.  I’ve made no wren offerings to entice it—no suet hung, or seed hors d’oeuvres set out for wren entertainment on the patio. 

This wren has been winter’s great surprise: a whimsical guest on days when rain and fog press hard on dirty piles of snow.  It arrives in the afternoon, and takes the stairs one at a time.

There is no obvious reason for this tidy, visiting wren.  Winters of late have been warm, but this one’s had a wintry bite.  Not a whit of hospitality has been offered wrens this winter.  December drifts, driving rains, wild temperature swings—hardly wren-friendly weather.  This winter did not say, “May I take your wren hat, your muffler?”  Yet, curve-billed, quizzical, a Carolina wren visits, hopping politely from stair to stair.  I like the wren.

It could go south, this guest, to safer and warmer wren quarters.  But this wren does not.  At peril to life and limb it stays nearby for raw, rainy days, then comes to the stairs and looks in on me as it hops.  In turn I offer surprise–understated of course; a modest turn of the mouth, a raised eyebrow.  There are no false or ungraceful moves.  I keep my comportment natural, and don’t jump up to put on the kettle.  Truth be told, I don’t know much wren protocol.  So I keep it simple.  If it were a House wren I might offer cookies; a Winter or Cactus wren?–maybe dried fruit, or chips and guacamole. 

But this is a Carolina wren, one that hops past the window on gloomy, wintry days.  It takes the steps quietly, one at a time, and always uses the back entrance.  This wren is just the wren you’d want.  After you’ve whined about the weather, called your friends, slogged down coffee, and despaired of light ever returning to the landscape—a wren calls, unannounced.  Its timing is always perfect; it never stays too long.  It hops into view, politely.  It nods its wren head; and glances at you with its bead-black eye, then continues down the steps, cheerily, one at a time.

Winters can be vexing, and seemingly unending.  Brilliant days are matched by others that are punishingly-dark.  But one afternoon—one somber and dulling afternoon, a tiny, feathered comet may burst through the fog and begin bouncing down the steps.  It will acknowledge you with a nod, and a glint from its fiery black eye.  And–politely, you will smile. 

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