Field Notes

fieldnotes

national parks

Wrong Turn for Wildlife

Founded by John Muir in 1890, Sequoia National Park is famous for its towering, ancient trees and its majestic vistas. But as in so many other national parks, the past century has not been kind to Sequoia, which is beset by modern problems ranging from invasive species to air pollution to overcrowding and inadequate funding. Each year, for example, the park's rangers must euthanize four or five black bears that, having grown accustomed to poorly stored human food, invade campsites and threaten campers--a problem that only gets worse as mother bears teach their cubs to forage for Twinkies and hot dogs instead of nuts and berries. Yet Sequoia's bear-management program is understaffed because of a tight National Park Service budget. It seemed fitting, then, that last May President George W. Bush chose Sequoia as the postcard-perfect backdrop for his announcement of a major increase in the National Park Service budget--$4.9 billion over five years.

That money, as it turns out, is earmarked for the Park Service's maintenance and construction backlog, funding repairs to roads, trails, and water and sewage systems, among other projects. National park advocates are concerned that the President's budget proposal signals a disturbing shift in priorities. While maintenance is "a legitimate need," says Blake Selzer, a policy analyst with the National Parks Conservation Association, "the problem is that, with a limited pot of money, they're doing this at the expense of protecting natural resources."

The influx of money won't do anything to help Sequoia's bears, though a recent park report states that it would take only $135,000 a year to fully staff the bear-management program by adding 10 new seasonal employees. Last year just three workers (two of them volunteers) were responsible for patrolling Sequoia's more than 1,400 campsites, teaching campers how to secure their food properly--an "impossible task" for so few people, according to Jeff Manley, a natural resources specialist at the park.

The Bush budget also won't pay for full-time staff to monitor the 134 miles of river in Missouri's Ozark National Scenic Riverways, which are threatened by lead mining in the park watershed. Nor will it provide enough help for the scientists at Alaska's Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve to assess the park's plant and animal populations. "It's awfully difficult to manage an ecosystem if you don't know what you have," says Devi Sharp, chief of natural and cultural resources at the vast park (six times the size of Yellowstone and the nation's largest). Freshwater fish and small mammals (largely rodents) go under the microscope this summer, but much of the park's wildlife remains uncatalogued. "We could use a lot more money to do the job" of taking an inventory of park flora and fauna, Sharp adds. "Our park scientists are used to living on crumbs."

"We have been very successful in making parks accessible," says Michael Soukup, the Park Service's associate director of science, referring to the system's 285 million annual visitors. "There are so many natural resources that have to be actively managed, but we can't be successful if we only focus on the visitor side of the equation."

--Lauren Morello

 

Q and A

Blockbuster Bird Guide

David Allen Sibley is hailed as the heir to the legendary bird illustrator Roger Tory Peterson. His book, The Sibley Guide to Birds, landed on the New York Times Best-Seller list after it was published last fall, and with more than 500,000 copies in print, it has launched him on a whirlwind book tour. Audubon spoke with the mild-mannered 39-year-old author during a recent layover at his home in Concord, Massachusetts.

Question: What's it like on the road, scaring up book buyers instead of birds?

Answer: A good experience. It differs from the usual author's tour because the core of buyers I meet in bookstores are in the birding club. They know what the book's about.

Q: But are all the buyers top birders?

A: Oh, no--it's a cross section. I'm stunned by the celebrities who ask me to sign a copy of the guide. I won't mention names, but some really big entertainers and politicians.

Q: What about the age range?

A: The number of kids, 8 or 10 years old, even younger, impresses me. They're into birding very early, like I was.

Q: At nearly three pounds, it's no pocket-size book. Do these kids carry it into the field?

A: I think they use it more as a reference book. They go through it at home and memorize it like they'd memorize Pokemon figures or baseball stats.

Q: Did you expect a field guide packed with information to become so popular?

A: I just imagined what kind of a guide I'd like to use. There's a need for all this information, and I set it down as clearly as I could.

Q: There are two terrific bird guides on the market: yours and Kenn Kaufman's Birds of North America. Any rivalry?

A: Kenn and I talked about it. They're designed for different needs and aren't in competition. The combined excitement has generated more publicity and is good for our books as well as for birding. Maybe in the long run that creates conservationists, too.

Q: Have you spotted any errors?

A: Several people have pointed out that I left the leg spurs off the illustration of the male turkey. There are lots of little things I'd like to improve. My copy is marked on almost every page, ready for a revised edition within the year.

Q: When you go birding, do you take The Sibley Guide?

A: (Smiling) No.

--Frank Graham Jr.



© 2001  NASI
 

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REPORTS

Eco-Knitting

Gary Hovland

These sweaters are for the birds--literally. The Tasmanian Conservation Trust is using them to clothe the tiny fairy penguins that live on Phillip Island, off Australia's southern coast. The sweaters prevent the penguins--the victims of frequent oil spills and illegal bilge pumping by commercial ships--from preening their feathers and ingesting oil, which can be fatal. The sweaters also keep the birds warm--something their oil-slick feathers can't do. The garments cover the 16-inch birds from top to bottom, often in crazy colors and patterns. So far, volunteers from as far away as Japan have knitted 1,000 of the tiny tops. The project's coordinators aim to collect 2,000 more, which they'll add to the Oil Response Kits put together by the Australian Parks and Wildlife Service. A pattern for the sweaters is available at www.tct.org.au (where they're called "jumpers").

--Lauren Morello

The Bee Team

Gary Hovland

Because honeybees' legs collect pollutants as well as pollen from flowers, harmful chemicals in the surrounding environment are rapidly accumulated in the bees' hives. University of Montana biology professor Jerry Bromenshenk began making use of this phenomenon three decades ago, monitoring hives to identify areas tainted by arsenic, fluoride, and other pollutants. Today Bromenshenk and other scientists are training bees, Pavlovian fashion (syrup laced with the pollutant du jour is their reward), to locate hazards such as explosives, chemical dumps, or toxic materials in landfills. (The bees are not exposed to the pollutants for long, and only in small amounts.) "Anything they can smell," says Bromenshenk, "they can find." And fast: While a conventional search for such sources takes days, Bromenshenk's bee team needs only an hour to train a hive to seek a new pollutant, and the bees need just 15 minutes to find it.

--David Dobbs