Archive for January, 2009

The last of 16 dolphins who have been up the Shrewsbury River in New Jersey since the summer may have escaped back to the ocean. Witnesses at Bahr’s Landing restaurant say they saw three to five dolphins on January 15, but haven’t seen them swim back in.

Of course, it’s very easy to imagine dolphins slipping by even the most diligent watchers–let alone people otherwise occupied with eating and working in a restaurant. But it’s nice to think they got out. Bob Schoelkopf, co-director of the Marine Mammal Stranding Center in Brigantine says the last time he saw them they were thin and weak.

Over the summer 16 dolphins were spotted in the river–much to everyone’s excitement and worry, first about boating accidents and then about the ice.

In 1993 dolphins drowned in the river after it froze; people had tried to shoo them out to sea, but they went under the ice.

So far this year three dolphins have turned up dead.

The Marine Mammal Stranding Center, alone with many dolphin watchers and lovers, wanted to try to push or lure them out to sea. But the federal officials in charge of dolphins, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, wouldn’t let them. Not even if they did the rescue work on their own. They claimed that the dolphins were just trying to expand their territory and people should stand back and let them. The Chronicle Herald in Canada ran an obnoxious headline on an AP story: Group fights science to save ‘frightened’ dolphins.

It’s amazing to find these Bush administration officials embracing science at all. Or evolution–they seem to be arguing that if the dolphins die it’s part of some natural selection process. I can understand not wanting to spend federal money to attempt a rescue, but banning a private, highly trained rescue group is going way too far. It’s debatable whether it’s worthwhile, but if someone decides it’s worthwhile for them, who is NOAA to stand in the way?

Saying that we can’t possibly interfere with nature is ridiculous. We interfere with nature all the time. We fish, hunt, pollute, develop. We also rehabilitate wildlife in every state. I certainly hope in the Obama administration we’re allowed once again to save a handful of wild animals without government interference.

Photo by Jackie, Sister72

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In the last couple weeks we’ve seen a lot of helicopter rides for the moose around Ogden, Utah.

Nineteen moose that had been wandering into the city were moved to the Upper White River/Flat Tops area, according to the Daily Sentinel. There are moose there, but not a lot. They travelled by helicopter sling and livestock trailer to the North and South forks of the White River and along Marvine Creek.

Another 20 moved to Colorado, according to the Deseret News. Last year wildlife officials got 60 calls about moose around.

Instead of using drug darts, the helicopter crews shoot a net over the moose, handcuff their hooves, blindfold them to keep them calm, then get a dozen men to carry them to a trailer.

Colorado used to trade bighorn sheep for the moose; now they just pay for them. The Craig Daily Press quotes Colorado Wildlife officials saying there probably weren’t moose here originally; they just wanted them to attract tourists.

I don’t know if responding to complaints of just seeing moose is all that sound of a management plan. Or bringing in a new species for a tourist attraction. In fact, I’m pretty sure neither is. But I’m glad the moose are going somewhere that somebody isn’t going to call the cops just for seeing them. And I do think they’ll be something tourists want to see.

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Newsweek’s Lily Huang recently had a great story about how hunting is having the effect of de-evolution: “the survival of the weak and scrawny.”

The basic idea has been floating around for a while: if hunters take out the biggest animals with the flashiest antlers, then they are getting rid of the biggest and strongest of the population. They are effectively reversing evolution, giving advantage to animals with smaller antlers.

Biologists have now been able to measure how this kind of hunting has reduced the average size of some animals. One population of bighorn sheep in Canada has had horns shrink by one-quarter over 30 years. The red kangaroo has gotten smaller. More elephants are born without tusks because those who have them don’t survive.

The article didn’t get into it, but I think those who survive are certainly different mentally, too. They are probably smarter, better at evading detection, shier around people. That’s a real problem for those of us who just want to see them. And an ever worse problem for those whose business is taking us animal tourists to see them.

The other impact of hunting–and managing wildlife populations–for trophy antlers is that it actually increases the population overall. When wildlife biologists want to decrease a population, they target females. Many hunters want no part of that. But if you just kill the males, the next year the same number of does have the same number of fawns. First year does tend to have one fawn, but after that they have two usually, three or four occasionally. So for every male you hunt, you probably get two fawns the next year.

This–along with wildlife management policies specifically aimed at increasing deer populations for hunters–is why the deer population has gone up so much. I also think this is why deer have gotten smaller along with their antlers. Deer antlers do not, as many people think, correspond to the number of years lived. Instead it’s a measure of nutrition. So hunters aren’t necessarily taking out the oldest, but the best at finding food.

It’s ironic that the practice of trophy hunting has made these wildlife trophies rare.

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When I was a kid, seeing deer was considered rare and lucky. Driving in the carpool to school in the morning, we’d look out over a field automatically, hoping for a glimpse. But the deer population has grown so much many people consider them a nuisance. They eat garden plants and get hit by cars, causing $1 billion in damages, according to the Institute for Highway Safety.

I’ve come close to hitting a couple myself driving on the Blue Ridge Parkway. But I am still excited to see them around.

This year for the first time ever my mom, who has been living in her house in Des Plaines, Illinois since the 1960s, had deer in her yard. It was a family, we think: a buck, a doe and two fawns. We figured we would never get deer because there’s a big fence. They just jumped right over. They ate Rose of Sharon blossoms and corn and apples that are normally out for squirrels.

No matter how far you travel to see an unusual animal, there’s always a unique pleasure of seeing a animal up close in a familiar setting.

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It could get a whole lot easier to see our country’s wild horses soon. Sometime in the next couple years Madeleine Pickens plans to open up a million-acre horse sanctuary that will effectively double the country’s wild horse population.

Madeleine Pickens and her animal-animal loving, billionaire husband T. Boone have come up with plan to save wild horses. I got to talk with her recently for a story on her wild horse sanctuary I did for PeoplePets.

What many people don’t realize is that we have about 33,000 wild horses in the wild, plus another 30,000 in pens. The Bureau of Land Management has been managing these horses since they got federal protection in 1971–and shrinking the land they graze on all the while.

They calculate how many wild horses can survive based on the land left, so when they cut the grazing area, they cut the number of horses. The BLM recently said it wanted to cut the herd to 27,000.

Meanwhile, it’s been rounding up horses every year for auction. They try to auction them off to horse lovers who agree to all kinds of restrictions. Well, the main restriction is they can’t sell them to somebody who’s going to use the horse for meat. At least not right away.

The BLM wanted to either euthanize or sell the other horses “without restriction.” That means they would go to auction and almost certainly be bought by buyers who would send them to slaughter. Horse slaughter is effectively banned in the U.S., but the buyers just truck the horses to Canada or Mexico.

So, if the Pickens’ horse plan goes through, we’ll end up with about 60,000 horses instead of 30,000. Our country will effectively double its wild horse population. (I don’t think we can count the 30,000 in holding pens now as wild anymore.) Sure, the ones on Pickens’ proposed retirement home will be sterilized. But they’ll still be enjoying life.

And we’ll still be able to go see them. In fact, Pickens is a huge animal lover, so she says she’ll allow dogs. That’s a big contrast to the east coast’s Chincoteague, which almost superstitiously doesn’t allow them on the island.

Plus, Pickens is already thinking about taking in more wild horses as they get moved off the range. And discarded race horses. And–down the road–even other animals.

This could become the best animal tourist destination in the country. I can’t wait to visit.

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