Cougars and Wolves

Occasionally, online exploration can be as fruitful and exciting as outdoor exploration. Here’s the story of a digital hike as winding, breathtaking, and memorable as a mountain or forest trek.

I’ve recently toyed with committing to reading a scientific paper once a week. This week as I read Song of the Dodo I was inspired to look up papers about my growing obsession: wildlife corridors.

Like getting pleasantly sidetracked in the woods, I’m not sure exactly how it happened… somehow, reading “Do Habitat Corridors Provide Connectivity?” – perhaps it was the pregnant phrase “urban matrix likely impenetrable to bobcat and cougar” – led me to a Google search on Cougars (Mountain Lions, Puma concolor).  Shockingly, cougar hunting was an auto-complete option as I typed. A few clicks later, I learned that Cougar hunting is legal, and in my state (Texas), it’s legal any time, by any means.

I find this barbaric.

And I’m not alone. I was so grateful to digitally stumble upon the Cougar Fund that it brought tears to my eyes. I had never heard of it before, and as I let them know:

[The Cougar Fund appeared] among lots of websites promoting hunting, so I was wary, but as soon as I saw the intent of the website and [the video with] Jane Goodall, I was hooked.

Yep, that Jane Goodall. She’s a Director of the Cougar Fund, and in this heart-wrenching video, she explains why sport hunting of cougars needs to end. There’s also a handy donate button on that page, which I gladly used.

Like an unexpected wildlife sighting, in the same internet session the Sierra Club’s efforts to help the Gray Wolf (Canis lupus) popped onto my digital trail. So I’m now, for the first time in my life, a Sierra Club member, and have signed the petition to continue the protection of the Gray Wolf. I urge you to do the same. (And if you join, there’s an option to receive a Sierra Club bag. I would have joined anyway, but cool!)

I never thought I’d be political. I never thought I’d be an activist. But these aren’t just charismatic megafauna. They’re living beings, with rights as unalienable as ours. When we spend just a little time studying them, we see their innate worth immediately.

And if we’d stop extirpating species – yes, the cougar and wolf were both native here*! – then people would stop saying about Texas (and I’ve heard this with my own ears several times) “there’s just not much nature there.”

Not much nature?! In the land of mesas and mountain lions, prairies and bison, forests and rivers and alligators and bobcats and armadillos? We’re not just wiping out species; we’re wiping out humanity’s memories of wilderness!

So help the Cougar Fund. Help the Sierra Club. We owe it to the future, for humans and megafauna.

* Gray Wolf range

Cougar range

Hunting Mountain lions is downplayed on the TPWD site, yet cougars are classified as ‘nuisances’.


Field Notes Friday 0007: Bluebonnet Bursts through Bark

I had the privilege of volunteering in the LLELA nursery for the first time on Wednesday. We did some fancy ‘weeding’ by liberating perfect little native plants like Bluebonnets, Standing cypress, and Cutleaf daisy from walkways in the pollinator garden. We relocated the seedlings to pots and hope they’ll grow strong enough for transplanting. Before potting this one, I just had to take a picture of what transfixed me: the power of roots to surge through just about any material, including bark.


Here’s what our finished products looked like (before watering).


Field Notes Friday 0006: Rattlesnake Master and New Eyes


Trying something different today – posting a picture I took in the field. This was from a December seed-collecting trip in one of the remnant prairies in the Dallas/Fort Worth area.

This is a Rattlesnake Master (Eryngium yuccifolium). I like its stark contrast with the azure sky, and the obviously wintry trees in the background.

Things I noticed about RSM (as I abbreviated it in my notes):

  • This plant is well armed against herbivory!
  • Echinacea & RSM seedheads “look like sisters”
  • The stalk is so stiff that when I removed seedheads, the recoil spread a few seeds. That reassurds me that I wasn’t removing the whole population.
  • Other species close by (associates): Echinacea, azure sage, little blue stem, Dewberry, wild rose
  • Gathering is very good work for learning a species.

Things I’ve learned:

  • It’s an erygnium! Like “Eryngo”, that gorgeous purple “thistle” in the carrot family
  • Huge range in the US: Mentally draw a big rough trapezoid from Florida Westward to Texas, North to Minnesota and East to Ohio

After I found my first patch of Rattlesnake Master by blundering onto it, and removed every seed head I could find, I realized I was clueless to where I should go next. So I stood in place and looked down. What species were at my feet? Then I looked farther away. What species were clumped beyond this patch that weren’t represented here underfoot? How did the other patches of vegetation look: color & texture? How did this one compare? My impressions that other patches were warm maroon brown, and [the one I was in was] ‘spikey’ with hackberries. (There were other clues, like Dewberry thickness and proximity to motts vs open prairie.) So using my new ‘vision,’ I picked out a similar spot about 1/8 mile away. I walked there and was elated as if finding an old friend when I went right to more Rattlesnake master: There ARE patterns to be discerned.

Cedar/Juniper: AAAAAAH! (choo)

Is this how YOU feel about cedar?

The Cedars are coming

Current pollen maps reveal the entire Southern US blazing yellow with high levels of pollen. Even higher on the density scale, the heart of Texas is ember-red and orange (nature’s warning colors). The primary perpetrator: “Cedar/Juniper.” I’ve newly discovered my allergy, and I know I’m not alone in my suffering.

Coincidentally(??), the Native Plant Society of Texas has re-circulated two articles defending one of the species we call “cedar/juniper.” (Mountain cedar – does it deserve such disdain? and Mountain cedar – water guzzler or not?)

I don’t (yet) know my ashei from my virginiana, but I know where to start (Wikipedia and the “plant bible”). My guess based on their ranges is that the pollen blowing in from the southwest is from Mountain cedar (Juniperus ashei), but the cedars I typically see are Eastern Red Cedars (Juniperus virginiana), which I’ve started calling ERCs in my field notes. In this entry and until I’m more familiar with them, I’ll use the layman’s terms interchangeably: cedar/juniper.

Even before the sneezing and itchy eyes started, I was intrigued by junipers as I noted my Impressions of the Drive to West Texas. I saw growth patterns and associations I hadn’t noticed before. I wondered how junipers historically fit in the ecosystem.

Junipers seem to march in tight formation onto prairies, belly-crawl into Cross Timbers forests and choke out undergrowth, and generally muscle their way into areas and spread. Just take a look at land turned from prairie to ranch to available real estate in Dallas/Fort Worth suburbs. Most sites look like Christmas-tree lots.

So I have a negative reaction to scenes like the one above (which I photographed on a seed-collecting trip). To me, these trees represent ecological encroachment – change for the worse. I’m exploring whether that’s a fair assessment.

But whether ERCs are useful, native, pushy, pretty, allergy-inducing or not, I caution myself that management decisions shouldn’t be solely human-centric. After all, as I often point out on hikes I lead, even poison ivy has a place in the ecosystem. We don’t extirpate the species because some humans react negatively to urushiol. Birds eat PI seeds, deer and grasshoppers eat the leaves, and poison ivy has been part of the ecosystem far longer than we have.

And so has juniper/cedar, even though the conversation about how “native” it is continues. I recognize, begrudgingly, that just because a species is relatively new doesn’t mean it’s a harbinger of doom. Ecosystems are always in flux.

As I learned from Rob Denkhaus of the Fort Worth Nature Center, we all make value judgments. We humans have the power to make crucial decisions about ecosystems based on our values. We reap results based on how informed our decisions are.

So I’m trying to inform myself. And yes, the jury is still out. If our goal is encouraging native biodiversity, edging junipers out of prairies and forests seems advisable. But if we’re interested in carbon sequestering, that may be another matter…

Field Notes Friday 0005: Impressions of the Drive

Here’s a new way to look at road trips which I highly suggest: Impressions of the Drive. On a trip (even a flight), take a look around and note the changes you see. You’ll start to discern the hidden, underlying geology, watersheds, eco-zones, and more. Every moment can be a lesson, if you’re paying attention. This is the first time I decided to write down what I noticed, and it made a big difference in the quality of my observations.

Thanks to inspiration from The Ecology of Ignorance and a few great naturalists, I’ve started including sketches. They’ll start small, and I’ll get braver as I practice. Most skills are practice-able and improvable.

Field Notes Friday: Impressions of the Drive

Entry 002

  • continued, but refreshed
  • Friday, January 3, 2014
  • 12:30 pm (12 hours after the first entry!)
  • winds 25-35mph!
  • 54 degrees
  • Humidity 29%
  • “abundant sunshine”
  • I need to review cloud types – there’s haze to the south, fluffy high clouds on the northern horizon, a patch of cirrus to the west
  • Driving from Snyder to Inks Lake State Park

The Story of Cedar through Brooke’s eyes

As I understand it from a brief conversation yesterday: Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana) encroached upon the prairie when settlers removed native grazers, suppressed fire, and put up fencing to partition the land. As I sat on top of a 20′ storage tank looking around the 360-degree view, I asked if I’d have seen the landscape covered in cedars 300 years ago. No, was the firm & solid answer. There would have been ‘cedars,’ I think I remember – maybe in the lower areas by creeks, less fire – but not the ubiquitous puff-balls throughout the landscape. Brooke says I need to read Water from Stone, about the Bamburger Ranch. Apparently he cut the cedars and his springs started flowing again.

Impressions of the Drive

Snyder –> Inks Lake State Park

  • Just N of Snyder: sloping, hilly, carved by water into rivulets
  • Between Hermleigh & Rosco on 84. Ack the wind noise! Flat fields of cotton & windmils. They’re majestic, these windmills. Not sure what I’d be looking @, otherwise. Telephone poles, power lines… dark exposed dirt. A 1/2 cylinder storage makes the most sense of what I’ve seen, but I think in high wind a geodesic dome makes the most. SAW MY FIRST EVER TUMBLEWEED! Big as an innertube or laundry basket! rolled right across the highway, full of some sort of what detritus like plastic bags… maybe cotton
  • Sweetwater – what the heck? We’re suddenly in hilly and scalloped terrain again. We seem to be bordered on the South by the same high plains – a ‘caprock’, perhaps
  • S of Sweetwater on hwy 70. Very hilly, hills covered in green of Junipers. Hills have the familiar shape I’ve come to know in Weatherford. Plus with windmills! Exposed chalky white soil @ roads that cut through hills.
  • Junction of 70 & 153. The roar of the wind on the car window announced we were on top of the caprock again. There had been beautiful quiet in the hilly valley below.
  • Live oaks, more mesquite, dense juniper as we continue S on 153, nearing intersection of 277 (just N of 1170). Old mesquites on fence lines. Live oaks wild & by houses. More low ‘dry creek’ feeling depressions.
  • Taylor county line! (my last name)

A Photographic Journey through a Wilderness Survival Weekend, Part 2

Happy New Year! I want to share with you the final photos from the wilderness survival weekend at LLELA led by Mark Suter of Primitive Texas. (Here’s part 1, and here are LLELA’s photos.)

Note: We had permission to harvest certain plants. Every part of a habitat is important; please do your best to Leave No Trace.

Frosty CatbriarFrosty Catbriar (I think that would make a great stage name!) as evidence that we were indeed roughing it. Look – there’s even ice on the ground that looks like snow!

Frozen plantsMore frosted plants. I know Dewberry (top right). If you know the others, please enlighten me.

Iced Cottonwood LeafIce-crystal-encrusted cottonwood leaf on the aptly-named Cottonwood trail at LLELA

Yucca SoapAfter a day, night, and morning of adventuring, we washed with yucca root. A little water plus agitation made the natural saponins froth, cutting dirt and grease.

Campfire morningI love this shot of our morning together as a survival class: sassafras tea in my mug, pounded yucca fibers in my hand about to become twine, sunlight and fire providing warmth, gloves on the ground.

Making RopeMaking rope: my favorite skill learned from the weekend, and one that I’ve already used several times since. It’s surprisingly fun, and the rope – which I’ve tested several times – is quite strong.

debris shelter stagesMaking a single-person debris shelter from fallen logs, branches, and leaves. Shelter takes a long time to make, even with teamwork. I understand why survivalists encourage us to find/fix shelter FIRST.

Debris ShelterThe debris shelter was cozy. This one would stave off hypothermia in nights around 50°. For freezing weather, the frame should be so loaded with leaves that it looks like one big, rounded mound.

Grapevine DetailMark found a near-dead grapevine branch and used it to secure the logs at the entrance of the shelter. I love the details.

More Grapevine DetailI’m fascinated with all things twining and tendril-y.

Fuzzy StickTop: The best student-made fuzzy stick, held by its creator. Bottom left: mine. Clearly I’m not used to close knife work yet, but the stick still functions. Bottom right: I think this was Mark’s. The purpose a fuzzy stick is to increase surface area and dryness when kindling is damp or unavailable.

Brands to Buy and to AvoidTop: A student’s saw, which she graciously shared and we all liked. I’ve added it to my shopping list. Bottom left: a full-tang Gerber knife Mark recommended. Bottom right: NOT recommended – the Gerber machete. Two people brought one and BOTH blades were chipped within 48 hours. Mark said to buy machetes from army surplus stores.

Primitive ToolsA primitive skills toolbag. At the beginning of the weekend, this looked like sticks to me. Now I see discreet tools: tongs, soap, the makings of rope and twine, fire drill bits…

Cattail seedThis picture captured how we felt at the end of the weekend – tired, but happy enough to enjoy the whimsy of floating cattail seeds in the setting sun.

Parting WaysI deeply enjoyed learning and bonding during the survival weekend. I hope to adventure with these folks again soon.

Field Notes Friday 0004: a Guest Nature Journal

I visited friends and was delighted to find they’ve started a Wildlife Log for their land. They leave it at the cabin and hope all their guests will contribute, and the record will span seasons and years. I took a snapshot of the latest page, which features a wild boar, Northern flicker, and fat robins. It reveals my beginner-level experience as a birder as well as a friend’s growing proficiency at birding. (There’s hope: improvement just takes interest, patience and a few good tools, like binoculars and a bird identification book.)

Is a guest nature journal an idea you could apply in your own situation?