Episode 47: Lime & Tabasco

Two young, starry-eyed conservation biologists take a college road trip through Mexico that transforms their outlook on the world. In so doing, they created the foundation for a strategy that would lead them to succeed where heavy-handed government policies had failed. But along the way, they had to get their hands dirty. 

 

In grad school, Wallace J Nichols (or J, for short), wouldn't have been considered the most likely person to help save an entire species. He had hair down to his ass and lived in a teepee on the edge of a national park near the University of Arizona in Tucson. He was a surfer bum, studying ecology.

But J, despite his waywardness, had a deep, abiding love of sea turtles. As a young boy, he would catch turtles in the Chesapeake Bay and, lacking the scientific apparatus to apply a real tag, paint numbers on their shells. J was not accustomed to people sharing this near-fanatic affinity for turtles, but then he met Jeff Seminoff in Tucson. The two of them, they discovered, had both volunteered at the same turtle nesting beach in Costa Rica at different times and they struck up an immediate friendship.

J and Jeff would take Jeff's 1975 Land Cruiser to Baja, Mexico on the weekends, go surfing and scuba diving during the day, and drink tequila around beach bonfires at night. Life was easy. But around that same time, in the early nineties, J and Jeff's favorite animal was in crisis, especially in Baja. Sea turtle populations had tanked so hard in recent years that the Mexican government outlawed hunting them in 1990, and most people thought it was too late to save them.

In their youthful haze, J and Jeff planned a road trip that would take them to every turtle nesting beach in Mexico. But what they saw weighed down the free-spiritedness that had driven them to take this trip. Some nesting beaches, where millions of turtle hatchlings had once drug themselves into the water, were now empty. Ancient fishermen spoke of mythical times long past when one could walk across the Gulf of California on the backs of turtles.

Jeff & J circa 1993 when they were both guiding turtle trips to Pacific Mexico.

Against the advice of professors who told them it was too late, J and Jeff both changed the concentration of their studies to sea turtles; they hoped—with a nearly-deranged confidence common to grad students—they might change the trajectory for a critically endangered species. Mexico's turtle fishing ban had very little discernible impact in improving the turtle's bottom line. Commercial fishing had stopped, but a black market still thrived. Exactly how two suburban kids from the east coast might change a turtle-eating culture that went back centuries remained unclear.

Trying to Catch a Turtle

Jeff Seminoff is now a scientist for NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. When I interviewed him in his office a few months ago he acknowledged the difficulty of the quest. "To go in and be an armchair conservationist and tell people not to eat turtle would literally," he said, "have been no different than somebody going into anywhere in the United States and saying you can't eat hamburger anymore. It's illegal."

The government ban wasn't working because eating turtle was deeply embedded in Mexican culture. Poor families in fishing communities ate turtle several times a week for subsistence. Rich people ate it as a show of power, which in turn created a black market. J Nichols told me that for his first couple of years working in Baja, the cultural forces standing in his way seemed insurmountable: "Whether it was a chief of police or a governor, [eating turtle] was something people did with impunity."

To prove they actually had a project worth pursuing, Jeff and J needed to catch a turtle so they could measure and document it for their research, showing that a long term tagging study would be viable. But to do that they needed a knowledgeable fisherman, and that wasn't exactly an easy get. The cultural differences between two middle class grad students and a Baja fisherman can hardly be overstated. Fishing was basically "janitorial status" at the time, J says.

In Juncalito, a small village 700 miles south of the U.S. border, they found Juan de la Cruz. Juan started fishing in 1959, just as the turtle population began to nosedive. He remembered the days when turtle seemed plentiful and he still knew where to catch them. Jeff and J heard he was the greatest turtle hunter they could hope to find, but when they approached him, he told them to go away and not come back.

Jeff Seminoff with the first turtle he and J ever caught.

The Americans didn't have the right permits to catch a turtle and if Juan had been caught by the authorities in a boat with two Americans and a turtle, he would certainly have been facing jail time. They offered Juan a meager amount of money for his time, but Juan said, "No, no, no, I'm afraid if we catch a turtle then you will go to jail and I will have to go with you. Then if I have to go to the jail, I will kill you."

Day after day, J and Jeff showed up at Juan's house trying to convince him to help. They would bring beer and Juan would feed them. Jeff and J met his wife and daughters. Eventually, Juan began to appreciate these two nutty Americans and their hard-headedness. He decided to help. He took his turtle nets out from under a piece of corrugated metal where he kept them hidden and the three of them went out at night to try to catch a turtle.

As Juan dozed off just before sunrise, J heard a splashing in the net. He nudged Juan, but Juan said, "No, no it's probably a sea lion." The splashing continued though and Juan heard the strained breath of a sea turtle. They heaved it into Juan's panga, a Mexican fishing boat, and as a pink sun rose in the background, J shot pictures, while Jeff measured the turtle.

"It was an indication that there was one turtle left," J told me later. "We built our case on that one turtle and on Juan's trust."

Jeff and J pitched research projects, and got grants. During the beginning of the internet boom in the mid-nineties, they put a satellite tracker on a turtle and shared the data. Classrooms full of children watched on computer screens as "Adelita" swam from Baja to Japan. It was the farthest tracked migration of a turtle up to that point.

But their research wasn't converting to actual conservation of the species. They spent time in Mexican classrooms educating young school children about the dwindling population, but most adults still ate turtle regularly.

Lime & Tabasco

J and Jeff were becoming full-fledged scientists. They had the right permits from the Mexican government to catch and release turtle. This made it easier to convince Mexican fishermen to help them, but it didn't mean they had the complete trust of those fishermen. After all, this is two foreigners descending from the United States and telling turtle hunters it's bad to catch turtles to feed their family. If Jeff and J couldn't convince these fishermen to reduce the turtle catch, they—like the Mexican government—had no chance of succeeding.

Many fishermen had asked J during his travels around Baja whether or not he had eaten turtle. Answering honestly, he said no and very frequently, that was the end of the conversation. There was a cultural rift between himself and the fishermen, that he could not bridge. The two halves of J were profoundly conflicted: on one side J's inner child, that little turtle tagger standing on a dock of the Chesapeake Bay; on the other, J the burgeoning conservationist, who knew that to gain the trust of Mexican fishermen he might have to compromise his ideals.

J ultimately made a decision that went against the ethics of many of his scientific colleagues and many environmental activists. The first time he ate turtle, a fishermen had accidentally caught the animal in his net and it had died. J knew the fishermen wouldn't let the meat go to waste, and he felt like it might go down easier if he knew that the turtle hadn't died just so someone could eat it.

But the second time was much harder.

One of J's contacts caught a turtle and J knew he was planning to eat it. J asked the fishermen to save him some research samples, if indeed he did eat the turtle. "Oh you want me to kill this turtle for you," the fisherman replied. J protested, but the fisherman butchered the turtle right in front of him. His wife served the liver, sliced, with tabasco sauce and lime wedges.

J still didn't know how to build a movement of fishermen dedicated to saving turtles, but he felt like eating that liver was somehow a step toward making it happen.

Grupo Tortuguero

The idea of not eating turtle wasn't widely catching on in most places where Jeff and J were working across Baja, but in one community fishermen were beginning to become receptive. Jeff Seminoff focused all of his turtle research in the community of Los Angeles Bay and J often worked there too. Jeff estimates the two of them dropped $50,000 a year in research money there, and paying volunteers began coming to LA Bay to assist in their work. Local fishermen began to realize that there could be money in this conservation thing.

While Jeff was working in just the one community, J was driving around Baja working with fishermen in many different places, and several fishermen, including Juan de la Cruz, asked J about the other fishermen he worked with. They wanted to know who the other fishermen were, where they lived, how many turtles they caught. As J was driving one day, the idea dawned on him: why not bring this informal network of fishermen together? Get them all in the same room and talk about how it might be possible to reduce the turtle catch.

Close-up of the first turtle Jeff and J ever caught.

J told Jeff Seminoff about the idea and they mashed it around together to come up with a plan. They scraped together enough money for beer, tacos and some hotel rooms and held the meeting on a weekend. They even invited, in J’s words, “the biggest, most badass poachers of all time” to show up. They were taking a big risk. If the endgame is for two foreign scientists to tell a room full of badasses to stop doing what they do, the chances of those people getting angry or walking out is high.

But it wasn’t just foreigners at this meeting; they had allies. Instead of bringing out charts and talking about the decline of turtles, Jeff and J got help from people they’d already convinced like Juan de la Cruz. “I’m worried that if we keep catching the turtle my grandkids will never be able to meet them,” Juan told everyone. The second decision they made involved compromise, just like J’s initial decision to eat turtle. Instead of asking people to stop catching turtle, period, J and Jeff asked if everyone in the room could “throw one back.”

“Because if they can throw one back maybe it can be two or three,” said Jeff Seminoff. “And once we start the dialogue then maybe we can get people potentially to a place of not eating turtles at all anymore.”

Everyone agreed to throw one back, though Jeff and J had no way of knowing if they would stick to it. They also agreed to meet again next year, and chose a name. They settled on Grupo Tortuguero. There’s not a great English translation, but “Turtle Hunter Group” is probably best.

Their work didn’t go unnoticed. Everyone knew about these two crazy gringos who wanted everyone to stop eating turtle; but once it seemed like they might actually have an impact, some people got mad, especially those whose pocketbooks might get hit hardest.

A man involved in trafficking, who also had tons of political clout—J wouldn’t say who it was—once told J to his face, in public, “Get out! Don’t mess around with that or you’re gonna have problems.”

Another time, at a fishing camp far from removed from the safety of crowds, J found a picture of his face pinned to a wall with a bullseye drawn around it.

Chuy Lucero, field director of Grupo Tortuguero, tagging a green turtle

Getting Closer

J told me once, “If there’s one turtle champion that’s terrible actually: you need thousands. And so how do you get from one or two or five to one thousand or two thousand or five thousand fighting for the species?” The strength of the group that Jeff and J formed is that, in the end, it answered that question. Threats to just the two of them would not be enough to stop what eventually became a changing culture.  

In the second year of the meeting, Jeff and J were impressed. More people showed up and this time everyone had a story of throwing a turtle back—even those big, badass poachers. The story could end here, with Jeff and J getting fishermen to buy into the idea of saving turtles. But they took it one step further.

J and Jeff also made an effort to cut themselves out of the picture and start putting research money directly into the hands of community members. Jeff says they wanted to make people “junior biologists.” That first meeting brought representatives from only a handful of communities. Now Grupo Tortuguero has members in more than 75 communities. Some of those members are paid and some are volunteers. Many of the paid people are former fishermen.

J describes it this way: “So if Uncle Jose works at GT he could have a pretty big shadow in his family and in his community.” Maybe he’s not influencing 100 percent of the community, “but it is enough to give sea turtles a chance.”

They’ve done more than give them a chance. While some turtle species are still struggling in Mexico, others have rebounded greatly since J and Jeff arrived. Green turtles (known as black turtles in Mexico) have increased their numbers more than 20-fold on some beaches. J Nichols likes to imagine a day when he'll be able to sit with Juan de la Cruz and share a beer, as their kids and grandkids play in the waves and sea turtles swim—again as abundant as bison used to be on the plains—around and beneath them. That day hasn't arrived yet. But because of the work of Grupo Tortuguero it is closer.


Outside/In was produced this week by:

Will Huntsberry with help from Sam Evans-Brown, Taylor Quimby, Molly Donahue, Hannah McCarthy, Jimmy Gutierrez, Ben Henry, and Logan Shannon

Special thanks to Julio Solis, Matty Plau, and the folks at Red Travel for helping out down in Baja.

Music from this week’s episode came from Jason Leonard, Komiku, Ari De Niro, Blue Dot Sessions, and Broke For Free.

Our theme music is by Breakmaster Cylinder.

If you’ve got a question for our Ask Sam hotline, give us a call! We’re always looking for rabbit holes to dive down into. Leave us a voicemail at: 1-844-GO-OTTER (844-466-8837). Don’t forget to leave a number so we can call you back.

Episode 36: Leave it to Beavers

Beavers (Castor canadensis), have been kicking around in North America for 2 million years. Ecologically they do all sorts of great things: their ponds ease flooding downstream, and support large numbers of bird species, fish, amphibians, and otters. They're what's called a keystone species, as in the keystone to an entire eco-system. But they're also the world's second largest rodent and a nightmare for property owners. Humans and beavers have a long history together because they like to live in the same places, but the way we've built our infrastructure has almost guaranteed our two species will be locked in eternal conflict.

We have created a trap for ourselves. A trap that ensures that we will come into conflict with nature’s most industrious rodent. A trap that also guarantees that we will come into conflict with each other as we try to sort out how to get out of this trap. That’s the conclusion I’ve reached, anyway, after spending the last few weeks researching beaver.

For seven years I said, you can’t kill them, you have to outwit them. That’s back when I thought you could actually outwit a beaver, but you can’t.
— Carol Leonard

Take Carol Leonard for example: a self-described “hippy-girl” who was the first registered midwife in the state of New Hampshire. (Incidentally, in what was perhaps the weirdest reporting coincidence I’ve ever come across, Carol was the same midwife who helped deliver me, 31 years ago.) When Carol retired to a beautiful 400-acre spread in mid-coast Maine, hoping to build her dream house, she and her husband ran head-first into conflict with beavers. A growing dam led to an expanding pond that was getting ominously close to where Carol wanted to put her septic system.

 A pick-up truck swallowed whole by a beaver dam. | Photo Courtesy of Mike Callahan,  beaversolutions.com

A pick-up truck swallowed whole by a beaver dam. | Photo Courtesy of Mike Callahan, beaversolutions.com

“For seven years I said, you can’t kill them, you have to outwit them,” Carol told me. “That’s back when I thought you could actually outwit a beaver, but you can’t.” Eventually Carol apprenticed to become a trapper. Her decision was that if she couldn’t outwit them, she would eat them. “I always thought I was on the other side, when I was doing my midwifery, so it always surprised me when I got into trapping.”

Beavers and people like to live in the same places, and if you pick a fight with a beaver, here’s what you’ve got to consider: we’ve got other stuff to do—jobs, meals to cook, soccer games. Beavers on the other hand, they do one thing: build dams.

So if, as in Carol’s case, a beaver were eyeing the same spot that you wanted to live, what would you do?

First We Eliminated the Beaver

If you’ve never seen a proper, massive beaver dam before, you need to get yourself over to Google image search right now and look at some. The biggest one in the world is about a half a mile long and 13 feet tall, and was identified from outer space.

Beaver teeth grow constantly, and they actually have to keep chewing wood to keep them in check. And yes, they do actually just eat wood: they eat the cambium, the soft spongy layer of new growth that’s just under the bark.

On the ecological side, beavers do all sorts of great things. Beaver ponds help to ease flooding downstream. They slow water down as it rushes towards the ocean, meaning they help to recharge drinking water aquifers. Their ponds support large numbers of bird species, fish,  amphibians, otters. They’re what’s called a keystone species, as in the keystone to an entire ecosystem.

Beaver have been kicking around in North America for 2 million years. What’s new, on the millennial time scale, is Europeans.

When the Europeans arrived in the US, first came the fur trappers and fur traders, driven by intense demand for top hats, made from felt which is made from beaver fur. (Because nothing says class like putting the world’s second largest rodent on your noggin.) They traded extensively with Native Americans, and paid them for every pelt they brought. After the fur traders, came the farmers.

On the ecological side, beavers do all sorts of great things.
chewed log_P1180716.JPG

“Beaver were going to be both a source of cash for these settlers and, of course, a problem for these settlers, because beaver are competing for the same environment,” explains Ann Carlos, economic historian from the University of Colorado Boulder.

Beaver ponds, once the dams are destroyed and the water drains, turn into something called beaver meadows, which are fantastic places to grow crops. So farmers come in, trap any beaver that are left, destroy the dams, drain the ponds and make their fields. One study found that sixteen states lost more than 50 percent of their wetlands as the settlers rolled in. Another six states, mostly in the Midwest, lost more than 85 percent.

“By about 1830, many of these populations were being seriously over harvested, and run down,” notes Carlos. This was especially true in the United States, where all throughout the Northeastern part of the US, beaver were virtually wiped out.

And Then We Set The Trap

Meanwhile, year after year, we’re building. Those farms built on old beaver ponds are connected together by roads. More of the fields are subdivided and turned into housing developments. Bit by bit, we occupied the space the beavers once held.

 Pat tate with a local beaver's handiwork | Photo: Sam Evans-Brown

Pat tate with a local beaver's handiwork | Photo: Sam Evans-Brown

Then in the early 1900s, we brought the beaver back. Why? Because for one, biologists had begun to recognize how good they are for ecosystems. But also people like having beaver around as a game species. In other words, an animal that is around so they can be trapped. So wildlife agencies reintroduced them and helped them build back up until they numbered in the thousands.

“Our roads were based on native American trails—a high number of them—and a high number of those native american trails were based on game trails. And I can say as a hunter who has walked all over the state of New Hampshire, their preferred wetland crossing every time has been a beaver dam,” explained Pat Tate, the furbearer biologist for Fish and Game here in New Hampshire.

In other words, many of our roads have been built the same spot that beavers like to build their dams. And in the cases of bridges and culverts, we punch a tiny hole through those roads for the water to pass, which is like a giant blinking arrow to any beaver that encounters it, indicating “build your dam here!”

So What Do We Do? Kill them?

The paradigm under which we currently operate is called the American system of wildlife management, under which wildlife is a commonly owned resource, and through regulation we decide how many animals we will kill. Are deer eating the shoots off of too many saplings out in the forest? Increase the number of deer hunting permits issued. Are farmers complaining about losing livestock to coyotes? Relax limitations on hunting them. Are there so many beaver that they are expanding wetlands until they flood wells and roads? Call in trappers to reduce beaver populations in that location.

This ensures that the population stays below what is called the “biological carrying capacity” which is a fancy science-y way of saying “how many beaver the land can sustain.” Pat Tate is a big believer in keeping animal density low, because he believes it makes the animal’s lives better.

I once removed a beaver that had a beaver-tooth in its back, and it didn’t grow its own tooth in its back, that was a tooth from another beaver that somehow broke off in the animal’s back.
— Pat Tate
 Jeff Traynor shows us one of his beaver traps. The stick is the food. | Photo: Logan Shannon

Jeff Traynor shows us one of his beaver traps. The stick is the food. | Photo: Logan Shannon

Beaver are very territorial animals. When a young beaver reaches two-years-old, they strike out on their own to find their own water body to live in. Often they have to battle other adult beavers to find their place. “I once removed a beaver that had a beaver-tooth in its back, and it didn’t grow its own tooth in its back, that was a tooth from another beaver that somehow broke off in the animal’s back,” Pat said, “As I’ve reduced numbers in the wetlands, and went back subsequent years to trap, the amount of scarring and bite-marks on the beaver decreases. So the individual animal’s health increases.”

Most trappers aren’t doing it for a living, or to feed their families they do it because they want to. They want to connect with a tradition they identify with, or maybe they just like getting outside, and doing the close observation of nature that trapping requires.

And trappers I’ve spoken to hear a lot of hypocrisy whenever they hear people call trapping immoral. For instance, a trapper from Southern New Hampshire, Jeff Traynor, points out there isn’t the same outrage at housing developments or highways or parking lots: forces that have just as much to do with keeping beaver populations low.

“We are the most invasive species on the planet, there’s no doubt about it,” he told me, “As we encroach more we’re pushing them. So where is that overflow going? There’s only so many places that they can go. It comes to a point where you can say, well let’s just let nature take its course, or you can say, as human beings can we manage this creature with moral wisdom?”

 Jeff Traynor prepares a trap. | Photo: Logan Shannon

Jeff Traynor prepares a trap. | Photo: Logan Shannon

 One of jeff traynor's traps under a thin layer of ice and snow | Photo: Logan Shannon

One of jeff traynor's traps under a thin layer of ice and snow | Photo: Logan Shannon

 After chopping away at the ice, jeff Prepares to check the trap. | Photo: Logan Shannon

After chopping away at the ice, jeff Prepares to check the trap. | Photo: Logan Shannon

Or Just Keep Them Off Our Lawns?

But this “moral wisdom” argument, just doesn’t do it for many beaver believers. Skip Lisle, founder of Beaver Deceivers International, has heard this argument for years in his line of work, and doesn’t buy it. “You know, you always hear, we have to kill the beavers so they don’t get hungry. And if you were an individual beaver, you can imagine which choice they would choose if they had one to make, right? Would you rather be hungry or dead?”

The proponents of restricting beaver trapping often point out that while some management decisions are based on ecosystems science—with government biologists going out and to try to estimate how many animals the land can sustain— other times, the decision is based on our willingness to tolerate animals. This is, almost euphemistically, what we call the “cultural carrying capacity.” And for beavers, it’s often that cultural limit, and not the actual limits of the habitat, that they bump up against.

Beavers are a two-million-year-old species, right? By some miracle, they survived just fine. They suffered, they died, they thrived, but they did it on their own, like most species do. You know we don’t manage chickadees so that some chickadees aren’t hungry sometimes.
— Skip Lisle

Skip and his disciples argue they can increase society's tolerance for beaver by keeping the two species from coming into conflict. Beavers’ damming instinct is triggered by running water, and by using a clever arrangements of grates, culverts, and drainage pipes, Skip keeps beaver far enough away from the running water that they don’t get the urge to start building a dam.

By putting in this type of “fixed protection” whenever a conflict arises, Skip argues we can have the best of both worlds: a growing beaver population and an infrastructure that isn’t submerged under beaver ponds. For him, the argument that trapping leads to a healthier population is beside the point.

 This is a pond leveler or flow device, prior to being installed. This device tricks the beaver into believing that his or her dam is working. | photo courtesy of Mike Callahan.

This is a pond leveler or flow device, prior to being installed. This device tricks the beaver into believing that his or her dam is working. | photo courtesy of Mike Callahan.

“Beavers are a two-million-year-old species, right? By some miracle, they survived just fine. They suffered, they died, they thrived, but they did it on their own, like most species do. You know we don’t manage chickadees so that some chickadees aren’t hungry sometimes.”

These pipes and fences, limit where and how much habitat beavers can make. When the young beaver in these beaver colonies move out of their parents lodge, they won’t be able to just make this pond bigger and move to the other side. Instead of coming into conflict with humans who live close to the pond of their birth, they set off over land, and come into conflict with things that normally keep beaver populations in check: predators or other beaver.

Or maybe they’ll just wind in somebody else’s backyard; someone less dedicated to a non-lethal intervention.

What Would Happen If Trapping Went Away?

In 1996, animal welfare groups put forth a ballot referendum in Massachusetts proposing to eliminate the use of ,what they considered to be, inhumane traps. The referendum passed, making Massachusetts one of a handful of states to restrict the use of the standard trap that is used to kill beaver. After the referendum passed, the beaver population tripled in just a few years. (Though local wildlife advocacy groups argue this would have happened even if trapping was left in place.)

“As a result, the conflicts with people and the complaints essentially skyrocketed,” said Dave Wattles, the furbearer biologist for MassWildlife.

Mike Callahan of BeaverSolutions.com installed a flow control device on our beaver pond, to maintain the pond at its current level.

While the beaver advocates likely see the population boom as a victory, the rise in complaints had unintended consequences. In 2001 the state legislature passed a bill allowing kill trapping to be done through an emergency permitting process. Now though, those permits are given out by towns, instead of the state. This means that the state is no longer collecting data about how much trapping happens in Massachusetts, and that beaver can be trapped in the spring when it's possible to kill mothers, thus leaving young kits abandoned.

Dave Wattles also notes that beavers killed under a nuisance permit aren’t necessarily used for meat or fur. “The beaver that are now taken during these emergency permits, quite often they’re just trapped and thrown into a landfill and not used at all.”

What Would You Do?

Carol Leonard, who started off our story, spent seven-years trying to figure out how to fool the beavers on her property. “In my naivete I said oh well we’ll try these beaver deceivers and these beaver bafflers and all these do-hickers,” she recalled. But eventually she gave up and apprenticed with a trapper, and started to trap out the animals that threatened her property.

I think the traditions of hunting and trapping in New England are good, healthy traditions. And I can’t talk against hunters… I can’t. I’m a meat-eater.
— Carol Leonard

“We are meat eaters, you know, we are hunter gatherers, it’s part of who we are. And so to be able to turn a blind eye to that is just a blind eye,” she said. She applauds animal rights activists, but says she thinks their efforts are better spent protesting concentrated animal feeding operations, or other places where animals live short and miserable lives before heading to our plates.

“I think the traditions of hunting and trapping in New England are good, healthy traditions. And I can’t talk against hunters… I can’t. I’m a meat-eater."

Carol says she has trapped somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 beavers from her property, and while many still remain just downstream, the pond that was threatening her septic setback is no longer growing. In 2015, she and her husband were able to start construction and their home, now completed, is gorgeous, judging from a recent photo spread done by Down East Magazine.

Beavers and people, we like to live in the same places. And if you ever find that a family of them are eying the same spot as you... well, good luck.


Outside/In was produced this week by:

Sam Evans-Brown, with help from, Maureen McMurray, Molly Donahue, and Jimmy Gutierrez. Logan Shannon was our digital producer.

Thanks this week to Ben Goldfarb, Dave Wattles, and Peter Busher, all beaver pros who helped me sort this week’s story out.

If you’ve got a question for our Ask Sam hotline, give us a call! We’re always looking for rabbit holes to dive down into. Leave us a voicemail at: 1-844-GO-OTTER (844-466-8837). Don’t forget to leave a number so we can call you back.

Music this week from Ari De Niro, The Marian Circle Drum Brigade, Blue Dot Sessions, Revolution Void, Jason Leonard and Podington Bear. Check out the Free Music Archive for more tracks from these artists.

Our theme music is by Breakmaster Cylinder

Outside/In is a production of New Hampshire Public Radio.

Episode 35: Full Disclosure

Nature documentaries and wildlife films transport us to places in the world that still feel wild, but what if the wilderness they present is staged? What if, in order to capture nature’s unvarnished beauty and conflict, filmmakers have to engage in a bit of fakery? In this episode we examine how deception is used to enhance the drama of nature documentaries, from Disney’s Oscar-winning film White Wilderness, to the incredible footage featured in the BBC’s Planet Earth II. Plus, we own up to some of the production tricks we use to make this podcast. 

Nature Documentaries: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

I’d love to say that I’ve never used TV as a parental crutch, but there are days when I’m trying to work from home, or am just plain exhausted, when I’ll do anything to keep my 5-year old son distracted for a solid hour. As a form of dubious justification for letting my flat screen babysit, I’ll put on something “educational”—which usually means choosing something from Netflix’s extensive collection of nature documentaries. The BBC series Life is a household favorite, or the new Planet Earth II. The basic philosophy is that learning about porcupines is more valuable than learning about Pokémon, that watching bats is better than watching Batman.

This behaviour has never been filmed before! Hatchling marine iguanas are attacked by snakes hunting on mass. This clip was taken from the Islands episode of Planet Earth II.

But then again, what’s so inherently valuable about the wildlife programs? Like all TV, the genre varies widely when it comes to quality. There’s the BBC stuff with the incredible “how-did-they-do-that?” shots, but there’s also the now infamous “Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives”, a fake documentary that aired as part of Discovery Channel’s 2013 Shark Week.

“The question is not, is wildlife or nature programming educational,” says Cynthia Chris, author of Watching Wildlife.  “The question is, what is it teaching? Is it teaching us factual things that will help us care for and protect the environment? Or is it teaching things that will encourage us to fear and disdain and destroy the environment?”

I can hear you groaning from here. Why does everything involving the environment turn into a finger-wagging message about social responsibility? I hear you. I don’t want to take the fun and wonder out of nature documentaries. That’s what makes them so great! But there are some ways we can watch them a little more thoughtfully even if we’re watching a show about a giant fictional shark.

Teach Younger Kids to Get Savvy: Listen For the Sound of Deception

The best nature documentaries are able to get incredible close-up shots of animals - so close you might wonder, how the heck did producers capture that amazing sound? Sadly, the truth is that they probably didn’t. Wildlife filmmaker and author of Shooting in the Wild Chris Palmer will tell you that when you hear a bird flapping it’s wings, that’s likely sound engineer opening and closing an umbrella. (I suggest that you go try this one immediately.)

We're taking you behind the soundproof doors into the world of Earth Touch's audio experts as they practise the finicky art of Foley & sound design. See exactly what it takes to enhance or recreate nature's diverse sounds and bring a wildlife documentary to life.

A lion tearing into a freshly killed antelope? That’s a someone cracking some fresh celery in half.

Not everything is totally faked, but footage shot in slow motion or sped up through time-lapse photography doesn’t capture audio at all, which means that whatever you’re hearing was at least captured separately and added in post-production. Sometimes, sounds are even created that don’t exist in nature at all. Frank Scheuring is a sound mixer and editor, and president of Capital Post Production. He also worked on the first Planet Earth series. He says that if you see something, you expect to hear something too. “A jellyfish probably isn’t going to make a sound at all, but if there’s no sound there, it’s less believable. It’s really just enhancing reality, and trying to bring [the viewer] into the environment.”

Dave Birch, audio manager at Earth Touch explains the art of foley.

Once you accept the truth that most nature documentary sound effects aren’t authentic, it can be a pretty big mood-killer. Is NOTHING real? But once you get used to the idea, it can make for an interesting game: try guessing if the sound you’re hearing is fake or not fake. Underwater scene? Fake. Slow-motion? Fake. Teeny tiny bird? Probably fake.

If you really want to get into it with kids, collect some household items, turn the TV to mute, and try making your own sound effects!

Introduce the Idea That They Aren’t Getting the Whole Story

Even the most reputable nature documentaries often steer away from issues like climate change, or deforestation, implicitly depicting the wild places of the world as pristine or untouched by human influence. That’s part of what makes them so beautiful: there’s a dignity to the elegance of the natural world it that feels timeless.

But it’s also pretty misleading, and both filmmakers and environmental philosophers have argued it’s counter-productive.

“It’s important that films carry a conservation message, and part of that message should be that people are not separate from nature,” says Chris Palmer. Palmer specializes in IMAX films, and says that getting those pristine shots we love is getting increasingly harder to do. “It’s hard to get a shot without a boat in the background, without a car in the background, without smoke, you know - there’s signs of people everywhere.”

This behaviour has never been filmed before! Hatchling marine iguanas are attacked by snakes hunting on mass. This footage was filmed for the Islands episode of Planet Earth II.

One interesting way to enhance the educational opportunity of a nature documentary is to have a map or globe handy while you’re watching. Occasionally pause the film to look up places featured in the program. How big is this island of seemingly un-fragmented wilderness? How close is the nearest human settlement? How might your impression of the scene change if you knew there was a safari tour bus just off-screen? Look out for “behind-the-scenes” videos that help illustrate how programs were shot and produced. It’s strange to see camera people, but it gives you a better sense of how filmmakers use their craft to get the desired reaction from the viewer.

A behind the scenes look at the snake/iguana scene, which reveals that the filming was - for the most part - continuous, and that the behavior being filmed is very real… Even if the sound is not.

TV shows like Nat Geo’s “World’s Weirdest” or “72 Cutest Animals” are a fun way for kids to learn about animal behaviors, and tend to feature rare or bizarre creatures that can really capture the imagination. The pangolin, which looks like a cross between an anteater and an armadillo, is arguably worth its appearance on Nat Geo’s “World’s Weirdest” series, but the fact that the pangolin is the most trafficked animal in the world goes unmentioned. According to the African Wildlife Foundation, some 100,000 pangolin are slaughtered every year for their scales. Two species of pangolin are listed as critically endangered.

This begs an important question for parents: is it enough that these programs build wonder for the natural world or must they also put a spotlight on pangolin poaching? I tend to think a light touch on the bad news is the best approach. Research has shown that exposing children to calamities beyond their control when they’re too young may actually cause them to become fearful and even more disconnected from the natural world. But by remaining alert to what is left out of these documentaries, it can help you to connect the dots once your kid is ready.

As They Get Older, Teach Them About How Things Have Changed!

Some of the “classic” wildlife documentaries of the past are just as dramatic as anything you’ll see on the BBC, but not always in the ways you might expect. Jacque Costeau is remembered as a charismatic oceanographer, explorer, and co-inventor of the aqualung. He is also celebrated as an early conservationist who believed in protecting the quality and life of our oceans. Frankly though, his films are hilariously cheesy for modern audiences, filled with pulpy adventure narration and unnecessary shots of Cousteau’s bare-chested crew lazing about his vessel. Aside from the claymation fish, Wes Anderson’s film The Life Aquatic is actually a pretty good recreation.

And yet, watching someone known for being a pioneer conservationist, Cousteau reflected the values of his day. One scene from the Academy award winning documentary The Silent World is especially shocking: Cousteau’s ship strikes a young whale, injuring it badly. The crew decides to end the whale’s misery (their words) by shooting it in the head. The now deceased whale’s blood attracts a number of sharks, who start shredding it to bits. It’s already a gruesome scene, but escalates to new levels of horror when Cousteau’s crew start “avenging” the whale (even though they were the ones that killed it) by hooking sharks onto the boat and butchering them with axes. The scene lasts several minutes, and is narrated by Cousteau himself without a hint of irony.

(Now that I think about it,  this scene is pretty graphic, so it might be best to do this exercise once your kids are teenagers.)

The Silent World “Whale and Shark scene” 

As abhorrent as this scene is now, it tells you a lot about how much our understanding of the natural world has changed in the last century. This film was shot before the famous “Save the Whales” campaign, before the establishment of the EPA, even before the founding of the Humane Society of the United States. Even for an ardent conservationist like Cousteau, sharks were viewed as killers and so the world was considered to be better off without them.

When nature documentaries during this era weren’t killing animals on screen for entertainment, they were sometimes doing it behind the scenes as part of film production. Disney’s True Life Adventure series is one of the worst culprits, which you’ll discover in Bob McKeown’s excellent documentary on the subject for the CBC’s The Fifth Estate. For older kids and adults looking to pull the curtain back on early nature documentary production, this is a must watch.

This is Bob McKeown’s original documentary on animal cruelty in Hollywood for the 5th Estate, which includes his investigation into White Wilderness.

Final Thoughts: Are Nature Documentaries a Form of Journalism... or Entertainment?

Examining the natural world is, in part, the vocation of scientists and conservationists, and so there is a distinctly empirical flavor to nature documentaries. As opposed to non-fiction films that focus on contentious social or political issues, nature - it would seem - is simple, even in all of its evolutionary complexity. But nature documentaries, rooted in science as they may appear, are not bound by the same ethical considerations that science or journalism are.

I asked Chris Palmer, do wildlife filmmakers see themselves as journalists or entertainers?  “A bit of both,” he told me. “They have to be entertainers. If they don’t entertain their audience the ratings and box office numbers will be low, they won’t get rehired, and their career will be in tatters.” On the other hand, Palmer says, to call something a documentary is to claim that the work is accurate, truthful, and was responsibly produced. “The bottom line is that their are no rules; each filmmaker approaches this challenge in their own individual way.”

Elizabeth White, one of the producers for the new BBC series Planet Earth II, says that their filmmakers receive ethics training - something Palmer has openly advocated for. When I asked her how she sees herself, she said, “as a scientist and filmmaker who is trying to engage audiences through wildlife storytelling.”  

By teaching your kids what’s real and what’s not when they watch nature documentaries, you’ll be equipping them to see the world with a healthy dose of skepticism. And preparing them to enter a world that won’t cleanly delineate between facts and fiction for them.

Also… if you do this right, they shouldn’t believe the megalodons are still alive.

Here's a handy flow chart to help you watch documentaries with a careful eye. | credit: logan shannon


Outside/In was produced this week by:

Taylor Quimby and Sam Evans-Brown, with help from, Maureen McMurray, Molly Donahue, and Jimmy Gutierrez. Logan Shannon was our digital producer.

A big thanks to Chris Palmer and Bob McKeown - more than thirty years on, Cruel Camera is still an amazing piece of journalism. A few years ago, they did an update on the show, and interviewed David Attenborough, and looked at how much has changed in wildlife filmmaking since the 80s.

Thanks also to Cynthia Chris. Her book Watching Wildlife traces more of the history of the wildlife genre, and digs into some really thorny philosophical questions about how we use animals as a proxy to reinforce cultural norms. We didn’t have time to get into it here, but it’s some heady stuff.

And special thanks to Elizabeth White and the BBC. She and the folks at Planet Earth have actually put out some behind-the-scenes footage of how they made the iguana snake scene, and some other amazing moments from the series. They’ve been really candid about their practices, so we’re not the only ones that are big on disclosure.

If you’ve got a question for our Ask Sam hotline, give us a call! We’re always looking for rabbit holes to dive down into. Leave us a voicemail at: 1-844-GO-OTTER (844-466-8837). Don’t forget to leave a number so we can call you back.

Music this week from Mon Plaisir. Check out the Free Music Archive for more tracks from this artist.

Our theme music is by Breakmaster Cylinder

Outside/In is a production of New Hampshire Public Radio.

Episode 26: HumaNature - Hoofprints on the Heart

This week on the show we’re bringing you something a little different, a story from someone else. Caroline Ballard and Micah Schweizer started HumaNature, which is based in Wyoming, and they’re part of the team responsible for bringing us the story of a man, his walk through an unfamiliar culture and an unexpected friendship, in a couple of different ways. 

Jon set out on the longest, toughest walk of his life. But along the way, he met someone who helped carry the weight.

See more photos from Jon and listen to more episodes from HumaNature at this link: HumaNaturePodcast.org


The piece was produced by Erin Jones, Anna Rader, and Micah Schweizer and hosted by Caroline Ballard. HumaNature is a production of Wyoming Public Media.

Seattle Denver Arms (Instrumental) by Loch Lomond is licensed under a Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 International License. Based on a work at http://needledrop.co/artists/Loch-Lomond

Episode 20: Eat the Invaders - Lionfish

This is Eat The Invaders - our occasional segment where we take a bite out of invasive species populations. On the menu today, one of the scariest, most voracious and intractable invaders out there: the lionfish.

After much discussion, the team over here at Outside/In has decided that lionfish look like a tropical fish, crossed with a peacock, crossed with a zebra, crossed with a set of Scottish bagpipes. They are flashy fish. It’s really no surprise that people with fancy aquariums like to show off by putting lionfish in them.

And really, once there were aquariums full of lionfish all over the country, it’s also no surprise that the fish got out. The mythical tale is that the current lionfish invasion began in 1992 when Hurricane Andrew rolled through Florida and smashed up an aquarium in Biscayne Bay. This story persists, even though the fish were actually first seen off the coast of Miami years before, and the biologist who suggested that theory has since discounted it.

It’s much more likely that this lionfish invasion started when disgruntled aquarium owners purchased a lionfish, discovered that the fish had a voracious appetite for their other favorite fish in the tank, and opted to dump their new purchase into the ocean.

Once there were enough free fish to find each other and breed, the stage was set for one of the most epic invasions ever observed.

The fish are a gape limited predator, meaning they will try to eat anything they can swallow. They are also suction feeding fish, meaning when they open their mouths, water rushes inside, “so the lionfish basically turns into the death star and it has this tractor beam. That’s how bad it is,” explains Rachel Bowman, a lionfish spearfisher from the Florida Keys. Lionfish feed on small reef fish that are a huge part of the ocean food chain, and one study in the Bahamas found that in just two years their arrival led to a 65% decline in the quantity of local fish.

Like many invasives, Lionfish are also prolific breeders. One female can lay 30 million eggs in a single year. Put those two things together—voracious appetite, and the ability to multiply exponentially—and you’ve got a spiny, bag-pipey, marine disaster.

Oh, and did I mention they are venomous? “I don’t have kids, but a friend of mine who has a son has told me that it’s right up there, it’s right up there with childbirth,” says Rachel, “It feels like your bones are expanding from the inside out.”

Luckily, they have one weakness we humans love to exploit: every fish yields two tasty fillets.

Lionfish meat has been compared to hogfish which is a cross between lobster and shrimp, grouper, snapper, and any number of things, but I would say that as a New Englander with a not terribly refined palate for such things, the fish tasted like any number of flaky white fish that you can get at the grocery store.

And speaking of the seafood counter, Whole Foods became the first grocery chain to offer the fish in its Florida stores this spring.

Now, you can find a smattering of articles out there with splashy titles like: “Why eating invasive species is a bad idea, or “Eating Lionfish: effective conservation or a cure worse than the disease.

As far as I can tell, the primary knock against the eating of lionfish is that it’s simply not an effective way to combat the invasion. And it may be true that no matter how many fish we spear, more will simply take their fallen comrade's place. I mean, 30 million fish eggs per female lionfish? Seriously, how do you compete with that?

We cooked the lionfish two ways: baked in butter, lemon, shallots, and white wine; and Spicy Grilled style. The first preparation was adapted from this basic recipe for cooking white fish. The second was adapted from a Rick Bayless recipe, with instructions below. 

Rachel says on a good day, she’ll spear 120 pounds in a day. And when she’s been diving on the same reef for a few days, she says they do start to get harder to find, but after just a month or two of not being patrolled, reefs fill back up with the fish. And even then, spearfishers are only helping at the depths they can reach by diving in scuba gear. “I’ve got a brother in law that’s a commercial lobster trapper, and he pulls up traps from four, five, six hundred feet and they’re full of lionfish,” she says.

But, to the critics, Rachel points out every person who picks lionfish off a menu, is a diner who isn’t eating something elsegrouper, or snapper, tasty fish which have a history of being over-eaten. And besides, what’s the alternative? Do nothing?

“You know what, it’s a hell of a lot better than sitting on the couch and saying you can’t put a dent in that population. I’m doing something,” she says, “And those people that sit there and say, well you’re not going to be able to make a difference. No, no one has ever made a difference by sitting there and saying that, have they?”



Outside/In was produced this week by:

Sam Evans-Brown & Logan Shannon with help from Maureen McMurray, Taylor Quimby, Molly Donahue, and Jimmy Gutierrez.

Special thanks this week to the REEF Environmental Education Foundation for helping us to find Rachel, and to Norman’s Lionfish for over-nighting some freshly caught—and conveniently de-spined—lionfish to us.

If you’ve got a question for our Ask Sam hotline, give us a call! We’re always looking for rabbit holes to dive down into. Leave us a voicemail at: 1-603-223-2448. Don’t forget to leave a number so we can call you back.

Our theme music is by Breakmaster Cylinder

This week’s episode featured tracks from Blue Dot Sessions and David Szesztay. Check out the Free Music Archive for more tracks from these artists. 

Episode 17: The Early Birder Gets the Bird

In 2013, Neil Hayward was depressed. He had just left the biotech company he helped start, and he was getting over the end of a very serious relationship. He had disposable income, and free time. Suddenly, he found himself doing a lot of birding. A LOT. In this episode Sam delves into the subculture of extreme bird-watching. Plus, this week’s Ask Sam is all about assassin crows.

I’m terrible at identifying birds. Not worse than someone who has never paid any attention to birds, but worse than anyone who has ever called themselves a “birder.” If I’m really being honest, I didn’t realize what it really meant to be a birder until last year when my wife and I went to a “bird weekend” on Star Island, off the coast of New Hampshire.

Here’s what I thought we were getting into: a relaxing weekend spent learning the names of some birds from a knowledgeable local naturalist, Erik Masterson. While not learning about birds during idyllic strolls through the island, we would almost certainly be eating delicious food and enjoying hot beverages on the hotel porch while reading.

The agenda was more rigorous than I expected. The first bird walk began at 6 am and continued until breakfast, around 9 am. I wake up every morning ravenous for food, and my wife prefers not to wake up in the mornings at all, so the deck was stacked against us. This “bird weekend” was not going to be our ideal vacation. Breakfast was followed by more birding, which lasted until lunch. We enjoyed a brief post-lunch break from birding, but ended the day with, you guessed it, more birding. An hour or two, just to be sure no new birds had settled onto the island throughout the day and gone unnoticed. It was so early in the season that the hotel itself,and its bright and airy dining hall, was not yet open, so we were left eating with the island’s staff in the dining room of an adjacent stone building stacked full of cardboard boxes filled with food supplies.

I should mention that Star Island is not big. If one were to jog the island’s longest trail, which goes along its perimeter, it would take no more than five minutes to complete. Over the course of two and a half days, we spent upwards of ten hours patrolling this tiny island for birds.

Screenshot from Google Maps

Now, this is not to say that it was not a lovely weekend. It was. But I had not realized the extent to which birding, for some people, is a deep obsession. The second day featured a trip to a neighboring island, Appledore Island, to see a bird banding station, where researchers were capturing song-birds in mist nets, banding them and quickly releasing them. For me, it was the highlight of the trip, but one of our new birding friends declined to join us. I asked Erik why.

“Appledore Island is in Maine, and Star Island is in New Hampshire,” Erik told me. He must have realized how far out of touch I was from birding culture at that moment, because clearly I had absolutely no idea how that was supposed to be an explanation. “He is working on his New Hampshire list,” Erik explained, “Any bird he sees in Maine won’t count.”

For some, birdwatching is as much about the numbers as it is about the birds. It’s like a game, and like any game there are rules and competitions. Rules about which birds count and which don’t, and competitions to see who can pile up the biggest lists.

 
 

 

The Big Year

In 2013, Neil Hayward was depressed. He had just left the biotech company he helped start, and he was getting over the end of a very serious relationship. He had disposable income, and free time. Suddenly, he found himself doing a lot of birding.

“I could put in a lot of hours and wait for birds, and that always paid off,” Hayward says, “I waited for eight hours for a hummingbird in southeast Arizona, and just as the sun was setting the bird came in. And I had been sitting outside through two thunderstorms and rain, and was about to give up… and it was just the end of a great day.”

Hayward, who lives in Boston, is among the birding elite. Back in 2013, he did something birders call a Big Year, trying to see as many species of birds in the US and Canada as he possibly could in twelve months. This meant he had to criss-cross US and Canada in airplanes and rental cars, leaving behind his loved ones for weeks while he huddled on windblown islands in western Alaska, all the while hoping for bad weather to blow birds across the Pacific Ocean.

In the end, the Big Year cost Hayward, “Less than I thought, but more than I’m prepared to say.” (Though he says it was somewhere in the tens of thousands of dollars range.) Meanwhile, he accumulated something on the order of 250,000 frequent flier miles.

Neil Hayward & his wife Gerri Hayward | Photo: Jimmy Gutierrez

Why birds?

Birdwatching is BIG. 60 million people told the latest census they are birdwatchers. And within that 60 million there are, of course, varying degrees of enthusiasm. Some just do it in their backyards, but there are tens of millions of people who travel, who actually go to far away places just to see different birds.

So why do so many people bird, and so few do things like head out to go “herping”?

“In New England there’s something like five or six species of frog, so it doesn’t take very long to see them all,” Hayward theorizes, “Whereas birding, it’s almost like the ideal number, you could spend your whole life birding and see new ones every year.”

 

He pauses to consider this a little more, “I think a lot of birders, they like bringing order to the universe,” he says. Collecting, categorizing, listing.

“Certain people end up birders,” explains Eric Masterson, “I’ve seen characteristics and character traits prevalent amongst a lot of the birders I know. You throw in a little bit of anxiety, throw in a little bit of obsessive compulsion, throw in a little bit of over-achievement.”

So, let me tell you how the extreme variety of elite birding works.

When a bird shows up somewhere outside its typical range, birders notice. Now this doesn’t have to be a rare bird--it could be a robin - but if it shows up somewhere it’s not supposed to be, suddenly it’s a rarity.They call this a vagrant.

And word starts to spread. Texts are sent, blogs are updated, email listservs put the word out. It doesn’t matter what time of day, it doesn’t matter what day of the week, birders drop everything to chase the bird. (In the UK, those who chase rarities are called “twitchers”, because of the way they react when rare bird alerts come in.)

 
 

 

Masterson remembers two instances of this happening that were kind of extreme. Once in Ireland, when a rather common American bird appeared. “There were jets from as far away as Geneva to see this thing. Privately chartered jets, get a few people together to privately charter a flight.”

And this is not just a European phenomenon. Earlier this year, someone spotted a European redwing on an athletic field at a New Hampshire high school and more than 500 birders from all over the country flocked to the spot.

“Now picture Hollis high school,” says Masterson, “We’re in an era when if you have 500 middle-aged men with optics descending on a high school it kind of rings alarm bells.”

Confused police officers, disgruntled neighbors: this is what extreme birding looks like.

The birding umpires

Shockingly, when December rolled around, despite having only started his Big Year in earnest back in April, Hayward had seen 740 species of birds, just eight shy of the record.  

“And it was exciting,” he says, “and I thought, well there’s a good chance that I won’t break the record and then does that mean that this is all a failure, that I didn’t do what I was supposed to do?”

In the last month Hayward traveled frantically: from Texas to way out in the Aleutian islands, then to California and Florida, then way up North to Homer Alaska trying to spot those last 8 birds. Finally, he ended the Big Year on a boat off the coast of North Carolina where he saw a Great Skua. His final count was 747 birds…one shy of the record. But he had three provisional birds-- ones never before seen in the US or Canada - which, if they were approved by the birding powers that be, would put him over the top.

If there was any doubt that birding is, in its way, a sport, the existence of the American Birding Association should lay those doubts to rest. Early on the ABA was expressly about “serious birding” (as opposed to science or conservation, which it didn’t want to get wrapped up in at first) and it maintained the official list of birds that had been seen in the US and Canada.

The ABA decided which birds count and which birds don’t. If you see a bird that’s not on the list, you’d better have a camera with you and you’d better get a good photo. Hayward saw a Eurasian Sparrowhawk and spent all day trying to get a good picture by holding his iphone camera up to his telescope lense, but ultimately his sighting was rejected .

In the end, the Big Year cost Hayward, “Less than I thought, but more than I’m prepared to say.” (Though he says it was somewhere in the tens of thousands of dollars range.) Meanwhile, he accumulated something on the order of 250,000 frequent flier miles.

 Neil Hayward & his wife Gerri Hayward | Photo: Jimmy Gutierrez

Neil Hayward & his wife Gerri Hayward | Photo: Jimmy Gutierrez

He also saw a California Condor, a bird which had nearly been wiped out, and then released back into the wild. Their population was rebounding, but according to the ABA rules: “They hadn’t been in the wild long enough,” says Hayward. “Ironically the year afterwards, then they were added to the list, so if I’d done my big year in 2014, I would have been able to count that.”


Print and color your own bird from Neil's Big Year!


So, birding: it’s got rules, it’s got competitions, and it’s got super-stars. Eventually Neil Hayward’s Big Year was declared the biggest ever (and he wrote a lovely book about the experience). A common redstart and a rufous-necked wood-rail that he saw were both accepted by the ABA, and he broke the big year record by one bird in June of 2015. His record didn’t stand for long though. This year there are two birders who have already passed his mark, and a third might still get there.

So will he try to recapture the title?

“When I started doing my Big Year, before that I told people I would never do a big year. It sounded crazy and insane and a lot of work and a lot of travel...and I ended up doing it,” Hayward says, “So even though now I say that I’ll never go back and do it again, who knows.

*An earlier version of this post stated the ABA rejected Hayward's Eurasian sparrowhawk sighting. This was incorrect. It was actually the Alaskan Records Committee*


Outside/In was produced this week by:

Sam Evans-Brown, and Jimmy Gutierrez with help from Logan Shannon, Molly Donahue, Taylor Quimby, and Maureen McMurray.

If you’ve got a question for our Ask Sam hotline, give us a call! We’re always looking for rabbit holes to dive down into.

Leave us a voicemail at: 1-603-223-2448

Don’t forget to leave a number so we can call you back.

This week’s episode featured tracks from Aaron Ximm, Broke For Free and the Blue Dot Sessions, and it came from Free Music Archive.

Our theme music is by Breakmaster Cylinder.

Outside/In is a production of New Hampshire Public Radio.

Episode 15: Never Bring a Sledgehammer to a Scalpel Fight

When a Harvard professor accidentally let Gypsy Moths loose in the 1860s, he didn’t realize he was releasing a scourge that would plague New England forests for more than a century. Nothing could stop the moths except a controversial method of wildlife management called biocontrol. It’s the scientific version of “fighting fire with fire”: eradicate an invasive species by introducing another invasive species. Since then, there have been lots of biocontrol success stories, but also a few disastrous failures. In this episode, we ask whether biocontrol is the best--maybe the only way--to combat invasives, or if it’s just an example of scientific hubris.

Show of hands. Say you had a swarm of wood-boring beetles and you wanted to get rid of them. These beetles were never supposed to be here—they were brought in from Asia, unintentionally. Would a good way to rid yourself of them be to introduce a parasitic wasp, also from Asia, that would probably beat the beetles down?

Anyone?

We have been hard-wired to recognize this as folly. Exhibit A: The Simpsons.

In this episode, Bart accidentally introduces a pair of invasive Bolivian tree lizards into the town of Springfield. The local bird club is horrified at first, but then delighted, when it turns out the lizards’ preferred food is pigeon meat.

 
 

This idea—using nature to fight nature—is called classical biological control or biocontrol. And examples abound of when it’s gone horribly wrong.

For instance, this spring, New England experienced the worst outbreak of invasive gypsy moth caterpillars in more than 30 years. The last time the caterpillars were this bad the forest they denuded (they eat leaves) was an area bigger than the states of Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts combined. This year, you could see their impact from space.

We’ve been trying to control the gypsy moths for over 100 years. In 1906, the US Department of Agriculture released a parasitic fly—Compsilura concinnata—in hopes that it would kill the gypsy moth caterpillars. But this fly was something of a sledgehammer. Yeah, it killed some gypsy moths, but it also killed lots of other kinds of moths, too. Two hundred types of moths, to be precise. Among the fly’s unsuspecting victims were the so-called giant silkworm moths—luna moths, cecropia moths, royal walnut moths—which are almost totally benign and often staggeringly beautiful. One study found that the fly killed as many as 80 percent of cecropia moths, which, at about the size of your hand, is North America’s biggest moth. For all that, it didn’t have a lasting impact on the gypsy moths–they tempered the attack well. 

 a lovely little luna. 

a lovely little luna. 

This story is not unique—introduced mongooses have decimated Hawaii’s native birds, and cane toads have caused a decline in Australia’s adorable northern quoll populations—and they have served as a cautionary tale (or as a cult classic documentary for high-school stoners) for decades now. They help flesh out the narrative of humanity as giant-sized children, stomping about in nature, wielding a power whose consequences we are far too simple to understand.

And yet, we still use biocontrol. The first bullet on the USDA’s biocontrol website asserts “it is easy and safe to use.”

Will we never learn? Actually, biocontrol advocates argue, we already have. What’s more, even with all the horror stories, biocontrol has a better record than we think.

Consider again the case of the gypsy moth. The parasitic fly was no good. But twice in the 20th century—first in 1910 and 1911, and then again in 1985 and 1986—scientists tried to introduce a fungus, Entomophaga maimaiga, that they believed would kill gypsy moths. Neither introduction survived, but then mysteriously, in 1989, the fungus took off in Connecticut. It’s now credited with reducing the population of leaf-munching caterpillars by 85 percent, as long as it's wet enough for the fungus to thrive.

But here’s the kicker, the fungus works like a scalpel; there’s almost no collateral damage. Of 1,500 dead insects collected in an area where the fungus was present—representing 53 species—only two individual (non-gypsy) moths had been killed by the fungus, according to a field study.

What’s more, despite the skepticism evident in the writers’ room at The Simpsons, the history of biocontrol is largely a history of scalpels, not sledgehammers.

Two recent studies have asked the question: how safe is biocontrol? One assesses insects introduced to kill other insects, and the second looked at insects introduced to eat weeds. Both found that when biocontrol is conducted by scientists, it has a pretty darn good safety record, with more than 99 percent of introductions having no significant impact on any “non-target” species. 

 
 

That doesn’t mean they all work. Somewhere between 50 and 70 percent of introduced biocontrol agents fail to establish themselves at all. Only 10 percent fully control the pest they target.

Still, there are some smashing success stories out there. Purple loosestrife, a plant that clogs up streams and rivers and has been declared a “noxious” invasive weed by 23 states, has been tamed by four species of European loosestrife beetles, which have been seen to eat up to 90 percent of the weed in some spots. In the 70s, several countries in Africa started to see massive crop failures of cassava, a plant that feeds hundreds of millions of people all over the world. Scientists found a tiny wasp which very specifically targeted the bugs that were eating the cassava, and today crop damage from the so-called cassava mealybug has declined by 90 percent.

Further, the entire practice is being much more carefully regulated these days. Biocontrol introductions in the U.S. have been slowing down since the 80s, and in 2000 the USDA began requiring biocontrol projects to go through a permitting process that includes testing to ensure that impacts to native species will be minimal. 

 
 

The idea that biocontrol is a poorly understood tool being wielded by irresponsible scientists is “kind of an old fashioned view actually,” says Cornell entomologist Ann Hajek, “Those dangerous introductions aren’t being done anymore.”

So why do we only hear stories of biocontrol gone horribly wrong? Because it’s a better story, one that fit the narrative of the early environmental movement: we’re trashing the planet.

In the early days, biocontrol was believed to be an environmentally friendly alternative to pesticides. So in 1983 when an entomologist named Francis Howarth assembled in one place all of the horror stories of biocontrol gone wrong it was “a man bites dog story,” says Russell Messing from the Kauai Agricultural Research station in Hawaii. He says bashing on biocontrol became a “fad” in ecology. “A lot of people jumped on board, and there were a lot of papers published, and even some reputations made, I think,” he says. 

 
 

Howarth is retired, but the torch of biocontrol skepticism today is carried by Dan Simberloff, at the University of Tennessee.  Simberloff says that even in its more strictly regulated form, modern biocontrol still risks driving rare native species into extinction. 

As his example, he points to efforts to control the emerald ash borer, a beetle currently destroying ash trees all over the eastern United States.  There are more than 100 species of native “jewel beetles” and he says “some of them are so rare that they’re only collected by entomologists once every decade, if that.” His argument is that USDA scientists could not have possibly checked all of those myriad beetles to be sure they wouldn’t be preyed upon by the parasitic wasps currently being released to combat the emerald ash borer. We could annihilate a species of native beetle, and not even realize it for years.

But what then is one to do about the invasive emerald ash borer, which has killed more than 90 percent of the ash trees it infests (and as go those ash trees, so too go the 44 species of native insects that depend on ash trees to survive)?

“I don’t really know what to do,” Simberloff says.

Indeed.

“In the absence of biocontrol there is no solution,” says biocontrol researcher Joe Elkington, at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, “I mean, there’s no solution.”


Outside/In was produced this week by: 

Sam Evans-Brown, Maureen McMurray, Taylor Quimby, Molly Donahue, Jimmy Gutierrez, & Logan Shannon

Theme music by Breakmaster Cylinder 

Photos of Sam are by Greta Rybus unless otherwise noted.

Episode 13: Up Against the Ropes

The “Save the Whales” movement of the 1970’s was instrumental in putting a stop to commercial whaling. But even as humpbacks and other whale populations have bounced back, one species is still up against the ropes. Literally. In this story, Sam tackles the problem of whale entanglement - and discovers that proposed solutions include crossbows, Australian lobsters, and Chinese finger traps.

A little while ago, here in New Hampshire, this crazy thing happened.

A dead humpback whale washed up onto our shores, in the little town of Rye. The last time something like this had happened was more than a decade ago, in the year 2000.  

People flocked to see it. Once news of the whale had spread, cars were parked on both sides of the street and traffic on the narrow, two-lane coastal road was backed up for miles.

Panoramic hill

“Last night there were thousands of people coming to Rye. That’s not an exaggeration, there were thousands of people,” said Tony Lacasse, a spokesman for the New England Aquarium, which was involved in disposing of the carcass, “I’m from New Hampshire originally and I was asking people where they were coming from and they were coming from Kingston and Farmington and Lee, they were 25, 30, 40 miles away.”

The crowds came despite the overpowering, thought-destroying stink of the decomposing whale. She was an adult in the prime of her life and her flukes of her massive tail had to push around a full 40 tons of whale body. No one knew exactly how long she had been dead, but her body spent three days on the beach, and had been spotted floating on the water a week before.

“With six or eight inches of blubber and no cooling system on-board, it essentially was an oven for a few days and a lot of tissue for a few days and a lot of the tissue is quite deteriorated,” explained Lacasse.

So here’s the scene: there’s 40 tons of stinking, rotting meat being carved up into gooey chunks by ocean scientists who are trying to determine what killed this whale, but despite that gorey process, hundreds of people are gathered to watch.

Whales - even a dead whale, rotting, stinking, cut into bits on a beach - capture something in our imagination.

Whales in ropes

A lot of species are recovering. For instance, most populations of humpbacks are being considered for delisting as an endangered species.

But then there’s the North Atlantic right whale -- a whale that got its name because in the whaling era it was known as the “right whale to kill”. Right whales are are slow swimmers and, because of their copious amounts of blubber, they float to the surface after they’ve been harpooned.  The right whale hasn’t bounced back. There are less than 500 of them in the wild today and they are thought to be “functionally extinct” in the European Atlantic.

But these days it’s not hunters and harpoons killing these whales... it’s ropes. Millions of ropes.

Whales sometimes get tangled up in fishing gear. And by sometimes, I mean a lot. By looking at their scars, scientists have estimated that 83 percent of right whales get tangled up in fishing gear at some point in their life. For humpbacks it’s not as bad, but still more than half get entangled.

And in recent years, those entanglements have been getting worse. Amy Knowlton, a scientist with the New England Aquarium started to notice that more whales were getting “severe” entanglements, “meaning that it could compromise their ability to feed or swim and it’s going to eventually lead to their death.”

She set to work trying to track down the reason, and now believes they can tie the increase to a change in rope manufacturing that occurred in the mid 1990s, when rope manufacturers began to make a much stronger rope.

All of a sudden whales were hitting ropes just like before, but they’re weren’t able to break free.

Wart the whale

So what can be done?

One answer, which might seem easy and obvious, is to simply cut whales free when they get tangled. (You’ve perhaps heard a public radio story about this very feat.)  In fact, there is an entire network of teams whose only job is to respond to calls about whales and sea turtles tangled in fishing gear.

When these teams get the call their first order of business is to slow the whale down. To do this, paradoxically, they attach more ropes and buoys to the whale. Their goal is to get the whale to think, boy, this is a lot of work, I’m gonna just stop swimming. And that works really well on humpback whales -- but not on right whales.

“There’s nothing that’s enough to stop a right whale,” says Scott Landry, the director of the Animal Entanglement Response team in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Right whales are filter feeders, “So they’re designed to swim through the water with their mouths open for hour after hour after hour. They’re like a freight train.  And so trying to slow the freight train down is really hard.”

This means that Landry’s team is successful 90 percent of the time when they try to disentangle humpback whales, but only manage to free around 60 percent of entangled right whales.

The unique challenges of freeing right whales has led these teams to invent their own specialized disentanglement tools: sharp knives attached to painters’ poles, cutting grapples (basically a ball of knives) that are pulled through trailing fishing gear, and even crossbows fitted with rope-cutting arrowheads (initially meant as a turkey decapitating arrow).

The crossbow method was first used in 2010 to save Wart, one of the most iconic whales on the Atlantic coast, who survived to have another calf. Landry had only a few seconds to make the shot, while standing on an inflatable boat out in the open ocean.

“It was very lucky. And also it was a lot of practice,” he says modestly, even going so far as to decline to acknowledge that he himself made the shot. “We work as a team so, if you think about it the person who got the boat in the right position was working just as hard as the person working the crossbow.”

But cutting individual whales free, one at a time, is not going to solve this problem.

From treating symptoms to preventing disease

Each year Scott says he cuts between 7 and 15 humpback whales free from ropes. Meanwhile, scientists have estimated that in the Gulf of Maine somewhere between 10 and 15 percent -- perhaps as many as 150 whales -- get entangled each year.

 a Marine animal entanglement response team (maer) working to disentangle the humpback whale "foggy" off the coast of gloucester, massachusetts, on may 18, 2016 (ccs image, noaa permit #18786). 

a Marine animal entanglement response team (maer) working to disentangle the humpback whale "foggy" off the coast of gloucester, massachusetts, on may 18, 2016 (ccs image, noaa permit #18786). 

That’s why Tim Werner, Director of the Consortium for Wildlife Bycatch Reduction, is annoyed whenever he sees  news coverage of whales being cut free from ropes.

“Oh isn’t that nice. We went out and freed that rope off that animal,” Werner jokes, “And we’re saving whales… Hip hip hooray for us.”

New England is ground zero for the problem of whale entanglement.

Just in the state of Maine, depending on the year, there’s somewhere between four and six-thousand commercial lobsterman. Each of them has a maximum of 800 traps. This means without even counting mooring buoys, eelpot buoys or gillnets, there are literally millions of ropes that whales have to avoid along the Maine coast.

“Now you have to visualize yourself as a massive whale, this gargantuan animal trying to swim through this tangled web of ropes, it’s just like… what was that game?  Operation?” says Werner, “Where you try to pull out the bone without hitting the edge, and the red nose would go MEH!”

Solutions

Scientists and fishers -- which is, by the way, the “woke” term for fishermen -- from all over the world are working on the entanglement problem gathered in New Hampshire a few months back in a dark hotel ballroom to share what they have learned.

Their projects ranged from experiments with whale alarms (short version: humpbacks don’t seem to care about loud noises) to experiments with rope color (short version: right whales see red and orange ropes best). There was even a study that entailed researchers affixing a giant replica of a whale fin to the side of a boat, and ramming it into the ropes kept variously taut or slack.

The two ideas that seemed to attract the most attention from the gathered scientists, though, were ropeless fishing and weak links in ropes.

Scott Westley, a lobster fisherman from New South Wales Australia, is the international ambassador for ropeless fishing. Over the course of two months, repetitive theft of his traps cost him something on the order of $100,000. So, Westley went looking for a way to hide his lobster traps. He settled on a system that allowed him to sink his ropes and buoys to the sea floor, and use an acoustic signal -- the same technology that your car’s key fob uses to unlock your doors -- to release the float when he’s ready to collect the traps.

 "wart" the right whale (ccs image, noaa permit #932-1905)

"wart" the right whale (ccs image, noaa permit #932-1905)

However, at the seminar Westley didn’t seem to think this was a solution that would work in New England. He says rock lobsters in Australia are gregarious, “so getting the first couple in is the hard bit, and then from there on they want to be with all their friends.” This means he fishes with large traps that he leaves down for months at a time. New England lobsters are wary of one-another and so here lobsterman fish hundreds of smaller traps, that only capture a few lobsters at a time.

“It’s chalk and cheese that way,” says Westley.

The breakaway ropes idea was inspired by Amy Knowlton’s research that found the stronger ropes were making entanglements worse. Fishers in Cape Cod Bay took that information and proposed using a sleeve, which works similarly to a chinese finger trap, to connect two “bitter ends” of rope (yes, that’s where that term comes from). This allows fishermen to retrofit their existing rope with weak links that break away if a whale gets entangled.

New England is excited about this idea at least. Massachusetts recently announced $180,000 in funding to test out this idea.

More challenges to come

When I was talking to Tim Werner I asked him if he actually thinks it’s possible for vertical ropes in the water to coexist with whales. And in response he rattled off a list of all the reasons the problem would likely soon be getting worse -- a lot of buzz around a new design for off-shore mussel farms and the push to moor floating wind-turbines out in the ocean, for instance.

I pointed out to him that he had just listed new challenges and not solutions and he laughed.

“Yeah, how about that logic?” he said, before pointing out that some of the solutions that aren’t feasible today might help with these future challenges.

If you ask me, I think that if this problem of whale entanglement does indeed worsen, that might be enough of a catalyst to spur the public into action. This is a species that the public actually rallies behind.

Last week in Rye, New Hampshire thousands of people came to see the stinky, half-dissected carcass of a humpback whale. People are willing to pay to sit on the cold, windy deck of a whale watching boat, just on the off chance that they might see one of these animals. We have entire networks of guys all up and down the east coast, who are trained to jump into boats and shoot the ropes off these entangled animals with rope-cutting crossbows as soon as they get they get the call.

I’m pretty sure, this is a species that when push comes to shove, people are going to be willing to pull out all of the stops to protect.

They’re just not quite sure how, yet.

Outside/In was produced this week by: 

Sam Evans-Brown, Maureen McMurray, Taylor Quimby, Molly Donahue, Jimmy Gutierrez, & Logan Shannon

Theme music by Breakmaster Cylinder 

Photos of Sam are by Greta Rybus unless otherwise noted.

Episode 10.5: Tiny Terror

A mini episode about one of the world's cutest predators. 


The Shrike

Henry David Thoreau

Hark—hark—from out the thickest fog
Warbles with might and main
The fearless shrike, as all agog
To find in fog his gain.

His steady sail he never furls
At any time o' year,
And perched now on winter's curls,
He whistles in his ear.


Episode 3: Moose Whisperer

...or Why Moose Hunting is Like Watching a Soap Opera.

In 2015 about 2,700 of the 50,000 people who applied will receive a moose permit in Maine and if you’re one of the lucky ones who has waited 20 years for this moment, you’re going to want an expert on your team. You’re going to want a moose whisperer.  

Listen to the episode:

Photo Gallery