Woods and Waters An outdoor blog by John McCoy

In this Sept. 16, 2016, photo, dead northern pike are seen in the Des Lacs River near Burlington, N.D.  State health and wildlife officials are investigating a fish kill in the river in northern North Dakota. (Kim Fundingsland/Minot Daily News via AP)Fish kills happen. Everyone knows that.

Pipeline ruptures, tanker-truck wrecks, train wrecks and accidental discharges from industrial sites are unfortunate, but until someone creates a perfect world such incidents are going to occur from time to time.

It still hurts to see the results — fish dead, recreation harmed, ecosystem damaged.

It hurts twice as bad when the fish kills are caused by people who, ironically, are seeking to prevent pollution. The latest example is a fish kill in a Colorado water-supply reservoir. From the Associated Press:

JOHNSTOWN, Colo. (AP) — Colorado Parks and Wildlife is investigating Johnstown officials after their attempt to treat an algae outbreak left nearly 1,000 fish dead.
The Greeley Tribune reports that Parks and Wildlife spokeswoman Jennifer Churchill says a worker put a copper sulfate into the town’s reservoir this summer to treat the algae. She says chemical ended up suffocating 972 fish.
The National Pesticide Information Center says copper sulfate can cause sudden plant death, causing fish to suffocate because of depleted oxygen and clogged gills.
The reservoir is used for the town’s drinking water and recreational fishing. Officials didn’t say there was any concern about the chemical’s effects on human health. In higher concentrations, it can cause nausea.
Churchill says officials aren’t currently considering criminal charges or fines.

Sigh. The Churchill spill immediately brings to mind a 2010 incident on West Virginia’s Blue Creek. That spill, caused by workers seeking to drain a tailings impoundment, killed smallmouth bass, rock bass and trout along 9 miles of the stream.


Gray wolfA new study, published in the journal Science, says red wolves and Eastern wolves are really just hybrids between gray wolves and coyotes.

Researchers believe the differences in size and coloration between the three varieties depend entirely on how much coyote DNA ended up in each — more in the smaller, more brownish red wolf, less in the Eastern wolf, and precious little in the gray wolf.

The Washington Post has an excellent summary of the study, along with an animation that explores the animals’ family trees.

One wonders, though, if the findings will tamp down the wolf-coyote controversy once and for all. Activists for red wolf restoration, for example, have historically been skeptical whether hybridization occurred. A lot of money has been poured into red-wolf research and restoration already, and those who have made their livings at it probably aren’t eager to give up on a cause to which they have devoted so much energy.

Yellowstone bison calfIt was a “facepalm moment” for everyone concerned.

A few days ago, a couple of foreign tourists to Yellowstone National Park decided that a bison calf looked cold. They put the calf in the back of their van to warm up. When park rangers tried to return the calf to its mother, the herd wouldn’t accept it. Rather than allow the young bison to starve to death, rangers euthanized it — unpleasant, to be sure, but necessary under the circumstances.

Since that recent unfortunate event, the Terribly Concerned have clucked and tut-tutted their high-minded little heads off. To them, the incident was evidence that too many of The Great Unwashed are being allowed into Yellowstone and other national parks. Rather than risk the life of some other bison calf, bear cub, wolf cub, mule deer fawn or elk calf, the Terribly Concerned are proposing that some national parks might be better off if — well, if people were kept out of them.

Excuse me? Weren’t national parks created specifically for people’s recreational benefit?

It is true that the sheer volume of people sometimes causes problems. The main road through Yosemite National Park, for instance, becomes a giant traffic jam during the park’s high season. Wildlife in Yellowstone are often crowded and harassed by nature-ignorant visitors.

As bad as those things are, though, I don’t believe the answer is to put a virtual plate-glass cover around parks in order to save them from “the rabble.”

Traffic problems can be engineered away. Human ingenuity knows no bounds, and solutions can be found for most any problem.

As long as people remain ignorant about wildlife, however, conflicts will continue to occur. Wild animals go where they want to go and do what they want to do. People might encounter them anywhere. Tourists who don’t know how to deal with animals will inevitably make mistakes. Sometimes, as with the bison calf, the animals suffer the consequences.

At other times, the humans do.

The first time I visited Yellowstone National Park, in 1984 or thereabouts, the ranger at the gate handed me a flyer about the park’s wildlife. The flyer warned that bison killed and injured more visitors than all other species combined.

“Is that really the case?” I asked.

“Unfortunately, yes,” the ranger replied. “Just last week, we had a visitor who decided to take a picture of a big bull bison that happened to be lying beside the road. The man didn’t want a picture of a bison lying down, he wanted a picture of one standing up. So he walked over to the bison and kicked it in the rear end. The bison whirled around and killed him on the spot.”

Some people can’t be saved from their own ignorance. For them, perhaps a Darwinian approach is the way to go.

(Photo courtesy Zach Loughman)After a year’s worth of consideration and review, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials have decided that the Guyandotte River crayfish (Cambarus veteranus) is in danger of extinction.

The species, which exists only in isolated segments of Wyoming County’s Pinnacle Creek and Clear Creek, will now have the full power of the federal  government protecting it from threats to its remaining habitat.

USFWS officials also have placed the Big Sandy crayfish (C. callainus) on the list of threatened species. The Big Sandy species exists in a sizable portion of the upper Tug River watershed in West Virginia, and in several Tug/Big Sandy tributaries in Kentucky and Virginia.

Detailed information can be found in the latest USFWS publication on the listing.

Mountain lion rescue captured on video

Rescuing an adult mountain lion from a bobcat trap isn’t for sissies, especially if you choose to do it without tranquilizing the animal first.

Two wildlife workers from Utah managed it, though. Someone captured the feat on camera, and it’s must-see TV. Check out the video.

Hat tip: My friend Rich Landers of the Spokane Spokesman-Review

Trying to enforce the (almost) unenforceable

(Muhammad Mahdi Karim/Wikimedia) Would a Washington initiative really protect this elephant?
(Muhammad Mahdi Karim/Wikimedia)
Would a Washington initiative really protect this elephant?

The problem of ivory poaching should concern everyone, but not everyone is in a position to do anything about it.

My friend Rich Landers of the Spokane Spokesman-Review recently commented on a voter initiative in Washington state that, if successful, would impose some pretty draconian demands on both the public and the state’s fish and wildlife cops.

Zimbabwe: To hunt or not to hunt?

On the tusks of a dilemma
On the tusks of a dilemma

Sport hunting for elephants in Zimbabwe has become quite a political football.

A recent report in UK’s Telegraph, for example, all but pillories a German hunter who killed an elephant reported to have the largest tusks taken in 30 years. The man reportedly paid a $60,000 trophy fee in exchange for the ability to hunt and kill the animal. Wildlife preservationists and photo-safari owners reportedly are livid over the killing.

At almost the same time, a report about an outbreak in elephant poaching appeared in the Washington Post. It quoted Zimbabwe’s environment minister, Oppah Muchinguri, as blaming the United States’ 2014 ban on importation of elephant trophies for the outbreak. Without the trophy fees paid by hunters, Muchinguri said, Zimbabwean wildlife officials can’t afford adequate patrols to deter poachers from wreaking havoc.

So on one side, you have a faction that believes that eco-tourism dollars should be perfectly sufficient to maintain wildlife populations, and on the other side you have a faction that believes sport hunting is the better way to go.

Which faction will win the day? Stay tuned.

(Photo by me) How many bass of this size would be around if officials removed the creel limit on them?
(Photo by me)
How many bass of this size would be around if officials removed the creel limit on them?

My friend Bill Monroe reports that Oregon’s fisheries officials will remove creel limits from bass, perch, pike and other warm-water species starting in 2016.

Maybe the move seems logical to anglers in Oregon, who focus mainly on trout, steelhead and salmon. But for someone like me, who lives in a state where most of the fishing is for warm-water species, it seems a bit shortsighted. Oregon’s Columbia River has been named one of the nation’s top bass-fishing destinations, and the John Day River has been named the top smallmouth-bass river in the West.

I’m sure the fisheries folks made the decision based on the best available science, but in the back of my mind I can’t help but think that the Law of Unintended Consequences might come into play sometime in the not-too-distant future.


(National Park Service photo) Once West Virginia gets its elk-stocking program started, large bulls like this might become commonplace sightings in the state's southwestern coalfields.
(National Park Service photo)
Once West Virginia gets its elk-stocking program started, large bulls like this might become commonplace sightings in the state’s southwestern coalfields.

West Virginia’s Division of Natural Resources and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation apparently have finalized plans for the state’s elk restoration (read: stocking) plan.

They’ve sent out invitations to government and media types for a Sept. 11 shindig at the Chief Logan Conference Center, at which a formal announcement will be made. According to the invitation, the creation of a new wildlife management area will also be announced. My guess is that the new area will be rather large. Elk are big critters that require lots of room, and if the new area will be used to launch the elk-stocking program, it stands to reason that the area would be several thousand acres in size.

An announcement also would seem to indicate that DNR officials have found a source for the elk they plan to import. That’s interesting, because Kentucky — the most likely source — is currently sending its surplus elk to Wisconsin. There had been talk of asking Kentucky’s Fish and Wildlife Commission to allocate some animals to West Virginia, and perhaps that’s what has happened.

I guess we’ll all find out on the evening of Sept. 11.


Rare W.Va. crayfish found in another stream

(Photo courtesy Zach Loughman)
(Photo courtesy Zac Loughman)

From the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service:

A West Liberty University researcher conducting crayfish surveys for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has discovered a new location where Guyandotte River crayfish live within that species’ historical range in Wyoming County, West Virginia. The researcher located the crayfish in the Clear Fork watershed and reconfirmed the species in its presumed last known location in Pinnacle Creek. However, the species was not found at any other historical locations in the Upper Guyandotte River basin.

The researcher, Zac Loughman of West Liberty University, rediscovered Guyandotte River  crayfish in 2009. Up until then, biologists believed the species had gone extinct. The Fish and Wildlife Service funded further surveys this summer to firm up the picture as to whether rare crustacean should be placed on the Endangered Species List.

Finding the crayfish in two locations removes a little of the pressure to put it on the list, but only a little. Under the law, Fish and Wildlife Service officials have until next April to make their decision. If the crayfish qualifies for endangered or threatened status (either of which seems likely), the service will have to identify its critical habitat and put in place measures to protect that habitat from being degraded.

That could place additional restrictions on coal and timber operators in the Pinnacle Creek and Clear Creek watersheds. Fish and Wildlife Service officials have already identified sedimentation from “fossil energy development, road construction and forestry operations” as the primary threat to the species’ continued survival.