In my last post, I promised that there were two blogs running through my head on my last long hike. This is the second.
I have been hiking more than 40 years and I have been hiking the Whites for more than 30. To the uninitiated, during that time, on the surface at least, little has changed. However, for those that know where to look, or how to look, much has changed. One thing in particular that has really struck me recently, is the decrease in the amount of wildlife I see. There are not, proportionally, a lot of large mammals in the Whites, and much of that has to do with the history of these mountains. If you have hiked with me, you have undoubtedly heard me tell of how the mountains were all stripped bare by the logging companies and the impact that had on the forest ecology and how the White Mountains have only recovered in part, from that devastation a hundred years ago.
The denuding of the mountains, combined with the extreme weather and tough topography, have always made this region a difficult place for coyote, bobcat, deer, moose, and bear. That said, when I started hiking the Whites there were always two large species one was sure to meet if one just hiked enough; the moose and the black bear. The black bear is incredibly adaptable and so their population continues to be stable state wide, although many say that their numbers have increased in urban areas and decreased significantly in wilderness ones. There may be some truth to that, but I do not have data to support it and it is not what I wish to share with you today.
For the moose, I do have some data. In the last 10 years, the number of moose, the iconic animal that represents all that is wild in NH, has decreased from 7,500 state-wide to less than 4000 individuals. Folks, that is a 46% decrease in ten years! Much of the population loss is blamed on global warming, or upon increased numbers of ticks as a result of global warming. Again, those that have hiked with me know that there are far fewer ticks in the Whites than in other forested areas of the state due, in part, to the fewer number of oaks in the region (this of course due to the widespread lumbering of the last half of the nineteenth century – everything is related after all) and therefore fewer mice that depend on the acorns from the oaks for winter food, and so, it is hard to blame the decreased numbers of moose in the Whites, on ticks.
In 2007, the State of NH issued 675 hunting permits for Moose. In other words, with a population of about 7500 animals, they felt that 675 could be killed by hunters every year and the population would remain stable. To make this very clear, that means that the NH Fish and Game Department was saying that as long as their remained 6825 animals at the end of the hunting season, the annual population of 7500 would not decline. Today we have less than 4000 of these beautiful animals in the state and yet, in 2014, we still issued hunting permits to 124 people. Why are we continuing to hunt this peaceful iconic animal? What the heck is wrong with us?
Let’s talk about something else. One of the things that struck me when I first started hiking in the Whites was the large number of toads one would see on the trail. I can remember days, hiking with my daughters, when we would count the toads we saw and come up just short of a hundred for a single day. Today, if I see a toad, it is a rare occurrence. What happened to them? It turns out that there is a disease called chytridiomycosis which is caused by a fungus that attacks the skin of amphibians and kills them in very short order. Amphibians of all sorts - frogs, toads and salamanders - are dying off by the millions all over the world with many species already now extinct.
The fungus, Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis (Bd), was first found in Australia in 1993. So how does a fungus linked disease in Australia (an island continent, remember) find its way to the forest of NH? One theory is that it was brought here inadvertently by us. As it turns out, not all amphibians are susceptible to the disease, and some species have carried the fungus on their skin to local water supplies where it spread to infect other species that were susceptible.
One such host-carrier species was the African Clawed Frog. African Clawed Frogs were, for many years, widely used in pregnancy test since the female frogs would lay eggs within hours of being injected with the urine from a pregnant human female. These frogs were shipped world-wide for these types of pregnancy verification tests and, the fungus that they carried with them, was shipped as well. Today, Bd is found all over the world, the amphibian world has been decimated, and we have no known method of stopping the spread of the disease.
I have not seen a moose in the woods of NH for more than five years and toad sightings are a rare thing these days, but this is not a post about moose or toads. This post is about us, as humans, being more deliberate as a species and thinking hard and fast about the consequences of our actions. If you look, and if you care to see, the world is changing before our very eyes and it is up to us, now, to do what we can to slow down, stop or even reverse some of this change. I donate as much as I can to every organization that I can that I feel is dedicated to idea of conservation and preservation. Do what you can, TODAY, to make a change; to preserve and conserve this beautiful world that has been entrusted to us.
I will share with you that I have been a bit reluctant to post this blog entry for fear that it makes the future look bleak and the prospects of change, hopeless. We are indeed at an unprecedented time right now with the actions of our species as a whole effecting and controlling the entire planet. With this absolute power, comes absolute responsibility, but this doesn't mean the future is hopeless. Thirty years ago it was forecast that we were all going to roast to death from UV exposure as a result of a quickly expanding hole in the Ozone layer over Antarctica. As a planet we came together, reduced and banned chlorofluorocarbons and now, just recently, I have read that we have successfully reversed the progress of the hole and it is closing. Scientist expect that it will be completely healed by the year 2050. So we can, as a species, effect global change, but it takes awareness and it takes willingness. My message of moose and toads is a simple one, and yet, it is the message that all of us must take to heart, act on and pass along if future generations are to share in the beauty and the stillness that are our wild places. This, to me, is one of our highest obligations to future generations.