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First National Wildlife Refuge Created (1903)

On March 14, 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt created the nation’s first federal wildlife refuge by signing an executive order designating the Pelican Island, Florida, Bird Preservation Area.  During his presidency, Roosevelt created more than 50 such reserves, the forerunners of the National Wildlife Refuge System that today includes more than 550 protected areas covering 150 million acres.

Pelican Island is a small mangrove island in the Indian River waterway of east-central Florida, about 50 miles south of Cape Canaveral.  Although only 5.5 acres when designated as a reserve, the island had long captured the attention of bird watchers—and bird hunters.  Early visitors noted that the trees seem covered with snow, which was really the profusion of downy chicks of pelicans and other birds and the white plumage of egrets and spoonbills.

Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge; this is the original island, showing oyster reefs added to protect the island from erosion (photo by George Gentry, USFWS)

Victorian fashions emphasized feathers and other bird parts for hats, broaches, and other decorations.  Because birds had no protection at the time, hunters slaughtered waterfowl in great numbers as the birds gathered gathered for nesting or roosting.  Bird numbers were dropping across the southeast, including a noted drop among the species at Pelican Island.  Outrage over this wasteful harvest led to several laws protecting migratory waterfowl in the early decades of the 20th Century.

Showy plumage, as shown on this breeding Snowy Egret from California, made these birds targets of commercial hunters (photo by Len Blumin)

But those laws still needed to be enforced, and the federal government was not inclined to pay.  Consequently, the Florida Audubon Society gained permission from the government to employ game wardens to enforce the laws at Pelican Island and elsewhere.  It was dangerous work, however, and two early wardens were murdered while on the job.

That changed when Paul Kroegel took the job.  Kroegel, a German immigrant and local boat builder and pilot, was devoted to the island and its birds.  He came prepared to enforce the laws, armed and ready to do what was needed.  He remained on the job for more than 20 years, creating an atmosphere that favored conservation over exploitation.

Pelican Island was a good place for conservation.  Sources suggest that it has the most diverse bird fauna in the United States and that it lies within one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots in the Indian River waterway.  The island itself began to shrink due to both natural forces and excessive wave action by passing boats, and by 2000 was only half its original size.  A massive effort to surround the island with an oyster-shell reef and to plant both seagrass and mangroves has been successful in reversing the loss of area.

The Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge has also grown from the original island.  It now encompasses more than 4000 acres of similarly important mangrove islands and other wetlands.  The area is also designated as wilderness and as a National Historic Landmark because of its significance as the first federal wildlife preserve.

References:

The Conservation Fund.  Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge.  Available at:  http://www.conservationfund.org/projects/pelican-island-national-wildlife-refuge.  Accessed March 13, 2017.

Indian River County Main Library.  Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge.  Available at:  http://www.irclibrary.org/pdf/pelicanislandrefuge.pdf.  Accessed March 13, 2017.

Pelican Island Preservation Society.  The Refuge.  Available at:  http://www.firstrefuge.org/the-refuge/.  Accessed March 13, 2017.

Reffalt, William.  2003.  Pelican Island.  USFWS informal document.  Available at:  https://www.fws.gov/refuges/centennial/pdf2/pelicanIsland_reffalt.pdf.  Accessed March 13, 2017.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  History of Pelican Island.  Available at:  https://www.fws.gov/refuge/pelican_island/about/history.html.  Accessed March 13, 2017.

National Elephant Day, Thailand

The national symbol of Thailand is the elephant, specifically the “white elephant.”  The elephant was declared Thailand’s national animal on March 13, 1963.  Later, in 1998, when the country decided that elephant protection required greater attention, it designated the same date—March 13—as National Elephant Day.

Thailand’s elephants are members of the Asian elephant species (Elephas maximus), the smaller of the earth’s two elephant species.  Asian elephants can be domesticated and have been used by humans for thousands of years to perform work.  The major role in Thailand has been in logging, where elephants were used to pull downed logs from the forest to places where they were further processed.

Asian Elephant (photo by Rakeshkdogra)

Beyond their use as work animals, elephants play an important cultural role in Thailand.  As Buddhists, Thai citizens consider many animals sacred, including the elephant.  The Buddhist god Ganesh, the symbol of wisdom, success and good luck, has a human body with an elephant head.  White elephants, which are not albino but simply a lighter shade than the typical elephant, have been kept by Thai kings for centuries to symbolize their authority to reign.  The white elephants was placed on the Thai flag in the early 1800s and remained there for a century.

Elephants were once abundant in the lush Thai forests, estimated to have numbered about 100,000 in 1900.  Today fewer than 2,000 remain in the wild, affected mostly by the loss of habitat, along with overhunting for ivory.  The species is classified as endangered by IUCN and is now protected throughout Thailand.   Most wild elephants live in national parks or other preserves of natural forest.

Asian elephants being bathed at the Thai Elephant Conservation Center (photo by Adam Jones)

About 3,000 elephants are held privately.  Since logging of natural forests was outlawed in Thailand, however, the primary use of elephants in the forest industry has disappeared, leaving tourism as the predominant way in which elephants are used.  Conditions for elephants in the tourist trade vary widely, from cruel and abusive handlers (especially in large cities) to centers that focus on ethical and humane interactions between people and elephants.  Because of the long association between people and elephants, tourism is a major industry both for Thai citizens and for visitors.

The principal elephant conservation program is operated through the Thai Elephant Conservation Center, a government-owned facility created in 1993 by the king.  The center has about 50 elephants and offers opportunities for people to interact with and learn about elephants.

National Elephant Day was first celebrated in 1999.  According to the organization  Thailand Elephants, “[t]he day was made to celebrate and show how significant elephants are to Thailand, how the Thai culture depends on elephants and also to promote awareness about protecting and conserving the Thai elephants and their natural habitat.”

References:

Chiangrai Times.  2014.  National Elephant Day Celebrated in Thailand.  March 13, 2014.  Available at:  http://www.chiangraitimes.com/national-elephant-day-celebrated-in-thailand.html.  Accessed march 12, 2018.

Elephant Conservation Center.  The Elephant Conservation Center.  Available at:  http://www.thailandelephant.org/en/index.html.  Accessed March 12, 2018.

Elephant Nature Park.  Facts about Elephants.  Available at:  https://www.elephantnaturepark.org/about/facts-about-elephants/.  Accessed March 12, 2018.

McCrea, Kerri. 2017.  The National Elephant Day 2017!  Available at:  https://www.thailandelephants.org/single-post/2017/03/13/Thai-National-Elephant-DayChang-Thai- -2017.  Accessed March 12, 2018.

Siwalai.  Elephants in Thailand: Past and Present.  Thaiways Magazine.  Available at:  https://www.thaiwaysmagazine.com/thai_article/2711_elephant_royal/elephant_royal.html.  Accessed March 12, 2018.

Everett Horton Patents the Telescoping Fishing Rod (1887)

In puritanical rural Connecticut, fishing on Sunday was very nearly a mortal sin.  But Everett Horton, a hoop maker at a Bristol crinoline undergarment factory, wanted badly to fish on Sunday.  In order to slip unnoticed out of town and to the stream, he invented a telescoping fishing rod.  On March 8, 1887, he received a patent for his invention—US Patent 359153 A—and the rest is history.

Horton’s patent application doesn’t mention that his purpose was to dupe his church-going neighbors.  Rather, it was to “produce a light and compact rod of superior convenience, elasticity, and durability, and one in which the line is protected against entanglement throughout the length of the rod.”  Unlike typical fishing rods, on which the exposed line is guided through rings mounted at intervals along the rod, Horton’s rod had hollow tubes that carried the line inside, protected from tangling.  Every angler of modest skill (like me) has experienced the recurring frustration of tangled lines.

Reportedly, Horton walked into a bank in Bristol the next year and asked to see the manager.  In the meeting, Horton produced the fishing rod from his pants leg, to the manager’s alarm.  When asked why he had made such a thing, Horton replied, “So you can sneak off fishing whenever you like, even on Sunday.”

1927 ad for Everett Horton’s Telescoping Fishing Rod

He got the needed loan and went on to found the Horton Manufacturing Company.  And to make a fortune.  The fishing rod was instantly popular and by 1900 the Bristol Steel Rod was the most popular fishing rod in the United States.  The rod was well-made and performed its intended function—to hide an angler’s intention and keep the line straight—but angling purists didn’t like it (of course).  Nonetheless, Horton kept manufacturing his rods, eventually expanding the company into a producer of diverse metal household items.

The Pocket-Fisherman had to have an inspiration, and maybe we’ve just found it.

References:

Anctil, Philip.  (Nothing Up Your Sleeve) It May Be A Bristol Steel Rod.  Fishing Talks.  Available at:    http://www.fishingtalks.com/nothing-up-your-sleeve-it-may-be-a-bristol-steel-rod-569.html.  Accessed March 7, 2017.

New England Historical Society.  Everett Horton Goes Fishing for a Fortune.  Available at:  http://www.newenglandhistoricalsociety.com/everett-horton-goes-fishing-fortune/.  Accessed March 7, 2017.

U.S. Patent Office.  Patent 359153 A.  Available at:  https://www.google.com/patents/US359153.  Accessed March 7, 2017.

Luther Burbank Born (1849)

Luther Burbank, perhaps the most prolific plant breeder in human history, was born on March 7, 1849, in Lancaster, Massachusetts (died 1926).  Although he had very little formal education and was considered un-scientific by his peers, he managed to revolutionize American horticulture during the first decades of the 20th Century.

Burbank was raised on a farm, the 13th of 15 children in the family.  He was a curious and resourceful child, inventing machines and tools to ease the work of the farm.  His father died when Burbank was 21, allowing him to use his inheritance to buy a small farm of his own and begin plant-breeding experiments.  His success began with a potato whose seeds he planted, then chose the most promising and quickly grew large, firm potatoes.  With the $150 profit from selling the resulting seeds, he moved to Santa Rosa, California, to be near several brothers who lived there.

Luther Burbank in 1901, at his experimental farm in California (photo by Liberty Hyde Bailey)

He began experimenting with plant varieties in earnest on his small tract in Santa Rosa.  His talent for selecting superior plants combined with his skill at grafting, allowing him to make rapid progress in evaluating and replicating desired strains.  At one time, he had 3,000 experiments in progress.  He marketed his new plants through a catalogue, “New Creations in Fruits and Flowers,” beginning in 1893.

Luther Burbank with his spineless cactus, 1908

During his long 55-year career as a plant breeder, he introduced more than 800 new types of plants—fruits, nuts, grains, vegetables and flowers.  He developed a russet potato, now called the Russet Burbank Potato, that today comprises most of the commercial potatoes used in the United States.  He developed a spineless cactus for use as livestock forage in dry climates.  He bred the Shasta daisy.

Burbank became friends with Thomas Edison and Henry Ford, like him innovators in their fields of endeavor.  After Burbank’s death in 1926, Edison and Ford continued to fight for patent protection for plant breeds, eventually achieving a law that extended patents to plants in 1930; Burbank received several patents posthumously to celebrate that event.

Luther Burbank’s drawing of variation in the size of walnuts. The variation was the source of breeding improved crops.

Burbank’s goal was not to become wealthy—he lived a notoriously frugal and simple life.  Rather, it was to help humanity by developing plants that could provide better food and more pleasant gardens.  Working with nature, not against it, was his fundamental approach.  As he said:  “If you violate Nature’s laws you are your own prosecuting attorney, judge, jury, and hangman.” On the positive side, he explained his joy in his work at a lecture in San Francisco in 1925:

What a joy life is when you have made a close working partnership with nature, helping her to produce for the benefit of mankind new…fruits in form, size, color, and flavor never before seen on this globe; and grains of enormously increased productiveness, whose fat kernels are filled with more and better nourishment, a veritable store-house of perfect food—new food for all the world’s untold millions for all time to come.

And as we all know, hungry people have bigger, more immediate problems than worrying about biodiversity conservation.  So, helping people live better, more secure lives—as Luther Burbank did through his plant breeding work—leads inevitably to a more sustainable world that elevates conservation to a priority.

References:

BrainyQuote.  Luther Burbank Quotes.  Available at:  https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/authors/l/luther_burbank.html. Accessed March 6, 2017.

Famous Scientists.  Luther Burbank.  Available at:  https://www.famousscientists.org/luther-burbank/.  Accessed March 6, 2017.

Luther Burbank Home & Gardens.  Luther Burbank.  Available at:  http://www.lutherburbank.org/.  Accessed March 6, 2017.

Murphy, Dennis.  2007.  Plant Breeding and Biotechnology:  Societal Context and the Future of Agriculture.  Cambridge University Press.  Available at:  https://books.google.com/books?id=dCe6JNEplIwC&pg=PA38#v=onepage&q&f=false.  Accessed March 6, 2017.

Wieseler, Wayne.  2012.  Biology:  Luther Burbank, 1849-1926.  Western Sonoma County Historical Society.  Available at:  Accessed March 6, 2017.http://www.wschsgrf.org/articles/biographylutherburbank1849-1926.

Nature’s Famous Leapers

It is leap-day, and what better time to celebrate the incredible feats of leaping that some of our natural friends perform.

Let’s start with the obvious, lemmings leaping off cliffs.  Bad news:  That’s an unfortunate myth.  Lemmings are rodents with enormous powers of reproduction.  Consequently, every few years their populations grow too large for their current habitat.  In response, large groups migrate together in search of a new home.  They are good swimmers, and they don’t let obstacles get in the way.  But, they don’t launch themselves off cliffs in apparent mass suicides.  That myth comes from an old nature film in which the film crew actually pushed lemmings off a cliff for the dramatic effect.  Bad behavior by humans, but not by lemmings.

Lemming (photo by Sander van der Wel)

Humans have also engaged in similar behavior to outwit the game animals they used for food, clothing and tools, specifically the American bison.  Native peoples living on the plains would herd bison to the edge of a cliff and then drive them over the edge, collecting the dead animals from the base of the cliff.  Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump in southwestern Alberta is an UNESCO World Heritage Site devoted to the aboriginal practice conducted there.  The site was used for over 600 years, demonstrating the sustainability of traditional, communal hunting techniques.

But let’s talk about leapers that don’t rely on an assist from humans.  Mark Twain wrote a famous story about one such leapers—The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.  A competition by the same name goes on to this day.  The world champion is Rosie the Ribeter, an American bullfrog, that jumped a total of 21 feet, 5.75 inches in a combined three-leap event in 1986.  But the true world record, we’re told, is a South African frog of unknown heritage that jumped more than 33 feet in one leap.

Then there are the flying fishes.  Flying fish are a family of more than 40 species that can grow to about 18 inches long. The fish doesn’t actually fly, it leaps.  Its streamlined shape allows it to swim fast, explode from the surface and glide along, supported on wing-like pectoral fins.  A single leap can go farther than 600 feet, but the fish can extend the flight by falling to the surface, flexing its tail and returning to the air.  Extended leaps like this can go farther than 1300 feet.

Among mammals, the champion seems to be the red kangaroo.  These 200-pound leapers of Australia move in a series of leap, with a consistent hop that goes 6 feet high and 25 feet long.  But on occasion they can leap much farther, up to 45 feet in a single bound.

Red kangaroo (1863 painting by John Gould)

The champion of all leapers is, of course, the flea.  This tiny insect routinely jumps 5 inches up and 8 inches out.  But record flights of fleas are as far as 19 inches, about 300 times its body length.  Comparing that to a 6-foot-tall human, that would be a leap of 1800 feet, or about one-third of a mile!  Eat your heart out, Spiderman.

References:

Encyclopedia Britannica.  Do Lemmings Really Commit Mass Suicide?  Available at:  https://www.britannica.com/story/do-lemmings-really-commit-mass-suicide.  Accessed February 23, 2018.

FleaScience.  How far and high can fleas jump?  Available at:  http://fleascience.com/flea-encyclopedia/life-cycle-of-fleas/adult-fleas/how-do-fleas-move/how-far-and-high-can-fleas-jump/.  Accessed February 23, 2018.

Lindsay.  2012.  Let the games begin!  Amphibian Rescue & Conservation Project.  Available at:  http://amphibianrescue.org/tag/american-bullfrog/.  Accessed February 23, 2018.

National Georgaphic.  Flying Fish.  Available at:  https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/fish/group/flying-fish/.  Accessed February 23, 2018.

National Geographic.  Red Kangaroo.  Available at:  https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/mammals/r/red-kangaroo/.  Accessed February 23, 2018.

UNESCO.  Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump.  Available at:  http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/158.  Accessed February 23, 2018.

Watson and Crick Discover The Double Helix (1953)

The Eagle is a famous pub not far off the high street in Cambridge, England.  The pub has been in operation forever, it seems, but it owes part of its fame to the American Air Force servicemen who frequented The Eagle during World War II.  The walls and ceiling are filled with graffiti left by the soldiers.

But it owes its more recent fame to the corner table where biologists James Watson and Francis Crick generally came for lunch or a drink and discuss their work on the mechanisms of genetics.  And there, on February 28, 1953, they celebrated the conceptual breakthrough that is the basis for all we know about genetics today:  the structure of DNA, the double helix.

Knowledge of the fundamentals of genetics was advancing rapidly at the time, including the understanding that deoxyribonucleic acid was the building block for holding genetic information and transferring it to the next generation.  But no one had figured out how it was done.  Watson and Crick decided that discovering the three-dimensional structure of the gene was the key to unlocking the genetic mysteries.  Just like the American flyers who relaxed at The Eagle had set their sights on German airplanes, Watson and Crick set their sights on the structure of DNA.

Francis Crick, 1995 (photo by National Cancer Institute)
James D. Watson (photo by National Cancer Institute)

Their colleagues, Rosalind Franklin and Maurice Wilkins, had used x-ray crystallography to suggest that DNA formed a corkscrew-shaped helix in three dimensions.  Another colleague, biochemist Erwin Chargaff, had deduced that four compounds (the bases adenine, guanine, cytosine and thymine) were always present in DNA and that adenine (A) and thymine (T) were always present in equal amounts, and the same for cytosine (C) and guanine (G).  While working with cardboard models, Watson realized that two strands of the sugar-phosphate chains could be linked by hydrogen bonds of pairs of A on one strand and T on the other, or C on one strand and G on the other.  When modeled this way, the structure was stable in a double helix. They had found the correct structure!

Not only was the structure consistent with all other evidence, but it provided the answer to how genetic information was transferred.  The two strands split, and a new strand formed on the empty hydrogen bonds, A to T and C to G.  With new strands built on the two separated parts of the double helix, an exact replica of the original compound was formed.  And, when mistakes were made in the process, mutation occurred.

Watson and Crick went to lunch at The Eagle that day, triumphant over their discovery.  Crick told the lunch crowd that they had “found the secret of life.”  They published a one-page paper on their discovery in Nature on April 25, 1953, and a more complete version a month later.

Well, of course, they hadn’t discovered the secret of life, but certainly one of the secrets.  Their discovery did provide the basis for understanding the mechanisms of genetics, and that itself has been enormously useful in understanding the processes that lead to diversity in nature.  Because diversity is the essence of our use of nature, James Watson and Francis Crick might just be among the most important conservationists of all time!

References:

National Institutes of Health.  The Francis Crick Papers; The Discovery of the Double Helix, 1951-1953.  NIH U.S. National Library of Medicine.  Available at:  https://profiles.nlm.nih.gov/SC/Views/Exhibit/narrative/doublehelix.html.  Accessed February 23, 2018

Four National Parks Established (1917-1929)

February 26 has an important history in conservation.  On this date, four national parks were established, all within an era of active national park activity, from 1917-1929.

When the National Park Service (NPS) was created in August, 1916 (read more here), a new era of park management—and creation—began.  Created by an Organic Act and housed in the Department of Interior, the NPS had the authority, budget and workforce to become more active in stewardship of our great national heritage of nature, history and culture.  The expansion of the national park system began in earnest and continued for several decades.

The first park created under the new NPS was Mount McKinley National Park in Alaska (now Denali National Park).  The debate over creating a large park in the middle of the state had gone on for years—some saw the park as an advantage for future tourism, but most Alaskans wanted access to the land for subsistence and market hunting and for mining.  Spurred by the dauntless energy of Charles Sheldon, however, and by an American populace energized to preserve the western “wilderness,” President Woodrow Wilson signed the park into law on February 26, 1917, almost six months to the day after the NPS was formed.  In the first year of recorded visitation (1922), 7 hardy souls went to the new park; in 2016, nearly 600,000 took the same journey.

Denali National Park (photo by David Dugan)

Two years exactly after Denali came Grand Canyon National Park, also signed into existence by President Wilson, in 1919.  But the Grand Canyon had traveled a long administrative path on its way to park status, with little of the controversy of other parks.  Protection was first given to the canyon in 1893, as a “federal forest reserve.”  Teddy Roosevelt furthered the protection by declaring part of the area a “federal game reserve” in 1906.  Then, in 1908, motivated on by the passionate entreaties of his friend, John Muir, President Roosevelt elevated the canyon’s status to a national monument, providing the complete protection that eventually led to national park status.  Annual visitation now stands at 6 million, among the most visited of our national parks.

Grand Canyon postcard from 1903 (photo by Bruck & Sohn)

Another big chunk of Alaska was preserved on February 26, 1925, when the Glacier Bay National Monument was created by the executive order of President Calvin Coolidge (now glacier Bay national Park and Preserve).  Like Denali, the establishment of this monument was controversial.  The area covered a huge part of southeastern Alaska’s archipelago, rich in timber, game and mineral resources that many Alaskans wanted to develop.  The fight for preservation was led by the Ecological Society of America, a scientific group that saw the area as a critically important biodiversity resource and as a unique research location.  The 3 million acres of Glacier Bay is now also part of the larger 25-million-acre UNESCO World Heritage Site.  Annual visitation is about 500,000.

the Cathedral Group in Grand Teton national Park (photo by Acroterion)

The fourth action on February 26—this time in 1929—was to create Grand Teton National Park.  It was established on this date as a national monument, seeking to protect the Grand Teton mountain range and the lakes that lie at its base from development.  John D. Rockefeller was an active proponent of the park and donated some 30,000 acres to its later enlargement.  In 1943, the monument was reclassified as a national park.  Grand Teton is the southern gateway to Yellowstone National Park.  More than 3 million people visit the park annually.

References:

Anderson, Michael F.  2000.  Administrative History of Grand Canyon National Park.  National Park Service.  Available at:  https://www.nps.gov/grca/learn/historyculture/adhigrca.htm.  Accessed February 16, 2018.

Brown, William E.  1991.  A History of the Denali-Mount McKinley, Region, Alaska.  National Park Service.  Available at:  https://www.nps.gov/parkhistory/online_books/dena/hrs.htm.  Accessed February 16, 2018.

Catton, Theodore.  1995.  Land Reborn:  A History of Administration and Visitor use in Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve.  National Park Service.  Available at:  https://www.nps.gov/parkhistory/online_books/glba/adhi/index.htm. Accessed February 16, 2018.

Discovergrandteton.org.  Park history.  Available at:  http://www.discovergrandteton.org/park-history/prehistoric-indians/.  Accessed February 16, 2018.

International Polar Bear Day

February 27 has been designated as the annual International Polar Bear Day by the conservation organization, Polar Bears International.  The day has been celebrated annually since 2012.  The annual event seeks to educate the general public about the plight of polar bears globally and to encourage individuals to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by turning down their heat and turning up their air conditioners.  Polar Bears International lists its mission as seeking to “conserve polar bears and the sea ice they depend on.”

Polar bear on an ice flow in Ukkusiksalik National Park, Nunavut, Canada (photo by Ansgar Walk)

The polar bear (Ursus maritimus) is superbly adapted to living in the frigid conditions of the Arctic ecosystem.  It is a marine species by definition (hence its scientific name), living on floating sea ice as its preferred habitat.  Its main food is the ringed seal, which also lives on and around sea ice and is a fat-rich dietary source needed by bears.  Polar bears are evolved from a common ancestor with the brown bear (grizzly bear).  They grow to 9 feet in length and 1400 pounds in weight.  During summer when sea ice disappears, polar bears must retreat to land.  Food is insufficient for the bears, and they lose weight during the time they must spend off the ice.

Consequently, global warming is a primary threat to the survival of polar bears.  Arctic sea ice has been disappearing rapidly, with the area of ice decreasing every summer and the length of time ice habitat is available to bears also decreasing.  Each year, bears are spending longer on land, losing more weight, emerging in the fall in worse condition, and having smaller cubs that have higher post-natal mortality.  Photographs of emaciated polar bears, trapped on tiny ice floes, are heart-rending reminders of their plight.

For these reasons, polar bears are receiving higher levels of protection around the world.  The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has declared the species “vulnerable” to extinction.  IUCN estimates that together the 19 distinct populations of polar bears around the Arctic region number about 22,000-31,000 individuals.  However, detailed knowledge of their abundance is scarce, as the animals live in remote areas that are largely inaccessible to humans.  The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), a treaty to which the U.S. is party, regulates global trade in the species, but still allows some harvest.

In the United States, the polar bear is listed as a “threatened” species under the Endangered Species Act.  It is also protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which in general prohibits hunting and other forms of exploitation of polar bears.  However, Native Americans in the Arctic region can harvest polar bears for subsistence uses and native handicrafts.

References:

CITES.  CITES and Polar Bear.  Available at:  https://cites.org/eng/news/sg/2013/20131203_polar-bear.php. Accessed February 26, 2017.

Polar Bears International.  The Life, Land, and Future of the Polar Bear.  Available at:  http://polarbearsinternational.org/. Accessed February 26, 2017.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  2013.  U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Announces Final Polar Bear Special Rule.  Available at:  https://www.fws.gov/alaska/external/newsroom/pdf/13-04.pdf?SiteName=FWS&Entity=PRAsset&SF_PRAsset_PRAssetID_EQ=131878&XSL=PressRelease&Cache=True. Accessed February 26, 2017.

World Widlife Fund.  Polar bear status, distribution & population.  Available at:  http://wwf.panda.org/what_we_do/where_we_work/arctic/wildlife/polar_bear/population/.  Accessed February 26, 2017.

First Federal Timber Act Passed (1799)

Today the U. S. Forest Service oversees the management of about 232 million acres of our nation’s forests and related ecosystems.  But it had to start somewhere.  That starting point was the first federal law dealing with forestland—the Federal Timber Purchasers Act of February 25, 1799.

Sunset over Blackbeard Island National Wildlife Refuge (photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Southeast Region)

The 1799 act gave the government authority to purchase wood and land to provide resources for the navy.  The primary target was the live oak, which grows in the southeastern U.S. and was highly coveted as a material for wooden ships—decking, framing for hulls and other needs that required large planks of wood.  The government purchased two islands off the Georgia coast—Blackbeard and Grover Islands.

The 1799 act was followed with an amendment in 1817 that authorized the government to buy a number of islands in Louisiana, also filled with live oak forest.  Another act, in 1827, reserved about 30,000 acres near Pensacola, Florida.  This was intended to be the first forest experiment station, where research into the silviculture of live oaks could be conducted.  Unfortunately, politics intervened and no research occurred.

New laws and new presidential decrees kept adding timber holdings to the lands reserved for their use to grow live oak for the navy.  Through 1860, about 200,000 acres of live oak forest had been set aside for conservation, to assure a steady supply of high quality live oak resources.  With the transition to steel-hulled and power ships after 1860, the need for these reserves declined, and over the next half century, all of the live oak reserves were sold off or turned to other purposes.  For example, the two original reserves were given new lives; the 5,600-acre Blackbeard Island is now a National Wildlife Refuge, and the much smaller Grover Island is now in private ownership.

Map of the U.S. National Forests and Grasslands (U..S. Forest Service)

From these early laws and commitments to conserving important forest lands came our current National Forest System.  Today, the U.S. Forest Service administers 283 separate units, composed of 154 national forests (97% of all their lands), 20 national grasslands (2%) and about 100 smaller units for various specialized purposes (1%).

Most federal forests are in the western U.S. (about 70%) and Alaska (10%).  Only about 20% of federal forests are in the eastern U.S.  The states holding the most federal forest land are California (24 million acres), Alaska (24), Idaho (22), Montana (19) and Oregon (17).  Several eastern states have no federal forest land (Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts and Rhode Island), and Connecticut has 23 acres.

References:

Sullivan, Buddy.  2003.  Blackbeard Island.  New Georgia Encyclopedia, July 17, 2003.  Available at:  https://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/articles/geography-environment/blackbeard-island.  Accessed February 15, 2018.

U.S. Forest Service. 2017.  Land Areas report (LAR) – as of September 30, 2017.  Available at:  https://www.fs.fed.us/land/staff/lar/LAR2017/lar2017index.html.  Accessed February 15, 2018.

Williams, Gerald W.  2003.  Private Property to Public Property:  The Beginnings of the National Forests in the South.  American Society for Environmental History, Providence, RI, March 26-30, 2003.  Accessed February 15, 2018

Joseph Banks, British Botanist, Born (1743)

Perhaps the most influential of Britain’s many botanical explorers, Joseph Banks was born on February 24, 1743 (died 1820).  He explored the world collecting plant specimens, and he led the early development of Kew Royal Botanical Gardens.

Banks was born to a wealthy and privileged family.  He attended the best schools, including Eton, where he learned to love plants, specifically the wildflowers that grew around the school’s grounds.  He went on to study botany at Cambridge, famously paying personally for a botany professor who could advance Banks’ knowledge.  His father died when Banks was 18, leaving him in control of several estates and a large personal fortune.  Rather than dallying in polite society, as many did, Banks applied his funds to his botanical explorations.

Bust of Sir Joseph Banks at Kew Royal Botanical Gardens Herbarium (photo by Larry Nielsen)

His early explorations took him to Labrador and Newfoundland, but it was his voyage with Captain Cook that earned his place in history.  He accompanied Cook on his first voyage to the South Pacific, from 1768 to 1771, sailing on the Endeavour.  Banks contributed 10,000 British pounds to fund the outfitting of the ship for scientific work (equal to many millions in today’s money).  He sailed with Cook for three years, visiting South America, the South Pacific islands, Australia and New Zealand.  He collected specimens of more than 3000 plant species, 1300 of which were new to European science.  The flora of Australia was so astonishing to Banks that he named one collecting point Botany Bay (later to become famous as the location of a prison). The specimens from the voyage formed the nucleus of the botanical collection for the British Museum (those collections were later transferred to the new London Natural History Museum).

Specimen collected by Joseph Banks on voyage with Captain Cook to South Pacific (photo by Larry Nielsen)

Banks had been made a member of the Royal Society before the voyage, but upon returning his status was highly elevated.  He was elected president in 1778, and held that position for the next 42 years until his death.  He became the scientific advisor to King George III.  A particularly important royal duty for Banks was as director of what would become the Kew Royal Botanical Gardens.  Banks dispatched voyages around the world to bring back living specimens for the gardens, thousands of species from across the world.  He was particularly interested in plants that would be useful for economic purposes—agriculture, medicine, textiles, ornamentation.  Since then, Kew has become the world’s leading botanical repository for both growing plants and for seeds preserved in cold-storage.

(Note:  There seems to be some confusion about the actual date of Banks’ birth.  It is stated as February 13 in several references, but this is apparently the “Old Style” of dating from British history.  Other references cite the birth as occurring on February 24, the date I have used.)

References:

Encyclopedia Britannica.  Sir Joseph Banks, British Naturalist.  Available at:  https://www.britannica.com/biography/Joseph-Banks.  Accessed February 14, 2018.

Endersby, Jim.  2014.  How botanical gardens helped establish the British Empire.  Financial Times, July 25, 2014.  Available at:  https://www.ft.com/content/dcd33da0-0e69-11e4-a1ae-00144feabdc0.  Accessed February 14, 2018.

Gilbert, L. A.  1966.  Banks, Sir Joseph (1743-1820).  Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1 (MUP), 1966.  Available at:  http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/banks-sir-joseph-1737.  Accessed February 14, 2018.

PlantExplorers.com.  Joseph Banks 1743-1820.  Available at:  https://www.plantexplorers.com/explorers/biographies/banks/joseph-banks-01.htm.  Accessed February 14, 2018.

This Month in Conservation

July 1
Duck Stamp Born (1934)
July 2
Morrill Act Created Land-Grant Universities (1862)
July 3
Great Auk Went Extinct (1844)
July 4
Stephen Mather, Founding Director of the National Park Service, Born (1867)
July 5
Yoshimaro Yamashina and Ernst Mayr, Ornithologists, Born (1900, 1904)
July 6
Maria Martin, Naturalist and Artist, Born (1796)
July 7
Alaska Admitted as a State (1958)
July 8
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July 9
Starbucks Abandoned Plastic Straws (2018)
July 10
Rainbow Warrior Bombed and sunk (1985)
July 11
World Population Day
July 12
Herbert Zim, Creator of “Golden Guides,” Born (1909)
July 13
Source of the Mississippi River Discovered (1832)
July 14
George Washington Carver National Monument Established (1943)
July 15
Emmeline Pankhurst, British Suffragette Leader, Born (1858)
July 16
UNESCO Added Giant Panda and Shark Sanctuaries to World Heritage List (2006)
July 17
Handel’s “Water Music” Premiered (1717)
July 18
Gilbert White, the “First Ecologist,” Born (1720)
July 19
Sagarmatha National Park, Nepal, Created (1976)
July 20
Gregor Mendel, Pioneering Geneticist, Born (1822)
July 21
Aswan High Dam Opened (1970)
July 22
Ratcatcher’s Day
July 23
Commercial Whaling Banned (1982)
July 24
Machu Picchu Discovered (1911)
July 25
Jim Corbett, Tiger Conservationist, Born (1875)
July 26
James Lovelock, Originator of the Gaia Theory, Born (1919)
July 27
Przewalski’s horse gave birth by artificial insemination (2013)
July 28
Beatrix Potter, Author and Conservationist, Born (1866)
July 29
International Tiger Day
July 30
Golden Spike National Historical Park Created (1965)
July 31
Curt Gowdy, Sportscaster and Conservationist, Born (1919)
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