Fire Ecology – another view

Last August, we had a great interview with Dr. Chad Hanson about the ecological effects of forest fires in California, challenging the dominant paradigm.  This month, we return to the topic with Dr. Dominick DellaSala, Chief Scientist of the Geos Institute and a past President of the Society for Conservation Biology.  His recent book– The Ecological Importance of Mixed-Severity Fires: Nature’s Phoenix – presents groundbreaking science on the ecological importance of large fires.

Dr. DellaSala will explain how and why forest fires – even severe fires that burn everything – are in fact creative and regenerative, vital to forest ecosystem health, and not the destructive events as usually described in popular media.  For example, Spotted Owls will shift their territories to take advantage of newly-burned areas and the increased prey abundance there – but only if the burned area is not logged.  So-called “salvage logging” “is the worst thing you can do to these forests after wildfire.”

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Snowy Plovers

The snowy plover is one of the most endangered shore birds on the West Coast.  Dr. Mark Colwell of  Humboldt State University has been studying these birds and how to bring them back from near local extinction in northern California.

Dr. Colwell has authored or co-authored a large number of papers on Snowy Plovers.  A list of his peer-reviewed publications can be found here.

The interview archive is available HERE.

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The Ecology Hour for November 8 was pre-empted for election coverage.  (And see how THAT turned out!)

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White Rhinos and Iron

In a departure from our usual California and Pacific Coast centered programs we travel to Africa and Indonesia this month to hear about Rhinoceros Conservation.  Our guest is local scientist Donald Paglia, M.D. who will be discussing challenges of the declining populations of several species of rhinoceros, specifically his experience in diagnosing and treating iron overload.  He will tell us how this condition leads to dire consequences if not properly managed in captive rhinos. This is a fascinating scientific detective story and the solution that could help preserve captive animals, perhaps our only hope for saving some species in the face of unrelenting slaughter in the wild for their horns.

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Captive-breeding White Abalone

White Abalone once numbered in the millions off the California coast, but on  May 29, 2001, they became the first marine invertebrate listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act.  We talk with Dr. Kristin Aquilino of UC Davis and Dr. Melissa Neuman of NOAA, who run a captive breeding program using Aquaculture techniques at the University of California- Davis Bodega Marine Lab.  Their goal is to produce captive-bred animals that will be used to establish a self-sustaining white abalone population in the wild.  Turns out, it’s not that easy!

Video about White Abalone: Delicacy of the Deep

Video overview of the Captive Breeding Program  (more sciencey)

(This interview was recorded on August 22 and broadcast on Tuesday September 13, 2016.)

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Fire Ecology

Forest fires are almost invariably described as destructive, even catastrophic.  Yet the California forest ecosystems are adapted to recurring fires, and many species depend on fires to create the conditions in which they thrive.  What really happens to the ecosystem after a major, high-intensity wildfire?  Dr. Chad Hanson of The John Muir Project has been studying this question for years, and he advocates a new paradigm of forest health that recognizes the essential role of fire.  His research, summarized in a new book (“The Ecological Importance of Mixed-severity Fires“) challenges some longstanding assumptions about forestry, fire suppression, and post-fire land management.

Dr. Hanson walked us through the post-fire ecological succession, beginning with the beetles who sense the smoke and fly toward the fire!  Soon after that, Black-backed Woodpeckers (a rare species that thrives only in recently burned forests with many standing fire-killed snags) arrive; they excavate multiple nest cavities, but only use one, leaving the others available for numerous other species to occupy.  Then the wildflowers begin to bloom, drawing insects, which in turn attract more birds and mammals.  Meanwhile shrubs and trees germinate and begin growing, providing food for larger mammals (deer, bear) and habitat for smaller ones – which in turn provide prey for predators like Spotted Owls and Pacific Fishers.  The net effect is to greatly increase biodiversity and productivity, as compared to a mature forest.

The concept of the “snag forest” (created by fire, drought, or beetles) as a highly-productive ecosystem, on which several rare or threatened species depend, is at odds with the popular perception of the burned forest as a dead landscape – and with public policy.  It was shocking to hear that snag forest is actually rarer than old-growth in California.

Complete interview is available on the KZYX Jukebox for the next two months:

More links:

EcoWatch article: Don’t Get Burned by Misinformation About Dead Trees and Wildfire

Fireside Chat” from Geos Institute (Warning: bandwidth-heavy)




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Invasion Biology

All over the planet – including here in northern California – conservationists are fighting expensive battles against invasive species.  Are these efforts guided by science, or emotion?  On Tuesday July 12 at 7 PM, hosts Bob Spies and Tim Bray will talk with Dr. Matthew Chew, of the Center for Biology and Society at Arizona State University.  Dr. Chew applies historical methods to identify how basic human motivations and preferences have become structural elements of scientific theories, particularly in the field of “invasion biology.”  He has co-authored several papers challenging ecological nativism, incluuding a controversial 2011 essay in Nature magazine arguing that we ought to judge species based on their environmental impacts, not their origins.  

More recently, he challenged much of the basis for the discipline of conservation biology in a 2015 paper, “Ecologists, Environmentalists, and the Invasion of the “Second Greatest Threat” (International Review of Environmental History, Volume 1, 2015).

The idea for this show came from a New York Times article addressing the growing backlash against the nativist paradigm and the use – or misuse – of science in public policy.

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