Saturday, November 27, 2010

Buffalo, Buffaloed

What did I ever do to you?

For hundreds of years, wild bison have roamed the expansive area now comprising Paynes Prairie State Park. Believe it or not, bison aren't limited to the American west: at Paynes Prairie, seeing bison wading through a pond full of blooming lotus and flushing a sunbathing Anhinga or two isn't all that odd.

But if a proposed plan by Florida State Parks goes through, the bison will all but disappear, as will the herds of wild horses that also roam the prairie – not to mention a large part of the park's natural integrity.

The plan, allegedly still under discussion, is to remove all but a few bison and horses from the prairie. The animals, according to the Gainesville Sun, will be donated to whichever vendor takes them out, in return for their services.

The few remaining animals will be allowed to stay on the prairie – but in fenced-in enclosures close to one of the observation decks. This way every visitor will be guaranteed a bison sighting every time! None of that complicated stuff about nature taking its own course. And no more will visitors have to deal with tedious issues such as figuring out what the animals are doing as they wander rudely in and out of easy view. That's science, and science is HARD! After all, who goes to a state park to learn stuff about nature?

And gone will be the horrific possibility of seeing an actual WILD ANIMAL on the trail only a few yards from you! Everyone knows that WILD ANIMALS are DANGEROUS! WHAT ABOUT THE CHILDREN??

But seriously...the plan is baffling in its short-minded stupidity.

For one, the very "need" to take out the bison and horses is questionable. The official story is that that herd of 44 bison is becoming overcrowded and inbred, and increased development in the areas on the perimeter of the prairie increases the risk of an animal escaping the park and potentially injuring someone. And because bison and horses are technically livestock, the Park Service, which owns them, could be held liable for any such injuries. And keeping the few token beasts in an enclosure would make visitors happy, because now it's too hard for people to see them.

Let's consider these. As longtime park volunteer Chuck Littlewood stated in a recent righteous rant (how's that for alliteration?), nobody has been injured by a horse or bison in the thirty years since the animals were re-introduced to the prairie. (I've seen bison the the trail only a few yards away – they're comfortable enough around people to hold their ground, but they certainly won't go after anyone who just leaves them alone.) And because the animals are replacements for naturally occurring, indigenous wildlife, there is a solid legal basis for classifying them as wildlife rather than livestock. The inbreeding and overpopulation problems could be solved by selectively culling the herd – they don't have any natural predators in the park except for unusually large or ambitious alligators, so this may be a necessary evil.

As for the risk of escapes, bison and horses outside the park are no more dangerous than those within its boundaries. And seriously, people who choose to live on the edge of a wildlife preserve have no right to get their panties in a twist if a beastie or two occasionally breaches park borders. When I lived in California, I knew that having a well-stocked earthquake kit and stabilized bookshelves were part of the price of living there. When I moved to Florida, I knew my earthquake kit should be re-purposed as a hurricane kit. Every place has its advantages and risks, and dealing responsibly and non-hysterically with the latter is called being a grown-up.

Speaking of which... some of the best commentary on this half-baked plan came from the Independent Florida Alligator, the University of Florida's (technically unofficial) student newspaper. Having taught at UF for two years, I can characterize the typical UF student as bright, but still a work in progress. But some of those darn kids actually nailed down the inconsistencies of this proposal with laser-sharp accuracy. I'll just quote some of their better comments on the matter. First, there's this righteous snarkfest. Then there are these more modest comments:

"45 bison don't have enough room on 21,000 acres???
No one can see them, yet having 45 of them risks injuring people: which is it?

And the prairie is NOT a petting zoo; reducing the healthy herd to 8 females stuck standing around the visitor center sucks. Why not add a sign at the visitor's center: 'we sold all the male bison to meat factories and there are no bison actually on the prairie. We just keep these here to give the impression wild animals roam free! Enjoy your view'

"Little children have walked the trail and seen the bison from up close! The bison are prone to move away from people and have not been a problem, The repair of fences could vastly reduce the "risk to the community."
The thirty years that the bison have been there has not produced enough concern for fences or bison -- nor a problem.
Lastly, Why would you give away a herd worth $$$$$ Follow the money!

"..'the Florida Park Service believes this is the best course of action after consulting with UF geneticists and the National Bison Association, a non-profit organization that matches bison sellers to meat buyers.'
Boy sounds like they have the animals' best interests in mind!"

Park volunteers I've talked to echoed the second commenter's concern: the plan is for the Park Service to simply give away the meat from several dozen bison. If they must cull some of the animals, the volunteers argued, why not sell them? Buffalo meat is more expensive than beef on the commercial market, and the monies made from meat sales – if a cull is deemed necessary – could go toward the upkeep of the fences surrounding the park. One volunteer said he calculated that the funds that could be earned from selling a few animals a year at retail value could keep the fences around the park maintained – and the rest of the animals safe.

A public hearing on the matter is scheduled for Tuesday, November 30 at 7:00 p.m. Details are available here (scroll down to the bottom of page 3). If you live around here and care about our state parks staying distinct from petting zoos, you should consider dropping by.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Failure To Launch

A late breakfast at the Viera Wetlands.

Florida both sucks and rocks. On the sucky side are sticky 100-degree summers, man-eating mosquitos, and a political climate that would make most Third World banana republics look like Switzerland. Honest to God, the stuff in Carl Hiasaen's novels is not exaggeration.

On the upside, there's an ecosystem like none other in the US -- third-magnitude springs seemingly behind every bush, a dizzying inventory of dragonflies and butterflies, and of course, tons of birds, including several species not found anywhere else in the US. And a couple weekends ago, Glenn and I spent an excellent weekend looking at them.

It started with what used to be a routine event: the scheduled launch of the Space Shuttle, another wonderful and purely Floridian thing. Once upon a time, I had been a technical writer on the Space Shuttle program (it's not nearly as exciting as it sounds) and always felt a bit of pride whenever one of those things went up. Over time, I stopped looking for announcements of upcoming launches. But now the program was coming to an end, and this would be the second-to-last scheduled flight. Glenn thought it would be fun to photograph a space launch, we were only a two-hour drive from Cape Canaveral -- so off we went.

We knew, too, that the launch was likely to be delayed or cancelled--it almost always has been as of late. But even if this happened, there were still birds to see in the area. Lots of birds.

The launch two Fridays ago (a re-try from failed attempts on Wednesday and Thursday) was scheduled for 3:00. So we left Gainesville before sunrise and planned to spend the morning at the Viera Wetlands, about half an hour south of our planned launch viewing site in Titusville. At Viera, two potential life birds for both of us -- a Snail Kite and a Great Cormorant --had been reported, and even better, both had been making regular appearances over the past week or so.

We got to the Viera Wetlands at 9:00 and I immediately felt an alien sensation: cold. It was REALLY cold. Back in Gainesville, temperatures had been in the mid-eighties until a few days earlier, and it did not occur to me to bring a jacket. For that matter, I had totally forgotten that I even owned such an object, and after about half an hour, I found myself digging through my overnight bag (we were spending the night with Glenn's photographer friend Harry) and putting the second shirt that I had bought over the one I was wearing. Never mind that they weren't in even remotely harmonious colors and one of them had stripes and one of them a print. I was COLD.

This was one of those times I was glad I don't have kids: they would have been humiliated.

But thankfully, the wetlands were nearly free of other people, except for a few retiree birders, who generally have no business lecturing others about their fashion choices. And there were a lot of birds: within fifteen minutes of our arrival, we got great looks at two birds that almost never appear in our area, only a two-hour drive away: a pair of Caracaras and a noisy exhibitionist Limpkin.

And after about two hours of searching, we found the Snail Kite!

This bird was either an adult female or a juvenile. Still, it was distinctive and cool, and a new bird for both of us. Glenn called Harry to let him knew we'd arrived and found the Kite, and he told us the shuttle launch had been (unsurprisingly) scrubbed because of technical issues. But we no longer cared: this gave us more time to look for birds.

After a pleasant lunch chez Harry, he drove with us back to the wetlands to look for the Great Cormorant--who was exactly where Harry had said it would be:

After getting our Great Cormorant, we took another spin through the wetlands to get more looks at the Snail Kite. Then we headed back to Harry's place, where he showed off his cooking skills and his new barbecue by grilling up a raft of enormous steaks.

And it no longer mattered that the Space Shuttle launch had been scotched once again. We got two life birds, a splendid dinner, and a long evening with good friends. What more can one want?