Nature and Environment

News about the health and beauty of the natural world that sustains us.

Add to My MSN


Scripps PreserveDon’t let the fact that San Diego is America’s seventh most populated city mask the fact that this metropolis, sandwiched between the Laguna Mountains and sparkling Pacific Ocean, is every bit a nature – and sun – lover’s dream. With temperatures typically in the 70s or 80s and plentiful sunshine, there’s rarely a day you can’t catch the sunset, go for a ocean kayak trip or bike some of the hundreds of miles of bike trails or pathways that weave through the city.

This first of a two-part blog based on my family’s recent wintertime escape in February, highlights the ecotourism adventures to be had, on land, water or, if you’re truly adventurous, in the air.

Marine Sanctuary

We hit the waters of the La Jolla Cove in an ocean kayak on Everyday California’s Sea Cave Excursion. Our 90-minute paddle included a stop at – and inside — the La Jolla Sea Cave known as “the clam,” plus some hang time with Sea Lions and colorful narration by our guide Cara about the natural and cultural history of the area.  The caves are only accessible by water, in a kayak.

“The La Jolla Preserve has four distinct micro-habitats,” explains Kara Drown, as she guides us toward the caves after a stop to talk about the La Jolla Underwater Park and Ecological Preserve. “We’re paddling through three of them, the kelp forest, sandy flats and rocky reef. The Preserve is a Marine Protected Area that has one of the highest concentrations of sea life anywhere along the coast of California.”

As it turns out, the cove is ideal for kayaking and stand up paddle boarding, with its relatively calm and sheltered waters. Boats are restricted inside the buoys marking the 6,000 acre-wide preserve area of tidal shoals, shoreline and ocean floor.

Whale seen from Hornblower Cruises 

Looking to get further out on the open water and eager to catch a glimpse of the migrating Gray Whales, we embarked with Hornblower Cruises for their afternoon whale-watching excursion.  Once we were out of the busy harbor, Karen Marshall, an enthusiastic docent with the San Diego Natural History Museum and on board our ship, jokingly had the whole boatload of us imitating whale calls like Dory in Saving Nemo, calling out to the whales. It worked.

Besides watching the playful tail-slamming of many Gray Whales, our group was treated to several sightings of two Humpback Whales along with the rare spotting of a huge Blue Whale, the largest of all the whales. As it turns out, the whales are so plentiful here that you’re guaranteed to see them or you can return on a different day with Hornblower to try again for free.

“These whales are truly some of the most magnificent beings on Earth,” shares Marshall, as she showed us sections of a whale baleen and jawbones during our return to the dock.

Terrestrial Playground

There’s plenty to do on land, too. With the weather what it is, walking the miles of coastal beaches, bicycling or skateboarding some of the hundreds of miles of pathways, or hiking inland desert of mountain trails comes naturally.

Our favorite spots were hiking along the Sunset Cliffs in Ocean Beach as the sun turns the rocky coastline golden. Another standby are the paths in the “knoll” or “cliffs” of the upland portions of the Scripps Coastal Reserve.

Giant Panda at San Diego Zoo 

Among the highlights for many visitors is world-renowned San Diego Zoo, as much a conservation initiative as it is an educational and entertaining refuge nestled right in the heart of the city. This lush 100-acre oasis, spectacularly landscaped, is home for over 3,500 threatened or endangered animals and representing as many as 650 species and subspecies.

Located inside the 1,200-acre Balboa Park, the zoo showcases over 700,000 exotic plants, adding to its biological richness. We brought a picnic lunch and savored it in the cool shade of the fern forest and to the sounds of a cascading river and an occasional distant call from a peacock.

Without a doubt, the San Diego Zoo’s Giant Pandas are a huge draw, and for good reason. Besides their adorable black-and-white-patterned appeal, they serve as one of the faces of the global conservation movement.  It’s estimated that there’s fewer than 2,000 endangered Giant Pandas left on the planet in the mountains of central China and less than 300 in captivity.

So whether for continued breeding or used as leverage to help draw attention and funds to support habitat conservation, the presence of these pandas are a step in understanding the issues they, and many other species, face. The San Diego Zoo as well as the San Diego Zoo Safari Park and San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research are operated by the nonprofit San Diego Zoo Global.

In the Air

Just north of ritzy La Jolla, sits the Torrey Pines Gliderport, America’s top spot for paragliding and hang gliding. For an adrenaline rush without a drop of fossil fuels, you can soar over the side of the cliff, catching a current of air, strapped onto your pilot who steers your parachute or glider over the cliffs and Blacks Beach about two hundred feet below. Paragliding tandem instructional flights last about 25 minutes, and cover your lift off, flight and landing under the direction of a certified instructor.

In our next post, we’d reveal the culinary adventures to be had, and a few places where you can catch some rest that go easy on the Earth.

John D. Ivanko, with his wife Lisa Kivirist, have co-authored Rural Renaissance, Homemade for Sale, the award-winning ECOpreneuring and Farmstead Chef along with operating Inn Serendipity B&B and Farm, completely powered by the wind and sun. Both are regular speakers at the Mother Earth News Fairs. As a writer and photographer, Ivanko contributes to Mother Earth News, most recently, 9 Strategies for Self-Sufficient Living. They live on a farm in southwestern Wisconsin with their son, Liam, millions of ladybugs, and a 10-kW Bergey wind turbine. Read all of his MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.


Yellow Agriope Spider In Garden 

I have a long-standing fear and dislike of spiders — especially big ones. Over the years, it has lessened somewhat but was not helped by moving into a house in Golden, Colorado, that was vacant for a year and bred a large number of Black Widow spiders.

I killed 44 of them in a three-month span before eradicating this pest from our new home. You could say I was not a likely candidate for conversion to a spider lover.

I was in the garden one day picking my newest favorite tomato, ‘Juliet’, when I met her. She was striking in appearance and quickly grabbed my complete attention. This was because my hand was dangerously close to the biggest spider I had seen in my four years of veggie gardening in Perry Hall, Maryland.

I pulled my hand back quickly due to the long-standing fear of spiders and considered my options: I could squish the life out of her since she might be a nuisance with her web right in the middle of my favorite tomato plant, or I could leave her alone for now. I decided a stay-of-execution was in order and sought expert advice.

I went inside and grabbed my camera to take her picture to send to the UMD Grow-It-Eat-It plant and garden experts. They would know if this was a dangerous vixen in my tomato patch or a friend to be welcomed.

I sent in the photo and brief explanation of my dilemma and waited for a reply. The reply came back that I had a Yellow Agriope spider, it was harmless, and it would probably be a benefit to my garden. She got her reprieve from death-by-squishing.

Over the next few days, it took intense concentration to avoid her area around my luscious red-ripe ‘Juliet’ tomatoes that were bursting forth in amazing quantities and quality. Several of these yummy red orbs had to be left as they were practically in her dinner-plate-sized web.

As the weeks went by, I marveled at how she seemed to nab at least one of the pesky Japanese beetles per day and that pleased me. When my 12-year-old gardening protégé came over to help for his periodic garden lesson, he got big-eyed and said, “Is it dangerous?” to which I replied, “Only to other bugs, especially Japanese beetles!” He agreed with me that it was fun to watch her and learned to accept her presence in the garden.

Spider Web In The Garden 

As July was coming to an end, I was getting friendlier with her and even named her: Miss Agriope. I started amusing myself by catching and tossing all manner of bugs into her web, thoroughly enjoying the times when with lightning speed she pounced on, wrapped, and bit her easily won prey. She would let it tenderize for later consumption. This game was lots of fun, and she was growing big and fat by now with all the extra food.

August came and it was time for our annual vacation to Alaska. My nextdoor neighbor tends my garden on these trips to the far north, doing a fine job of keeping everything alive, but has a phobia of all manner of stinging bugs.

Looking back, I should have warned my neighbor about this very large and scary spider in the tomatoes. It was probably this phobia that led to Miss Agriope’s disappearance, for when I returned, she was gone from my life.

I couldn’t bring myself to ask my neighbor if she had dispatched my long-legged friend, so who knows what the culprit was, but picking ‘Juliet’ tomatoes would never be the same without my long-legged friend.

Even though she is long gone, I have photos and memories of her scary beauty.  I hope that her progeny might grace my garden. If so, let the summer games begin and look out you Japanese beetles — there’s a new sheriff in town, and she will eat you!

Kurt Jacobson is a food and travel writer with more than 20 years experience as a professional chef, in addition to being an avid amateur gardener. Read more of his writing at Taste of Travel 2 and find his food writing, including recipes, at Fast and Furious Cook.
All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.


trimmed trees.jpg

Wildfire is our greatest threat living in the mountains with all the dead vegetation and dead trees providing fuel. Here in Southern Colorado, where population density is less and forest growth is thick, sensible people plan ahead to mitigate wildfire risk. There is an abundance of information available for the concerned homesteader by putting "wildfire mitigation" into your search engine. Here are some tips I have learned through the years.

Firefighting Risks

At our remote location, we still have 18 inches of snow on the ground and just had our first red flag alert, which means conditions are right for a potential wildfire. Sometimes these alerts catch you by surprise, and this one caused us to take inventory to see if any last-minute details were required to mitigate for wildfire.

Any wildfire at this time of year, when our lakes are still frozen, limit available water sources to fight a wildfire. With this much snow still on the ground, it also makes getting defensible fire fighting lines established.

It is hard enough for firefighters to carry 50-60 pounds of equipment into the mountain terrain under normal conditions, but when 18 inches of snow is present, it makes it not only harder, but hazardous for them.

Wildfire Characteristics

The time to mitigate for wildfire is now, even though conditions may be less than favorable. When a wildfire does occur, this is perhaps the worst time to fight it, which is why it is advisable to have tree limbs trimmed where there is no fuel to feed any fire.

Before the flames from a wildfire arrive, the heat transfer is pushed by the wind and precedes the flames. The heat from this transfer can be as hot as 1,500 degrees F and dries out and pre-heats combustible material. The wind can move a wildfire very fast where there is combustible fuel and also blow hot embers far ahead of the actual wildfire itself.

Make a Realistic Evacuation Plan

If you live in a community, it is important to have an evacuation plan/route and if cut off and unable to evacuate, a secondary plan is in order. Our community, for example, is 15 miles long and about 6 miles wide with access by one main road controlled by an electric gate. On all sides, there is no viable escape route.

Our Landowners Association seems to think there is an escape route through the national forest which surrounds a large part of our community. On close examination, that road could be a disaster, since it is a very rough and poorly maintained single-rut dirt road that is several miles long.

If a vehicle breaks down on that road or gets stuck, those behind the vehicle would be very vulnerable. The main road going in and out of the community would be very congested with all the residents, not to mention the incoming firefighters. It is, therefore, necessary that individuals have their own plan in case the corporate plan doesn’t work.

Basic Fire Mitigation Plan

Our plan has been to trim tree limbs up 20 feet from the ground and to thin the trees where wildfire cannot easily go from tree to tree. We have also cut trees 50-60 feet out from the house and have removed any ground debris or flammables, like juniper which is highly combustible. We also have a stone exterior, which does not burn — nor does the metal roofing.

We have a basement that is underground and all wildfire fuel is absent from several hundred feet from our home. We have steel doors so there is little to actually serve as wildfire fuel. We have a misting system that will dampen any exposed deck wood susceptible to fire, and at the same time, not drain our well of water. Using a sprinkler will use up well water in a few hours.

Considering our community and the way it is laid out, it is highly likely that our Association’s plan won’t work and we would be on our own. We have planned accordingly.

Be Calm and Increase Your Chance to Survive

When a wildfire does occur, people will panic and having planned ahead, we will be less prone to follow a person who may be in charge and in a panic. To follow someone like that would be foolish and probably disastrous. Having made preparations ahead of time, you are less likely to make a serious mistake when in the path of a wildfire.

You may have only a few moments to evacuate if  possible, or maybe no time at all. If you have a plan, have prepared well and are unable to evacuate (the best option), then your chance of survival is clearly increased.

Professional Evaluation of Risk

In our case, with only one entrance within a long, narrow community, each individual should have been preparing for eventual wildfire. We have had two wildfire audits where our property was checked as well as our individual plan, and in both cases it exceeded “excellent”. That does not necessarily mean that we would survive, but it does mean that our odds of doing so are very good.

Being caught out in the open or on an exit road in an impending wildfire would be very risky. Also, planning ahead of time and having fuel removed from around our house would facilitate firefighters doing their best to save our home. We have been told that if no mitigation has been done that the risk to firefighters is too great for them to try to save those houses. Some people have not done any and, therefore, are putting their lives and property at much higher risk.

The Time is NOW to Begin Preparing for Wildfire

The time to begin thinking and doing mitigation is before a wildfire occurs. Last-minute efforts could be too, little too late and do no constructive good, plus putting the homesteader at high risk.

We have been working at wildfire mitigation since we first built our home and continue to each year. The last inspector told us he that he had found our homestead was the most defensible in the community, which is no guarantee of safety but is good to know. Evacuation is our first choice, but with our circumstances, we are prepared if that option in not available.

It is imperative that anyone living in a potential wildfire area have their own plan in case those in their community can’t provide a rational and exceptional plan.

For more on Bruce and Carol McElmurray and how they have forged our a lifestyle in the mountains go to: Read all of Bruce and Carol's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.


Illustration “Murmuration” by artist Glenn Wolff 

Illustration “Murmuration” by artist Glenn Wolff

If you’ve ever watched flocks of starlings (or have seen them on YouTube), you’ve probably been enchanted by those swirling, switching clouds of birds. Have you ever wondered what causes them? Or why they’re called “murmurations”?

Starlings are a scourge. They crowd out native birds, spread disease, and steal mountains of grain. It was a thick-headed decision for a chemical-company executive named Eugene Schieffelin to carry them across the Atlantic in the 1890s and release them into Central Park because he thought it’d be cool if all the birds mentioned by Shakespeare were in America.

We know now what a bad idea that was. But starlings are here to stay, so we might as well accept them. And the fact is, they’re interesting — and beautiful. Examine one up close and you’ll see plumage stippled with stars strewn across a background of black and iridescent purple.

A few years ago, I was driving on a highway in the agricultural flatlands of Michigan. Across a field, at a distance of perhaps a mile, I saw what I thought was a plume of smoke hanging low in the sky. Then I realized it was a flock of thousands or tens of thousands of birds. In North America, such flocks often include red-winged blackbirds, cowbirds, grackles, sparrows, and others, but almost certainly they are comprised mostly of starlings.

This flock was extraordinary. First, it was vast: a stadium’s worth of birds. It was too far away to pick out individuals, which made the aggregate smokelike, a thick cloud of bird-smoke. It drifted in whorls above the field, curving and swirling as if stirred by a mixing spoon. The scene was so striking that I pulled onto the shoulder and got out of my car for a better look. The flock paused for a moment, as if suspended, then swept downward, paused again, and suddenly reversed direction and climbed higher than before. At moments there were cross-swirls and vortexes, like dust-devils following a car on a dirt road. It was mesmerizing.

Then I noticed a larger object plummeting through the starlings: a hawk. It attacked like a barracuda in a school of minnows. To avoid the hawk the flock morphed into a shape like a donut, with the predator passing through the hole. The hawk turned and climbed, dived again, and the flock turned to avoid it, forming other graceful, spiral-like shapes.

What makes congregations of this sort stay together? How can birds in a flock or fish in a school make what appear to be simultaneous turns, dives, and swoops without the individuals crashing into one another?

A theory popular a century ago, that a leader signals orders to the flock like a drum major to a marching band, was disproved when high-speed photography revealed that flocks constantly change leaders. More recent studies have focused on mathematical chaos theory, an approach pioneered by zoologist Frank Heppner. Heppner’s computer programs animated figures on a screen to represent birds, their motion duplicating the actual flight behavior of flocking birds.

Software engineer Craig Reynolds designed a more complex computer model using what he called "Boids" to simulate flocking synchronism. Reynolds’ “Boids” exhibited such lifelike behavior that they’ve been put to use in Hollywood movies — to duplicate a swarm of bats, for instance, in Tim Burton’s Batman Returns.

Of course there's another side to all of this. We can consider the scientific explanations — position and velocity, stimuli and responses, binary codes of behavior, the need for individuals in a flock to remain close enough together to be safe from predators but far enough apart to avoid injury — and it helps us to understand the world, in the sense that it’s probably biology we’re seeing, not bewitchment or the gods idly stirring swizzle sticks.

We're reminded that the world is an unfolding story and that now and then we can pull off the highway and take a minute to watch.


European Starling Photo Alden Chadwick 

Photo of starling by Alden Chadwick 

Most people know that “murmuration” is a collective noun designating a group of animals. What is less known is that it goes back centuries, to an era when European aristocrats used language to distance themselves from the common herd.

Some collective nouns came into use in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries as “terms of venery” used by hunters. Rattling them off was a mark of erudition. The Book of Saint Albans, first published in 1486, included such terms a “gaggle” of geese, a “mob” of deer, a “covey” of grouse, a “bevy” of quail, a “fall” of woodcock, and a “sounder” of wild boar.

People other than hunters were likely to mention a “pride” of lions, a “cowardice” of curs, an “exultation” of larks, and a “murder” of crows. Other terms were meant to be humorous: a “blush” of boys, a “hastiness” of cooks, a “pity” of prisoners, a “drunkship” of cobblers, and a “melody” of harpists.

For starlings there were two terms: a “chattering” and a “murmuration.” If you’ve ever been near a flock of starlings roosting in a tree or strung along a telephone line, you know they’re vocal. They squeal. They grunt. Sometimes they chuckle. But mostly they murmur.


In nature, sometimes, everything fits. But seen another way it’s pure chaos. In our search for synthesis in the world we notice patterns that when seen from a distance appear orderly. Photograph a leaf in extreme close-up and it passes for abstract art. Zoom out far enough and our sun is one star in a vast, swirling galaxy of stars.

Stars are stipples. Starlings in a flock are stipples. The guy who released the first starlings into Central Park was a stipple. So are you and I.

That day, standing on the side of the highway watching that flock of starlings make fluid swoops in the distance, I glimpsed the face of a young woman as she drove past, heard the blare of a horn, noticed that trucks as they passed created flurries of wind that rocked my car on its suspension. It occurred to me that our lives are made of moments that cluster together, like flocks. If we step back far enough we can sometimes see a pattern, and sometimes it’s beautiful.

This post is adapted from A Walk in the Animal Kingdom: Essays on Animals Wild and Tame, by Jerry Dennis, with illustrations by Glenn Wolff. Jerry Dennis is the author of The Living Great Lakes, It’s Raining Frogs and Fishes, The Bird in the Waterfall, and many other books. Visit him at


Sludge delivered to the farmland, next to it - the cattle is graizing.

A mother of a 7-year old boy suffering from asthma followed the rules and filled out the forms for the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and Virginia Department of Health (VDH), requesting that due to her child’s health issues the setback for the upcoming application of biosolids next to her house will be extended. Three attending physicians attached letters requesting that at least a one mile setback is observed.

A new biosolids permit was just issued by the DEQ to the sludge distributor and in that new permit three new sites were proposed within a stone throw of the house where the sick boy lived.

The VDH – Biosolids Medical Review Committee rubber-stamped the denial, only to allow 400ft setback instead of the requested one mile from all three application sites. The members of that committee didn’t bother talking to the mother, evaluating the child, consulting with the physicians, or visiting the site. They didn’t give a moment of consideration to the child’s health, safety or welfare, all of which was done well within the parameters of current state regulations.

This story was told to me by C.W, a resident of the same community. He too is one of the many victims of biosolids invasion into the rural Virginia. C.W. is a resident of a small community in Louisa County. His next door neighbors, landowners, sold a portion of their land. On the part of the property that remained in their possession they allowed the sludge distributor to spread biosolids and industrial residuals.

C.W. lowers his voice and leans forward, it sounds almost like a scary nighttime story you tell your grandkids – they always come at night, 3:30 am is their favorite time. First, you wake up to the noise of big, heavy dump trucks lifting their loading beds. Then – the smell comes…… and it doesn’t leave you. Ever! It permeates your skin, your hair, it’s stuck in your clothes, it gets into your nostrils and stays there. You can’t open the windows to air your home - the source of that horrid, indescribable smell is just outside your window! You get in your car and it takes a ride with you, there is no escape from it. And it makes you sick. Headache, upset stomach, nausea – those symptoms come first. Then you notice tightness in your chest, you develop a chronic cough, migraines, rashes, watery itchy eyes. There is a long list of symptoms.

Faces of Sludge Victims

C.W. became an avid opponent of sludge; he served on county and state biosolids committees, voicing his opposition since 2000. He is the chair of a regional group of activists who oppose the land application of biosolids. In 2009, when his health began to fail, he moved to Richmond, now his house in the country is up for sale. He hands me a DVD – Please, bring it back after you’re done. It took a lot of my time to talk to all those folks. That’s my way of keeping track of what is happening in my county.

I plug the DVD in to my laptop. It’s a long recording. Faces of “sludge victims”. Young and old, men and women, African-American and white. Some look visibly sick; an elderly lady struggles to get her words out, after each sentence she needs a break to catch her breath. I listen to her labored wheezing. Her whole family has upper respiratory infections. Just when everybody gets a little better – a new application of sludge comes and whole household is coughing again. Another woman, surrounded by her kids, her voice full of exasperation – all those kids got bronchitis, all of them! They missed school, they had to stay home, but home is where the source of the problem is, so they never got really better.

Three girls sit with her on the sofa, they are a little camera-shy so they just nod in agreement. More and more faces. Everybody has similar stories. House belonged to family for generations, this is where they grew up, they know everyone in town. Now they want to move away, sell the house. But how? The stench will scare any potential buyers. And if you are lucky to sell it during the time between the sludge applications, when the odor subsides – is that the moral thing to do? Hide the real reason why you are getting rid of the house so somebody else can move in and get sick?

Sludge Applications Effects on Real Estate

Current Virginia law doesn’t require disclosing the proximity of sludge applications on the real estate documents. You can trick somebody to buy a house build on a toxic land and it’s legal. There was a bill introduced last year to the Virginia General Assembly to require the disclosure of land applications of biosolids and industrial residuals in the real estate transactions – sale or lease.

That bill did not pass the House Agriculture Chesapeake and Natural Resources Committee. Virginia Association of Realtors is happy; they don’t want regulations to hinder the sales.

I recently heard a story about a subdivision in rural central Virginia, a maze of cul-de-sacs with building lots, some of them with houses and families living there, others – still for sale. Then the market crash of 2008 came and nobody was buying anything. A wealthy county resident purchased several lots for a fraction of the true value, but he didn’t have plans to build a house there. He wanted to put a sludge holding reservoir in that residential neighborhood.

Local residents are fighting the project to this day, but they are quickly running out of options. The toxic sludge storage right in the middle of a residential community could become a reality as soon as all legal avenues to prevent it from happening will be exhausted.

Lasting Community Effects

There is another, social aspect to the sludge stories. Community ties are destroyed. Neighbors turn against neighbors. Sludgers versus anti-sludgers. The social fabric of those small, rural communities is torn. The community falls apart, people move out and the land became worthless. Not just worthless – dangerous to the wellbeing of its owners. It takes about two thousand years for the Earth to produce an agricultural soil. It takes just a few applications of human and industrial waste to destroy it.

But maybe I got it all wrong; the world’s largest sludge distributor – Synagro Technologies, Inc. sports a green turf logo on its home page and a reassuring promise: Your partner for a cleaner, greener world – transforming waste challenges into sustainable planet-friendly solutions.

Land application of biosolids in progress

Photos courtesy of Craig Monk

Lidia Epp is active with a local group of residents concerned about the agricultural application of biosolids, a dangerous practice that devastates farmland. She corroborates with local activists, politicians and scientists to bring public awareness to this issue and advocates for changes in state and federal regulations of biosolids land use. Read all of Lidia’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.



Eastern Coyote by Jacques Tournel 

The importance of the actions and perspectives of those who came before us cannot be overstated. We live in, and view the world with a perspective that was created by them. Then again, our actions and perspectives are creating a world for those who come after us.

In my previous blogs I wrote about these historical perspectives, and how deeply they have influenced our farming. But we are in our own time now, and we are creating the future as we speak. We are re-creating farming from the ground up, as we leave behind old perspectives regarding our relationship with the land, and the intelligent species we share it with.

As a member of my community, I support sustainable farming in all its many facets — from enriching our soils and pastures, protecting clean water sources, supporting healthy forests, impacting global warming, and keeping successful and happy farming families on the land, and much, much more.

As a biologist, I support these farmers who are seeking to create a farming for the future; one that we are creating today. And that is why I have collaborated with leading farmers, experts on guardian animals and fencing, and fellow biologists to create the new educational and supportive website, Farming With Carnivores Network.

I encourage all farmers and community members to visit this site. Its purpose is to create a central meeting place where farmers who wish to protect their farm animals from predation by the use of non-lethal means, can learn and share with others. Included in this educational site are a number of ever growing farmers who share about their farm, and how they successfully live with carnivores. These farmers welcome your questions, and are happy to share their own learning experiences.

After much research and collaboration with a number of very knowledgeable experts on guardian animals, this site shares many opportunities for you to learn about animal husbandry practices that include the use of guardian dogs, Llamas and donkeys. We want you to be successful, and so there is much available guidance for those who are new to the concept of guardian animals.

But there is much more, for there are numerous animal husbandry practices that can keep you animals safe. They are all discussed there for you. Oftentimes just understanding the uniqueness of your farm, and simple changes you make, are what is needed.

However, as one of our fencing experts has stated, fencing is the first line of defense. Whether your fencing is moving wherever your animals go, or it stays in place, appropriate, well-maintained fencing that is electrified is a powerful deterrent to predation by wild carnivores. So take a look at what we have shared with you regarding fencing, and expect to see more and more new information regarding it as time goes by.


Avian Predator, Great Horned Owl photo by David Illig 

Unique to this site is information on carnivores who share your farm with you, whether they are flying overhead or on the land. The successful farmer knows the carnivores on his/her farm. And by the word “know” is meant understanding of who they are, and their needs.

The carnivores of our country are returning after several centuries of relentless slaughter. We are beginning to understand their invaluable role in keeping our landscapes healthy and balanced by hunting their wild prey — not our farm animals. Our goal is to welcome them back and know how to live with them!


Avian Predator, Red Tail Hawk photo by David Illig 

Finally, a most important part of this site is the Sharing Forum. It is here that we all share our questions, experiences, photos, and receive valuable guidance from very knowledgeable and experienced persons. So come join us. All are Welcome!

Geri Vistein is a conservation biologist whose work focuses on carnivores and our human relationships with them. In addition to research and collaboration with fellow biologists in Maine, she educates communities about carnivores and how we can coexist with them. You can find her at Coyote Lives in Maine, and read all of Geri's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.


Deer in snow

Hunting. It's such a charged word in this day and age, that it's hard to explain to people who have been told what hunting means by people who have an agenda of some sort. If you hunt, chances are you know what I'm talking about. But if you don't hunt, you may have gotten your information from sources that are emotionally charged and not necessarily informed.

So if you're interested in actually learning what hunting is about by someone who actually loves nature, loves animals, but also loves to hunt ethically, you're in for a frank discussion of what hunting is, and more importantly, what hunting isn't.

What Hunting Actually Is

It's hard to discuss hunting without understanding what exactly is hunting. You may have been told that hunting is full of redneck, fat, middle-aged men who drink beer and shoot up signs. Or maybe you've been told that hunting is done to simple get some antlers or a mount for one's living room. Those statements are about as cliché as they come, and I won't lie to you and tell you that they don't happen. But more often than not, hunting is about a connection with the nature and the past.

When I say that hunting is about a connection to nature and the past, I'm talking about traditions. Chances are those who hunt were taught by their parents or an older relative. They in turn, were probably taught by their parents, and so on. It's a connection to our past in a personal way. Yes, there is the thrill of the chase and looking for critters, but given that hunting isn't easy, there certainly more and easier ways to get your adrenaline fix. Being out in nature is a huge part of hunting. And while anyone can go for a walk in the wilderness and appreciate wildlife, it takes a certain amount of skill to search for and stalk a deer or elk.

It is also about food. There are a fair number of hunters who do get the majority of their meat from hunting still. Rather than be on food stamps or show up at food banks, they hunt to provide nutrition to their families. There are other hunters who prefer the taste of game meat over beef, chicken, pork, or any other domesticated food. Then there are those who have figured out that hunting when done properly is sustainable, and choose that lifestyle over going to the grocery store and picking out a package of meat.

Ethical Hunters Are Conservationists

Many hunters are conservationists. They want enough wildlife and enough wild areas to exist so that there is a healthy population to hunt. They want to see deer and elk and moose and whatever else because they respect the animals. And they understand that in order to keep hunting, the animal must be around in healthy numbers. What's more, hunting tags pay for conservation. The studies on elk, deer, wolves, and even non-game animals get their money from hunting licenses and hunting fees.

Trophy Hunting in the United States

Before I go into what hunting is any further, I need to address the aspect trophy hunting. You may think you know what trophy hunting is, but what it actually is, if it's done legally, isn't as bad as you think it is. In most states, and I would guess that in all of the United States, it's illegal to waste game meat. That means that there are some pretty hefty fines associated with killing an animal for its horns or antlers, or whatever, and leaving the carcass to rot. That is not hunting. Let me repeat: that is not hunting.

That is what we call poaching. It is the illegal take of game or leaving the animal to rot. Those people who are trophy hunters in the United States must take the meat or donate it to a food bank or other charity where people can enjoy the meat. So, if someone is going after a big buck or a big bull, they have to use the meat somehow. It's not enough for them to have a head or antlers stuck on a wall somewhere. These people generally look for big animals — usually male — and yeah, there's a certain amount of bragging rights that goes along with that. For one thing, those older male deer or elk are cagey. They don't get the big set of antlers because they were foolish and visited people. They get it by being wily and sneaky. Which means as a hunter, if the take is legal, they have to call the animal in or sneak up on it, or sit for however many hours or days in a cold tree stand and wait for the critter to show up, assuming it does.

If someone is hunting for a trophy animal legally, I don't have a problem with it provided that the animal is legal and they eat the meat or donate to the food bank. Those so-called trophy hunters pass on the deer and elk I'm willing to shoot because it is my food. Would I purposely look for a deer or elk with a big rack? No. I'll shoot whatever is legal. Would I turn down a trophy buck or bull if it showed up? Of course not, but that isn't my criteria for hunting. The rack is only a bonus, and not my goal.

Hunting is Not Easy

One of the myths that non-hunters seem to have is the overall ease hunters have when it comes to locating game and shooting it. Unless you're going for a game damage hunt, finding the critters can be problematic. I can't tell you how many times back when I didn't hunt but I mushed sled dogs that I saw hunters who were constantly looking for animals and declared that there were none in the area. But the next day, there were tracks all over the place, and in some instances, my sled team and I ran into herds of elk and even antelope.

We even helped a lost hunter find his buddies. He was exhausted from walking around and looking for animals he couldn't find. These animals play a constant game of hide and seek. Even if you know the area, even if you've tracked the animals in the off season, even if you think you know what you're doing, there's no guarantee. If you want a guarantee on getting supper, go to the grocery store.

My husband and I have spent literally weeks looking for animals without success in the same areas where we know there are animals. Sometimes they're regular, such as the deer in one area, but given that we only hold certain tags, we can't just shoot anything that shows up. There are regulations for what kinds of deer you can take, length of antler, how many brow tines, etc.

And even if you get that dialed in, there's no guarantee that you will shoot the animal. Most deer and certainly no elk I know of, (with the exception of habituated wildlife), want humans nearby or even within several hundred yards. The last deer I shot was about 200 yards away. That's two football stadiums in distance. And I got a heart shot, luckily. I missed the first shot but managed to get a deer on the second shot.

Shooting at distance isn't easy. Your target looks less like a deer through the scope and more like a marble-sized version of the critter. And then, there's things like bullet drop (ballistics), wind (OMG), and other variables.

Now, when you consider that either you have to sneak up on the critter to get a 50 to 100 yard shot or face the daunting prospect of shooting 200, 300, 400, or more yards, it gives you an appreciation just how tough it is. The Montana FWP has check stations and the average success rate of hunters is about 7 to 8 percent through those stations. Probably when all is said and done maybe 15 percent of the tags are filled, would be my guess. That includes tags that we fill every year.

In Colorado, hunting was a nightmare. You literally had a week to fill your tag. That meant you spent a boatload of money for the privilege of maybe bringing back a deer or elk. If you were lucky. The times I went with my husband, we came home without meat. Yep, sucked.

Montana gives you about five weeks to find your animals and hopefully get your tags filled during general rifle season. It's better, but it's no guarantee.

The Short Life of a Game Animal

Deer live an average of two to three years in the wild. Maybe if they're lucky and get really good avoiding predators, cars, starvation, diseases, and hunters, they're looking at maybe eight to ten. Elk probably go 10 to 13 in the wild tops. Antelope are lucky to see their eighth year.

These are natural prey animals. That means that someone has to eat them or they die from environmental stresses such as disease and starvation. In order to provide enough food for predators, including humans, they have to produce enough offspring to keep their species alive, which they do, admirably. Their lives are filled with uncertainty due to the vagaries of the environment and pressure from predators.


Speaking of predators, we found a deer that had been killed by coyotes on our properties. She had been taken down and had been partially eaten from the rear first, starting at her anus. The coyotes had left the poor girl to struggle and eventually die with her intestines hanging out while they merrily ate her alive. Now, tell me that a bullet isn't more humane?

This is not uncommon. Predators don't kill cleanly and they aren't particularly humane when it comes to killing their food. Humans seem to have that sensibility.

Disease and Starvation

It's not unusual to see herds stricken with disease. When there are too many prey animals for the carrying capacity or when the environment hands them a drought and poor forage, it wears on the critters and inevitably disease takes hold. Or if there is a drought like the one we're going through, it's common for herds to starve in the winter.

Both my husband and I obtained game damaged licenses through FWP to hunt some of the deer that were destroying the alfalfa fields where the rancher's cattle were wintering. We counted some 50+ deer in the one field. If they had food outside of the rancher's fields, they probably would've gone there. The deer I shot had no winter fat to speak of and the sheer numbers meant that she and perhaps other deer would starve because of the scarcity of food.

Maggie Bonham is a multiple award-winning author, editor, and publisher who is a canine and feline behavioral expert and science fiction/fantasy writer living in the wilds of Montana. She raises horses, Alaskan Malamutes, cats, chickens, geese, ducks, turkeys, a llama and 14 ornery and loveable goats. Maggie is the publisher of both Sky Warrior Books and Garnet Mountain Press, which publish science fiction, fantasy, mystery, and nonfiction. Find her on Facebook and Twitter, and read all of Maggie’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.

Subscribe Today!

Pay Now & Save 67% Off the Cover Price

(* indicates a required item)
Canadian subs: 1 year, (includes postage & GST). Foreign subs: 1 year, . U.S. funds.
Canadian Subscribers - Click Here
Non US and Canadian Subscribers - Click Here