Great reads on an overlooked megafire, bird smuggling, Yellowstone’s climate

photo of burned grassland
REUTERS/Lucas Jackson
The Starbuck fire burned some 2 million acres of Oklahoma, Kansas and Texas grasslands.

Shortly before California’s latest suffering put megafire at the top of the news, I savored Ian Frazier’s remarkable “The Day the Great Plains Burned” in The New Yorker. It’s a kind of history piece about a grass fire that burned some 2 million acres of Oklahoma, Kansas and Texas grasslands, killing seven people and thousands of cattle, while threatening to erase several towns.

But this history isn’t distant. The Starbuck Fire, as it was christened for administrative purposes, started in early March 2017 near the Oklahoma Panhandle town of Slapout, pop. 5, and grew explosively if briefly. It got little if any coverage hereabouts, as best I can tell from a backward glance, but its size alone – it became the largest in Kansas history – will assure it a place in the record of notable U.S. wildfires:

A megafire is considered to be one that burns more than 100,000 acres. In Oklahoma, the total burned in the March 6th fires was 781,000 acres. Moving northeast with the wind, the Starbuck Fire soon crossed into Kansas. Eventually, the Starbuck and other nearby fires would be given an official, bureaucratic handle, the Northwest Complex Fire, but, to the people most affected, the fires that burned 608,000 Kansas acres are still called by the name of a fire chief in Oklahoma.

In the Texas Panhandle, fires burned 482,000 acres. Seven people are thought to have died in the March 6th fires. The expanse of burned land on the south-central Great Plains amounted to almost 2 million acres — roughly 3,000 square miles. Rhode Island, that useful state for comparing geographic measure, covers about a thousand square miles of land. The March 6th fires burned an area about the size of three Rhode Islands.

Frazier’s account, which leads this occasional roundup of great recent reads for the holiday weekend, blends his deep knowledge of the Great Plains with a clear explanatory style and a light, non-ponderous tone.

The territory that burned, he notes, sees extreme weather (if not extreme fire) on a regular basis, and the “dry line” phenomenon of late winter aridity and wind that contributed to the Dust Bowl days persists in powerful storms. But climate change is gradually amplifying the result:

There had been almost no precipitation for six months; before that, however, a lot of rain had fallen, and now the plentiful prairie grasses stood up tall and tinder-dry. On some days, like this one, the winds blew at fifty-plus miles an hour, while the humidity dipped down into the single digits. An ice storm in January had damaged scores of power lines, making them more vulnerable.

One of these lines fell to the ground in a field north of Slapout. Within an hour or so,

[T]he gray and black smoke was boiling up toward altitudes where airplanes are tiny white X shapes with pipe-cleaner contrails. The smoke mounted in gray cumulus-like eruptions or redacted everything above the horizon line to black, while the underside of the billows glowed orange from the flames. Embers flew through the air, and the fierce heat added its own force to the wind, which blew with such a noise that people standing four feet apart had to shout to talk.

… Garth Gardiner, a rancher who raises cattle and quarter horses west of Ashland, watched through the window of his ranch’s office as the smoke plumed skyward and figured the fire would miss him. He got in his pickup and drove west on a dirt road for a better look, then pulled over and gauged the smoke’s distance —still pretty far off, he thought. Suddenly, a wall of flames came leaping over a ridge about three hundred yards away. “I saw it and hauled butt out of there,” he said. Speeding back toward his house, he saw the smoke engulf his family’s cattle operation, to the southwest, causing the photo-sensor floodlights above the corrals to turn on. Soon, only those lights, tiny pinpoints, were visible. Within the smoke’s blackness, Garth’s brothers, Mark and Greg, and Mark’s wife, Eva, each escaped without knowing if the others had made it. Mark drove out on a lane so dark with smoke that he had to hold the truck door open so that he could follow the gravel road edge below him.

This is a story of heroism by ranchers and volunteer fire departments fighting flame for 40 hours or more without sleep, spraying themselves to keep from being burned to death, all without mutual aid because every town across the vast landscape was in the same predicament.

If you can’t imagine making firebreaks on the tractor, fitted with a plow or grading blade, Frazier will show you how it all went, and movingly.

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Did you know that wildlife smuggling is the world’s fourth-largest illicit-trade sector, after drugs, human trafficking and counterfeit goods? I myself did not until reading Rene Ebersole’s cover story in Audubon magazine, “Meet the Undercover Crime Unit Battling Miami’s Black Market of Birds.”

This trade is valued by the World Wildlife Fund at $19 billion a year, with birds constituting a large portion, especially in the United States. Many a songbird is hidden in the luggage, pockets, socks and underwear of smugglers deplaning in New York or Los Angeles, but Miami is an especially active entry point because of its proximity to places in Latin America and the Caribbean – Cuba especially – whose avian species are especially attractive to bird fanciers who ought to know better.

One of the early fish snagged by Operation Ornery Birds was a man named Hovary Muniz, a U.S. citizen who had arrived at Miami International Airport on a flight from Havana in January 2016. A customs officer carefully reviewed Muniz’s entry declaration, then inspected his duffel bag. He asked Muniz to empty his pockets and place any belongings on a table. Muniz unfastened a black fanny pack hidden beneath a guayabera, the style of loose-fitting shirt popular in Latin American and the Caribbean. When the officer unzipped the bag, he found six plastic hair curlers concealing live songbirds. Upon further inspection, he found several more bird-filled curlers hidden in Muniz’s underwear.

In total, Muniz had nine birds — five Cuban Melodious Finches (better known as Cuban Grassquits), one Cuban Bullfinch, one Yellow-faced Grassquit, one Indigo Bunting, and one Blue Grosbeak. He was arrested and released on a $50,000 bond. A subsequent flyover of Muniz’s property detected signs of trapping. When agents searched it they found three Indigo Buntings, three Yellow-faced Grassquits, several cages, and a mist net.

Because of their small size and limited defenses, trapped birds are easy to wrap up or place in containers (hair curlers being a favorite)  or even sew into clothing or taped to a leg. Stress-induced mortality ranges up to 80 percent. But good money can be made on the survivors; one trafficker sold agents 180 birds for $11,000 as they built a case against him.

Investigations into South Florida’s illegal songbird market first began in the early 2000s, around the time when [Operation Ornery Birds director David] Pharo, then an Everglades park ranger, stumbled upon some bird traps hidden in the trees on the edge of the park. He waited for the trappers to collect their quarry, reported what he’d seen to authorities, and then tailed the suspects in his car for about an hour to an address in Hialeah, a city northwest of Miami. Wildlife agents arrived and questioned the trappers in the driveway, gathering intelligence that would ultimately contribute to an investigation that was nicknamed Operation Bunting. …

By 2006 Operation Bunting had netted six bird dealers and three pet stores illegally selling protected species. After those convictions, news about songbird trafficking went quiet for a while. Then in 2012 a 76-year-old man returning to Miami from Cuba was caught with 16 Cuban Bullfinches sewn into his pants. Two years later FWS agents seized 34 migratory birds, largely cardinals and buntings, from the estate of coffee heir Jose Souto, whose family emigrated from Cuba in 1960 and grew a business that at one time supplied 80 percent of the espresso beans sold in the United States.

Besides the obvious issue of mistreatment, this trafficking undermines endangered species protections because vanishing birds are naturally of higher interest to buyers. Also, there are concerns about bringing this living contraband introducing new avian diseases, or driving out natives in Florida and beyond. For a variety of reasons, only a portion of the seized birds can be sent back where they came from. Many must be euthanized; the rest placed in zoos, if a willing facility can be found.

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“By the time my daughter is an old woman, the climate will be as different for her as the last ice age seems to us.” – Michael Tercek, an ecologist who has worked at Yellowstone National Park for 28 years.

In “Your Children’s Yellowstone Will Be Radically Different,” written for the New York Times, Marguerite Holloway presents many statistics of a familiar kind: Mean annual temperatures are higher, days below freezing are fewer, snowpack is declining (to its lowest level in eight centuries!).  Then she shows you what it means, assisted by the videos interspersed with her words for this striking interactive feature.

Noting Yellowstone National Park’s unique role in species protection and restoration – this is an important home for bison, wolves, elk, grizzly bears and trumpeter swans – Holloway delivers the news that the park and surrounding region that comprise the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem are “changing before the eyes of those who know it best.”

Researchers who have spent years studying, managing, and exploring its roughly 3,400 square miles say that soon the landscape may look dramatically different.

Over the next few decades of climate change, the country’s first national park will quite likely see increased fire, less forest, expanding grasslands, shallower, warmer waterways, and more invasive plants  all of which may alter how, and how many, animals move through the landscape. Ecosystems are always in flux, but climate change is transforming habitats so quickly that many plants and animals may not be able to adapt well or at all.

As elsewhere in the West, Yellowstone’s summers have become hotter and drier, with fires becoming larger and more frequent. Noxious weeds have moved in, supplanting the forage that supports elk, which sends portions of the herd to graze on private land outside the park boundary; some don’t come back. (And, I imagine, more than a few get shot.)

Grizzlies are omnivores, eating whatever is available, including the fat- and protein-packed nuts of the whitebark pine. That pine is perhaps the species most visibly affected by climate change in Yellowstone and throughout the West. Warmer temperatures have allowed a native pest, the mountain pine beetle, to better survive winter, move into high elevations and have a longer reproductive season. In the last 30 years, an estimated 80 percent of the whitebark pines in the park have died by fire, beetle or fungal infection.

For want of the whitebark pine, a great deal could be lost. The trees are a foundation species, meaning they play a central role in the structure of the ecosystem. They colonize exposed mountain sites, allowing other plants to get a root-hold. Their wide canopies protect snowpack from the sun. They are also a keystone species. They provide food for birds like the Clark’s nutcracker, which, in turn, create whitebark pine nurseries by caching nuts. And they are an important food source for squirrels, foxes and grizzlies.

Meanwhile, stream flows are declining (except, of course, when unusually rapid snowmelt creates a flood) and water temperatures are warming, which puts pressure on trout populations and creates conditions for favorable to aquatic disease. Except, of course, when unusually rapid snowmelt creates a flood.

Ann Rodman, another park scientist with three decades at Yellowstone, told Holloway the temperature and weather data continue to impress her with the accelerating pace of change.

“When I first started doing it, I really thought climate change was something that was going to happen to us in the future,” she said. “But it is one of those things where the more you study it, the more you realize how much is changing and how fast.”

“Then you begin to go through this stage, I don’t know if it is like the stages of grief,” Ms. Rodman said. “All of a sudden it hits you that this is a really, really big deal and we aren’t really talking about it and we aren’t really thinking about it.”

*

Among many experiences for which I’m thankful this week is seeing Yellowstone when the main topic of conversation was its recovery from the 1988 fire, with the impacts of climate change still on a distant horizon.

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