Water Grab on the Plain

Yesterday, local filmmaker Matt Middleton answered my last post with a link to his site against the amazing and as yet little publicized proposed rape of our watershed by a mysterious Italian billionaire who wants us to believe he is benevolent. This is hard to believe, as he wants to take all the water from the Plain of San Augustin, an area larger than Rhode Island and mostly known outside of our area for being the background for Jody Foster’s Contact, which now supports ranching and wildlife, and pump it to commercial entities hundreds of miles away for purposes he prefers not to mention. (He talks of the “benefits” of putting surface water back in the ground– what does he think wildlife and cattle drink?) At various meetings, his spin doctors have managed to give no answers, even to skilled questioners, environmentalists, lawyers, ranchers, and Libby; he is unintentionally building some unlikely coalitions. So far their slipperiness has not won them their permits, but they intend to come back. And make no mistake, they want ALL our water.

Up front: I agree completely with Matt’s concern and passion, but severely doubt his Mafia theory, for many reasons. Any millionaire from Milan probably has more money in his coffers than all of Italy south of Rome, and either has no need of the Mafia or employs them when necessary. His is the kind of money that drives the pipeline from Canada to Chinese consumer ships in the Caribbean across the Oglalla aquifer with no regard to local ranchers or farmers. Besides, for historical reasons, (we) snooty northerners often tend to scorn the southern peasants and their “protective societies”; my father’s people used to say that Africa– meaning the corrupt Levant and the Moors, not black Africa — begins at Rome.

Whether he is right or I am about the Mafia is immaterial. The control of water by either local communities or distant metropolises is the big issue to come in the arid west, a civilization made effectively of city states and their watersheds, just like the ancient Middle East and Central Asia. Matt is on the side of the angels, and I hope he makes a film about the whole deal, preferably without insulting half of my ancestry (that’s a joke). Whether the controlling authority is the Mafia or the Chinese People’s Liberation Army or Arab oil companies or Ted Turner or Texans, the west is getting tired of being a colony. Read his link to the San Augustin Water Coalition and keep checking it out. I will doubtless have more to say here and more length. Meanwhile, go to his site and see the pieces of his historical documentary Way Out There for a glimpse of the town and country we both love, now under threat from a power so remote that as far as I can tell its proprietor never intends to visit the land he intends to destroy.

Afterthought: I am sure Federico will think I am an alarmist, and have some pungent and true and uncomfortable, even necessary additions. But I am a scientist by training too, and when people will NOT answer questions except with “trust us”- I WON’T.

Attitudes to Predators

I just got an email from Al Cambronne, who has a new blog Deerland here, and book coming out at Lyons by the same name. He wrote an interesting post on how public attitudes toward three predators– muskies, wolves, and (Bald) eagles differ as exemplified in his home state of Wisconsin.

I found the discussion stimulating enough that I replied at blog length (edited after more reflection):

Analogies between muskies, wolves, and eagles are… BIOLOGICALLY difficult, because as you surmise culturally different. Muskies have always been prizes, but pike which are similar in every way not always so– persecuted in European trout and salmon water for one example.

I would say that both wolf and eagle are romanticized and revered by the same element of urban society. Some tribes do hold them sacred, which doesn’t mean they don’t kill them, sometimes cruelly. Wolves are serious stock predators, which doesn’t mean we shouldn’t let or encourage their return, but not by doing so on the backs and economy of rural residents. So-called reparations for lost stock, at least in NM, are held to such an absolute standard of proof as to be absurd– evidence of wolf tracks and eaten carcasses is NOT enough even if wolves were seen chasing stock.

I think the urbanites who so want them might find a way to help pay, perhaps as subsidies to predator- harassed ranchers who must share their land. (That they might then demand a say in ranching practices might open up a bigger can of worms– they know nothing whatsoever about pastoral life, and some ranchers know only a little more about wildlife, but some places both sides are polarized past compromise– government’s fault, another issue).I think confirmed stock killers should be removed, permanently– good evolutionary biology too. The surprisingly widespread wolves of Europe rarely bother humans. Ranchers should learn the use of stock protection dogs like my Wyoming friends the Urbigkits. Urbanites should not romanticize individual wolves at the cost of harming humans who must live with them, but take it as a necessary compromise– you get to hear wolves, problem wolves die, and the rancher is not driven off his land.

I think we should learn to live with a good amount of wolf- game predation– another divisive issue, but the wild is the wild, and co-evolved species must find their way. Prey populations seem to be wobbling into an interesting balance in big wild areas like Yellowstone. We have a hard time seeing that wild populations are often not stable, but run to boom and bust, and that this is natural. Read Where the Wild Things Were. We have little concept of how important apex predators are– which does not mean we cannot kill a few!

Eagles? Very controversial and even more complicated, but important to only a few. Legally both wind power companies and Indians can kill eagles, practically speaking almost at will. The first do it as a side effect but kill a lot. Some of the second do it even more crassly for money than the wind blades do, for powwow costumes which are no more religious than a prom dress, though their slaughter is defended by the likes of Leslie Silko as religious last I heard.

Complication number one: there are a LOT of Golden eagles– five figures worth in the continental US. NOT analogous to wolves! Number two: eagles are still sometimes a significant livestock predator. I know of no recent persecution, but until last year (?– not sure of the most recent decision), problem eagles were legally trapped and removed. Falconers used this population; in fact, trapped legally. Their take was reduced to SIX a year– remember, recent studies indicate this is a common bird with thousands of breeding pairs!– and may be ended for good. This does not sit well with eaglers, dedicated and fanatical even among falconers, who may bond with a bird for decades, while wind blades harvest ten and twenty times the annual number allowed to them, and natives– I am emphatically NOT talking about the reverent Pueblos, who have a real attitude of respect– shoot eagles for profit, brag about it, and are released by white judges.

I am, as a once- zoologist, inclined to manage populations biologically. If a harvest of sorts is the price to pay for having wolves back, fine with me. I would crack down on consumptive use of eagles by Indians, as opposed to sacrificial, and FIGHT for it– no other religion is allowed to decimate a species. And I would allow the same biologically reasonable take on Goldens as applies to any other master falconer’s raptor. (Balds are a less active predator, not as good for falconry, and protected for better or worse by the US civil “religion”, though I know a guy in Canada who flew a male on whitetail jacks).

I have no trouble with the idea of shooting a wolf– well, not a huge interest, but I have killed coyotes: Betsy Huntington is buried with the pelt of one. Hunted predators bother us less. Suburban coyotes are behaving in a scary manner in southern California and even Albuquerque, and “lions” can become even scarier when surrounded by gentle vegans (read the cougar book The Beast in the Garden) Specific population numbers are rather irrelevant, and stable is a different number for each species and region; there are always going to be low numbers of apex predators, and there soon could be a decent number of wolves; micromanaging by moving them in and out may actually be hindering them. Shooting persistent outlaws will like it or not “teach them manners”– they are intelligent– and keep them from eating our dogs & eventually our kids. And please spare me ideas of their harmlessness; the benign wolf of North America is a historical example of what scientists would call an “artifact”, based on rapid settlement and and a historically unusual plethora of guns. Run the figures for Siberia or India– or go to Native accounts, or Medieval ones (Lane?)…

Can’t neglect fish: big muskies (also pike; the large predatory catfish like blue and flathead; alligator gar; even carp in non- wilderness waters). The huge ones are old breeders– catch, photo & release! It is fine, contra “Throw Back the Little Ones*”, to keep small fish & eat them…

*Donald Fagen has a new album out!

Links: Good and Bad News for Falcons

The tundra subspecies and other high- latitude migrating Peregrines are in very good shape.

Peregrines are one of those capital- C “Charismatic” species who always get press (whether the label “endangered”, once attached in the popular collective mind, will ever be removed is matter for a long essay). Meanwhile, the obscure and beautiful little Amur falcon, like its sister species the Sooty, may be genuinely endangered because (A) it has a very long strange migration route, and B) therefore, one of the migration’s concentration points supports an unsustainable and grotesque slaughter for no real reason at all (I am a supporter of sustainable traditional use, but this massacre sounds more like the unconscionable “tradition” of shooting everything that moves in Malta than any kind of aboriginal custom). The video is not for the faint of heart…

Invincible Ignorance?

I hate to rant but (I can see everybody believes THAT)…

Well, first Reid provoked me with this, knowing that it was like poking a stick at a hot rattlesnake.

At first I just sputtered. “I can’t even debunk this– it is like Mary McCarthy’s famous remark on Lilian Hellman: “Every word she says is a lie including AND and THE.”

Except of course it is not a “lie”– it is merely smug, invincible ignorance, with libel of all hunters or even non New- Yorkers thrown in for snark. Would the “Paper of Record” accept an op- ed on any other subject featuring as basic an example of incorrect terminology as using “bullet” for”shotgun cartridge”? That indulged in such basic illogic as comparing putting voluntary limits on a tool used in a sport with limiting the effectiveness of one primarily used in self- defense?

And of course the not very subtle dismissal of NYC cops shooting bystanders because EVERYBODY is a bad shot. You think someone who had been through a serious class like Gunsite would miss 30% or more of the time? Maybe one reason that NYC cops in particular are so bad is that they live in an anti- gun culture, though studies show that cops who are not gun nuts are almost always bad. She should be forced to read the Armed Citizen page in the publications of the “mindless” NRA.

I do read anti- gun propaganda, and one of its most striking features is that it is virtually always factually and technically incorrect– even those who say they know guns make mistakes. And they never, never read our side enough to even refute our facts. They already know we are mindless, paranoid, frightened, even racist, and probably don’t believe in evolution… even if we are scholars, or women or Hispanic…

And then I began thinking about history, and subtleties even our allies don’t mention, perhaps because nobody reads outside the lines anymore. The roots of the three- shell limit are historically interesting and have little to do with anything but a bunch of rich sportsmen, who thought repeaters ungentlemanly, trying to put the brakes on market hunting in a time of little enforcement– they also banned gauges larger than ten, an arbitrary and unnecessary move never done in, for instance, England. Both bans could be repealed today with no bad effect. They have no effect on conservation– driven shoots in Europe make bags of 1000 plus with archaic side- by- sides like mine.

The anti- repeater bias might well have started with the excitable conservation pioneer and bigot William Hornaday, who like the artist Frederick Remington believed the US should be a “pure” Anglo- Saxon nation. In one of his books on wildlife he had photos of a Browning autoloader. On the same page he complained that such were used by immigrant filth from the dregs of Europe’s society, and that Italians and other inferior “races” should not only be refused entry but deported with all their descendants. Imagine my reading this in the fifties after it was recommended to me by an old WASP librarian.

He wanted all Italians, “southern and eastern Europeans”, Slavs, Jews, Asians, and “negroes” deported; better at least than the unspeakable Remington, who wanted them exterminated and offered to help in one of his letters. Remington: “You can’t glorify a Jew! Nasty humans! I’ve got some Winchesters and when the massacring begins, I can get my share of ’em and what’s more I will. Jews, Injuns, Chinamen, Italians, Huns – the rubbish of the Earth, I hate.” I don’t put political standards to art, but if I owned a Remington and read that, I’d sell it so fast it would bounce on the way out– and maybe use the money to buy a Charlie Russell…

Compare to two other establishment figures, both hunters and infinitely more appealing than Hornaday, never mind Remington: Teddy Roosevelt and his generous acceptance of anyone who embraced our culture, and Aldo Leopold (who married a NM “Mexican”).

I added, in my note to Reid: “I assume you are acquainted with the utterly racist origins of handgun control? Think “Jim Crow Laws” or read Condoleeza Rice on her childhood in the segregated south, or the pro- gun liberal Don Kates. Hint: white people had no trouble getting guns, just like rich people in New York today.”

Maybe sometime I’ll talk about “Progressivism” and eugenics. Know your history!

Tiger Reading

John Vaillant did a reading last night at Riverrun Books in Portsmouth, New Hampshire for his wonderful new book on Amur tigers, poachers, and rangers. I had participated in part by reviewing The Tiger here.

I’ll let him configure the whole tale for you, but Dr Hypercube was the pivotal figure, and blogged it here. Suffice to say that an amazing crew of nature and travel writers were brought together via the web- the Doctor, Sy Montgomery (who wrote the OTHER great tiger book, The Spell of the Tiger), and Elizabeth Marshall Thomas ( The Old Way, among other fine books). I wish I had been there, but the next best thing was when Vaillant , livestreaming his excellent talk, waved at the camera to “Steve Bodio in New Mexico”.

L to R: Vaillant, Sy, the Doctor, Liz.

First Let’s Kill All the Tigers..

Professor McMahan, the guy who wants to eliminate all predators, is back with what he thinks is a refutation of his critics. This time he begins with a thought experiment: since Amur (“Siberian”) tigers are supposedly insignificant ecological actors these days, why not let them go extinct?

“Many of the commentators said, in effect: “Leave nature alone; the course of events in the natural world will go better without human intervention.” Since efforts to repopulate their original habitat with large numbers of Siberian tigers might require a massive intervention in nature, this anti-interventionist view may itself imply that we ought to allow the Siberian tiger to become extinct. But suppose Siberian tigers would eventually restore their former numbers on their own if human beings would simply leave them alone. Most people, I assume, would find that desirable. But is that because our human prejudices blind us to the significance of animal suffering?

“Siberian tigers are in fact not particularly aggressive toward human beings, but suppose for the sake of argument that they were. And suppose that there were large numbers of poor people living in primitive and vulnerable conditions in the areas in which Siberian tigers might become resurgent, so that many of these people would be threatened with mutilation and death if the tigers were not to become extinct, or not banished to captivity. Would you still say: “Leave nature alone; let the tigers repopulate their former habitats.”? What if you were one of the people in the region, so that your children or grandchildren might be among the victims? And what would your reaction be if someone argued for the proliferation of tigers by pointing out that without tigers to keep the human population in check, you and others would breed incontinently and overcultivate the land, so that eventually your numbers would have to be controlled by famine or epidemic? Better, they might say, to let nature do the work of culling the human herd in your region via the Siberian tiger. Would you agree?”

I’ll let my intelligent readers answer this– have at it. And for God’s sake, Daniela– not before breakfast!

Update for Lane: “What but fear winged the birds?/ And jewelled with such eyes/ The great goshawk’s head?”– Robinson Jeffers, “The Bloody Sire”.

Worst NYT piece EVER?

Unfortunately the Times is not up to Jeff Lockwood’s standard today, at least outside of their science pages. Last night Daniela sent me this essay by a philosophy professor at Rutgers who is also a visiting one at Princeton (which at least balances him and Peter Singer with Freeman Dyson, who outweighs them both together intellectually), suggesting that we must totally eliminate all carnivores in order to stop suffering on the planet. That anyone this immune to reason, or innocent of any knowledge of anything outside his abstract field, gets paid handsomely for using his brain at any college is a damning comment on our society, education, and of academia as a whole today. This should only have been printed in The Onion. I won’t dignify it by quoting further, but am considering a letter to the paper– think about writing one too (they have already closed comments).

And the other depressing fact is that, if you wade through those comments, the most common reaction after the sensible variants on “what a fool!” and “what was the Times THINKING?” is the one that humans should be eliminated, voluntarily or involuntarily. This hatred of humanity among our elite classes is almost as scary as Professor McMahan’s hatred of reality and incomprehension of what life is. Both are utterly fascist, even beyond Naziism in their implications.

Matt exclaims: “What a troubling, sad piece—this man teaches!”

Lighter reaction– Daniela accompanied the link with the following note: “Well, I’m just about to see whether I have any reasonable carne to indulge my heathen self in!”

And one last point– what must excellent science writers like the Times’ Nicholas Wade think about sharing space and money with such invincibly ignorant idiots?

Update: Daniela comments in an email: “I like Jeff Lockwood’s take on ethics! That would make Prof. McMahan a philosophiopath, for being too ignorant to know how to pose a philosophical question. In the Hebrew Hagada the one who doesn’t know what to ask is called “Tam” – “an innocent”…The text suggests you help him”.

I am not sure I know how…

Military Rifles and the LATE Great Game

To continue the series on guns I have & like, humble & noble…

I don’t have a military Mauser because I already have a first rate example built as sporting one.

I don’t have a Springfield because with a gun of similar action and caliber (Mauser) it seems a bit redundant.

I don’t have a Mosin Nagant and given my Russophilia “might should”. I tell people I am holding out for a rare lever action model 95 Winchester made in Mosin’s caliber for the Czarist army (it would probably have to be a gift!– money isn’t getting better!)

I DO have two very different very utilitarian military rifles with a long history in Asia. Lots of cheap ammo is still available for both, from corrosive primer Pakistani army ANCIENT .303 British (clean with lots of Windex) to that steel case Russian 7.62 X 39 James McMurtry sings about– Russian bubba ammo. (Though remember its role in Vaillant’s Tiger).

The English bolt rifle is a late SMLE (Short Magazine Lee Enfield)in .303, Great Britain’s Empire gun for most of the 20th century, for years the most popular caliber in Canada, and a modest caliber that has taken every big game animal in Africa. It is still used by park rangers in Nepal and India. An old guide friend in BC once dropped a moose dead in its tracks at 400 yards using the elevated military sights– I prefer its excellent “ghost ring” peep, still good for my old eyes at 100 yards or so.

It is my favorite military action. Before they switched to (mostly– I have seen pix of some uncanny sporting Rigby Mauser clones) AK47 variants, the infamous weapons shops of Peshawar built many Enfields, complete with English proof marks. I wonder whether the gun toted by the Afghan hunter in this Kenworthy sculpture, photo’d by Sir Terence Clark, is one of those? It is certainly an SMLE.

Here are the two guns, the English bolt (older ones were used in WW I) and the late WWII Russian (actually this one is Yugoslav) semiauto that fires a similar bullet from a MUCH smaller case, and is because of its cheapness and ruggedness and the availability of ammo the choice of poor hunters from the Ozarks to Kamchatka. (Its bayonet is useful but generally as a “stand”– you extend it and stick it into the ground so your rifle remains high and dry and vertical). I like having one around for it Asian history, its utter utility, its cheap ammo, and because it pisses off some who love Gentleman’s Guns like my Grant, for I am a socially equivocal creature who rather likes both– lifestyles as well as guns…

The SKS is more accurate than the popular “pray & spray” AK47 of the same caliber, but I would admit (Arthur?) the long barrel and the good peep make me shoot the Enfield better.

(I should add that they are on a Kazakh wall hanging that might have seen either in a previous life).

While I am on the unlikely intersection of guns in Asia and Asian textiles I must show off a gorgeous Uzbek embroidered gunslip made specifically for the short version of the SMLE, the “Jungle Carbine”, obtained for me by old friend, falconer, and textile scholar Eric Wilcox. Nothing else fits its length and bolt hole. I’ll never get rid of it– anybody have a Jungle carbine that needs a home?

John Vaillant’s The Tiger

Here it is, Q- Philes– John Vaillant’s The Tiger: a True Story of Vengeance and Survival is finally out this week. It is better than good– my favorite book of the year so far, and a likely classic in my rare favorite genre, that which documents (to use a book title) “the edge of the wild”, that interface where humans and “nature” are not artificially separated but in conflict or cooperation, acting on each other.

Tiger is a non- fiction book that reads like a novel, set in “Primorye”, the Russian Far East– not “Siberia”, despite its desperately cold winters– but rather a huge block to the east and south of Siberia, a rugged place of mixed deciduous forests, few roads, a flora and fauna mixing the temperate and the subtropical (like leopards and tigers), inhabited by a never- prosperous populace now eking out their lives by such expedients as beekeeping and subsistence poaching.

Its protagonists are a single huge tiger, a ragged bunch of drunken poachers, and a patrol of anti- poaching rangers dedicated to protecting tigers over a huge area, with no money and inadequate tools. The beginning, as an unnamed hunter and his dog approach a dark cabin on a freezing evening, is a masterpiece of tension and quiet terror; the ending is utterly cinematic but real (the book is based on over 200 interviews). In between, Vaillant skilfully cuts from one “protagonist” to another, building an almost unbearable tension even as he dramatizes the serious issue of Asian poaching.

He manages to evoke sympathy for a man- killing tiger that outdoes any in Corbett (at one point he drags a mattress out under the shelter of a spruce to await his next victim in comfort; waits for another IN HIS BED; toward the end,`a la Kipling’s “Letting In the Jungle”, he appears to be contemplating the elimination of a village), but also for destitute subsistence poachers tempted by the Han Empire’s eternal appetite for animal parts, and above all for the underpaid, overworked, and threatened Russian rangers, who use SKS’s in 7.62 X 39 (on brown bear, moose, and sadly tiger if they must) because they are the BEST rifles available! (Regular readers will recall previous posts on my love/ hate for this working man’s rifle and cartridge– more later, but I would never use it for such animals if I didn’t have to!) On the other hand, a scene where a poacher pulls the trigger on an ancient Mosin and, instead of the firing pin falling, in the words of James McMurtry it “didn’t, quite…”, doesn’t end well; perhaps the rangers are doing the best they can.

(In fact, my only extremely minor quibble with the book is re firearms: if you know a bit it can be momentarily confusing; if you don’t, though, you won’t even notice. But a poacher’s badly- handloaded 16 gauge single- shot shotgun is not a “rifle”, and using a thing like that to try to poach an Amur tiger is the exact kind of drunken Russian foolery that is likely to bring on Nemesis, on wheels, with no brakes…)

But really, a quibble– this is an amazing book, one to stand with Arseniev and Corbett, its worthy predecessors. Annie Proulx sent me an early galley, asking that I return it as soon as I finished, and I was so blown away I asked– well, demanded!– another copy from the press, to quote to my friends until the real thing came out months later. On the Amazon site she says:

“The Tiger is the sort of book I very much like and rarely find. Humans are hard-wired to fear tigers, so this book will attract intense interest. In addition to tiger lore and scalding adventure, Vaillant shows us Russia’s far east and its inhabitants, their sometimes desperate lives interwoven with the economics of poaching and the politics of wildlife conservation… This is a book not only for adventure buffs, but for all of us interested in wildlife habitat preservation.”

Another good writer, Sy Montgomery’s friend Liz Thomas, adds:

“In it are chilling accounts of human encounters with tigers—but these encounters, however fearsome, convincingly demonstrate the role that these enormous cats continue to play in the natural world. Equally compelling are the people of Primorye, those who of necessity must hunt the tigers, and those who would preserve them. To call this book a page-turner is an understatement.”

I rarely quote other writers in praise of a book I like– as anyone who knows me knows, I am secure in my opinions (!) But in this case, I think this book is so good I want to remind readers that writers I respect and who like MY writing– “friends of Q”– are as over the top about The Tiger as I am. Run don’t walk…