Book review: “Mountains and Plains,” by Dennis Knight

"Mountains and Plains" cover

“Mountains and Plains, The Ecology of Wyoming Landscapes,” by Dennis H. Knight, George P. Jones, William A. Reiners and William H. Romme.

Published April 8, 2015, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle’s Opinion page, “A must-read for all.”

Mountains and Plains, The Ecology of Wyoming Landscapes, second edition, by Dennis H. Knight, George P. Jones, William A. Reiners, William H. Romme, c. 2014, Yale University. Published by Yale University Press with assistance from the University of Wyoming Biodiversity Institute. Softcover, 404 pages, $45.

By Barb Gorges

Blame the pine beetles for decimating pages of the first edition of Dennis Knight’s book, “Mountains and Plains, The Ecology of Wyoming Landscapes.”

Blame the wolves, sage-grouse and climate change and all of the other changes and new information since the book was published in 1994.

They caused Mr. Knight, University of Wyoming professor emeritus of the botany department, to give up four years of his retirement to write the second edition, published at the end of 2014.

He had help this time from three colleagues, George Jones, associate director of the Wyoming Natural Diversity Database at UW (where the book’s royalties are going); William Reiners, professor emeritus, UW; and William Romme, professor emeritus, Colorado State University, an expert on Yellowstone’s ecology.

Despite its academic authors, “Mountains and Plains” is not intended as a textbook, though this book should be required reading for everyone graduating from UW, just as is the course in the U.S. and Wyoming constitutions.

“The book was written for non-scientists who are interested in Wyoming’s environment, natural resources, and some of the controversial land management issues that decision makers are facing at the present time,” Mr. Knight said.

“My co-authors and I tried to provide an easy-to-read synthesis of peer-reviewed ecological research for people who don’t have the time or inclination to read the journals themselves.

“We hope the book is useful for those who enjoy spending time outdoors as well as teachers, students, and private, state, and federal land managers.”

How readable is this book? A background in the natural sciences is helpful.

But that can be overcome with familiarity with any of Wyoming’s landscapes, forest, grassland, sagebrush, sand dunes, alpine, meadows, wetlands, or the landscapes like Yellowstone, the Black Hills or the Laramie Basin described in special chapters.

Any curiosity about Wyoming’s landscapes will make this book a real page-turner, even if you don’t know what occasional words like “herbivory” mean. Check the Internet.

My recommendation is to flip through, enjoying the new, full-color photography until you find a compelling subheading, maybe “Aspen Forest,” on page 196.

Find out where aspen trees grow and why. Find out why they spread by sprouting from roots rather than growing from seed. Did you know aspen bark has chlorophyll and can photosynthesize?

But the ecologist, and that is what Mr. Knight is—as well as a botanist—asks what happens to aspens after a fire. What causes different results in different locations?

What triggered SAD, sudden aspen decline, beginning in 2000? What are the implications for us and other animals and other plants? What techniques have land managers tried to maintain current aspen abundance?

If some of the book’s statements seem hard to believe, look for the superscript number indicating the footnote at the back of the book that cites a study.

But studies in journals aren’t always easily available, so you can ask your question at the book’s website, www.mountainsandplains.net.

Rather than wait another 20 years for the third edition, the website started updating the book’s content in December. New studies are producing new information, but also, when the climate changes, and the way people interact with the landscape changes, ecologists must keep up.

I would add our state legislators to Mr. Knight’s list of recommended readers. This is especially so for the ones who will be on the committee studying how the state can wrest control of federally owned lands in the state—despite being an unpopular idea with 70 percent of Wyoming citizens–and the other federal land owners, the U.S. citizens living in the other 49 states who might also enjoy this book.

Mr. Knight’s epilogue sums up the whole idea of the book: that society needs to heed what ecologists know:

“Humans have been a presence in this part of the biosphere for a short time—most of the plants and animals existed a million years or more before Homo sapiens arrived—and we are still learning how to make a living from rugged western landscapes.

“As Aldo Leopold wrote in 1938, “the oldest task in human history (is) to live on a piece of land without spoiling it.” Learning to live gently and sustainably, to be good stewards, requires an understanding of both human nature and the nature of ecosystems.”

Barb Gorges writes the monthly bird and garden columns for the WTE. “Mountains and Plains” is available at the Wyoming State Museum store, the UW bookstore and from major online booksellers.

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BioBlitz finds birds, butterflies, bees, bats, botany and much more Wyoming biota

Mist netting

Participants in the 2014 BioBlitz at Red Canyon Ranch near Lander, Wyoming, watch as Jacelyn Downey, community naturalist for Audubon Rockies, untangles a Common Yellowthroat caught in a mist net. Photo by Barb Gorges

Published July 20, 2014, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “BioBlitz finds birds, butterflies, bees, bats and more.”

By Barb Gorges

“A BioBlitz is a 24-hour event in which teams of volunteers, scientists, families, students, teachers, and other community members work together to find and identify as many species of plants, animals, microbes, fungi and other organisms as possible.” National Geographic Society

Microbes?! No one went looking for microbes during the Wyoming BioBlitz.

It was held last month on the longest day of the year at The Nature Conservancy’s Red Canyon Ranch near Lander. And hopefully, no one took home any unwanted microbes.

But we did find lots of other life. More than 70 people participated: putting out pollinator traps, extracting birds from mist nets, bouncing over a mountain meadow after butterflies and bees, dip netting for macroinvertebrates, electrofishing a stream, botanizing up the side of the canyon, searching for reptiles and amphibians, setting small mammal traps, attracting moths to blacklight, and until nearly midnight, netting bats, only to roll out of sleeping bags or beds in town the next morning to count birds before sunlight hit the canyon floor.

It’s one thing to have a scientist come and present their work in a lecture, as they do, for instance, for Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society meetings. It’s quite another to find out firsthand how difficult it is to untangle a bird from a mist net in order to study breeding patterns and longevity.

Then there was the chance to perfect my butterfly net technique with Amy Pocewicz of The Nature Conservancy. It’s like tennis, but butterflies are more erratic and the court is littered with shrubby obstacles.

Sometimes field work is monotony. I went with Wyoming Natural Diversity Database’s (WYNDD) Ian Abernathy and his group to pick up small mammal traps in the sagebrush, little folding aluminum boxes baited with sweetened oats. Each had a tuft of polyester batting thoughtfully provided so the mouse or vole could bed down comfortably for the night in a place not as warm as their own burrow.

To check the traps, we all had to don disposable face masks and gloves to protect us from possible exposure to hantavirus.

We were led by an indefatigable 4-year-old who enjoyed marching ahead to pluck the pin flag marking the next trap.

No critters were captured in any of the 60 traps in the sagebrush and only one in the 20 traps along the creek. Too much human scent from the group setting traps the night before?

Martin Grenier, Wyoming Game and Fish Department non-game biologist, set a mist net over the creek in the evening and his group was able to catch four bats of three different species.

The same evening, Lusha Tronstad, invertebrate zoologist with WYNDD, hung two white table cloths on the Learning Center’s patio, placing one small blacklight against each, and then turned off the regular lights. Moths and nocturnal wasps flocked in and extremely small insects were “vacuumed” into a glass bottle for close inspection.

One special moth will have to be identified by an expert in Florida.

Audubon Wyoming, now Audubon Rockies, is the originator of Wyoming’s BioBlitz, holding the first one in 2008, and has partnered with various organizations, agencies and companies to hold it in different locations around the state.

Wyoming teachers can receive continuing education credits—it’s a lot more fun, one teacher from Bighorn told me, than attending lectures.

This year, the Red Canyon BioBlitz sponsors and partners also included, in addition to those mentioned earlier, the University of Wyoming Biodiversity Institute and the Wyoming Native Plant Society. During a creative interlude, an artist from the Lander Art Center had us harvesting cheatgrass—an invasive plant—and making art out of it.

The very first BioBlitz was held in 1996 at a park in Washington, D.C., where National Park Service naturalist Susan Rudy coined the term from the German word “blitz,” meaning lightning, or fast.

Search online for “BioBlitz” and you will find 20 more listed in this country plus Korea, Canada, New Zealand and especially, the United Kingdom. It’s a plot to infect people with the awareness and joy of biodiversity.

One of my favorite memories of the weekend, besides all the biota, is camping out on the lawn by the Learning Center and going to bed with the stars in my eyes and waking with birdsong in my ears. The other favorite memory is meeting old friends and new, all interested in the wonderful biodiversity of our home state.

You too, can come along next year, wherever BioBlitz may be.

Related websites:

Audubon Rockies, http://rockies.audubon.org

Lander Art Center, www.landerartcenter.com

The Nature Conservancy, http://www.nature.org/wyoming

UW Biodiversity Institute, www.wyomingbiodiversity.org

WyoBio, www.wyobio.org

Wyoming Natural Diversity Database, www.uwyo.edu/wyndd

Wyoming Game and Fish Department, www.wgfd.wyo.gov

Wyoming Native Plant Society, www.wynps.org