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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Are wolves aiding songbird populations?

Yellowstone wolf

A wolf in Yellowstone National Park, wearing a radio collar, watches biologists. Courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Published Jan. 13, 2009, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “It’s possible wolves in Yellowstone are having a positive effect on songbirds.”

2015 Update: New studies show that wolves are not the only cog missing in the Yellowstone ecosystem. The park needs its beavers to build dams and recharge the subsurface water so the willows will grow better and the songbirds will multiply. See High Country News, Dec. 8, 2014, Vol. 46, No. 21, “Have returning wolves really saved Yellowstone?” www.hcn.org.

By Barb Gorges

Back in the early 1990s, the National Audubon Society lobbied for the reintroduction of wolves in the Yellowstone ecosystem.

Why, some folks wondered, would an organization with a name equated with bird conservation be interested in wolves?

An Audubon member myself, I agreed with the ecologists who were saying it was important to have all the pieces of an ecosystem, from top dog predator on down to burying beetle and I lobbied for wolves on ecological principles.

There were a couple people who thought wolves shouldn’t be reintroduced because, based on a few anecdotes, wolves might already be present.

If there were wolves in Yellowstone immediately before reintroduction, and not just casual stragglers or hybrids and captives dumped by people, they were nearly invisible, awfully quiet, well behaved and unproductive.

Today, commercial enterprises will take you on a wolf tour (www. wolftracker.com). Reintroduced wolves multiplied so quickly they also became a noticeable nuisance to livestock operators.

Wolves are apparently having an effect on the Yellowstone ecosystem that their predator stand-ins, the coyotes, were not able to achieve between early 20th century wolf eradication programs and wolf reintroduction in 1995. The willows are increasing, which means increasing numbers of songbirds.

Doug Smith, leader of the Yellowstone Wolf Project for Yellowstone National Park, in a reply to my email query, was quick to point out that studies are still ongoing and that some people believe there is more than the wolf at work in the growth of willow shrubs. Papers are in the process of being written and Smith said, “As far as wolf impacts on songbirds, we are on our way to establishing the link that goes through willow and elk.”

Willow grows in riparian zones, the areas along creeks and rivers. A healthy riparian zone, with lots of vegetation, absorbs rainfall and snowmelt like a sponge and releases it slowly into creeks. In an unhealthy situation, with little vegetation present, water runs off quickly, eroding the surface, depositing sediment in the stream where it suffocates fish eggs and the invertebrates that feed fish.

In a healthy riparian zone, vegetation slows the runoff water. Slow water can’t carry as much sediment and organic matter and so it drops it on the plants adjacent to the stream, rather than in the stream. Riparian plants, such as willow, thrive on and grow through the sediment deposits, eventually providing more and more vegetation.

If the lack of vegetation in a riparian zone is from overgrazing by wildlife or livestock, managers can reverse the trend by either fencing the animals out for a period of time, or reducing the number of animals grazing and/or the time and amount they graze.

National park managers have restrictions that prevent them from removing elk, which have kept the willows trimmed too well while the wolves were out of the picture.

However, the willows seem to be recovering and expanding. One theory is that climate change is providing a longer growing season. Another theory is that the Yellowstone fires of 1988 provided a huge increase in forbs (non-woody plants including wildflowers) that elk like better than shrubs and they grazed the willows less.

A third theory is that elk no longer get to graze willows at their leisure since wolves are constantly nipping at their heels and running them off.

Range management scientists have spent years conducting studies of the effects of various grazing schemes and could probably make some predictions, but every ecosystem has its quirks.

Whether the wolves are totally or partly responsible for the regeneration of Yellowstone willows, we can reasonably predict healthier riparian zones.

From my birdwatcher’s perspective, this means more and greater diversity of songbirds which are attracted to the insects associated with the willows, and the shelter their shrubbiness provides. Smith listed willow flycatcher, yellow warbler, common yellowthroat, Lincoln’s sparrow and song sparrow in particular.

Improved riparian habitat means improved fisheries. It also means ephemeral and intermittent streams will flow a little longer each year.

The increase in vegetation can support more critters (even livestock outside the park). Wyoming’s riparian zones are important to something like 70 percent of wildlife species.

Bureaucracy and politics will continue to plague the Yellowstone wolves, but if studies show wolves have helped repair an important part of their ecosystem, reintroduction has been worthwhile.