Sunday, June 17, 2012

Back in Blue; War with the Newts and Crayfish

 The above photo is from my 2009 return to Crater Lake, but the experience is similar today.

Quite unexpectedly, I am “back in blue.” At the last minute, the management at Crater Lake National Park invited me back, for the summer season at least. I will wear the flat-hat again.

This park, this awe-inspiring lake, this old-growth forest with its great depths of snow, has been a powerful inspiration to me. I am here with the charge of providing information, guidance, and inspiration to the visitors. I live in the park as well as working here. Right now, a stream runs through the snowy evergreen forest, just out my window. It is a temporary flow, fed by snow, which melts at a healthy rate on a sunny day like today. Even in June, several feet of snow cover the ground. Earlier, I debated whether it was safe to walk in the woods without snowshoes. I concluded that it was. I am told that last year, there was still eight feet of snow at this time, and snowshoes were necessary.

When I return from my regimen of boat tours and trolley tours and guided hikes and campfire presentations, my “interpretive” work is still not finished. The landscape and its plants, animals, and people have a way of getting deep into my brain, becoming a sort of obsession. They populate my sketchbook and my word-processor. From time to time, I produce something that needs to be shared. And I am not the only park ranger who makes such artistic endeavors. There are many of us, as I discovered when I organized the first-ever (to my knowledge) Crater Lake staff art show in 2010. And yes, my collaborators and I have already begun plans for a second staff art show, to take place sometime in late July or early August. Details to be announced.

Back at the park, the first order of business is training, which includes a reintroduction to the science. New and returning seasonal staff must listen to many power point presentations from researchers, concerning many aspects of our park's life and earth science, and its management. I have learned much that is new, much that has changed since last time. Our landscape and its life forms face many dangers. Global warming may be the greatest danger of all. It has already done considerable damage to some of our parks, and if left unchecked, it will do much more. My comrade Ranger Brian Ettling has devoted himself to communicating about climate change and its solutions. I commend his efforts. The mitigation of global warming requires a cooperative effort from all of us.  And today is the best time to start.

Meanwhile, beneath the placid surface of the lake, a war takes place. The combatants do not know that they are in a war; each merely spends their day on a quest to fulfill their own needs. But, collectively, one species pits itself against another. I speak of the war between the brown crayfish and the Mazama newt. In recent years, park researchers have gathered substantial evidence to support the thesis that the crayfish are an invasive species, introduced by people. Slowly but surely, they colonize suitable habitats in the lake. And where they go, the newts disappear. These are the results of recent surveys of crayfish and other aquatic life. And a (very tiny) bit of the data was collected by yours truly!

And so I will share my story from my day on the lake research boat in August 2009. Originally, I sent the below narrative by email to some family, friends, and coworkers....

I spent a day with the lake research crew.  By pure chance, I caught them at a good time.  Time for the annual snorkel-survey.  We donned the 'body armor' necessary to survive an extended exploration of Crater Lake: a “woolly” fleece suit as underlayer.  Atop it, a dry suit.  Also drysuit gloves, boots, balaclava.  Finally, goggles and a snorkel.  We drove a little boat around the lake, and surveyed from the Pallisades to Skell Channell.  At each survey point, three of us would jump from the boat.  We swam or crawled along, or floated as the drysuit traps air.  We visually scanned the lake-bottom, and overturned rocks as we went.  Even through the armor, it was cold.  We recorded the steepness of each site, the general size of the rocks, and any living things seen.  We found many snails, caddis-fly larvae, aquatic beetles, and some rainbow trout and kokanee salmon.  We found moss at one stop (most of the moss grows much deeper).  We found crayfish, some quite large.  They jetted away when we disturbed their rock shelters.  They spread their claws, ready to defend when they felt cornered.  We found newts.  The young newts looked like brown worms, the adults like newts, brown with light spots.  We found a high concentration of crayfish around Cleetwood trail (the path to the lakeshore), and their range extended a good few miles east to the Pallisades.  West of Cleetwood from Llao rock to Skell Channell, the crayfish weren't found, but the newts were.  We never found crayfish and newts in the same place.  Generally, our survey had similar results to the previous.  Dense populations of crayfish around Cleetwood Cove, and their range is slowly expanding.  A density of crayfish has also been found around Wizard Island.  All this supports the theory that crayfish are an introduced species, especially considering that the entire perimeter of the lake provides suitable habitat.  And where crayfish go, newts disappear: maybe the crustaceans eat the amphibians, or maybe they outcompete.  I asked a research technician what would happen if the crayfish are conclusively demonstrated to be foreign invaders.  He said “Absolutley nothing.  There's millions of them.”  Like the nonnative fish, there is no practical way to remove them, and so the crayfish study, like much of science, is purely for knowledge.”

.... As for the last part of my narrative, I may have jumped to conclusions too quickly. The lake researchers are developing plans for how to control the crayfish invasion, at least in some parts of the lake.

We still do not know exactly why the crayfish obliterate the newts. Experiments to find out are under way.

I became inspired to give artistic interpretation to the crayfish domination. I opened my sketchbook, took out my pencils and brushes and ink, and produced an image.....

Good fortune to the newts. I hope that you find a way to survive.

In other news, my Crater Lake-inspired comics The Raven and the Crayfish and Avian Tales are now available on Etsy!


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