The diversity of wildlife in Delta County captivates hikers, hunters, birdwatchers and other outdoor enthusiasts. Binoculars in hand, they scan the hillsides for signs of movement.
Walking along a game trail, they search the ground for scat left behind by deer, elk, coyotes and bears. But few pay as close attention to the habitat as John Monarch, a wildlife biologist who monitors the impact of mining activity on birds and mammals in the area. He’s especially interested in species which are listed as threatened or endangered on either state or federal watch lists.
An independent contractor, Monarch works with the three North Fork coal mines and Gunnison Energy to determine if exploration and mining impacts wildlife in the area, and if so, how best to mitigate that impact. For example, a vent well may need to be moved from critical habitat.
He spends hours and hours in the field on a seasonal basis, monitoring the activity of a variety of species. In the winter, that means cruising around on his snowmobile in search of tracks. When he can’t proceed any further on his snowmobile, he straps on skis or snowshoes and sets off across country. Clearly, the 72-year-old is in great physical condition.
His field studies take him through areas that have been reclaimed, and he notes those areas have not suffered because of any activity associated with mining. If those areas have been properly reclaimed, the vegetative “mosaic” has been enhanced with a delectable assortment of shrubs, grasses and trees. “Then the density and diversity of wildlife actually improves,” John noted, “so in the areas that were mined a number of years ago and have now been reclaimed, I can see more diversity in wildlife than there was prior to the activity.”
That’s the long-term view, John said, as opposed to the supposition that mining adversely impacts wildlife. “That impact is short-term,” he said. “The only time we totally lose habitat is when we convert it to asphalt and concrete. Otherwise, it still has potential.”
Wildlife has been a love of John’s since he was very young.
“My family was very outdoors oriented, and I loved to hunt and fish so by the time I was in grade school I knew that was the direction I wanted to go.”
Raised in south-central Idaho, he attended Washington State University. He ended up in Colorado courtesy of Uncle Sam. After he was drafted he was stationed at Fitzsimons in Denver. When he finished military duty, he pursued his graduate degree at Washington State, then obtained a position with the Colorado Division of Wildlife.
He was with the DOW for several years before he decided he wasn’t a good fit for government employment. He moved into the private sector. In the corporate world he spent a lot of time in Washington, D.C., and at state offices, and he said he came to hate all legislators.
“I found that typical of what we see, it isn’t whether it’s good for the country or good for the environment, but is it a politically sound move. It drove me nuts.”
He decided to return to his roots — field biology. “I just love hiking out there and seeing what critters are up to.”
His work has taken him from the Exxon-Valdez oil spill, to the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge, to Prudhoe Bay where he helped a friend collar polar bears. Physically handling the animals is one of the most rewarding experience for people who work with wildlife, he said.
Through a working relationship with Chevron, he became involved in a student research project in California. While he prefers to work close to home, he’s delighted to travel to California for the opportunity to supervise high schoolers on an ongoing project involving Swainson’s hawks, which in California are listed as a threatened species. Before he left the corporate world, he was involved in a project to determine if there were adequate, suitable nest sites in the Sacramento area. The decision was made to put up some artificial nest sites. The next step was finding someone to monitor those nests, and that’s where the students came in.
A few years after that project was launched, another opportunity for monitoring water quality in an artificial wetlands came up. The kids were tasked with collecting data to determine if the wetlands were cleaning up the water in the Port of Sacramento’s deep water channel, as they were intended to.
At a school north of Sacramento, students track the health of a stream and its aquatic life.
Both John and his wife Sonya enjoy working with the students. He’s especially impressed with their ability to prepare and give presentations on their findings. “They’re not intimidated by the computer, so they put out great PowerPoint presentations.” One of his biggest rewards, he said, are the students who go on to study environmental science in college.
Other than annual trips to California, John is content to confine his research to this area.
“My great love is going out and seeing what the critters are up to. People ask me how long I’ll keep working and I say until the body quits me. I love being out there.”
The lynx is one of the critical species which John evaluates. It’s one thing to look at a map and label it lynx habitat; it’s another to actually walk through the area studying the vegetation and the prey base. USFS employees and other government officials aren’t spending as much time on the ground these days, John said. “They rely on guys like me to see what’s really going on, to provide them with the data they need to complete biological assessments.
“What is affecting the wildlife more than anything right now is the sudden aspen decline and the beetle kill. I’ll find stands where all the aspen are dead and so nesting habitat for raptors and other birds is lost. More important, we’re not getting the regeneration of young trees. We’ve lost a lot of the spruce/fir to insects and that again affects the wildlife because as the trees die you’ve lost habitat.”
For example, accipiter hawks, especially Cooper’s hawks, like to nest in aspen, where there’s cover over their heads. With the aspen dying out, these birds are abandoning their nests and moving off, to where there’s suitable nesting habitat. Another example is the lynx, which are dependent on a diet of snowshoe hares. When the forests die there’s no cover to attract the snowshoe hares, so the lynx lose their prey base. Some will die from starvation as a consequence.
John cautions against single species management. “Just manage the habitat properly and the wildlife will take care of themselves,” he said.
The aspen die-off is due in part to the maturity of the stands. Throw in a drought and other factors, and the die-off accelerates. There are conservation biologists who are content to let the forest take care of itself. If that’s your approach, John says you can’t think in terms of human lifetimes.
“It takes time to cycle. It might be another hundred years before the aspen stands regenerate. You won’t see the wildlife either because we’ve lost the habitat.”
If the forests had been managed through selective logging, John says the crisis might have been averted. “Instead we’re losing large stands of trees.”
“But what about the old growth forests?” John is asked.
In old growth forests, all you’ll have are species associated with old growth, he responds. A healthy forest is comprised of several age classes — younger shrubs, older shrubs, the same with trees, and some grasses. “Unless you have diversity in your vegetation, you start losing some of the species. Pretty soon, all you have are species associated with old growth.
“There are two solutions — log it or burn it. Either one will ultimately improve the habitat.”
As a wildlife biologist, he says he’s bothered by the legislation Udall and Salazar have proposed for managing the forest.
“If you look at what they have planned, it has really nothing to do with wildlife habitat. Instead of managing for wildlife, we’re managing for people. That doesn’t set well with me at all.”
With 45 years of experience and nine years traipsing through the North Fork Valley, John is developing an extensive database which documents the impact on wildlife before, during and after mining activity. In more populated areas, he’s noticed that birds and mammals are much more comfortable around humans.
“It used to be they were really sensitive to people. With the sheer numbers of humans expanding out into their habitat, humans have become part of the ecosystem. Now we’ve got birds and mammals that are born and raised around humans; as time goes on, more and more of these species have adjusted.”
He’s also noted an increase in the bear population, although most bears remain well hidden. During a study last spring, however, he inadvertently surprised a black bear. His goal was the head of an aspen draw — one of his favorite places to look for the nests of Cooper’s hawks.
“I was walking on a game trail, with the wind on my face, when I heard a big ruckus.” About 50 yards away, a bear had been napping at the foot of a spruce tree. The bear came up huffing.
“When they’re expelling air and clicking their teeth, you know they’re making a decision whether they’re going to come for you or not.”
Despite this encounter, John says when he’s in an area where there’s a lot of black bear activity, he’s more worried about slipping on a pile of bear poop and falling than he is about being attacked.
“That’s because I do the worrying and praying for him,” his wife Sonya interjects. When John is in the field, days can go by without any contact with home. In case of emergency, he carries a satellite phone. Used in conjunction with GPS, he can provide precise coordinates for his location. Recently he’s begun using SPOT satellite messengering to update Sonya on his whereabouts.
“I figure I’ve got a few more years left in me,” he says. “Being outdoors keeps me feeling good.”
blog comments powered by Disqus