12 July 2016

Butterfly hunting

The BBC has an article by Crai Bower about an unusual hunt:

It’s best to bring an ice axe when counting butterflies in North Cascades National Park. Located on the Canadian border in the state of Washington, the park is renowned for its jagged peaks, limited trails and annual snow pack. “Before my crew learned to identify over forty butterfly species,” John McLaughlin recalled, “they had to know how to safely traverse snowbound, steep passes and, if necessary, to self-arrest using an ice axe.”
A wildlife biologist at Western Washington University’s Huxley College of the Environment, McLaughlin has endured the inherent rigors of surveying the park’s invertebrates and mammals for more than two decades. Like most highly accomplished biologists, his passion for his subject began early; he created his first insect-spreading board when he was in elementary school. In high school, he collected so many insect orders that his biology teacher, having assumed he’d purchased most of them, lowered his project grade. Thankfully, things have changed since then, and he is credited with completing a landmark study of the North Cascade’s butterfly population that demonstrates the remote, rugged environments within the park, the very sort of prohibitive characteristics he cherishes.
“The North Cascades is one of the few places left on Earth that truly possesses wildness; it still contains the full complement of species that were here before human contact,” explained McLaughlin, who first visited the park to teach backcountry wildlife courses in the early 1990s. “It’s inspiring on both an emotional and, though it's probably not the best thing to say as a scientist, a spiritual level. But it’s also very challenging intellectually because the ruggedness, the unknown nature of much of it, creates a mystery and challenge for a scientist to try and figure out what’s going on there.”
To this end, the Stanford University-educated biologist, who studied under legendary ecologist and fellow lepidopterist Paul Ehrlich, had originally hoped to inventory the entire seven-hundred-thousand-acre park for butterfly habitats, including a quarter-million acres of old growth forest that contain as much biomass per square mile as anywhere on Earth. However, because several of the study sites required two days of arduous hiking there and back, the late season snowpack forced him to select more “convenient” locations that could be reached in just one day. The study’s timeframe, one short summer season, intensified the pressure.
According to McLaughlin, even the single-day treks were strewn with obstacles: “We were working off a contractor’s satellite data layer. One habitat map showed a butterfly habitat in the middle of Whatcom Glacier. I was suspicious, so I climbed eight-thousand-foot Whatcom Peak to look down onto the glacier. There was obviously no butterfly habitat at all. Our first challenge became locating suitable habitats in the vast park.”
After McLaughlin confirmed an authentic habitat, the first expedition, armed with ice axes and butterfly nets, set off for the twelve-mile hike through the Sawtooth Wilderness along the ridges above Stehekin, an isolated village at the west terminus of Lake Chelan.
“We were sampling along the trail under clear blue skies when suddenly we heard a very loud boom. On the way back we saw the trail had been consumed by fire caused by a forest service crew that had dynamited the area to clear ‘blowdown’, accidentally igniting a forest fire in the process. It was an interesting introduction to field study for my crew, who had to get around the fire on a fairly steep slope.”
McLaughlin’s four-person crew would face plenty of other challenges before the season finished. Unlike the wildflower meadows located some two hundred miles south on Mount Rainier, the North Cascades subalpine ecosystem contains primarily granitic rock, which meant a lot more scrambling upon exposed sections. This was especially problematic when bad weather struck.
“We were hiking once to sample the area on Crater Mountain above Ross Lake,” laughed McLaughlin. “The thunderheads on Crater Mountain were building in the distance but we needed to get three visits in that summer, so kept climbing. The clouds rolled in quicker than we anticipated, and suddenly, we’re sprinting down the mountain getting pelted by cherry-sized hail. We finally ducked under some trees. We also had a time of it camping in sideways rain on Copper Ridge.”
Rico says it's yet another job he's glad not to have...

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