Category Archives: Colorado

Sagebrush Ecosystem: Rising from an ancient sea

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Sagebrush country, it kind of makes you itchy and scratchy just looking at it. This is a place where every footstep crackles, and there are no forests to shelter under. You’d never realize that where you’re standing used to lie at the bottom of the ocean.

Look to your feet, the rocks and soil, and you’ll quickly see otherwise. Rocks crumble away revealing more fossil than straight rock. The remains of the ancients run thick through this ground, giving rise to a new ecosystem remarkable for its hardiness and coveted for its carbon.

Here, the faint lemony fragrance of the sage floats in on the breeze. Antelope bolt for the hills, and the  “drip-thoink” calls of male sage grouse echo across the dawn as they try to win the hearts, or at least  reproductive rights, of their ladies.

Nearby Craig, Colo., boasts the largest coal-fired power plant in the state with a 1,304 megawatt capacity. Open pit coal mines and natural gas development serve as a backdrop to rolling hay fields and seemingly endless expanses of sagebrush.

The sagebrush is not endless however. It’s shrinking faster than people know it exists. So here’s my attempt to give it some props. Even if it’s difficult to stand before the sagebrush sea in awe like you would Yosemite and Yellowstone, you can’t help but respect the wilderness that insists on living there.

This isn’t your fluffy, lush Walden Pond wilderness. This is your crawl from a dried up seabed, live where others can’t sort of wild. You fall asleep to shorts and t-shirt kind of weather and wake to 50mph winds and blizzard kind of havoc. But if you have the guts to stop your car and venture out for awhile, you’ll understand that this place fights for every moment of its existence, and it kicks ass.

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Backcountry trek to study Rocky Mountain National Park fish introductions

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At the risk of sounding arrogant, I have to say that I have one of the coolest jobs in the world. I work as the science writer for CIRES, the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences. My job doesn’t stop at writing about science. Being a photographer and multimedia producer play equal parts.

In this instance, I got to hit the trail with Jimmy McCutchan and Tommy Detmer, a couple of CIRES scientists studying the effects of fish introductions on formerly fishless lakes of Rocky Mountain National Park. Fish were introduced to support fly fishing from the 1800s until the 1960s. Now the National Park Service is working with CIRES to find out what’s happened to those lakes, knowledge that may help guide future management.

Their study also isn’t a bad way to work a little fly fishing into your science.

You can learn more about CIRES science at cires.colorado.edu, or check out the CIRESvideos channel on YouTube.com.

 


Oops! Endangered tuna unwittingly served at sushi restaurants

Yellow fin tuna (Thunnus albacares) and short-beaked common dolphin in a diorama of the eastern tropical Pacific at the AMNH's Milstein Family Hall of Ocean Live. (Image/R. Mickens/AMNH)

Next time you head out to your favorite sushi restaurant, you might want to think twice about ordering the tuna. There’s a good chance the fish on your plate could be an endangered species.

A new study by the American Museum of Natural History conducted DNA investigations on tuna at restaurants in New York City and Denver and found that nearly 30 percent of the tuna tested was actually endangered bluefin, and less than half of that was labeled as such.

A single bluefin tuna can sell for tens of thousands of dollars at market, a popular draw for the fishing industry. But that popularity comes with a price. Western stocks of northern bluefin tuna now hover around 10 percent of their “pre-exploitation” numbers. And last October, the country of Monaco nominated northern bluefin tuna for a listing under a complete international trade ban by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), according to a press release.

The serving up of a critically endangered fish is not necessarily on the shoulders of the restaurants. They might not know they’re doing it, just as consumers might not know they’re eating it. This is because the eight species of tuna are so genetically similar – closer than humans are to chimpanzees – that even with DNA testing, it’s hard to distinguish the difference, and once tuna arrives to the U.S. market, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration-approved marketing label is simply “tuna.” A new and improved method of genetic detective work just might help change all that.

“When you eat sushi, you can unknowingly get a critically endangered species on your plate,” says Jacob Lowenstein, a graduate student affiliated with the Museum and Columbia University in the press release. “But with an increasingly popular technique, DNA barcoding, it is a simple process for researchers to see just what species are eaten at a sushi bar.”

DNA barcoding can be used to identify what animal became which product, even down to the origin of a leather handbag, according to the press release. In the case of the bluefin tuna, DNA barcoding defines a genetic key of 14 nucleotides exclusive enough to identify whether the tuna being served is bluefin. A similar method has been used to identify endangered whales on the Asian market and wildlife being sold in the African bushmeat trade.

With any luck, researchers will develop a handheld barcoding machine that can be used to identify fish on-site.

This study can be found in the current issue of PLoS ONE.


Photo Tour: Autumn at Sawhill Ponds

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For you naturephiles out there, there’s nothing like finding that local wildlife hotspot you can explore whenever the fancy takes you. For me, that place is Sawhill Ponds, a series of 18 reclaimed gravel pits that now support a wealth of interconnected habitats from meadow to woodlands and marshes. This busy microcosm offers more than a peaceful place to take a walk, no matter the season. There is an abundance of wildlife to enjoy, including owls, coyotes, waterfowl and frogs, and it’s all within a stone’s throw of downtown Boulder, Colo.

These images are part of a project documenting this wildlife refuge and its inhabitants through the year. Stay tuned in a couple of weeks for Sawhill Ponds: Winter.


Urban Black-tailed prairie dog gets some love from National Geographic

A black-tailed prairie dog shouts the all clear from its burrow in a suburban Boulder neighborhood of Colorado.

A black-tailed prairie dog shouts the all clear from its burrow in a suburban Boulder neighborhood of Colorado.

On a visit to National Geographic.com today, I couldn’t believe my eyes as I looked at the Photo of the Day pick. There, featured in the little window was a thumbnail of an all too familiar prairie dog. I photographed him a few months back while hanging out along Boulder Creek Trail, and submitted the pic to National Geographic’s Your Shot.

Needless to say I’m jumping and pointing and wanting everyone to see, “make it your wallpaper!” But bottomline, it’s a reminder to me to enjoy local wildlife. Just because a species seems ubiquitous doesn’t mean it is, (the black-tailed prairie dog is being considered for endangered species listing). And even if an animal is common, isn’t it just as cool that we get see them?

Why not head out to take some pics of your own local wildlife? If you get any you like, feel free to shoot me an email, and with your permission and credit, I’ll post some on The Nature Files.  Or better yet, submit it to Your Shot, you never know where it could end up!

To see more photos from moheimphotography, click the name.


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