A Northwoods Almanac for 4/5-18, 2013 by John Bates
On 3/20 at 6:30 a.m., I was leaving the house for work, the morning still more dark than light, when I looked out the window just as I started to turn the doorknob. There, perhaps four feet in front of the door, sat a bobcat. It stared down into the wetland below our house, its back turned to me, only its ears turning now and again to capture sound. I quietly called up into the house, “Mary! Come down QUICKLY!”
She knows the drill. We do this whenever we see something unusual and want the other to see it. She came down immediately, and I pointed out the window and whispered, “Bobcat!” We then stood in the window watching the bobcat for the next five minutes as it scanned the wetland, the cat never appearing to feel our presence so close behind the door.
I then backed slowly away and ran upstairs to wake Callie – this was something she needed to see, too! She came right down, but Mary was already running up into the house saying the bobcat was moving along the house toward a shed that sits on the edge of the wetland. We went to every window trying to find where it had gone, when suddenly I saw it walking on our back deck, again just a few feet out a window. It turned to look out onto the wetland, staring out from beneath one of the deck railings, and never looking to face us.
Again, we watched for five minutes, and then Mary whispered, “Look, a rabbit’s coming!” A small cottontail hopped very slowly past the deck, perhaps 20 feet out from the bobcat, and a 4-foot leap down from the deck for the bobcat. Amazingly, the cat simply watched, and the rabbit continued on. But soon it turned around and again hopped very slowly back the way it had come, right in front of the bobcat.
We were whispering, “The rabbit has a death wish! Why isn’t the bobcat taking it?”
The rabbit passed the deck again, hopped another 30 feet, whereupon it turned around, and came back past the deck again, this time even closer than it had the first two times!
We were just floored by the rabbit’s complete lack of awareness of the bobcat. It seemed to be begging to be eaten.
The bobcat tensed and twitched as the rabbit hopped by again, ever so slowly, right on past the bobcat, which in turn, again simply watched.
We were dumbfounded. The rabbit then hopped out into the marsh and disappeared, and the bobcat remained tensed under the railing.
Now, nearly 15 minutes had gone by since I was first leaving for work, and I was seriously late. I left as quietly as I could, and a few minutes later, Mary and Callie watched as the bobcat walked to the end of the deck and leaped off the highest end, perhaps 7 feet down to the snow, and bounded off into the marsh. End of story.
But why didn’t it take the rabbit? My best guess is that the snow was still very deep, and while the rabbit was staying on top of the light crust, perhaps the bobcat knew it would have floundered in the deep snow.
We’ll never know. And likewise, the oblivious rabbit will never know how lucky it was to have escaped certain death.
More Bobcat Action!
Soon after our bobcat interaction, Jane Flanigan in Woodruff sent us several amazing photographs of a bobcat. The first shot shows the bobcat, tongue hanging out, eyeing up the deer carcass they had hanging in their tree for the birds. And the second shot shows the bobcat literally hanging from the deer as it took its fair share. Remarkable!
New Arrivals in Manitowish
The eagles nesting across the river from our house were clearly incubating eggs as of March 20.
We heard our first northern saw-whet owl “singing” on 3/23.
A merlin appeared at our feeders on 3/28, scaring the bejeebers out of every songbird in the area.
Our first robin appeared in Manitowish on March 30. My records show an average arrival date of March 23 for robins, so they’re a week late. We also saw our first geese on March 30, and their average arrival date, at least according to our records, is March 16.
Hooded mergansers, a junco, and a grackle showed up on 3/31 despite the intermittent snow squalls. But alas, still no red-winged blackbirds as of this writing on 3/31. Red-winged blackbirds arrive on average on 3/20, so they’re late, too.
The Manitowish River opened below our house on 3/30 – last year it opened on 3/8. The 23-year average is 3/16.
March was a tough month, but don’t forget how easy December and January were. Winter simply chose to show up late this year, and then to make up for it by staying a little longer.
The Limits of Mitigation
The recently passed Mining Bill allows for the mitigation of the many wetlands that will be lost through the open pit mining of the Penokee Range. Proponents say that mitigation is nothing new and protects wetlands overall.
It is true that mitigation is nothing new – every year thousands of acres of wetlands are legally destroyed and converted into something considered more lucrative through mitigation. This process attempts to achieve the admirable goal of "no net loss" by allowing developers to construct their projects in wetlands in return for offsetting the damage by building a wetland somewhere else.
In theory, this sounds straightforward – for each acre of wetland lost there should be at least one acre of wetland created.
The problem is that mitigation typically fails as an even-up trade, since creating a highly complex wetland from scratch is nearly impossible to do. Relative to the Mining Bill, we’re talking about potential mitigation for the Kakagon Sloughs on the Bad River Reservation, a wetland considered the best remaining landscape-sized wetland in all of the Great Lakes.
The Great Lakes, of course, form the largest group of freshwater lakes on Earth, containing 21% of the world's surface fresh water, so saying that the Kakagon Sloughs are the best wetlands on the Great Lakes is saying a great deal.
Thus, it’s an enormous risk to put the Kakagon Sloughs in jeopardy, and perhaps ultimately to try to make a trade for them. Using a football analogy, it’s like trading Aaron Rogers for a baby yet to be born, the assumption being that we can train, or build as it were, any baby to be equal to Rogers, an MVP of the league.
Perhaps more analogously, it’s like trading a magnificent architectural structure – say the Sistine Chapel – for a pole building.
No architect, businessperson, or football coach would make these kinds of trades. Unfortunately, most natural wetlands are ultimately traded for something just like this, for something that is not their equal, but instead looks and acts like little more than an artificial farm pond.
If you think it’s easy to create a wetland – that all it takes is dumping a bunch of water on some empty land – then you forgot to inventory all the plants, insects, amphibians, fish, birds, mammals, and microscopic life that are part of a wetland community. And you also forgot to ask how they biologically interact, and how far they need to be spaced apart, and where, and how many, and why. And you didn’t think about the hydrology, soils, and geology necessary to make the physical side of it work either.
How do you re-create something that took nature the last ten thousand years of natural selection to develop? Scientists know a lot about the value of wetlands – that they help regulate water cycles, that they serve as water filters, that they provide habitat for diverse flora and fauna and offer a hundred other functions. But even specialists don't always know how they do it. You can’t make a wetland simply by dumping all the parts on some empty land, any more than you can make a new cow by chopping one up and dumping its parts in a barn and saying “Voila! A cow!”
Back in the early 1980s when I was in a graduate class on wetland ecology at UW Green Bay, the Kakagon Sloughs on the Bad River Reservation were always described as the best remaining landscape-sized wetland in all of the Great Lakes. Covering 16,000 acres, the sloughs have been given the international designation of a “Wetland of International Importance” by the 1971 Ramsar Convention, the first Ramsar site to be owned by a tribe.
The Sloughs have also been designated an internationally “Important Bird Area.” IBAs are determined by an internationally agreed upon set of criteria set by national governing organizations.
And the Sloughs have been designated as a National Natural Landmark by the U.S. Department of the Interior, recognizing them as one of the best examples of a wetland in the nation (there are less than 600 NNLs that have been designated within the United States and American Territories.)
On Lake Superior, the Kakagon Sloughs are called the “Sea of Rice.” The Sloughs are also one of the largest wild rice resources in the entire world.
For that matter, the Penokee Range is identified as an important area of high conservation significance due to its unique geology, its many rare plants and animals, and its high quality recreational opportunities (WI Land Legacy Report, 2006). This landscape was included in the DNR’s Forest Legacy Assessment of Need (2001), while The Wisconsin Wildlife Action Plan identified the Penokee Range as an Important Bird Area and a Conservation Opportunity Area of Continental Significance to maintain as a large continuous forest (2008).
Like all estuaries, the health of the Kakagon Sloughs depends on the health of its upstream watershed, which is the Penokee Range. Perched high above the Sloughs in the Penokees are fifty-six miles of perennial, and 15 miles of intermittent, waterways flowing through the proposed mining land. The following rivers and streams flow through the property (E and O indicate that portions of these waterways are designated as Exceptional or Outstanding Resource Waters by Wisconsin’s DNR): Apple Creek, Bad River (E and O), Ballou Creek (E), Barr Creek (E), Camp Six Creek, City Creek, Devils Creek (E), Dunn Creek, Edies Creek, Erickson Creek, Gehrman Creek, Gravelly Brook, Happy Creek, Hardscrabble Creek, Javorsky Creek (E), Krause Creek (E), Montreal Creek, Opergard Creek, Potato River (O), Rocky Run, Rouse Creek, Tafelski Creek, Tyler Forks (E and O), and several unnamed creeks.
So, good luck trying to mitigate all that. I think the Packers would have better luck trading Rogers for a future baby, and no one would see that as anything other than as a disaster. Trading the Penokees and the Sloughs for something we simply don’t know how to build, and frankly never will, would be no different.