Forest Service studies evolving landscape through ‘retake’ photo project

Think of it as a low-tech time machine.

The Bridger-Teton National Forest recently posted some of its efforts to illustrate an evolving landscape on a new website app titled “Historic Photography Retake Project.”

The project shows photographs of locations around Jackson Hole, Wyo., taken at the turn of the century in 1900. These photos can be easily compared to photos of the same locations from the 1970s, as well as between 2015 and 2018. This “repeat photography” allows land managers, biologists and ecologists to study the changes.

The project was the inspiration of George Gruell, a wildlife biologist for the Teton National Forest in the late 1960s and early 1970s. He saw it as a way to assess the condition and trends of the landscape.

“He went around and found all these historic pictures from the turn of the century from all the people who came here, then he spent a summer or two going out and trying to recreate pictures from where the picture was taken from,” said Andy Norman, a forest fuels specialist for the Bridger-Teton National Forest. “He did a technical publication in the ’70s on his work.”

Gruell took about 100 photos repeating the older photos. Those photos of Gruell’s have recently been taken again by Mike Merigliano of Driggs, who works with the national forest.

“So now we have photos from the turn of the century, 1970s and now 2015-18,” Norman said. “The difference between the ’70s and now is that we have other ways to display the data.”

That new way is found on the Forest Service’s website.

The site brings up an interactive map with pinpoints showing photo locations. When you click on a pinpoint, a display gives you information on ecological zones shown in the photo, years the photos were taken and all three photos individually and side-by-side. Another feature of the app gives viewers a sliding overlay for a detailed side-by-side comparison of the landscapes of past and present. Right now, there are 21 retake photos on the app, but plans are to eventually put all 100 or so photos on the website.

“Gruell was mostly interested in wildlife habitat and also how the vegetation had changed in the past 100 years,” Norman said. “More than anything he was interested in the effects of fire suppression. In the turn of the century, the Forest Service pretty much had a policy of fire exclusion.”

Although ecological change is constant, it generally moves at a slow pace. Taking a long-range look through retake photography gives land managers and scientists another tool for study.

The higher the elevation, typically, the slower change occurs, Merigliano said in a Jackson Hole News and Guide story.

“Up in the alpine,” he said, “the pictures I’m taking there, it looks like the guy was there yesterday. It just doesn’t change very much because it’s so cold.”

Other areas have shown bigger changes over time caused by road building, grazing, fire and even a dam break.

Merigliano told the Jackson Hole News and Guide that in studying the change in vegetation, invasive species such as cheatgrass have shown up in the latest photos.

The Forest Service app says the Jackson Hole area is ideal for this type of retake photography project.

“Wildlife habitat, especially for elk, and watershed protection were important priorities a century ago, and they remain so today,” the site says. “There are typical land management activities such as livestock grazing and timber harvesting, but some areas have never been grazed by livestock, and much of the landscape doesn’t have roads or timber harvest.”

Norman said the Forest Service plans to eventually put all of the retake photos on a database accessible by the public.

The project was partially funded by The Teton Conservation District.

Where have all the butterflies gone? Monarch butterflies all but vanish in Idaho and the West

Something catastrophically wrong happened in 2018 to monarch butterflies.

Idaho wildlife biologist Ross Winton spent years working with monarch butterflies. With the help of volunteers, he would carefully put a tiny tag the size of a paper hole punch on about 30 to 50 of the iconic insects each summer in the Magic Valley. Then during the summer of 2018 he could only find two to tag.

“I saw two monarchs all season,” Winton said of 2018. “Most of the folks I’ve talked to in the Boise area were seeing very similar results. … It was a little disconcerting to be seeing that kind of a decline in one year.”

On Thursday, the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation issued a report finding that the population of monarch butterflies overwintering in California had fallen to the lowest level ever recorded.

The Western Monarch Thanksgiving Count found only 28,429 butterflies, an 86 percent fall from the previous year and a 99.4 percent decline from numbers counted in the 1980s. Overwintering butterflies in central and Southern California numbered about 4.5 million in the 1980s. The monarch population in the eastern United States, which migrates to Mexico, has declined by more than 80 percent in the last 20 years, but has not suffered the same fall in numbers this year, the Xerces Society says.

“To picture what this means for monarchs, imagine that the population of Los Angeles had shrunk to that of the town of Monterey,” said Emma Pelton, a monarch conservation expert with the Xerces Society. (Monterey, Calif., has about 29,000 residents, while Los Angeles has about 4 million.)

Monarch butterfly experts say much of the blame for the species’ demise can be aimed at habitat destruction, particularly in overwintering areas of California. Each year, the butterflies head south to winter mostly in either California or central Mexico. While most end up in Mexico, particularly those who spend their summers east of the Rocky Mountains, many also overwinter in habitat near Santa Cruz, Calif.

“Our best guess is that most of our Idaho monarchs are going to central and Southern California,” Winton said. “The connections we’ve had that we’ve documented for sure most of them have been from central California. … They like to winter in a lot of the tall trees along the coast of California.”

But what’s happening in California as far as monarchs are concerned is alarming.

“A lot of the concern is focusing in on California,” said Beth Waterbury, retired wildlife biologist for Idaho Fish and Game in Salmon. Waterbury helped head up a monarch study in Idaho, collecting, tagging and documenting the species especially in eastern Idaho.

“Either loss of habitat or degradation of habitat on those overwinter sites (is key),” she said. “When those butterflies start dispersing in early spring they’re looking for milkweed and nectar resources not too distant from those overwinter sites. The focus right now is looking at availability of habitat in the California central valley or in the coastal foothills or the Sierra foothills and that apparently is lacking. That is looking to be the real break in the migratory chain this past year.”

Winton agrees.

“In California and Mexico a lot of habitat has been lost where they tend to overwinter,” he said. “A lot of those big trees are either getting too old and not getting replaced and blowing over or they are getting removed, with city expansions, things like that. It really comes down to habitat.”

Waterbury said other contributing factors include wildfires, pesticides and hot weather. “Monarchs don’t do well or reproduce when it gets up to 90 degrees or hotter,” she said.

With the population vanishing, the Xerces Society has issued a call to arms in hopes of saving the species.

“It’s easy to give up when faced with news like this,” Pelton said. “But doing nothing is not an option.”

The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation is calling on Californians to plant early blooming flowers and milkweed to fuel migrating monarchs on their paths to other states.

Waterbury said that while most of the action items target California, one involves Idaho. Mainly it involves protecting and restoring monarch-friendly habitat.

“Having done some outreach here in the Salmon area to local ranchers, I taught a course at a cattlemen’s night school in January and gave a presentation on monarchs and honestly the ranchers were kind of dumbfounded,” Waterbury said. “They had no idea that monarchs need (milkweed) to reproduce. Once they knew that they said ‘I can leave some milkweed at the corners of my pivot’ or ‘I don’t need to burn that ditch that time of year.’ They made a few provisions to allow monarch habitat.”

Waterbury said one thing working against the cause is a name.

“This is my name for milkweed, it should be called ‘monarch manna’ because it is so important,” she said. “There are these public attitudes because of the name having the name weed in it. So many people do not know that it is the only plant that monarchs will lay their eggs on.”

Some might wonder what all the fuss is over an insect?

“We want to conserve all of our biodiversity just on its own sake,” Waterbury said. “There is a role that monarchs play that is very important to humans and that is as a pollinator and if we don’t have pollinators on our landscape to pollinate our crops, to pollinate native plants, we’re going to lose about three-quarters of the plant species on this planet and a lot of our food resources.

“Monarchs are kind of a canary in a coal mine for a lot of other insect species, especially bees which are some of our primary pollinators.”