Beaver teeth and salmon runs

This is the first piece of writing for my Science Writing class… might not be super-interesting, but I wanted to post it just as a starting point on my journey to becoming a science writer. I did take out the really assignment-driven parts. Practice, practice, practice–right? BTW, the assignment was to take a look at what’s being reported about science and find a story of interest to comment on…sort of a survey.

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I don’t read the daily news. Nor do I read The Huffington Post. Or the like. On a random day, sitting in a coffee shop, I might read The New York Times—because I trust its coverage. So, when asked to write about the science news where I live–the Pacific Northwest Coastal bioregion, I was forced to ponder how I get my information, my news, specifically reportage on science, specifically on environmental issues. I read Orion magazine; I read assigned texts in my graduate program; I read online sources while researching for graduate school papers. I do glance at headlines, and I listen to NPR. I am quickly coming to realize I have a hit-and-miss way of gathering knowledge of the goings on about the environment. To work in this field of science writing, I’m going to have to digest the competition, and learn to ferret out the truth.

In the search I conducted, three categories emerged. Firstly there are the big-ticket items, such as the forest plan and the incidence of earthquakes, tsunamis and the newly found fault line; current big events such as the planting of a mini-forest atop an old landfill near North Plains, the dam removal on the Klamath River, the discover of seven million year old beaver teeth, and the opening of a new state park; general occurrences of vastly varying nature, such as the amount of algae on a Dorena reservoir, disaster areas for crop loss, a high school fruit tree planting. A fourth category might be designated for reportage on the human-nature interface, or how to live sustainably, covering such topics as how to recycle one’s refrigerator.

Beaver teeth and dams removal are the stories that caught my attention.

Unexpectedly, Bureau of Land Management workers just this week found beaver teeth in northeast Oregon that have now been determined to be 7- to 7.3 million years old. These are now considered the oldest beavers in America, having crossed the Bering Land Bridge when it existed. The oldest of all beavers are attributed to Germany, 10-12 million years ago.

I read about three dam-removal projects: PacifiCorp’s dam across the Klamath; the Elwha and Glines Canyon dams near Port Angeles, Washington, (the second largest restoration project ever undertaken by the National Park Service); the Condit dam at the White Salmon River, also owned by PacifiCorp. Dam removal projects increase salmon runs, which in turn increase community economies in myriad ways and reconnect tribes to an aspect of their spiritual practice. This increase in salmon also balances the ecosystem by increasing species across trophic levels; for example, it is expected that bear and eagles will return to the surrounds of the Elwha.

As I thought about the content of these stories, what I was being told, I saw a connection that interests me, and opens some scientific questions. Both stories deal with habitat connectivity. Both attest to aspects of climate change in regard to habitat. In the case of the beavers, connectivity was lost due to large-scale climate change. In the case of salmon, connectivity restoration will be affected by climate change that has reshaped the habitat in between the time of dam construction and dam removal. In the long run, the evidence available in the life history of the ancient beavers might inform current research on salmon resilience and adaptation to future, extreme climate change.

Science writing beyond the confines of academia is new to me. I don’t know of a scientist who can answer my questions about beaver teeth and salmon habitat. I do know I must become much more aware of the conversation going on, and that I must join it.

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