By Michael Ellis

Every time I’ m on a safari in Africa there are a couple of questions that always arise. As we are looking across the vast plain of the Serengeti, a scene that looks much like eastern Wyoming but for the thousands of wildebeests, gazelles, and zebras, someone invariably asks, – “How come we don’t have this many animals in the U.S.?” The answer is – we used to. 150 years ago there were 50 million buffaloes in the middle part of our continent. In the desire to wipe the Plains Indians right off the map, the US government reduced that large biomass of animals to about 600 individuals. 50 Million to 600. Whatta waste.

The next question is more complicated. After seeing enormous elephants, 18′ tall giraffes, huge hippos, and towering ostriches, people wonder why North America doesn’t have such large animals. Well, I say, we used to and it wasn’t really that long ago.

18,000 years ago during the last Ice Age mastodons and mammoths weighing 13 tons and roamed the Arctic Steppe. Everything was big here, perhaps as an adaptation against the cold. There were giant peccaries, giant armadillos, giant beavers, giant capybaras, giant sloths and giant long horned bison. And the predators were also large – saber toothed tigers, the American lion – much bigger than its African cousin, the dire wolf and probably the fiercest predator to roam the earth since T. rex- the short faced bear. 1500 pounds of pure carnivore terror. Lest we forget the birds there was even a raptor with a wingspan of 16 feet!

So what happened to all these fantastic animals? In a word – humans. As the Ice Age ended a land bridge formed and allowed our ancestors to cross from Asia into a world that had not known fear of humans. Within a very short period of time every single animal that weighed more than 220 lbs. – horses, camels, sloths, mastodons- in all 30 genera were killed off..

But in Africa where humans originated and have lived for several million years, the large animals evolved defenses against us. So that is why Africa has elephants and we don’t.

This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.

Mojave National Preserve

Mojave National Preserve (KQED Perspective aired April 2004)
By Michael Ellis

I began going to the so-called Lonesome Triangle in the late 1970’s. This remote part of the Mojave is bounded on the south by I-40 and on the north by I 15 and in between is some of the most beautiful desert country anywhere in the world.

It was managed by the BLM and under their aegis there was grazing, hunting, off road use and large scale mining. In the 1980’s it became a battleground between those of us who recognized its biological, cultural and scenic value and realized that it had National Park status and those who wanted to continue to use it (abuse it, we believed) in the same manner as the previous century. I wrote many letters to elected representatives and encouraged the people I took there on nature trips to do the same.

Finally we had two senators- Boxer and Feinstein – and Representative George Miller who were instrumental in passing the legislation. It is not a Park in the usual sense because of all the compromises that had to be made with special interest groups- hunters, for example. And large areas were excluded due to political pressure from mining interests. And Congress had to deal with us pesky environmentalists. But we finally won 1.6 million acres of desert paradise.

To be honest I enjoyed the freedom that the BLM allowed. We could camp almost anywhere. The roads were rough so it kept many folks away, there were no services, water was hard to come by, the sights were mostly unsigned…basically even at its most crowded at Easter there was no one there- a naturalists paradise!!!

So it was with some trepidation that I revisited the area last month after an absence of 9 yrs. I am pleased to say that the NPS has done an outstanding job of protecting the essential facets that make the eastern Mojave so special. They have not paved any roads. They have kept signage to a minimum. You have to know which road goes to the volcanic fields so this allows the joy of discovery. Most of the cattle are gone and there are still no services. During my visit over Easter there weren’t many visitors, the Park has kept a liberal but wise camping policy and I am delighted to say the wildflowers, bird and reptile sightings were superb. Thanks to the Department of Interior for a job well done.

This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.

Mono Lake

Mono Lake (KQED Perspective aired March 1995)

Michael Ellis

After all bad news on the political front with the Republicans trying to wreck thirty years of good environmental legislation, I am happy to report that all is just fine at Mono Lake. Awesome is the appropriate word for this immense body of water, the oldest lake in the US. It’s actually a giant caldera, a remnant of a very big volcano and in last month it was ringed by snow-capped mountains. The sky was so blue, the air crisp and clean. It was splendid and all seemed right with the world.

And there is indeed good news, recently a court decision gave Mono Lake a reprieve from the thirst of Los Angeles. The courts guaranteed a lake level desired by biologists and LA agreed not to challenge this decision. After a battle of nearly 16 years we have won. This ruling will allow the lake to live and support the millions of birds that depend on it for vital sustenance.

The Forest Service has built a fancy Visitor Center celebrating the glories of the lake but they were reluctant players in the game to save it. The real hero is the Mono Lake Committee founded by David and Sally Gaines in 1979. I had the pleasure of first meeting David when he was on his way to pitch his idea of saving Mono Lake to the Audubon Society. I remember suggesting to him that it would be a great story for 60 Minutes…. the giants of LA Water district against David, the puny bird watcher. After all everyone had seen Chinatown. He said it was a good idea but what was 60 Minutes? I thought he was joking but his knowledge of that world was then limited. He knew nature. David was a reluctant warrior for the lake. His gentle spirit did not mesh well with conflict but he knew in his heart what was right and that gave him great power. He died in a car wreck in 1986. But his name and memory live on in the hearts and minds of those of us that love Mono Lake and will always remember David Gaines, its premier champion. One mans actions did make a difference. This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.

New York and the Amazon Basin

KQED PERSPECTIVE (aired June 94)
by Michael Ellis

I am blessed in many ways in my life but one of the greatest is by my profession – I make a living taking folks on natural history excursions to wonderful spots on the planet — the Amazon, Africa, Antarctica. I go snorkeling, birding, river rafting whale watching. So I am invariably asked “If this is your work, what the heck do you do for recreation??”

Well I must confess that I love to vacation in New York City. I revel in the contrast to the rest of my life. I get so energized when I am in that crush of humanity, that maelstrom of trade and commerce. The home of the extreme extremes.

Believe it or not the Big Apple reminds me of the Amazon Basin. The tropical rainforests are the richest biological places on earth. I can walk the same trail over and over and see a different assemblage of birds, insects and mammals every time. The entire Amazon world is buzzing with energy. At every level from the dense underground mycelia threads underpinning the entire forest floor to 200′ high up in the canopy layer, life is at full bore. Entire worlds live and die in one tree. The cacophony of insect sounds alone can drive some folks crazy. I happen to love it. The competition for resources is intense. If a plant or animal stays still in the Amazon for very long, it is soon overwhelmed, out competed and may go extinct.

New York is a human-created mirror image of the Amazon. The underground subway system roots the buildings, connects, intertwines and delivers the human protoplasm, which are the vehicles of energy. Instead of sunlight driving the eco-system, there is money and lots of it. Goods and services are exchanged at a frantic rate. You want it? Anything. New York has it. If you want to be tested, to compete, to thrive go to the City. To quote Sinatra, “If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.” Slow down, become weak, you are soon history. Entire worlds exist in the World Trade Center and in Harlem tenements. The diversity of life on the streets is astounding. Ah New York, Oh the Amazon I love you both.

Oaks in California

OK I admit it; I am an unabashed tree hugger– a pagan at heart. My white skinned ancestors were the Celts, the ultimate nature worshippers. And I am disturbed. There were several small items in the newspaper last week that were actually very big things. Scientists have realized that there exists a humungous Argentine ant colony that stretches from San Diego to San Francisco that is forever changing the mini-ecology of the entire area. Another study found that introduced Louisiana crawdads are eating many of the native salamanders and tadpoles in California’s streams.

But the most personal and upsetting news to me is the continued loss of hundreds of oak trees in Marin and Sonoma County. A fungus is attacking them and causing quite rapid death. For many of us this is equivalent to church burning. And apparently arborists have no clue as to how to protect the oak woodlands. The trees continue to die.

The genus for oaks is Quercus, which is derived from 2 Celtic words- quer -fine and cuez, tree. Great choice, they are fine trees. The priestly class of the Celts- the Druids – identified certain oak groves, as sacred in ancient Britain. Indeed the first thing the Christian missionaries did when attempting to convert the local heathens was to chop down and destroy the groves.

California is rich in Oaks there are 19 species and a mess of hybrids. Even the dendrologically challenged know oaks. They have acorns, distinctive wind pollinated flowers, very strong and lovely wood and oaks can live for centuries. The native peoples heavily relied upon acorns for sustenance. Countless birds and mammals depend upon the trees for food and shelter.

So what is our legacy to our grandchildren? A California devoid of red-legged frogs and newts. Will they never experience the architectural majesty and beauty of a solitary oak in a grassland? Will the chatter of gray squirrels and the raucous laugh of an acorn woodpecker not grace their world? That is too sad to imagine. This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.