I’m sure we all wonder how Sig would respond to a major event like the Pagami Creek forest fire.
Back in the 1970s, Bud Heinselman was finishing up on his monumental fire history research in the BWCAW. He and Sig collaborated often then because of the upcomign 1978 legislation. Bud, undoubtedly, would not pass up an opportunity to discuss his work as well as the political questions.
So, Sig was well aware of the dominant influence of fire in boreal forests. Bud’s work determined that fire would visit on the average of once in every 100 years. In 1863-64, fire covered about half of the Boundary Waters or about 500,000 acres. The Pagami Fire is a little over 90,000 acres as I write this today. Many other fires since the 1600s were larger than Pagami.
One of the great tenets of the wilderness concept is that nature will be able to function as closely to a natural setting as possible. Wildfire is an unruly and unpredictable part of this equation. The esthetics of a burned forest to the untrained eye do not compare to the virgin old growth forest we often associate with wilderness. Bud Heinselman, however, taught us that the forest MUST burn in order to regenerate itself. Natural fire is a little like predation in that it is not pretty at the time, but it is necessary for a healthy system.
So, I think Sig would be very comfortable with whatever outcome the Pagami fire gives us. No lives were lost, no private structures were lost, only two major canoe routes are significantly affected, the moose are especially pleased, next May the forest floor will be green again, a whole host of plant life will have a new beginning. These are all good things.
We should all be thankful that Forest Service policy has room for major unpredictable events like this. A healthy vibrant ecosystem requires it.
Fall 2011 Listening Point Newsletter
Isn’t it interesting that the original work of Bud Heinselman and Sig Olson lives on today? Their passion to understand the boreal forest and promote wilderness values is stimulating new studies with new technology. Bud and Sig were brothers in this search for knowledge. They both made huge contributions to their respective fields. But perhaps more importantly, they both knew intimately the intangible values of wilderness. Bud and Sig would be pleased to see what we can learn from a field of study with the long name “dendrochronology.”
Researchers from the University of Minnesota’s Center for Dendrochronology are using tree-rings to help better understand the last three centuries of wildfire in the Superior National Forest’s (SNF) Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW). The BWCAW is an exceptional example of a fire-adapted ecosystem. No disturbance has played a more integral role in determining the composition, structure, and distribution of vegetation across the BWCAW’s terrestrial landscape than fire. After nearly a century of largely successful fire exclusion, SNF wilderness administrators are seeking greater knowledge on how to best manage and propagate fire within the Boundary Waters wilderness.
Much of our current understanding of fire in the Boundary Waters can be attributed to the research efforts of ecologist and wilderness advocate Miron ‘Bud’ Heinselman. Eighteen years ago, the Listening Point Foundation’s Vice Chair, Charles Wick, thoughtfully preserved a dozen firescarred red pine samples Bud Heinselman collected in the 1970s. The samples are on loan to graduate student Lane Johnson with the U of M’s Department of Geography for dendrochronological analysis. The project is part of a larger, historic assessment of human, fire, and climate relationships within the western Boundary Waters.
For more information on the project, please contact Lane Johnson, Center for Dendrochronology, University of Minnesota; www.umndendro.umn.edu
The following short article by Sigurd Olson marked his first piece published in any of the scientific journals. It was published more as what we might now call a “Note” in one of the scientific journals rather than as a full article with citations and footnotes. Nonetheless, Sig’s article documented an unusual biological phenomenon based on his keen observations in the field.
Sig had begun graduate school at the University of Illinois in the fall of 1931, and his family moved from Ely to be with him during his graduate studies. Sig’s major professor was Victor Shelford, one of the early leaders in the study of ecology, and active with the Ecological Society of America. Shelford influenced Sig’s own thinking of ecology, and helped transform Sig’s views of predators like the eastern timber wolf from one of killers of deer (as Sig wrote about in his 1930 Sports Afield article, “The Poison Trail”) to one of predators playing their natural and needed role in the ecosystem. Sig’s master’s thesis, “The Life History of the Timber Wolf and the Coyote: A Study in Predatory Animal Control,” became one of the very first ecological studies ever done on wolves. Two longer articles from his master’s thesis appeared in 1938 in other scientific journals, Ecology and Scientific Monthly. Sig and his family returned to Ely in June of 1932, shortly after this article on fish-eating deer appeared in print.
Beyond the important scientific value that this article on fish-eating deer provided, it also provides some interesting insights on Sig himself. Sig’s keen powers of observation in the wilderness are quite evident in this piece, of course. The article also provides a glimpse into his early guiding summers, and tells us exactly where the 28-year-old Sig was on that May day in 1927, and where he was heading on that canoe trip in Quetico.
By Sigurd F. Olson
published in Journal of Mammalogy (Feb. 1932)
In the February, 1924, issue of the Journal of Mammalogy (pages 64-65), is an article on fish-eating deer by Thornton W. Burgess, of Springfield, Mass. In this article Mr. Burgess tells of deer in the Maine woods stealing trout from his camp. Although he did not actually see the deer taking fish, he had every reason to believe, from tracks and other signs, that such was the case. He mentions an instance in which a companion reported seeing a deer take fish from a canoe but gives no actual first hand experiences of his own. He draws the conclusion that the deer hanging around the Maine camps have perhaps developed a taste for fish offal on account of the salt in it.
According to Mr. Burgess: “The question is, just how generally are deer eaters of fish? Probably the liking for fish is an acquired taste confined to a few individuals. My own theory of the matter is that these particular animals had hung around camps picking up scraps of food and in this way had probably eaten some cooked fish for the sake of the salt. In this way, they had acquired a taste for fish for its own sake. Of course this is pure speculation but it seems to me the most logical explanation.”
The longer one observes animal life and the specific reactions of the individual as compared with that of the group, the less is one sure that individual behavior can ever be depended upon. Although the majority of individuals of a known group will react much alike under average conditions, it becomes increasingly apparent that one can never tell what certain individuals may or may not do. Whether or not deer eat fish habitually is a question still far from settled, but the experience I am going to relate took place far from civilization and camps, in an area of wilderness where the animals in question could not possibly have developed an appetite in the way suggested by Burgess. In this case it was purely a natural reaction, a case of an animal or a number of animals willfully varying their natural vegetable diet with fish.
On May 22, 1927, I was paddling down Cecil Lake in the Quetico Provincial Park of Ontario on my way to Lake McIntyre. It was about noon when I noticed in a small bay a short distance ahead, a doe and a fawn. Approaching carefully, I discovered that both animals were standing in the rocky bed of a small creek flowing out of the lake at that point. Fortunately, I was perfectly screened from their view by a dense reedy point, so was able to paddle to within forty feet without being seen. I might explain that it was the season of the year when the black suckers, Catostomus commersonii, were running up the small streams to spawn. This particular creek was so shallow that the suckers, which I could plainly see, were throwing themselves clear out of the water in order to get up the rocky bed of the stream.
The doe was busily stamping around and to my surprise I saw that she was doing her utmost to impale some of the suckers with her fore feet. Finally she succeeded in killing one and immediately took it up in her mouth. While the fish was still flopping strongly she oriented it as any fish-eating animal would do, and munched it down head first in the same identical fashion she would manipulate a clump of grass. The fawn made no effort whatever to eat any fish or trample on them but gambolled up and down the creek while its mother was feeding. The sucker eaten was about fourteen inches in length. No sooner had the tail of the first fish disappeared, than the doe began trying to get another. This was not difficult because there were dozens of suckers of all sizes flopping and jumping around her feet. In a short time she had trampled another, picked it up in her mouth and begun chewing at the head end. Just about that time, she noticed me, gave a startled leap and disappeared into the brush still holding the sucker in her mouth.
Pushing ashore at the source of the creek, I found tracks which indicated that not only had the doe been there repeatedly but that other deer, among them a huge buck, had been there within the last twenty-four hours. This particular place was not a drinking hole, nor was it a spot to which deer would come for the aquatic vegetation of which they are fond. The only excuse for their coming at all must have been to obtain the fish.
Read a recent article in the Ely Echo by Nick Wognum about a fish-eating deer!