Monday, April 2, 2018

Megafauna were the "Ecosystem Engineers" not Wildfire

Hey Look, if Cornell University can say that Snakes act as 'ecosystem engineers' in seed dispersal because they eat cute little field mice with bulging check pouches loaded with seeds which can later be pooped out to spread seeds to germinate in other newer places, then I can say the same thing about extinct Megafauna. Frankly I think a snake as an ecosystem engineer in the spreading of seeds is a stretch, however their role as far as checks and balances in keeping ecosystems in a healthy state as a predator are undeniable. Actually I highly doubt Snakes really help spread all that many seeds to create new ecosystems, but that's just my opinion. Kooky narratives are a dime a dozen these days. Unless of course weedy annual invasive plants (mouse diet) are going to become in vogue sometime soon when it comes to redefining what the term "pristine" means. (Definition Shell Games are all the rage now days) I did see something the other day however that did make me sit up and take notice. It's a subject that I've pondered for a long time now, but have always shelved it away in the back of my mind to be reopened at some other future date. This subject (ecosystem engineering) actually has real potential for positive benefits regarding forest health management versus the negative consequences if we ignore it. My subject here is about the historical presence of megafauna and what their ancient role (purpose) may have been in actual engineering of ecosystems in ways that negate this incessant almost religious worship of Wildfires (both prescribed/controlled or just plain human stupidity) as the only solution to forest health. I'll provide some examples today that still exist in Africa of the large animal role in ecosystem engineering there, but let me first focus and single out what life may once have looked like in North America.

Thunder Beast Park, Oregon
I was doing some googling the other day and stumbled across this goofy looking image of a giant Ground Sloth. The place where this statue can be found is at an old theme park called Thunderbeast Park up in Chiloquin, Oregon. It's closed now and that is irrelevant to my point. It's the setting I saw in this photo here on the left. It's the image of a Giant Shasta Ground Sloth standing on it's rear hind legs within a pine forest with other conifers. I had seen this setting before in many photos from museums and PopSci articles dealing with the subject of the giant ground sloths and other megafauna. I sometimes visit a blog website which deals with forest management and other public lands policies. Generally the consersation over there is nothing more than a collection of opposing ideologues of two opposing religious philosophies engaged in figurative spitting and poop throwing contests and debates about which side has the moral high ground on forest management. More often than not it's neither side. The debates are quite often about the definition of what a pristine forest is and what natural mechanisms in history played the biggest role in healthy forests and other vegetation ecosystem management. In general both sides will accept the blind faith religious concept that fire plays the biggest role and it's fire suspression's fault that things have gotten so out of hand. But is that really so ? Wildfire is NOT a creator, it's a destroyer. Take a look here at some other artist's concept illustrations of how Scientists most often depict the Ground Sloths in action. I have in fact previously written about megafauna, but from the standpoint of their role their (Mega-Fauna Poop) played in ecosystem benefits and function.

(From the BBC Credit: Mike Danton/Alamy)

Artwork by Wayne Ferrebee
In almost every single artist's depiction of a Giant Ground Sloth, these animals are almost always shown standing on their hind legs stripping trees branches a few meters up the tree's trunk. Other megafauna may be seen browsing the ground as they pass through a forest. In other cases whole young trees are toppled over to the ground for making easier access to the abundant foliage and tender bark. More than likely these young saplings would rarely recover which provided a much needed thinning service of a forest understory. It would be easy to see how only a small percentage of trees eventually would become those giant old growth trees we've seen in photos and other photos from the fossil record. Add in other large browsing and grazing herbivores along with medium and small herbivores, we can visualize a clearer picture of what perfect forest understory housekeepers those animals really were. But they are all gone now. Unfortunately, humans today have to labor at forest management by using axes, chainsaws, bulldozers and other heavy equipment along with their precious control burns. This is a very similar experience of 20th century Secular China who killed off Sparrows because they mistakenly believed in ignorance that the sparrows were going to eat all their grain. Later it was discovered that sparrows did more than eat grain, they are also incredible insect foragers. With the increase in insect pests, came the increased innovation in synthetic science-based pesticides, with the resultant of indiscriminate killing of all manner of insects (Good & Bad) which eventually included the decimation of honey bees and other pollinators which now forces Chinese Farmers to employ labour intensive hand pollination techniques formerly done by Nature.

Artwork by Velizar Simeonovski based on scientific research at Mastodon Lake in Aurora, IL

Opening scenes in Jurassic Park
And it's not just the role that the large conventional mammals may have played in ecosystem engineering, function and maintenance, but what about all those mysterious giant creatures we call Dinosaurs ? We can only imagine what their roles were through the scientific narratives provided by PopSci journals and Hollywood movie producers. We are often only treated to a dinosaur world narritive as a vicious violent "survival of the fittest" beasts which provides the popular entertainment value that modern human beings unfortunately crave, despite more responsible protests to the contrary by some. Death and destruction sells. Old school ecosystem documentaries don't. But what if the ancient world back then wasn't really like the violent place they want us to believe it was ? Take this illustrative gif on the right here. Do you remember that scene of the giant Brachiosaurus browsing the tree top of the tall Eucalyptus creating a neatly manicured open forested woodland ? And what about that vicious killer T-Rex so commonly described in all the narratives as the ultimate Alpha Predator with it's bloodthisty and violent lifestyle ? In his 1993 book "The Complete T. Rex," paleontologist Jack Horner, promoted the idea that T. Rex may have actually been primarily a scavenger. 😲 Knowing the Scientific Orthodoxy's obsession with control of academia's approved worldview, you can imagine how well that went down. 😠 But seriously, if something as large as a Brachiosaurus dies, what on earth is going to clean up that rotting mess ??? Flies & their baby maggots ??? That stench and foul disease spreading scenario could've lasted for months and months. Jack Horner once told an audience:
"He has no arms, can’t run fast, appears to have a large olfactory lobe and he’s big. Interestingly enough if you think about it, one of the best things to be if you are a scavenger is big so you can chase away anything else around the carcass."
(Source: National Geographic)
But people in general love the violent Dino-World fantasy scenario. They don't want to hear about T-Rex being some sort of land vulture in Dino-World. This is in line with all other things violent mankind today enjoys as entertainment (video games, movies, News Media, sports, etc). And Hollywood is all to happy to oblige, as does the Scientific Orthodoxy who knows all too well what sells and what inspires further funding for their pet projects within academia. Clearly, we can even imagine how herbivore dinosaurs engineered and shaped ecosystems as well as those later smaller scale versions of Mega-Fauna killed off by the much celebrated ecological Indians. But are there any illustrative examples left in the wild today that provide an illustrative view of the importance and loss of Mega-Fauna for providing ecosystem services ???
Not exactly ancient Mega-Fauna, but Africa's large mammals will do
illustration -

Photo credit: Josh Donlan.
Ever wonder how those iconic Acacia trees of the African Savanna you see into those iconic photos and film documentaries got their picturesque pattern & form ? They don't shape themselves that way without help. In fact without all browsing animals, Acacia trees would look like nothing more than giant versions of Mesquite Bosques in the southwestern USA, just a massive ball of tree from the ground up and with masses of thorns. Fortunately for us, Nature lends a hand in various stages of growth from the Acacia's youth to it's tall maturity. In the beginning millions of delicate Acacias are probably eaten. Those that escape grazing may make it to bush than small tree. Early browsing would first come from smaller browsers like these goats seen here above right in the Galapagos Islands or the Gazelles in east Africa and others like antelope or Deer.

Image -

Credit Flickr Treehugger
Such browsing by goats in this way has been going on since the time of the ancient Egyptians who recorded their browsing behaviour in trees. Later animals like Camels move in to take their share, never killing the tree, but eating enough outer branches to continually force the growth in the middle ever higher upward. It's interesting to note that these desert and dry Savanna animal diets consist of things with nasty thorns which would be tough on most domestic animals. I have to imagine that the same would be true of the past rugged megafauna and their choice of a rangey dry thorny diet (chaparral, mesquite, Osage Orange, etc). Take note below of this Camel eating a Prickly Pear Cactus pad with all those thorns.

Camels browsing large Acacia in the Sinai Desert
TripAdvisor in the Sinai
Well, where the goats can't reach beyond a certain height the larger Camels take over. But even they have a limited reach compared to this Elephant below standing on hind legs to reach as high as possible low branches with leaves.
Image - Jaldapara-National-Park

Image - Jacques Jacobsz
Ouch, once again, there is nothing more thorny than the long thorns of an African Acacia tree, but these giants with the tough mouth parts and their powerful grinding equipment can pulverize tough plants and cycle them through their cast iron guts  further processing this meal which allows an ecosystem to be engineered and managed to provide many other opportunities for a plethora of other creatures to make a living. Clearly the Elephant will do whatever it takes to reach a meal like standing on it's hind legs. But what a meal. This thorny mouthful you see here on the right is from Etosha National Park in Namibia. Big animals have the biggest appetites. Such plant parts with all their mass of fiber probably don't have a whole lot of nutrition, which requires lots of time spent browsing and pruning. That's a good thing, because we need more and more mechanisms in the phenotypic plasticity department for shaping trees. But elephants are simply another phase in the final outcome of the iconic image we have of Acacia Trees. Elephants also offer another important service for the Acacia and other trees.

Image -
In the absence of such large animals as Elephants, scores of tree species may be left without a means of long-distance seed dispersal, which is essential for forest structure and colonization. Trees whose seeds are dispersed by smaller animals cannot fill the void left by the absence of larger elephants, dramatically altering forest composition. Fewer elephants will also mean a more limited distribution of the nutrients contained in their dung. This phenomena is true of all plant community ecosystems where elephants are an integral part, like the Central African Rain Forests. Below is an important research link on that area which has been recently published.
Duke University: "Elephant Declines Imperil 96 Percent of Central Africa's Forests"
So what about the need of Mega-Fauna to engineer and maintain major North American forested ecosystems ? Fat chance of that ever happening ever again despite all the fantasy rewilding articles about cloning Mammoths from degraded frozen DNA. Or maybe all we really need are just more and more Wildfires, Native Americans and😕 Fire Ecologists to tell us what we need to do in order to fix the overgrown forests since megafauna absence 😞
Final Phase in Acacia Tree sculpting - Savanna's Giraffes
Photograph - Giraffes in Tanzania

Image -
Of course the final refinement phase of sculpting an Acacia Forest is provided by the Giraffes who have the highest reaches possible. Giraffes are the tallest large animals left in the natural world. Giraffes use their height to good advantage to browse on leaves and buds in these Acacia treetops that the other animals I reference earlier couldn't reach. Even the giraffe's blue-black tongue is a long tool for this task. The 21-inch tongue helps them pluck their preferred leaves from the high branches. Giraffes eat most of the time (16 to 20 hours a day) and, like cows, they regurgitate their food and chew it as cud. A giraffe eats hundreds of pounds of leaves each week and must travel miles to find enough food. Such a large appetite benefits the entire ecosystem from a broad perspective.

Photograph by Kit Korzun

Image - Veronika Marchina
Some Giraffes target the deciduous Acacias and others like the more permanent evergreen trees. Without Giraffes there would be no pictureque forms of trees within any African ecosystem. Sadly the reality of giraffe disappearance is coming closer than many think. While it is popular today on social media to expose the iconic image of the mighty white trophe hunter (which is often thru lottery for conservation we are told), there is also the other main problem of indigenous peoples which almost no one seems to want to expose. Like North America's eventual extinction of it's Mega-Fauna by Native Americans, Africa also has an indigenous population which has an over hunting problem influenced by cultural traditions. Folks forget that while these people can be respected for the great knowledge and understanding of Nature, they themselves are also real human beings with the same imperfections and flaws much like the vilified white European. Take this Giraffe's tail photo on the right. Did you know it's a status symbol to have a Giraffes tail in some African cultures ? These animals will be killed and their carcass left with nothing more than it's long tail taken off. Just like Asians killing whole Sharks for nothing more than fins for soup or Rhino horns aphrodisiacs, Elephants for tusks for carvings or Bears for paws or gall bladders for mystic medicines. Every race, culture and ethicity of human being on this planet is capable of stupid decision making motivated by ignorance and greed. It's not just the evil peoples of European origins for whom conservationists are fond of targeting. Take a moment and view this video of recent tragedy.
Garamba National Park Democratic Republic of the Congo
 These Rare Giraffes Were Killed Just for Their Tails - National Geographic
What Africa would look like without the large Mammals
Photo by CSIRO

In the photo above in Arizona there is a small desert tree (Mesquite) which forms what are known as Mesquite Bosques. These woodlands in many areas are almost impenetrable. One wonders with the presence of North America's Mega-Fauna how different such the Mesquite Bosque plant communities may have looked like than they appear today. And all those thorns. A person could only imagine how tall, bushy and dense Acacia Bosques might be if Elephants, Giraffes and other browsers were completely eliminated from the African ecosystems. Acacia thorns are like Mesquite thorns, but on steroids.
A couple of the many Creatures that would be missed without the services of large Ecosystem Engineers
Image - Jo Crebbin of Florida (July 2011)
How many times have you watched a documentary and seen the preferred home of the iconic African Leopard being a tall open Acacia tree ? Where or in what would the Leopard live without them ? They need safety in tall Acacia trees (or other trees) and a place for viewing their claimed territory for danger or for their next meal.
Image - Bing Daily
What about another iconic creature in the Savanna like the Weaver Bird colonies. Of course there are many, some more communal than others, but where would they go and nest ? Of course in the absence of trees they have used telephone poles. But seriously, telephone pole weavers ?
Studies - Past & Present Ecosystem Engineers
This information below is pretty kool, so pay very close attention 😎 
Illustration: Roman Uchytel
Netherlands Institue of Ecology: "Extinction of Pleistocene herbivores induced major vegetation and landscape changes"
Important Quotes: Take note of the lack Wildfire being labeled as a Creator or Ecosystem Engineer. Somewhere around the world Fire Ecologists are falling off chairs after reading this one.
"The integrative study by modern and paleo-ecologists shows large herbivores to be major engineers of ‘landscape openness’." 
"Present-day large herbivores substantially open up otherwise wooded landscapes. This sheds new light on the consequences of the extinction of the very large herbivores that roamed the earth during the Pleistocene. Think of mammoths, ground sloths, diprotodons, and many others." 
"Lead author Liesbeth Bakker from the Netherlands Institute of Ecology explains: “Large herbivores are not merely victims of the circumstances they live in, but actively engineer their environment. This has major consequences for other species, and for the structure of the entire landscape.” 
“Acknowledging the major ecosystem-engineering role of large herbivores, you can’t imagine that vegetation stayed the same regardless of their presence or absence in the Late Pleistocene,” says Bakker. 
Instead, the team proposes to predict the openness of landscapes based on the diversity of the herbivore community and on actual animal densities. Modern techniques allow further application of this framework for a better understanding of events at the end of the Pleistocene.
Present-day implications (Pay Real Close Attention)
"The findings of the study even have implications for our understanding of present-day ecosystem functions, An 'underbrowsed landscape' - that is, without large herbivores - leads to increased fire incidences: a phenomenon also observed after the Late Pleistocene extinctions."
"Furthermore, contemporary conservation practices have to deal with another decline of native large herbivores, resulting in more wooded landscapes. Or with the opposite case of locally high densities of herbivores such as deer, that lead to increased landscape openness. The present study facilitates a better prediction of both cases."
From one of the references in the article above

So let's recap: the loss of this planet's ancient Megafauna created heavily dense vegetative ecosystems and greater potential for destructive Wildfire. Did you notice the lack of Tribalism worship of indigenous peoples in that article as the ultimate conservationists lighting fires everywhere as something considered good for maintaining the environment ??? 😳 We have countless arguments going back and forth (between power hungry ideologues) today about how we need more regular fire within the planet's wild ecosystems and that lack of wildfire with decades of suppression gave us today's megafire scenarios. Well, no, they stated emphatically that it was the huge lack of large herbivores which cause all these modern day Wildfires. And it wasn't just North America either, it was also human (indigenous Aboriginals) in Australia which caused the extincton of Australia's Megafauna and increases in destructive fire on that native landscape on that continent.
Tragety in the American WestForests are not regenerating
Image - University of Colorado Boulder
What's the real connection between Droughts & Wildfires ?
The photo above is incredibly sad. Trees in the western part of the United States just aren't producing enough viable seed anymore to revegetate the landscape and what seed that does germinate no longer survives. In an interesting research study on fire frequency (increases) and it's causes, it has been found that in 90% of the wildfires experienced today, just in North America alone is at 90% human caused. That leaves 10% cause being lightning or Volcano (nature) caused. That 10% Nature caused would have existed back when the megafauna were present and clearly that 10% would have had very little impact as wildfires do today in massive wholesale destruction that we are being force fed as a good thing. Here's the link to that study if wildfire causes:
Science Magazine: "Who is starting all those wildfires? We are!"
Under What Conditions Would Pleistocene Large Herbivore Assemblages Have Had Most Impact? 😉
This link below and accompanying illustration show possible impacts of past megafauna around the globe in heavily wooded ecosystems by studying present impacts of large herbivores which still exist today in areas of Africa. Here is a quote from the end of this study on large herbivore impacts on woody plants.
"Studies on current megaherbivore impacts are extremely valuable because these animals are the only proxies that we have for extinct megafauna. Better insight into the behavior, habitat prefer-ences, and whole ecosystem functions of large herbivores is required to predict their impact on landscape structure. Because most are experiencing alarming declines, some may already be too rare to study whereas, for several species, the wider impacts of their ecosystem.  Combining paleo-data and modern exclosure experiments to assess the impact of megafauna extinctions on woody vegetation engineering effects only very recently have started to become clear"
Combining paleo-data and modern exclosure experiments to assess the impact of megafauna extinctions on woody vegetation 
Illustration - Netherlands Institute of Ecology

Hypothesized impact of large herbivore removal on landscape structure, proportion of light-demanding woody species, and fire frequency. All of these landscapes represent sites where the climate and soil allow trees to dominate. The dotted and dashed lines in A-C correspond to the three herbivore assemblages indicated on the x axis of D. The three herbivore combinations represent a series of herbivore diversity indicating simplification from the full Pleistocene fauna to the common late Holocene condition. We predict that removal of megaherbivores would result in (A) increased woody plant abundance, (B) reduced percentage of light-demanding species, and (C) increased fire frequency, depending on the densities of the remaining wild herbivores. (D) The resulting landscape structure. In essence, over time, the landscape developed in many areas from open in the Late Pleistocene, with high densities of diverse herbivore assemblages (D, Top Right), to defaunated wild herbivore communities controlled at low densities in the Holocene, resulting in a wooded landscape (D, Bottom Left), unless livestock is introduced, which could take over the role of native extinct grazers, resulting in a wood pasture (D, Middle). In the wood pasture, palatable light-demanding trees can regenerate within the protection of light-demanding thorny shrubs. When browsers are not managed, they can reach high densities, resulting in an open landscape with unpalatable, light-demanding trees (D, Top Left).
Basically with the presence of megafauna, you get more large open old growth Forests or Savanna areas with trees and clean understories. Any naturally caused fire would have been a non-event other than cleaning what has been left by the animals. Take this photograph below.

Image - Gale Science Group

Clearly, with an abundance numerous mega-fauna species keeping the forest understories clean and well groomed, if fire ever happened at all it would have been a slow moving low intensity fire like we see in the photo above. Not the so-called megafires we are use to experiencing today. Most forest fires have become these crown fires which burn up the entire forest from ground to tree tops. One would wonder with the propaganda of fire interval frequency of 30 to 70 years, how any trees ever became these old growth of trees of fame. Frankly for me it is more likely that the megafauna had more influence on old growth forests, like this reconstructed giant ground sloth in the illustration at Mastodon State Historic Site, Missouri. The picture I provided at the very top of this post showed a Giant Ground Sloth standing on hind legs and browsing and stripping off lower branches of a pine forest. Perhaps such megafauna also browsed seedlings and saplings and kept the understory clean that way as well as the seasonally migrated. Who knows ? But clearly wildfire would not have been the natural creator and engineer many want to make it out to be. I've only focussed on Ground Sloths. I haven't even mentioned the Mastodons (browsers) or Mammoths (grazers) or any of the other creatures that would have helped engineer ancient ecosystems. As an example, take a look at what has changed since that ancient time below with Lodgepole pine forests.

Photograph - Jim Peaco - Yellowstone Sept 1998

Image - Walter Feller
At top here we have a Lodgepole Pine forest burnt back in 1998 and the resulting 1000s of saplings which have replaced those 1000s of dead trees. As is typical of a common Lodgepole Pine forest, the average person will generally sees or envisions a kind of Matchstick Forest, hence the name Lodgepole when we think of an American Indian culture and their Tepee with it's lodgepoles. But an incredibly puzzling thing here is the label of Lodgepole Pines needing fire as part of it's lifecycle ecology. And for that we see the labels of  "Obligate Seeder" or "Serotiny" which describes plants which are said to only release seed from tightly sealed cones after wildfire resulting from the melting of the resinous layer locking the cones shut. But still, one has to wonder if a Lodgepole forest was always nothing more than matchsticks and if perhaps the ancient Mega-Fauna didn't play a more direct role in their ecosystem development of openness in which any fire's effect was negligible. Especially when you consider this giant old growth single champion Lodgepole Pine here in the photo up on the right which was taken by Walter Feller in the San Bernardino Mountains. The world "Champion Lodgepole Pine" (discovered in 1963) is a magnificent, double-topped tree which towers above the surrounding forest reaching a height of roughly 110 feet. It's age is estimated to be older than 450 years, which means that it germinated some time about the year 1560 CE. You see, my problem here is that there's also that nagging claim by many fire ecologists who give us this personal narrative worldview of what was once natural or pristine when it came to fire and plant communities. Here is what I mean from these quotes below. This first is from Utah State University on Lodgepole Pine fire intervals as they understood it back in 1985:
"Fire Frequency (Stephen Arno 1980) concluded that fire has historically been more frequent in lodgepole pine than previously realized. He reported fire-free intervals of only 22 to 50 years in many lodgepole pinedominated stands in the northern Rocky Mountains (table 1), yet some high elevation areas have fire-free intervals measured in centuries (Romme, 1980).
(Source: Utah State University 1985)
This next quote is from Richard Halsey of the California Chaparral Institute. Keep in mind he is mainly talking about the Chaparral Plant Community, but chaparral is also intermingled with forests, especially in Southern California where this very anomalous Champion Lodgepole Pine is located within the San Bernardino National Forest. It's a little higher interval.
"The natural fire return interval for chaparral is 30 to 150 years or more. Today, there are more fires than the chaparral ecosystem can tolerate."
(Source: California Chaparral Institute)
This next quote comes from the San Diego Union Tribune which relied on University of California Riverside's Fire Ecologist, Richard Minnich, whose calculations could only legitimize the present western States wildfire causes to include the 90% as normal and natural. As weird as that sounds, here is what he says about the large wildfire up near Idyllwild California called the Mountain Fire in 2013. (Interval 20 to 50 years just like Utah State)
"Southern California forests are two to three times denser than they were then, Minnich said, and pack far more ground fuel. The thickly wooded peaks of Mt. San Jacinto hadn’t burned in 130 years he said – more than twice the site’s historic 50-year fire cycle." 
(Source San Diego Union Tribune: "Forest passes trial by fire")
Below here, Chad Hanson of the John Muir Project, spoke about fire intervals of high intensity being 300 to 400 years in between events. But he also stated possibility of a length as long as 800 years and if longer and most likely these were low intensity fires. In referring to the Sierra Nevada Mountains of eastern California, he said this:
"This equates to fire rotation intervals for high-intensity fire of  roughly 400 to 300 years (i.e., for a fire rotation interval of 300 years, a given area would tend to burn at high  severity once every 300 years on average). 
"Given the size of the forested  area in the Sierra Nevada, about 13 million acres (Franklin and Fites-Kaufman 1996), this equates to a highintensity fire rotation interval of more than 800 years in current forests (longer rotation intervals correspond to less high-intensity fire)."
(Source Wild California: The Myth of “Catastrophic” Wildfire)
So for me Hanson's interval of wildfire with bare minimum 300 to 400 years works better for me and provides a clearer explanation for why the Champion Lodgepole Pine in the San Bernardino Mountains has lived so long and grown to immense stature. Even with the past several decades of human caused wildfire increase, this Lodgepole has been extremely lucky, you know, given the extra 90% ??? This also tells me something about a Lodgepole Pine's ancient historical life cycle being far different than how we view them today as matchsticks for some Log Cabin Kit company to sell to the public. 

Image - Jim Peaco
Let's revisit that 1988 Yellowstone Lodgepole Pine forest recovery scenario where 1000s and 1000s of Lodgepole saplings came back the following rainy season in 1989 with a vengeance. If Utah State University in 1985 claimed an interval of 22 to 50, Richard Minnich's claim of 30 to 50 years or the Chaparral Institute's 70 to 150 years are true, then these assertions of fast turnover don't really allow for a Lodgepole Pine to become that famous old growth champion of the San Bernardino Mtns. From the over crowded saplings scenario above right, if left unmolested and thinned, they allow another high intensity total destructive event as described by Utah State University and Minnich. Why would that be something to celebrate ? Well, it's not. The intervals they are describing may well have been a reality when numerous Native American tribes were lighting annual wildfires to run wildlife off cliffs, making war against hated enemy tribes or any amount of dumb mistakes common to every other human being. This hardly fits the bill for the definition of what the words/terms "Natural" or "Pristine" are supposed to mean. Instead, what if sometime way back in history 100s of years ago there were higher populations of large animals, especially megafauna which would have periodically migrated through such large woodland areas and greatly thinning these masses of young tender Lodgepole Saplings by either eating or simply crushing them under hoof ? Trees that succeeded would have been further apart with future periodic pruning over decades taking away the lower branches negating any fire-ladder scenario. In that case, any truly natural caused lightning fire would have been a low intensity event with many healthy trees being able to survive with no problem. Hence fewer impenetrible density of trees, but more open forests giving us old growth examples.

Now the longer large fire intervals as suggested by Chad Hanson would make for a more positive setting for Lodgepole Pines to become old growth over 100s of years with lower intensity fires resulting from cleaner understories provided by megafauna herbivores. What if Lodgepole forests looked more like today's old growth Sequoias on a smaller gage of course. Seriously, if wildfire were more common within the forest where the Champion exists, that tree would have burned up long ago from the massive lower branches almost reaching the ground. Unfortunately today, fire is considered by land management experts the ONLY healthy way to maintain forests, aside from thinning through harvest of timber. The justification is because fire is natural and the other old time favourite, "Because Indians did it." So ? Yes fire is natural and can even be properly used as a tool. But the question still remains, did mega-fauna regularly move in through forests and clean understories through their own dietary habits and ground disturbance by their shear size and bulk ??? Remember what happened with China's zero tolerance for Sparrows where they anihilated most all those birds (mistakenly believing they were going to eat all their grain), thus causing insect pest increase on crops which increased pesticide use which in turn killed of their honey bees. Now they have to hand pollinate. Now given the extinction of megafauna and their ecosystem engineering services, humans have to be more hands on with grazing techniques that work and some forest thinning harvest (not clearcuts) should be used in biomimicry of the ancient services the Mega-Fauna would have provided historically for thousands of years. I realize that the majority of the Environmentalist people have a passionate dislike for ranchers, cattle and other grazing animals, but let's take a look at what is coming out these days regarding research in this area of holistic grazing by a handful of dedicated ranchers.
One More Brief Note On Large Elephants
Credit: Sergio de la Rosa

These sculptures above, were made by Mexican artist Sergio de la Rosa. They show three ancient elephant ancestors of our modern elephants: (from left to right) the Mastodon, the Mammoth and the Gomphothere. To the right we see both the African Elephant and the Asia Elephant. What is interesting is that there are also variations of both of these in the continental territories. But basically they are all related and can interbreed. What researchers have found is that from researching all the genetic material in all Elephantids (as scientists have coined the new phrase) the same DNA is basically shared by all. Past and Present. So understanding past megafauna behaviour, diets and impacts on various types of plant commuities, we need look no further than present days African and Asian Elephants. Here's a short paragraph of the recently published news from the National Academy of Sciences:
"Elephantids were once among the most widespread megafaunal families. However, only three species of this family exist today. To reconstruct their evolutionary history, we generated 14 genomes from living and extinct elephantids and from the American mastodon. While previous studies examined only simple bifurcating relationships, we found that gene flow between elephantid species was common in the past. Straight-tusked elephants descend from a mixture of three ancestral populations related to the ancestor of African elephants, woolly mammoths, and present-day forest elephants. We detected interbreeding between North American woolly and Columbian mammoths but found no evidence of recent gene flow between forest and savanna elephants, demonstrating that both gene flow and isolation have been central in the evolution of elephantids."
See Also: Berkeley: Loss of large land mammals could change landscapes forever
Are there any Mega-Fauna substitues for which Forests & Prairies can be managed today ? (Introduced Animals - Part I)
Image Mark and Emily Fagan
This cute little Burro colt photo on the right here was taken near Parker Dam on the Colorado River in Azizona. Burros are common everywhere in the southwest. But there is a movement to eradicate them as invasives. In far-West Texas, a coalition of government agencies, agricultural universities and conservation organizations has decided that wild burros on public lands should be eradicated. The coalition based its decision on the belief that what the burros are doing in the videos below harms wildlife – especially Desert Bighon Sheep and Desert Mule Deer – and all wildlife habitat. This belief reflects the fundamental disagreement between Big Wildlife and holistic thinkers such as Aldo Leopold over this question: In nature, do species such as burros and wolves compete with or complement other species and the system in general ??? Take special note, back when the Megafauna of North America existed, both horses and donkeys were also present. In reality, today's wild Burros provide access to water for other wildlife. Remember that famous false religious faith affirmation, "Survival of the Fittest" ??? Well forget it. It's "Survival of the Mutally Cooperative." Babylon the Great takes on many forms, even secular. Below are some great video captures by Arizona Researcher, Erick Lundgren and the holistically run Circle Ranch.

Photo by Erick Lundgren
Erick Lundgren: Wild Burros Digging Water Wells for Wildlife
Circle Ranch Burros in Texas
Photo - Erick Lundgren

Riparian vegetation germinating
in Burro wells
A researcher in the Arizona desert is unearthing hitherto unknown secrets about the remarkable well-digging exploits of wild burros. Erick Lundgren, a PhD student in the biology program at Arizona State University, has used motion detecting game cameras in his research to learn more about the ability of burros to dig for water, and has also chronicled many other species taking advantage of the burros’ wells. Erick, who has worked as a field technician in projects involving birds, mammals, and rivers over the last nine years, has focused his efforts on Arizona’s desert, where burros can dig wells more than a meter deep.  Erick was quoted: “Many species use these wells for drinking water. This behavior has never been described in the literature, likely due to prevailing negative attitudes towards introduced species.”  He explained how he first became involved in researching the water-finding prowess of burros, which is part of what he calls the unseen ecology of the species. Three years later, he had successfully documented the origin of these wells, and confirmed his suspicions: They were dug by burros.  “Burro well-digging has never been described in the scientific literature,” he says.  Lundgren says he is now doing his PhD research on this phenomena, which connects to a growing body of scientific thought that is shifting opinions on introduced species.  “From my preliminary data, it appears that burros are significantly increasing water availability in the desert. He said, “I have found sites that are very arid, with limited and intermittent surface water, where burro-wells maintain access to subterranean water throughout the year.” 

Photo - Erick Lundren
He also found that, in certain contexts, these burro-wells appeared to function as vegetation nurseries. He found that in the moist depressions there were significantly more cottonwood and willow seedlings germinated in abandoned burro-wells than in adjacent riverbank zones.  Lundgren said a small grant from Arizona State University had enabled him to buy several trail cameras for his research. That enabled him to document 13 species using these wells, including bighorn sheep. He further said, “To test how burros, by digging wells, influence this, we are conducting a ‘cafeteria’ experiment – offering invertebrate herbivores fresh leaves (high in water) and dry leaves in areas around burro-wells and in areas without surface water.  “The herbivores’ choice will indicate how water is driving their consumption decisions.”  Should he get enough funding to allow full-time research next summer, he hoped to employ a drone, instead of surveying on foot, to measure the availability of water through the entire season.  “I would then have the time to answer more nuanced questions – how do burro-wells influence the movement patterns of other desert species? How do communities of arthropods and rodents differ between areas with burro-wells and areas where burros are not present?  “Unfortunately, these questions cannot be answered without treating this research as a full-time job.”  Lundgren notes that burros, as an introduced species, were commonly described by the scientific community as “scourges”.  “Nearly all primary scientific effect-studies about them focus on how burros overgraze and outcompete native species,” he says.  He said these studies had failed to yield generalizable understandings because of weak methodologies and their failure to consider the ecological context of apex predator control.  Lundgren would welcome any further contributions via his crowdfunding page to help with future research into the well-digging and what he calls the unseen ecology of the wild burro.
(Source; Arizona State University)
(Horsetalk: Secret-lives-well-digging-burros)
Note below how Butterflies are benefitted by Burro wells

Australia Forested Ecosystems also benefit from burrowing small mammals like the Bandicoots (Quendas)
Although I've focussed attention on the impact of the larger Megafauna animals on forests, let's not forget benefits of smaller animals and their burrows.
Image - Leone Valentine
"Seedlings of Eucalyptus gomphocephala are taller when grown in the spoil heap soil, produced by the foraging activities of the Southern brown bandicoot (Isoodon obesulus), compared to seedlings grown in undug soil and soil collected from the pit-base"
British Ecological Society: "Bioturbation by bandicoots facilitates seedling growth by altering soil properties"
Researchgate: "Ecosystem services of digging mammals"
Horses appear to be another missing Equine component
Photo image of wild hore in BLM holding corral - Devin Davis/BLM
"When I see wild horses locked out of nature in holding corrals, I see a huge resource being wasted by ignorance." - William E. Simpson
"It’s akin to putting an entire fire department in jail during fire season! If they’re not wanted on cattle ranchlands that’s fine, but there are places where there is no competition issues with cattle, where these horses can serve a greater good."
"It’s worth considering that in 1960 we had about 2 million deer grazing in California, whereas today we have fewer than 375,000 deer in the entire state. And that there is a direct mathematical correlation between the loss of large herbivores and the increase in catastrophic wildfires."

"Our local horses eat the young poison oak, scrub oak, tips of buck brush and star thistle (before the spikes come on) and the grasses as they browse (they move relatively fast as they graze, compared to cows)."
Image - HorseTalk
"A juniper tree that is frequented by horses stands out and is visibly more vibrant and more fire resistant (note the health of its canopy) than nearby junipers that are not frequented, with sparse dry canopies."
Keep in mind, this post is not just about large Herbivores, but the effects they have on vegetation health.
A juniper tree frequented by horses

A juniper not frequented by horses has abundant fuel underneath
(Horsetalk; Fighting wildfires with wild horses – an untapped equine fire brigade)

Native Kiger horses grazing in the Cascade-Siskiyou National Forest
"In the above photo provided to me by the Assistant Director of the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument (Mr Joel Brumm), a small family of native wild horses is shown in the Monument abating grasses and brush near a stand of large conifers." 
"The Cascade-Siskiyou National Forest (and Monument) is a rugged mountainous area near the Oregon-California border, at an altitude of about 5000 feet with much steeper mountainous terrain all around, that is easily traversed by wild horses and cervids (deer and elk). Unlike cattle, the anatomy of wild horses has evolved so they are ideally adapted to traversing even the most difficult terrain."
(Horsetalk: Can the Wild Horse Fire Brigade really work?)

And what about Cattle grazing on prairies & in forests in North America ??? (Introduced Animals - Part II)
Photo - KT Press Rwanda
Animal Population in Rwanda's Akagera Park Doubles
North America no longer has it's former megafauna like Mammoths, Giant Ground Sloths, etc. But the botanical makeup of the vegetation and various plant communites of North America that exist todaye were all present back when these animals existed. These same ecosystems haven't been maintained or treated decently in many a decade. While many wish to sing praises upon the Native Americans as the ultimate in perfect land stewards, they often conveniently forget these folks were real human beings equal to everyone else, unfortunately in all the negative ways. The miserable understanding in today's enlightenment proposes that the land needs more and more wildfire, which is insane. The vegetated ecosystems need loads more animals and their multiple effects on the landscape. Africa is the only place left with the largest animals which can do this, but even Africa is in increasing trouble. Forget everything you've heard about Jurassic Park genetic technologies bringing back the megafauna. This is pure fantasy. Even "IF" they could bring them back and that's a big "IF", what kind of world are scientists going to bring them back to ? They can't even save this natural world we have now. 

Photo by Neal Herbert;  May 2015
Moving Buffalo June 2016: One Man, 500+ Buffalo and 5 minutes to change pastures!
Bison in just North America alone it is estimated use to number in the 16th century to contain between 25-30 million buffalo. In the late 19th century (1880s) they were almost hunted to extinction, estimated between 100 to 150 animals. But such numbers no longer exist (neither for Elk, Deer or Antelope either), so considering large historical populations of wild herbivores will more than likely never exist again under the present system of things, what other artificial means are there for maintaining all manner of vegetative ecosystems ???

Courtesy of Dawn Gerrish
Cattle feed under a management-intensive grazing system at Jim Gerrish’s ranch in May, Idaho
I'm certain this won't go over well with many since it has become popular to most ranchers now days for a number of ideological reasons. In the past the ignorance of European imposing their will on foreign ecosystems with failed European land management practices could have been justified. But some Ranchers have changed over the past couple decades and are embracing creating wildlife habitat and various wildlife populations as much as they wish to benefit their cattle. Here are some very successful Ranchers I follow out of interest.
Gabe Brown's Ranch in North Dakota
Image - Brown's Ranch “Regenerating Landscapes for a Sustainable Future”
Maggie Creek Ranch in Elko Nevada
(Photo credit: BLM, Elko District - 1980)
1980 above versus 2011 below @ Maggie Creek Ranch
(Photo credit: BLM, Elko District - 2011)

Restoration of Susie Creek - Beaver used Silver Sagebrush for Dam building - Go figure! 😏
Photos: Bureau of Land Management

Read the whole story of how Maggie Creek Ranch worked with BLM to restore Beaver into dry Silver Sagebrush Steppe country which in turn restored the landscape and grasslands into greener pastures for grazing cattle.
RangeMagazine: How beavers have enhanced the Susie Creek Watershed in north-central Nevada since 1991
Circle Ranch near Van Horn Texas
Image - Chris Gil - Circle Ranch - West Texas
Chris Gil and the Circle ranch have fought long and hard to protect the southern most herds of North American Elk on their ranch. The government calls them invasive in need of removal to protect Bighorn Sheep. The government is also engaged there in ridding the ranch of wild horses and Burros, both they say are invasive and threat to Bighorn Sheep. None of this is true. The ranch has set up water tanks everywhere in strategic locations for wildlife. I'll let Chris Gil explain it in the link below.

Image - Chris Gil Circle Ranch
CircleRanchTexas: Invasive Biology; "Invasive Species" defined; “Natives” Are Also “Invaders”
Drone Image - Chris Gil of Circle Ranch Harvesting Water to Restore a Riparian Desert Meadow
Other Animals are also excellent cadidates for grazing (excellent interviews with hands-on folks)
Wyoming PBS: Goats Eat Weeds
Idaho goat herder rotates goats for alternative weed control
Now, a person would think that with all these success stories by Ranchers for holistically grazing cattle and restoring the wild landscape for many other wildlife, that Academia, Scientists and Environmentalists would be excited and wanted to get on board with these ideas. Think again. They resent it. Ecology and restoration are considered their domain and ranchers of European descent have no business advising them on how to properly restore the land. Seriously, read it for yourself:
"In this paper published in the Journal of Environmental Management, Texas A&M range scientists and their colleagues discuss why—70 years after the development of holistic planned grazing, and notwithstanding the positive experience reported by so many producers who use it—Academicians and Researchers remain closed to its concepts."
"Science can help us understand biological processes, including the interrelationships among biophysical processes that link soils, plants, herbivores, and people (Provenza, 2000). Science can help us appreciate the workings of the processes of nature, which enable creatures to adapt, but there is no absolute truth in science. All concepts and theories are limited and approximate. Science is a quest for understanding, an attempt to account for observable phenomena. Moreover, nature does not show us any “isolated building blocks” but rather appears as a web of relations among various parts of the whole and that always includes the human observer and participant. While other disciplines have come to accept this phenomenon, we still cling to the notion of scientists as impartial observers who do not influence the outcomes of their experiments." 
"Grazing studies have focused least on the most important  feature of the management system, the human element. Under- standing biophysical processes is of little value in the absence of  flexibility needed to manipulate those processes toward desired human goals in uncertain environments. What matters most to achieve sustainable outcomes on grazed rangelands is continually obtaining feedback through monitoring and adjusting herbivore numbers and movements to ensure the health of herbivores, plants, soils and ultimately people. Achieving sustainability on rangelands depends upon animals frequently moving across landscapes, whether driven by their nutrient needs, predators, herders, fire, or  fenced paddocks. Intelligent, goal- directed management is required to achieve sustainable goals. To  understand how to do so, we must understand biophysical pro- cesses and how the best managers manipulate and adjust them."
(Source: Journal of Environmental Management)
Some concluding comments
Mankind has no choice but to physically get off their lazy backsides, go outdoors and take a hands on approach with grazing animals. Not all methods are preferred. Neither are all Ranchers to be used as many are not on board with the holistic hands on approach. Dedicated ranchers have to be hands on stewards in their approach. No longer can it be allowed just to load up and ecosystem with animals and "Poof" instance maintenance problems averted. Mankind needs intelligent, competent, creative, and conscientious people to do more than just protest or grow trees. The forests and other woodlands need to be responsibly cultivated and carefully groomed to the point that their own independence can take over without the need for continual life-support. Unfortunately our modern society is geared toward raising generations of incompetent life-long adolescents, mired in groupthink social media networks which tend to exacerbate the mass-delusion. Think I'm kidding about this world's future generations ??? Check out this Millennial work force video.

The newer generations are less likely to be outdoor types and this will require some major deprogramming and re-education on how the natural world works. Seriously, it's bad enough that older generations don't get it, so the remoulding of Millennials will be a monumental task. More than likely it will be impossible. Mankind is not likely to achieve the kind of expansion and abundant future they are looking for working through this present system's conventional governments, academia, media, religions or other cultural institutions and for that matter even the present failed militant environmental organisations which do far more to turn people off to nature than encourage. So this isn't so much about how humans as a group can do to change the entire planet by means of the right material fix-it-pill schemes as it is what individually people can do on their own farms, ranches, urban landscapes and gardens. As environmental lawyer Gus Speth said:
"Materialism is toxic to happiness, and we are losing out connection to the natural world."
Materialism sugar-coated as ecogreen seems to be the only solution this world's modern leadership has to offer for happiness. Even in the poorer countries people are streaming to the richers countries in hopes of finding greener pastures and their slice of the proverbial pie. Most immigrants are horribly surprized to find that the so-called dream is just that, a dream. No one seems content any longer. The modern philosophy of the Secular Movement hasn't exactly been much help either. While traditionally trashing conventional old time religion's as doomday cults, they themselves do nothing more than celebrate this coming future "Sixth Extinction" while offering no hope of better future other than mobilizing today's youth to put them into power. I will conclude with this, something drastic is indeed about to take place soon, but only a fraction today actually get it.

The death of Pleistocene beasts forever altered the Landscape - No kidding! 😒
ScientificAmerican: "Ice Age Megafauna Were Ecosystem Engineers"
ScienceMagazine; "The Aftermath of Megafaunal Extinction: Ecosystem Transformation in Pleistocene Australia"
Mongabay: "Seeing the forest through the elephants: slaughtered elephants taking rainforest trees with them"
DiscoverMagazine: "Get Lost in Mega-Tunnels Dug by South American Megafauna"
StateChronicle: "The Australian Megafauna was Destroyed by Humans"
Mongabay: "Armored giant turns out to be vital ecosystem engineer"
Mongabay: "Nutrient deficiency in Amazon rainforest linked to megafauna extinction"
On this point of nutrient deficiency, I wrote about this a few years back in 2013
Did you know ? Earth was once a much Crappier place to live than it is NOW!
Global nutrient transport in a world of giants


  1. Fascinating, thank you! I did not notice any reference to the osage orange, I wonder if you are familiar with that tree? Where I used to live in New Jersey there were quite a few, so I posted some photos and wrote about them: "The tree has been described (in a terrific article about co-evolution) as anachronistic, because it evolved for its seeds to be disbursed by such beasts as the mastodons, mammoths, gomphotheres, and other megafauna which after a tranquil 20 million years or so, were driven to extinction by - who else? - humans, in the blink of a geologic eye 15,000 years ago. Several species of carnivore dependent on the giant herbivores for food, and plants that depended on them for spreading seeds, promptly followed suit. But along with some other species in the same predicament, such as pawpaw and persimmon, the osage orange clung to life through prodigious clonal reproduction from vigorous runners. The range of osage orange had been reduced to one obscure area of the Red River watershed that was guarded by Native Americans for its wood, prized for bows. Eventually farmers discovered it was useful when coppiced into a dense, thorny barrier for pastures, which is probably why there is about a half-mile long row of them lining the road just beyond Wit's End."

    Also, in addition to the immense transformation of the landscape you describe leading to denser and more mega-fire-prone forests, in recent time humans have been pouring toxins into the atmosphere. When the trees absorb it, including over-fertilization by nitrogen from agriculture, they slowly die and burn faster and hotter. San Bernardino was one of the first sites to be studied for whole stand dieback of Ponderosa Pine from ozone that derived from emissions in LA, back in the 1950's. Since then, it has become a global scourge.

    1. Gail Zawacki: "were driven to extinction by - who else? - humans"

      Thanks Gail, Yup and what people often ignore, the Native Americans were human too. Yes, they knew very well how to live off the land, and while they also used fire to exploit natural resources. But was that really all that good for the environment as a whole ???

      Anyone who has spent time in Wyoming, Montana, or any one of the Plains states is likely to have encountered giant, seemingly random craters. These are the remains of what were called “buffalo jumps” (popular cliffs for running animals over the edge) and were the primary way many tribes cultivated the animals for food (in the absence of having horses to more easily expedite the harvest).

      Frontier explorer Meriwether Lewis, of the famed Lewis and Clark expedition, described one of these jumps in an 1805: journal entry:

      "Today we passed on the Stard. side the remains of a vast many mangled carcases of Buffalow which had been driven over a precipice of 120 feet by the Indians and perished; the water appeared to have washed away a part of this immence pile of slaughter and still their remained the fragments of at least a hundred carcases they created a most horrid stench. in this manner the Indians of the Missouri distroy vast herds of buffaloe at a stroke."

      It was a ruthless affair, but it got the job done. Squandering enormous quantities of meat was simply not a problem for the nomadic people of the plains. There seemed to be endless amounts of the beasts. Such attitudes are more commonly associated with the evil white man, but people forget Native Americans were also human beings equal to the white man. What saved nature is that their population numbers were few. But both sides equal in every way, both for good and bad. The megafauna like the giant ground sloth etc with their slow lumbering movements would have been easy to pick off, maybe too easy as i appears.

  2. Kevin:

    What a great presentation! You are a man after my own heart (my editors beat me up because I want cover all the details... but they want it in 600 words... my reply is that I don't write for 'cereal box readers'... You did a splendid job of connecting the dots and added enough photos and vids to keep the readers interest rolling...

    So I am now getting ready to produce a mini-documentary on the loss of large-bodied herbivores (cervids) in and around the western forest and grassland ecosystems. The younger generations seem to prefer multimedia to reading...

    This is my brand new 4-minute teaser music video, which I hope you'll watch, and maybe even share (in its entirety) with my consent.

    I was also a recent guest on FOCUS TODAY speaking about the 'Let It Burn Fire Cult'... etc. Here is the recording of that TV show:

    Cheers! Bill

    Capt. William E. Simpson II - USMM Ret.
    Member: Authors Guild / IMDb
    Muck Rack:

    1. William Simpson: "What a great presentation! You are a man after my own heart (my editors beat me up because I want cover all the details... but they want it in 600 words... my reply is that I don't write for 'cereal box readers'... You did a splendid job of connecting the dots and added enough photos and vids to keep the readers interest rolling..."

      Thanks ever so much, my goal is not necessarily providing a means of environmentalist entertainment, but rather a concentrated resource of things I've experience in ecosystem restoration through research, experimentation on how Nature works and using biomimicry in application to urbaan landscaping and home garden aside from restoration at remote sites. Here below I'll provide actual links from your post. BTW, I never would have ever started writing down my experiences had I not moved to Sweden where the climate forces one to live indoors most of their life.

      Saving wildfire damage to our forests - Capt. William Simpson

      Wild Horses


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