Friday, September 30, 2016

EXPLORING THE NIAGARA FRONTIER: The Southern Tier’s war on porcupines

I have a love-hate relationship with porcupines, the giant tree-climbing rodent of the Southern Tier.

If I encounter the prickly creatures in the forest I can’t help but enjoy their cuteness. With their slow, ungainly walk and poor vision, they are easy to walk up on, which is probably why they have an armor of quills. They’d be defenseless otherwise.

In most cases, they are accommodating to your intrusion into their world, as they’ll come to a complete stop and allow you to get very close. Of course, I always stay at least 5 feet away. I can only imagine they think, “Get a little closer and I’ll show ya something!”

But, as fun as those meet-ups in the woods can be, I don’t like them anywhere near my campsite.

In such a location, they are pests of unmatched damage and danger. They will destroy outhouses, trailers, and cabins by munching on them. They will chew on the underbellies of vehicles to get salt which could lead to damaged brake lines, putting your life at risk.

As much as I like the beasts, for those very reasons I have to dispatch them when they are too near my domain.

But, while I let them thrive in their own environment, other people aren’t so accommodating.

Porcupines are marked animals in the Southern Tier, no matter where they might be.

Many residents down there, especially in the heavily-wooded sections near the Pennsylvania border, see them as a threat to their economy as porkies will girdle trees, break limbs, and chew on saplings and shoots, causing damage to the forests.

So, locals will kill every porcupine they see.

Not to jest, but that’s overkill.

The damage done to the woodlands are minimal. An adult porky might kill two mid-size trees a year (most of their girdling is survived). In forests as vast as those on the Allegheny Plateau, that’s not a lot. Plus, porcupine populations are low – they birth only 1 a year and are susceptible to predation by fishers.

But, you grow up in a lumber culture, you live a lumber culture. In some misguided way, the porcupine hunters are trying to save their quality of life. You can’t blame them.

But, you can when they can go too far and look at it as entertainment. On many spring and summer overnights, Southern Tier “hunters” will get in their trucks, see porcupines in their high beams or spotlights and get out of their vehicle to shoot or even club porcupines. The latter is a vicious, inhumane way to kill a wild animal, but it’s done in spades in the hills. It is not uncommon to see some roads littered with porcupine carcasses in June and July.      

On deserted roads with no homes in sight, those bodies are a little sad – animals put to death for no reason…they haven’t affected Man’s properties, they won’t be eaten by their killers, and they’ve harmed no one.

There’s a war on porcupines and it’s one they can’t win.

+Bob Confer is a Gasport resident. His column, Exploring the Niagara Frontier, is published every Thursday on All WNY News.

From the 30 September 2016 All WNY News

EPA is failing environment when it comes to invasive species

Too many scientists and policymakers focus so much on global warming that they’ve given the short shrift to environmental threats that are real and active, destroying our forests and waterways at unprecedented rates.

One could argue that invasive species, not warming temperatures, are the greatest threat posed to natural balance in North America. These animals and plants don’t belong in our country but, through global trade, they have ended up taking root, destroying our resources in perpetuity.

Among them is the emerald ash borer, a beetle that came from Asia in the 1990s and has likely killed more than a billion ash trees – 700 million in Michigan alone. More than 7 billion of these trees are threatened by this unstoppable beast, including 1 billion here in the Empire State.

Then, there’s the woody adelgid which is wiping out hemlocks across the northeast. Once those coniferous trees die off, so will impressive populations of migrant songbirds like warblers that frequent them.

Most noticeably here in Niagara County is the mass die-off of beech trees. The smooth-barked trees well known for their carving graffiti will be totally wiped out by 2025. The loss of those nut-bearing trees will affect every mammal in the forest.   

The pestilence doesn’t end in our woodlands. Our waterways are under attack, too. Consider the Asian carp, a large bottom-feeding fish making its way across the Great Lakes where it will be certain to disrupt the system’s $7 billion fishery.

These invaders represent only the tip of the iceberg. Many more are here. More are coming.

It wasn’t always like this. Prior to 2000 our greatest invasive nightmares were limited to the introduction of pests and disease that wiped out elms and chestnuts, trees that once grew large and dominated our forests. Those depressing die-offs slowly took place over decades.

But now, such attacks seem to be effecting so many species and are happening too fast.

You can blame our shrinking world and the global economy. With the vast amount of exports we bring in annually, it’s no wonder that we’ve opened our borders to such invasions. More than 6 million shipping containers come to America every year, filled with unchecked product of questionable integrity from questionable sources. If the products themselves are suspect, imagine the skids upon which they are shipped (what insects do they carry?) or the craft that carry them (what do their ballasts hold?).

That begs the question: Why has the EPA done so little to regulate trade and incoming material? Is it misplaced priorities?  

Many have argued that the EPA’s modus operandi is unconstitutional. The federal government is not authorized to legislate environmental issues within the states. Truthfully, there is no agency that better understands the uniqueness of New York and its various habitats and the creatures that inhabit them than the state’s environmental arm, the Department of Conservation. It is that agency and New York’s state and local lawmakers (along with citizen participation) that should decide what are permissible levels of development and non-standard inputs into the environment as well as what may be taken from it.

But, constitutionally, the EPA does have the power to oversee aspects of international trade and protect our environment – and economy – from outside damage. The preamble to the Constitution describes the limited purposes of our federal government and among them is the provision of common defense and regulation of trade. Under that, the EPA would actually have constitutional justification to focus on the external, specifically invasive species at the point of entry.

If the EPA were serious about living out its mission – and the Constitutional responsibilities of the federal government – it would set strict rules and conduct numerous inspections to protect our nation from these outside factors that will compromise our environment and health more than any domestic factors will. Rather than harassing a locally-owned farms and gas stations, the EPA should instead hold accountable the foreign firms and governments that don’t care the least about America’s wild lands and natural resources and the equally-guilty American corporations that don’t have ethical or environmental policies.

It seems like Big Money is winning out here, especially with help from abroad. Corrupt trading partners — like China — would prefer to see our resources expunged because it means more exporting business for them. Our losses are their gains. Invasive species represent a sort of economic warfare. And, it’s war in which the EPA has seemed to throw up the white flag.

 From the 26 September 2016 Greater Niagara Newspapers

Thursday, September 22, 2016

EXPLORING THE NIAGARA FRONTIER: It’s not a copperhead – it’s a milk snake

It’s not uncommon to hear tales of people claiming to have encountered poisonous snakes in Western New York, specifically water moccasins and copperheads.

In all cases, the person is dead wrong in the identification of the snakes. Neither of those species can be found here. There are no copperheads in New York outside of the Catskills and there are no water moccasins north of Virginia.

What happens is this: Our resident northern water snakes are confused with water moccasins (also known as cottonmouths) while eastern milk snakes are misidentified as copperheads.

In a future column we’ll look at water snakes. This week we’ll look at milk snakes.

Milk snakes do have, to the uninitiated, a copperhead-like appearance. Copperheads have brown bands contrasting a lighter brown base. Adult milk snakes have brown blotches (versus bands) on a lighter base, but their base tends to be more steely grey. Young milk snakes will sport reddish-chestnut blotches on a brighter, silvery, almost white background. Also, the heads of copperheads are unmarked, while milk snakes sports blotches and a tell-tale “v” at the top of the neck.

What might add to the confusion with copperheads is the aggressive behavior of milk snakes. These snakes will coil and snap at you if you try to pick one up. That makes them one of the least popular of the wild snakes among those who raise reptiles as snakes.

They also have a couple of other tricks to show their displeasure to us. They can secrete a rancid musk and they will also vibrate their tails on dried leaves to create a rattler-like sound effect.

Milk snakes are fairly common but rarely seen because they are nocturnal while also being excellent burrowers. You can find them under logs, rocks, and lumber. If you do see one slithering about during the day, it will likely be a smaller one (12” or less). August and September are the best months to see them as the young of the year are out exploring during the day and trying to stake out their own territories.

Healthy adults can be impressive specimens, as they can reach 2 to 3 feet in length. They get that large by feasting on mice, birds, and their own – they will eat snakes and they don’t care what species it is! Some studies have shown that as much as 25% of their diet will be snakes.

Milk snakes are constrictors. Rather than doing as most snakes do, that is, swallowing live, wriggling creatures which are probably uncomfortable to eat, they will wrap their bodies around their prey and suffocate them by doing so. Then, they will swallow the dead creature whole.

They are called milk snakes because a long held myth said that they frequented barns because they sucked cows’ teats at night when no one was looking. We all know now that’s silly – snakes don’t drink milk and they don’t have sucking mouth parts.

We do know that they thrive on farms by hiding in hay piles and under structures, where they can feast on the mice and rats that are common to feedlots.

If you see a milk snake, appreciate it. Don’t pick it up unless you like snake bites (nonpoisonous ones at that). And, whatever you do – don’t kill it. For some reason, too many people feel compelled to kill snakes, which is just plain wrong. That’s a subject for another column.

+Bob Confer is a Gasport resident. His column, Exploring the Niagara Frontier, is published every Thursday on All WNY News.

From the 22 September 2016 All WNY News

Stun guns could be a deterrent to sexual assault

Every 2 minutes a woman is sexually assaulted in the United States. In a typical year over 275,000 women have their bodies and souls pillaged and that is only the known cases. Due to fear of the assailant and the unfortunate feelings of lessened self-worth following the assault or rape, it is estimated that more than 60% of all incidents go unreported. It’s no wonder the numbers show that 1 out of every 6 women is sexually assaulted in her lifetime.

This continues to happen because our government allows it to. Even though the general assumption is that women always win in civil and criminal cases this is not the case. Only 6 out of every thousand rapists ever spend a day in jail. The others are left to wander the streets to commit such indiscretions again, be it against their past victims or against new ones. Deviants recommit.

Because of our laws, women are left powerless against those free-roaming offenders. They have to go through hurdles to get a handgun, they can’t own stun guns and they can possess only a limited amount of pepper spray. Lawmakers are oblivious to the fact that even with the most advanced self-defense techniques there is very little that a 120 pound woman can do against a 225 pound man, naturally more powerful than she and made even more so by his hunger for her flesh. Our officials have done everything in their power to give the predator the advantage by taking all means of protection from the prey.

We must turn the tables by arming the prey and allow women to keep rapists at bay. This won’t be accomplished through handguns, especially in New York State, the land of the SAFE Act, where our natural rights and the Second Amendment are constantly under attack.

That leaves but one option, something of a middle ground for the pro-gun and anti-gun crowds: the legalization of stun guns.

New York is one of only 7 states where stun guns are illegal. Considering how safe yet effective these weapons are, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t legalize them.

The biggest reason for increasingly-stricter handgun and ammunition laws in NY is that critics consider guns to be lethal. Stun guns are the antidote to that -- they have become an extremely popular law-enforcement tool because they are decidedly non-lethal. They are effective tools for stopping criminals and, by using brief 100,000-volt surges, they spare aggressors from the physical injury or death associated with guns. When looking at how often stun guns and tasers are used by police, death is extremely rare and when it does occur the "victim" (really the wrong word to use for a criminal) had a pre-existing health condition or was strung out on drugs.

The safety of stun guns extends beyond that non-lethal status. The weapon’s electrical force is engaged only when the attacker comes into contact with the gun’s prongs. So, the other perceived consequences of handguns – stray bullets and innocent bystanders – never materialize because it’s a close-quarters weapon, one called into play when the situation has escalated to the point that the thug is in his victim’s personal space.

The stun gun is the perfect weapon for women – and lawmakers - uncomfortable with the thought of handguns. It’s portable, innocuous, safe and cheap (stun guns can be had for less than $20 each).

Best of all, stun guns work. They are veritable pocket-sized health and life insurance policies for any and all women. It can give them – and their loved ones - the peace of mind they need when they’re running the bike paths or walking the streets at night. We need to empower women – not their predators - and legalizing stun guns may be the best way to do it.

From the 19 September 2016 Greater Niagara Newspapers

Thursday, September 15, 2016

EXPLORING THE NIAGARA FRONTIER: Alma Pond, one of the prettier kayak trips in WNY

Back in 1928, Herbert Hoover wanted a “car in every garage”. If he were alive today, with that goal realized, his new slogan might be a “kayak in every garage.” Kayaks are everywhere. It seems like everyone has one nowadays.

Young and old, male and female, kayakers are all looking for a little adventure on the water and new places to explore. Once you’ve tackled all the usual suspects – the Great Lakes, Oak Orchard Creek, the Genesee River – you might want someplace different, someplace a little off the beaten path.

One of those diamonds in the rough that welcomes kayakers is Alma Pond. Located on County Route 38 in southern Allegany County, very near the Pennsylvania line, this gem offers one of the most beautiful paddling excursions in Western New York.

This is especially the case in late-September and early-October when the hills are ablaze with color. During the fall peak, there is something surreal about being on Alma Pond, you might think that you’re on some lake nestled in the Adirondack Mountains the way that the colors are over and around you.

That’s because Alma Pond is perfectly situated at the bottom of a deep valley. The elevation of the lake is 1,570 feet above sea level. But the peaks of the hilltops standing over the lake reach 1,900 to 2,100 feet and they do so in a hurry, creating a veritable wall of reds, yellows and oranges. It can give your senses an overload. You will find yourself just floating and staring, mystified by the incredible beauty.

Alma Pond’s unique setting was not really meant to be. Well, at least naturally. Long ago, it was just a small beaver pond on Honeoye Creek (which lends the waterway to its other name of Beaver Lake). But, in the early 1940s an earthen dam was built and then, 15 years later, a more permanent concrete spillway was added. The lake now sports a mile and a half of shoreline and covers 86 acres of territory. It’s not as large as the more popular lakes in Allegany County (Rushford and Cuba), but, at that size, and with interesting wild areas to explore, a kayaker can spend an entire day there.

Mind you, the water itself is not very pretty. It’s not clear as you would think a mountainside lake would be. No matter what time of the year, the water is turbid and murky. In the dog days of summer it will be green due to algae blooms (and harmless ones at that) and in other months it is light brown, something that the DEC chalks up to carp and suckers mucking up the water. The lake averages 4 feet in depth and its max is just under 9, so it doesn’t take much to discolor the water.

But, you aren’t there to look into the water. You’re there to see what’s on it and around it.

Although Route 38 parallels the lake, it’s not a heavily traveled road and you will be treated to relative solitude. The DEC’s launch site is for car-top boats only, so in most cases you will encounter kayakers and canoeists. You might see the rare, small power boat that is put in at the Alma Rod and Gun Club but they are few and far between and quite considerate – no one is revving their motors and there are no silence-killing jet skis.

That solitude and the miles of forest around the lake allow for some great sightseeing and some truly awesome bird watching.

In the early summer, you can certainly realize why many ornithologists cite the red eyed vireo as the most abundant bird of Eastern forests. Those same hills that awe you in the fall will sport an almost unbelievable number of the vireos signing to their hearts’ content. While on the lake you can literally hear thousands of the sprites at once.

The lake is frequented by fish-catching ospreys, too, who make easy game out of carp. They are always fun to watch as they dive-bomb the water.

But, the real avian attention-grabbers are the family of bald eagles that call Alma Pond “home”. This year, the pair gave birth to two healthy young. Bald eagles are always worthy of a photo op. Majestic. Rare. Beautiful.

The mammals that frequent this pond can also make for great viewing. Beavers, mink, deer, and bears frequent the southern shore. Who knows, sometime in the next decade or two, stragglers from Pennsylvania’s growing elk population might even make it here.

Plan to bring a camera to snap photos of all those critters -- and bring a fishing pole, too.

Despite a winter kill that really set back the fish populations a few years back, the lake sports excellent panfish numbers, a few pike, lots of carp (there are even carp tournaments held here) and a good population of largemouth bass, many of which approach 20” in length  -- a real trophy in WNY. There is plenty of structure to fish, because lily pads are plentiful and so are the stumps left over from the flooding of the valley. Even now, 70 years after the great flood, they still stand. This lake is also very popular with ice fishermen in the winter.

Alma Pond is located on County Route 38 in Allegany County in the town of Alma, which is southwest of Wellsville. It is 20 minutes away from the village of Wellsville and just 10 minutes away, by back roads, from Trout Run Campground, which is a popular destination for out-of-town campers.

To get there from Wellsville, take State Route 417 west out of Wellsville, then take County Route 18 south into Alma. When you get into Alma, turn left onto 38. The lake is just 5 minutes away from the very small hamlet of Alma.

The DEC owns 3,000 feet of shoreline along the lake, so you could put your boat in most anywhere along the roadside, or you could use the designated hand launch which has parking for 10 cars and a nice built-up and braced dike from which to picnic, fish, or sightsee.

When launching your kayak at the DEC site, you can head west, which goes to the wide open valley and a couple of cabins, and which can show a good sunset, or you can head east, with its narrower valley and unsettled wilderness-like setting. Anyway you put it, you won’t be disappointed…Alma Pond offers a real treat for kayakers, anglers, and nature lovers.

+Bob Confer is a Gasport resident. His column, Exploring the Niagara Frontier, is published every Thursday on All WNY News.

From the 15 September 2016 All WNY News