Defending Megafauna

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Perhaps as few as eighty thousand African forest elephants remain, and a new documentary explores the megafauna’s threats and defenders.Photograph Courtesy Elephant Path / Njaia Njoku

When we moved to Kerala in 2010 one of our motivations was that among the properties we would take responsibility for one was within a vast protected forest area in southern India. It was/is one of the great remaining habitats of elephants and tigers among other mammals, not to mention birds and all kinds of other life. Which is to say the ecosystem is intact enough to support apex predators and their megafauna prey, and everything around them and below them in the food chain. Which makes their viability as species possible. We networked as much as possible with scientists whose initiatives seemed relevant to our own.  Todd McGrain somehow escaped our attention until now, even though his work at the Lab of Ornithology should have caught it the way other artists’ did. Thanks to Peter Canby for pointing us here, and we have taken the liberty of inserting some of Tom’s other photos within the text below, which you can click on to go to one of his websites to learn more:

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EP_0419.jpgIn Africa, there are two kinds of elephants: savanna and forest elephants. The species diverged somewhere between two and six million years ago, with the better-known savanna elephants spreading over the plains and open woodlands of Eastern, Southern, and Western Africa while forest elephants stayed behind in the dense forests at the center of the continent. Although the two occasionally hybridize, they are widely viewed as separate species. Forest elephants are smaller, with smaller and straighter tusks. The size of their tusks, however, has not protected them from rampant poaching, because the tusks have a distinctive hue, sometimes known as “pink ivory,” that has made them particularly valuable.

EP_0634.jpgSomething about the nobility of forest elephants regularly raises concern for their extinction. The tropical forests of the Congo Basin, once considered impenetrable, are now yielding to logging roads, mines, and even palm-oil plantations. In 2013, a widely respected study by Fiona Maisels, of the Wildlife Conservation Society, found that, between 2002 and 2011, the population of forest elephants had declined by sixty-two per cent. Perhaps as few as eighty thousand remain. The story of these declining numbers is also a story of habitat destruction. Where forest elephants exist in an undisturbed state, they build networks of trails through the deep forest. These trails connect mineral deposits, fruit groves, and other essentials of forest-elephant life. In Central Africa, there are dozens of fruit trees whose seeds are too large to pass through the guts of any other animal and for which forest elephants have evolved as the sole dispersers. These trees line the forest-elephant paths. Where elephant populations are disturbed, the paths disappear.

EP_0480.jpgMatt Davis, a researcher in ecoinformatics and biodiversity at Aarhus University, in Denmark, recently published a paper arguing that we are entering a period of extinction of large mammals akin to the scale of the extinction of the dinosaurs. “We are now living in a world without giants,” he told the Guardian, and went on to detail the many ecological consequences of the loss of megafauna. When I asked John Poulsen, an assistant professor of tropical ecology at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment, if this observation could apply to the role of forest elephants, he said, “Absolutely.”

The sculptor Todd McGrain has made a name for himself, over a thirty-year career, as the creator of sculptural monuments to birds that have been the victims of “human-caused extinction.” It’s not, therefore, entirely surprising that he has directed a documentary about forest elephants, “Elephant Path / Njaia Njoku,” showing at New York’s DOC NYC film festival this Wednesday and Thursday. McGrain’s subjects have included, among others, the passenger pigeon, the great auk, the Labrador duck, the heath hen, and the Carolina parakeet. When McGrain was the artist in residence at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Katy Payne, founder of the Elephant Listening Project at the Bioacoustics Research Program, introduced him to something she had discovered: forest-elephant infrasound, which is how elephants communicate inside the forest, at a frequency too low for human ears to register. She pitched up the recordings of elephant calls so that McGrain could listen to them. “I couldn’t help but hear them as bird calls,” he told me. “It was the complexity of their language that grabbed me.” Continue reading

For The Last Tigers, What Is Next?

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A South China tiger, a subspecies that only survives in captivity. Credit Francois Savigny/Minden Pictures

Some of these photos we have featured in earlier stories. That is a testament to the seriousness of the subject. Thanks to Rachel Nuwer for this:

Divide and Preserve: Reclassifying Tigers to Help Save Them From Extinction

Are there many subspecies of tiger, or only two? A correct accounting is the only way to preserve what is left of the animal’s genetic diversity, some scientists say.

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A Sumatran tiger at the Ragunan Zoo in Jakarta, Indonesia. Sumatran tigers were the first to evolve from all tigers’ common ancestor. Credit Romeo Gacad/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Fewer than 4,000 tigers remain in the wild. New research aims to give conservationists an improved understanding of their genetics in order to help save them.

After years of debate, scientists report in the journal Current Biology that tigers comprise six unique subspecies. One of those subspecies, the South China tiger, survives only in captivity.

“The results presented in this paper are important because they contradict the currently accepted international conservation classifications for tigers,” said Uma Ramakrishnan, a molecular ecologist at the National Center for Biological Sciences in Bangalore, India, who was not involved in the study. Continue reading

The Science Of Camouflage

This is more science-y than is our custom, but Nature magazine has been appreciated on this platform as a source of intriguing findings about creatures from time to time, so here goes:

Cuttlefish wear their thoughts on their skin

Elaborate video system tracks how pigment cells controlled by neurons generate complex patterns of camouflage.

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Cuttlefish are masters of quick-change camouflage, thanks to skin cells that act as coloured pixels. Credit: Pasquale Vassallo/Getty

Cuttlefish are masters at altering their appearance to blend into their surroundings. But the cephalopods can no longer hide their inner thoughts, thanks to a technique that infers a cuttlefish’s brain activity by tracking the ever-changing patterns on its skin. The findings, published in Nature on 17 October1, could help researchers to better understand how the brain controls behaviour.

The cuttlefish (Sepia officinalis) camouflages itself by contracting the muscles around tiny, coloured skin cells called chromatophores. The cells come in several colours and act as pixels across the cuttlefish’s body, changing their size to alter the pattern on the animal’s skin.

The cuttlefish doesn’t always conjure up an exact match for its background. It can also blanket itself in stripes, rings, mottles or other complex patterns to make itself less noticeable to predators. “On any background, especially a coral reef, it can’t look like a thousand things,” says Roger Hanlon, a cephalopod biologist at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. “Camouflage is about deceiving the visual system.” Continue reading

Citizen Science, Children & Bees

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Scientists expected bees to gradually cease buzzing as the sky darkened during an eclipse. Instead, they stopped altogether. Credit Rogelio V. Solis/Associated Press

After following the work of Nicholas St. Fleur for a couple years now–his beat includes archaeology, paleontology, and space among other of the things we care about on this platform, including conservation–his most recent story below is my favorite for one reason, namely citizen science. Specifically the participation of youth in such an important scientific investigation:

The Moon Eclipsed the Sun. Then the Bees Stopped Buzzing.

Researchers worked with a small army of elementary school children to collect audio recordings of bees as they visited flowers along the path of last summer’s total eclipse.

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National Forest Service workers at the Bridger-Teton National Forest Office in Jackson, Wyo., took a break to watch the Great American Eclipse last year. Credit Celia Talbot Tobin for The New York Times

Last year’s Great American Eclipse drew hundreds of millions of eyes to the sky. But while people across the country “oohed” and “aahed” at the phenomenon, it appears the bees went silent.

So found a new study that monitored the acoustic activity of bees before, during and after totality — the moment when the moon completely blocked the sun — during the solar eclipse on Aug. 21, 2017. Researchers at the University of Missouri, along with a small army of elementary school children and other volunteers, collected audio recordings of honeybees, bumblebees and other types of bees as they visited flowers along the path of totality Continue reading

Unexpected Affection

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An octopus on its way to an underwater EDM festival. Credit Ken Lucas, via Getty Images

Thanks to JoAnna Klein a regular contributor for The New York Times Trilobites feature, for this:

On Ecstasy, Octopuses Reached Out for a Hug

By dosing the tentacled creatures with MDMA, researchers found they share parts of an ancient messaging system involved in social behaviors with humans.

Octopuses are smart. They open jars, steal fish and high-five each other.

Though interactive, they’re generally asocial, and temperamental, with unique behavior patterns, like those shown by Otto, who caused blackouts at a German aquarium and Inky, who famously escaped a tank in New Zealand.They learn through experience and observation, forming lasting memories with brain-like bundles of hundreds of millions of neurons in each arm and a centralized bundle in the middle.

A desire to understand the evolutionary underpinnings of this brain power led scientists to give octopuses ecstasy. Yes ecstasy — molly, E, MDMA, the party drug, which in humans reduces fear and inhibition, induces feelings of empathy, distorts time and helps people dance to electronic music all night. Continue reading

Author of Extreme Conservation, Interviewed

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We recommend this interview in the Atlantic, with the author of the book above, a veteran conservationist reckoning with his career studying animals in the most extreme places on Earth:

In the winter of 2011, Joel Berger and his colleague Marci Johnson happened upon a ghostly Arctic death scene. Body parts and tufts of brown fur poked out of a frozen lagoon. This was all the biologists could find of a herd of 55 musk oxen they had been following.

The cause of mass mortality, they later determined, was an ice tsunami, the result of an unusual storm that slammed seawater and ice into the lagoon where the unfortunate musk oxen stood. Berger is a conservationist who works in some of the most hostile environments in the world, and he studies the enigmatic species, like musk oxen, that live there. His new book, Extreme Conservation, chronicles his career in Alaska, Siberia, Namibia, Tibet, Mongolia, and Bhutan. He is now a biologist at Colorado State University and a senior scientist at the Wildlife Conservation Society. Continue reading

The Tangled Tree, Noodling With Lucidity & Grace

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Sonny Figueroa/The New York Times

Thanks to the New York Times for Parul Sehgal’s review of the new book by one of science writing‘s greats, reminding us that we have not featured Quammen enough:

David Quammen Turns Tough Science Into Page-Turning Pleasure

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Love a writer — read him carefully and closely — and you’ll pick up on his pet words, the ones he reaches for repeatedly, like a baseball player with a trusted bat.

Nabokov famously had “mauve.” Elizabeth Hardwick had “motive.” Edward St. Aubyn has “gasp.” The statistician Ben Blatt has called these “cinnamon words” (after Ray Bradbury’s fondness for the names of spices), and they’re often hilariously telling, revealing the essence of a writer, something idiosyncratic in his perception of the world and himself. Is it any wonder that Dickens, that cash-strapped father of 10, was so crazy about “pinch” as noun, verb — even name?

For the science writer David Quammen that word is — sublimely — “noodle.” The verb pops up all over his work — and could any word suit him better? He is our greatest living chronicler of the natural world yet was never formally trained in the sciences. He started out as a novelist, a protégé of Robert Penn Warren, and stumbled into nonfiction, his boyhood passion for rooting around in forests now taking him to the canopies of the Amazon and the cliff lines of Komodo island. (The root of “amateur,” remember, is Latin for “lover.”) Continue reading

Dairy & Health, Revisited

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We have plenty of reasons to celebrate the vegans among us. But we committed to think about this dairy’s future and in doing so I have avoided the cow-versus-other-milk health implications. Now I have reason to reconsider:

The Vindication of Cheese, Butter, and Full-Fat Milk

A new study exonerates dairy fats as a cause of early death, even as low-fat products continue to be misperceived as healthier.

As a young child I missed a question on a psychological test: “What comes in a bottle?”

The answer was supposed to be milk. Continue reading

Dairy, Feed & Food

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Yesterday, in our continued quest to consider the future of a family dairy farm, we visited what must be the largest such farm in central Costa Rica. At 7,545 feet above sea level overlooking the valley from the northern slope, it may also be the highest.

BrealeyGoats.jpgIt has eight times the land and double the cows compared to where we are based, 10 miles north and about 1,000 feet lower in altitude. That farm also has dairy goats. More on other implications of the visit later. Here, a quick note on feed. We had noticed on the dairy where we live that pineapple is part of the diet of the cows.

BrealeyCheese.jpgThe dairy manager had explained that this is an important part of the nutritional mix. Despite our surprise we had not asked more about it. Yesterday we did, and the answer was another surprise. Milk production rises 10% or more with the pineapple added to the feed. The animals are healthier because of the fiber content of the fruit, compared to cows eating grains such as corn or soy. Plus, the methane bi-product is significantly decreased. Food produced in a dairy making this dietary change represents one small step toward reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

In the type of coincidence I never expect, but always enjoy, this article was near the top of my news feed today. Thanks to Judith Lewis Mernit and colleagues at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies for take my yesterday’s lesson and adding some important detail:

How Eating Seaweed Can Help Cows to Belch Less Methane

Emissions from the nearly 1.5 billion cattle on earth are a major source of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. Now, researchers in California and elsewhere are experimenting with seaweed as a dietary additive for cows that can dramatically cut their methane production.

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Holstein cows feeding at a dairy farm in Merced, California. MARMADUKE ST. JOHN / ALAMY

The spring morning temperature in landlocked northern California warns of an incipient scorcher, but the small herd of piebald dairy cows that live here are too curious to care. Upon the approach of an unfamiliar human, they canter out of their barn into the already punishing sun, nosing each other aside to angle their heads over the fence. Some are black-and-white, others brown; all sport a pair of numbered yellow ear tags. Some are more assertive than others. One manages to stretch her long neck out far enough to lick the entire length of my forearm.

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Scientist Ermias Kebreab has studied how to reduce cow methane emissions for more than a decade. GREGORY URQUIAGA/UC DAVIS

“That’s Ginger,” explains their keeper, 27-year-old Breanna Roque. A graduate student in animal science at the University of California, Davis, Roque monitors everything from the animals’ food rations to the somatic cells in their milk — indicators of inflammation or stress. “The interns named her. She’s our superstar.” Continue reading

Insects, Underappreciated Often-Charismatic Fauna

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This article by Robin McKie, Observer science editor, will have you thinking differently about what are often called the pests of summer:

Where have all our insects gone?

There is a crisis in the countryside – and a massive decline in insect numbers could have significant consequences for the environment

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A great yellow bumblebee. Its numbers have declined steeply in recent years. Photograph: Alamy

When Simon Leather was a student in the 1970s, he took a summer job as a postman and delivered mail to the villages of Kirk Hammerton and Green Hammerton in North Yorkshire. He recalls his early morning walks through its lanes, past the porches of houses on his round. At virtually every home, he saw the same picture: windows plastered with tiger moths that had been attracted by lights the previous night and were still clinging to the glass. “It was quite a sight,” says Leather, who is now a professor of entomology at Harper Adams University in Shropshire. Continue reading

Ornithology, Methods & Mystery

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Ping Zhu

Some contributors to our pages here would likely have much more clear views on this story than I do. I am certain that I favor scientific method, and this scientist followed protocol. And yet, the fallout from his scientific methods was intense. And it was not as simple as trolls gonna troll. I understand the fallout but instead of outrage I am full of questions about this story about The Ornithologist the Internet Called a Murderer by Kirk Wallace Johnson:

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The mustached kingfisher. Robert Moyle

For some time, I’d been searching for Christopher Filardi, a biologist with decades of field experience in the Solomon Islands. I wanted to interview him for a book I was writing, but the email system at the American Museum of Natural History, which once listed him as the director of Pacific programs at its Center for Biodiversity and Conservation, bounced back my message.

The auto-reply said that he’d moved to another organization, Conservation International. When I wrote him there, another auto-reply informed me that he had moved on. I couldn’t find him on Facebook or Twitter. The man seemed to have vanished.

When I finally found a working number for him, he was reluctant to talk. Three years ago, his life was overturned by an online mob that accused him of murder. The fact that the mob’s outrage was driven by ignorance didn’t make it any less frightening. Continue reading

Food For Thought & Thought For Food

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The food for thought is by way of Curt Stager, a professor of natural sciences, who celebrates citizen science in a powerful ominously-titled op-ed:

Why care about this new silence of the bugs? An across-the-board decline in flying insects, if true, means that an entire sector of the animal kingdom is in trouble, representing an immense diversity of life-forms, from butterflies and beetles to hoverflies and damselflies. The eminent biologist Edward O. Wilson, who has spent much of his life studying ants, has warned: “If all mankind were to disappear, the world would regenerate back to the rich state of equilibrium that existed ten thousand years ago. If insects were to vanish, the environment would collapse into chaos.”

And the thought for food is also from an op-ed:

Why You Should Be Drinking Weird Wines

By Jason Wilson

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Alicia Adamerovich

…For years, the global wine industry had been devolving toward a monoculture, with local grape varieties ripped out in favor of more immediately profitable, mass-market types. There are 1,368 known wine grape varieties, but nearly 80 percent of the world’s wine is made from just 20 kinds of grapes. Many of the rest face extinction. Continue reading

Monday Morning, Time For Free Will

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Credit: AP Photo / Sebastian Scheiner

This is the second time in a year that the biology of free will is the story. Monday morning in mid-May 2018 nothing else seems more important. Thanks to Marc Sollinger and colleagues at WGBH and PRX (click the button to the left for the story):

Humanity is simultaneously incredibly kind and incredibly violent. We commit indescribable atrocities, but also acts of incomprehensible compassion. There is both horror and beauty in our history. Which leads to the question… how do we reconcile this inherent contradiction? It all goes back to our biology, according to Robert Sapolsky, a neurobiologist at Stanford and author of the book Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst. In fact, all questions about human behavior are, at their core, about biology.  Continue reading

Trees For Life In Scotland

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Trees for Life have planted 1.5m native trees in Glenmoriston and nearby Glen Affric since being founded 30 years ago. Photograph: Desmond Dugan/RSPB/PA

Thanks to Damian Carrington, the Guardian’s Environment editor, for this:

‘Magical’ mushroom mix to boost regrowth of lost Scottish forests

Return of Great Caledonian forest speeded up with fungi spores to help saplings flourish

The return of the Great Caledonian forest that once covered much of Scotland’s highlands is being boosted with a special mix of mushroom spores that should help saplings survive better on the hills.

Fungi living on the roots of trees play a vital role in the ecology, helping to break down nutrients in the soil. But trees were lost in much of the Highlands many years ago so the fungi vanished too.

The new project, run by Trees for Life, is adding the spores when young trees are planted. Continue reading

Conservation Aided By Lowliest Of Creatures

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A leech, Haemadipsa zeylanica, in Thailand. Scientists have found they can survey the biodiversity of a forest with DNA analysis of leeches’ last blood meals. Credit Thailand Wildlife/Alamy

Why Did The Robot Swim Like A Fish?

Thanks to for this story about how a Robotic Fish Moves Like The Real Thing — So It Can Observe The Real Thing:

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SoFi, the robotic fish, swims in for its close-up. MIT computer scientists hope SoFi will help marine biologists get a closer (and less obtrusive) look at their subjects than ever before. MIT CSAIL

Scientific advancement: It’s all in the wiggle.

OK, it’s a lot more complicated than that. But when a team of researchers at MIT unveiled their robotic fish Wednesday, one of the keys they emphasized was the graceful undulation of the prototype’s tail — which, besides being rather eye-catching, serves a crucial role in the robot’s ultimate mission: giving scientists the ability to unobtrusively observe marine wildlife remotely.

robot-fish.gif“Because the fish moves through undulating movement rather than thrusters, the impact it has on how the water moves around it is much more like what is expected of physical fish,” Daniela Rus, director of the school’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab, tells NPR. Continue reading

Rice Rediscovered

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Upland red bearded rice, which grows in the Moruga district in Trinidad, turned out to be a missing culinary link between enslaved people in coastal Georgia and a group of slaves who were able to buy their freedom by fighting for the British in the War of 1812. Credit Karsten Moran for The New York Times

Coy-Wolf Co-Habitation

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The Clarkstown Police Department posted a photograph of what they called a coywolf on Facebook last month. Credit via Clarkstown Police Department

Thanks to the New York Times for the local story follow-up to yesterday’s Yale360 globally-generalizable item on a related theme (click here or on the image to the right to go to the source):

CONGERS, N.Y. — Of all the coyotes that roam Dr. Davies Farm, looking for prey on this apple-picking orchard less than an hour from New York City, manager James Higgins says one of the pack stands out: Bigger and with more gray fur than its mates, this wolflike canine is a reason, Mr. Higgins says, there are fewer deer nibbling at Dr. Davies’s stock.

“We love having him here,” Mr. Higgins said as he drove around the property on an ad hoc coyote safari. There were no sightings, but Mr. Higgins ventured a profile of the creature: aloof, calm, uninterested in people.

“Anytime he sees any kind of human activity, he bolts,” Mr. Higgins said. “As long as he stays in his space and we stay in ours, everyone works in harmony.” Continue reading

Whispering In The Interest Of Nature

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Barred owl, Maryland Credit Noah Comet

The birders among us say thank you, Noah Comet (and to the New York Times for providing the valuable real estate for this informative, charming essay):

The Delicate Politics of Chasing Owls

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Eastern screech owl, Ohio. Credit Noah Comet

ANNAPOLIS, Md. — Owls tend to be secretive. While there are a few American species that enjoy the daylight hours, most are nocturnal and spend their days behind thick greenery or uncannily blending into the bark of the trees they nestle against. Once they’ve found a secure place to snooze, they are likely to return to that spot daily, but even if you find evidence of their presence — scat and regurgitated pellets — good luck seeing the clandestine culprits.

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Northern saw-whet owl, Ohio. Credit Noah Comet

I’m a seasoned birder with a particular interest in owls, and on my ventures to find them, even when I have specific information on where they’ve been seen just minutes before, I’ve failed to find them more often than not. Such elusiveness makes “owling” one of the great birding challenges. Being the first to find a particular owl is regarded by some as a badge of distinction, and those who find them regularly are viewed with awe-struck reverence. Continue reading

Undoing Dams, Animals Pitch In

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Since 2014, Washington’s Elwha River has flowed freely through what once was Lake Mills and the Glines Canyon Dam. But the site still leaves a barren scar in Olympic National Park. Now, a human- and bird-led effort is turning it green again. Photo: Elaine Thompson/AP

Conservation is sometimes in the hands of animals, as this story in the current Audubon magazine illustrates:

Birds Are Helping to Plant an Entire Lost Landscape in Olympic National Park

After the largest dam removal in U.S. history, scientists, Native Americans, and wild animals are working together to restore the heart of the Elwha.

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The Elwha Valley and Glines Canyon Dam prior to demolition. Photo: Elaine Thompson/AP

It’s a scorching August day in the Elwha Valley, and it only feels bleaker as we peer into the 200-foot void of Glines Canyon Dam. A sputtering trail of water marks the concrete lip where, for nearly a century, two hulking braces trapped logs, rocks, and sediments as they washed down from the mountains of northern Washington, forming a reservoir that was six times deeper than a competition-diving pool. At its height, the dam churned out 13.3 megawatts of hydroelectricity, enough to power 14,000 homes and a local paper mill. But it also seriously altered the Elwha River’s ecology, along with that of surrounding Olympic National Park. Endangered chinook salmon were cut off from their spawning sites; fish-eating birds and otters suffered; and estuaries became more brackish and shallow. Finally, in 1992, the U.S. government issued the order to destroy Glines Canyon Dam and the nearby Elwha Dam. Yet it wasn’t until two decades later when the water was completely freed. Continue reading