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Naturalist comes of age

Naturalist comes of age
Ranger Steve

By Ranger Steve Mueller

Part 2: Our new home was near the edge of the city with farm fields beyond. Across the street was a wetland full of crayfish, frogs, killdeer, swallows, and interesting insects like dragonflies. Vacant lots were scattered in the neighborhood and soon were occupied with houses. Small wild places disappeared in the neighborhood and the wetland was tiled and drained to make a ball field. Wetland animals disappeared. Two blocks away I could explore wild parcels between farm fields beyond the city limit. 

Steve Mueller decided he wanted to become a ranger after meeting one at Glacier National Park. This photo shows a mountain goat at Hidden Lake near Logan Pass in Glacier National Park. Photo by Robert M. Russell, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia.org.

To my horror, homes were built in the country. It was my first education that cities are not confined to city limits. I discovered by age 8 that a growing human population eliminates natural habitats to make room for more humans. It was not until I was a teenager that I learned ecosystem carrying capacity has limits. Humans need to respect ecological carrying capacity if they desire a sustainable society for future generations. We cannot eliminate species or destroy ecosystems that support us and expect a healthy living and economy. 

I was active in cub and boy scouts. Camp Rotary exposed me to nature and I developed outdoor naturalist skills. When I was 15, I worked as a cook at Bear Lake Scout camp for $15 a week, got meals, and lived in a tent. Our scout troop had weekend backpack trips and also hiked a 50-mile section of the Michigan Shore to Shore trail.

My mother told me when species can no longer survive because of habitat loss, they need to move. She did not understand other habitats must exist for them to move to. Even if habitats existed, they were probably already occupied. Human population expansion was reducing species and driving many toward extinction. That was when 3 billion people lived on Earth instead of the present nearly 8 billion.

Similar to helping the turtle, I wanted to help wildlife thrive. The DDT crisis became apparent and 1970s’ laws helped save many species that declined to critically low levels. The Peregrine Falcon genetic subspecies that lived in the eastern US became extinct. It’s like human races such as Italians, Swedish, Germans, Asians, or Hispanics disappearing from the earth. Human-introduced chemicals killed more than target species.

In 1958, our family took a trip west to national parks. It was life changing. We experienced bears in parks and fed deer salt from our hands. That was an acceptable practice in the 1950’s. When my salt was gone, a deer pawed for more like a dog might and its hoof sliced my arm. I retain the scar. Park policy changed in the 1960s to no longer allow people to intrude on wildlife’s natural behavior. Too often it resulted in death of the animals.

I was greatly impressed when I met a park ranger at Glacier National Park. It was then I decided I wanted to become a ranger. At that park, I slid out of control on a glacier and flew off a steep ice cliff to what I thought was my death. I flew into the air like superman and landed on broken talus rocks. Had I slid off a bit farther up, I would have fallen 50 feet to sharp talus but fortunately I only fell about ten feet. I survived my 2nd death (the 1st being the paper clip incident) and learned I needed to attune to safety in wild country. One of my programs titled “Every Time I Died and Other Stories of Life” is good for conservation groups, library programs, or church gatherings.

During college summers, I worked as a state park ranger and began honing skills and “came of age” as a naturalist. During those years, I picked up road-killed birds and mammals that I stuffed for the Central Michigan University museum. During the school year, I carried smaller course loads so I could spend 15 hours a week exploring nature on my own. Fellow students were intent on completing classes as fast as possible so they could achieve gainful employment. My priority was education and though extra field work did not provide college credit, it promoted learning in a real-world context that enhanced my course work performance. It made me more employable than some of my student colleagues. 

Part 3 Nomadic Spirit and Work next week. See the following link for last week’s Part 1 of 6: http://cedarspringspost.com/category/outdoors/ranger-steves-nature-niche/

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at odybrook@chartermi.net – Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary, 13010 Northland Dr. Cedar Springs, MI 49319 or call 616-696-1753.

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