Maddie Oatman

Maddie Oatman

Research Editor

Maddie worked as a travel guide in Argentina and a teacher at several educational nonprofits in San Francisco before joining Mother Jones. She’s also written for Outside, the Bay Citizen, and the Rumpus. A proud Boulder native, she makes time for mountain climbing, stargazing, and telemark skiing.

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Beetlemania: Insects Are Gobbling Up 1,000-Year-Old Trees

| Fri Jan. 11, 2013 6:21 AM EST
Whitebark pine trees dying from pine beetle infestation in Bridger-Teton National Forest

Mountain pine beetles have spent the last decade decimating more than 4 million acres of forest in the Rocky Mountain West. Beetles are a natural part of the forest ecology, picking off old or unhealthy trees and keeping the healthy ones resilient. But a warming planet—2012 was the hottest year on record—means not enough beetles die off in cold snaps. Instead, they produce more quickly, boring under bark, laying eggs, and weakening trees until they die.

And now, the continuously warm weather has emboldened these creatures to flourish in forests of whitebark pines—stately old trees that survive at high elevations—as well. In a new report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a team of University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers describe the beetles' deadly effect on whitebarks in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

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National forests impacted by bark beetles in the Rocky Mountain West USDA Forest Service

Photographer and activist David Gonzales has spent much of the last four years poking around that ecosystem, venturing into the high-altitude whitebark pine stands of Wyoming's Bridger-Teton National Forest to attempt to defend these ancient trees from the explosive beetle epidemic, a practice he's deemed "treefighting." Along with volunteers and students, Gonzales spent three years tacking pouches of pheromones onto individual trees to try and trick beetles into thinking they were already inhabited, though he has mixed feelings about guiding beetles from one tree on to another. This past year, Gonzales' group planted 3,000 young whitebark saplings, which if they survive the planting process, can live for a millenium.

"Treefighter" and photographer David Gonzales
Taylor Rees/Instagram

Ecologists consider hearty whitebark pines to be a keystone species of the northern Rocky Mountains: The trees' nutrient-rich seed cones provide sustenance for grizzly and black bears, several bird species, and squirrels; their roots prevent erosion in thinly soiled peaks; their branches serve as wind barriers and shade snowpack at high elevations, meaning snow sticks around longer and less water evaporates before summer months. "They pick the places that other plants can't survive—bad soils, really dry," says GIS specialist Wally MacFarlane in Gonzales' 2011 documentary Seeing Red, about beetlekill in the Yellowstone area. "You kind of appreciate them for that—their ruggedness." Gonzales certainly does. "They live in the absolute worst conditions, yet they produce the best plant-based fat and protein in the ecosystem, and are paragons of energy efficiency," he says. "They are showing us that we can do a much better job of dealing with our own energy."

But unlike neighboring lodgepole pines, which co-evolved with the pine beetle and developed defenses against the bug, whitebark pines are very vulnerable to beetle attacks, since they haven't evolved to create enough of the compounds (like resin) that repel or kill bugs or disrupt their communication systems, according to the Wisconsin study.

Healthy whitebark pines USDA Forest Service/
Wikimedia Commons

The research did reveal one hopeful sign: When the beetles entered areas mixed with lodgepoles and whitebark pines, the critters were more likely to choose lodgepoles over whitebarks.

A mountain lover and avid skier, Gonzales has watched mountain pine beetles spread through 95 percent of the whitebark forests in greater Yellowstone, leaving many mountainsides a rusty grey color from dead trees. The hard part, he says, is that given that the trees already grow at the highest altitudes, "there's nowhere else for them to go; they can't find higher ground."

Gonzales says around 75 percent of the whitebarks he planted with his crew in June seemed to have survived when they checked back on the saplings in September, and he plans to try and plant even more in the summer of 2013. And treefighting seems to be catching on: Student groups from as far away as Brooklyn and Hanover, New Hampshire, came to plant trees and document changes in whitebark stands this past year. Gonzales celebrates the growing attention and involvement, but remains pessimistic about the forests' susceptibility to beetles and climate change: "I think we're going to see more tree species affected. Unfortunately, treefighting is going to become a growth industry in the coming years."

Trees dying from beetle infestation often turn a reddish color, like these in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. David Gonzales/TreeFight.org

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All We Want for Christmas Is...Guns

| Sun Dec. 23, 2012 6:11 AM EST

If Black Friday shopping trends are any indication, the gift of cold, hard steel will be more popular than ever this holiday season. According to USA Today, on that day dealers called the FBI with a total of 154,873 background check requests for shoppers seeking to buy firearms. That's 20 percent more than last year's record of 129,166 calls in one day. Sixty-two percent of the Black Friday requests were for long guns like shotguns or rifles, such as the Bushmaster .223 reportedly used by the suspect in today's shooting in Newtown, Connecticut (a state where you don't need a permit to carry a rifle).

The FBI doesn't keep track of guns sold—only the background requests it fields—but that number is almost certainly higher than the number of calls received, given that consumers can buy more than one firearm per request. Overall, background requests have jumped 32 percent since 2008 (PDF). As Bloomberg Businessweek pointed out, gun manufacturer Smith & Wesson reported a record number of sales for their last quarter, up nearly 50 percent from the year before. The rise in gun sales doesn't necessarily mean that there are more first-time gun owners, though: A CNN investigation in July showed that fewer people own more and more weapons. 

Gun purchases always rise as the holidays approach. This year, though, the Christmas rush might not be the only thing prompting people to buy firearms. In the weeks after President Obama won a second term, background checks spiked, just as they had after he was elected back in 2008. In a New York Times op-ed about this, columnist Charles M. Blow quoted a National Rifle Association spokesperson who said that "gun sales are undoubtedly going up because gun owners know that at best President Obama wants to make guns and ammunition more expensive through increased taxes and regulation, and at worst he wants to make them totally illegal."

Great: Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria on Your Pork Chop

| Wed Nov. 28, 2012 6:03 AM EST

It's no secret that chowing down on raw pork is probably not the best call, a point emphasized by the USDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A new study by Consumer Reports drives this lesson home with sickening clarity: After testing 198 samples of raw grocery store pork loins and ground pork, it found that a full 69 percent of the samples harbored Yersinia enterocolitica, bacteria that can cause abdominal pain, diarrhea, and fever for up to 3 weeks. Salmonella, staphylococcus aureus, and listeria, all potentially sickness inducing, also appeared in 3 to 7 percent of the samples. These bacteria would hypothetically be killed off if the pork is thoroughly cooked, but there's still the potential of spreading the bacteria while slaughtering, processing, and handling the raw meat.

Though this is within the realm of what the USDA considers safe (and inspectors don't test for Yersinia because illness from it is rare, though cases of yersiniosis are thought to be under reported), Consumer Reports' more worrisome finding was that much of this bacteria was resistant to common antibiotics. Over 90 percent of the Yersinia-infected samples, when exposed to antibiotics normally effective against this bacteria, proved resistant to one or more antibiotic, and over 50 percent to two or three antibiotics. Of the 14 samples that revealed staph, 13 of them were resistant to at least one antibiotic, and of the 8 samples with salmonella, 3 were resistant to five antibiotics. The discovery adds to a growing body of evidence that the low-dose antibiotics fed to farm animals for growth are breeding a class of resistant mutant bugs more slippery and dangerous than their progenitors.

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