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Where Have the Animals Gone?

Scientists hike deep into California's wild high country to probe for answers.
Backpacker_Magazine_Lassen_Peak_and_Manzanita_LakeLassen Peak and Manzanita Lake, Larry Ulrich

"Grinnell was a genuine explorer," says Cicero, a bird specialist with a doctorate from UC Berkeley. To reach the Sierra’s remote locations in the early 1920s, Grinnell pushed his rickety Ford along the region’s few dirt roads until it could go no farther. Continuing on foot, he and his assistants followed error-ridden USGS maps deep into the backcountry, hauling shotguns, traps, and cameras to record their finds.

Before Grinnell, no one had so systematically documented California’s wildlife. His interest in biology began as a teenager collecting birds near his Pasadena home. At Stanford, his hobby progressed into a scientific career devoted to shooting, trapping, and preserving tens of thousands of small animals, most of which now reside in neatly organized drawers at the Berkeley museum he helped found in 1908. He also left behind 13,000 detailed pages of observations, musings, illustrations, hand-drawn maps, and photos in 35 volumes of journals. "Grinnell preserved data for the future," says Cicero. "He never anticipated all the things we can do now, like DNA analysis and geographic mapping, but he knew it was short-sighted to collect data only for himself." Today, the museum’s extensive collections are a gold mine for researchers, and Grinnell’s attention to detail enables biologists like Cicero to follow his footsteps with remarkable precision.

Early findings from Lassen indicate that change is in the air. Two-thirds of the park’s bird species, including dusky flycatchers and brown creepers, adjusted their ranges in the last 80 years, mostly moving higher. Brown-headed cowbirds, which were absent in Grinnell’s time, now inhabit alpine forests, while once-common ruby-crowned kinglets have mostly vanished. But are these changes due to global warming, habitat changes, or new wildlife-management policies? Earlier surveys of Sierra habitat, which began in 2003 in Yosemite, found that many animals, such as piñon mice and pikas, have moved to higher, colder altitudes, possibly in response to the rising temperatures recorded throughout the state.

After a long day of setting nets and trapping birds at Manzanita Lake, Cicero and her colleagues return to their basecamp to swap observations and fill their notebooks with handwritten notes. A few dexterous students skin and stuff the birds they collected that day, preserving them–just as Grinnell did their ancestors–to aid the next generation of wildlife explorers.

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