Migrations, Invasions, Disruptions: The Challenge of Change

The moths aren’t disturbing, but they evoke troubling reflections.

We arrived home last month after many weeks away to find our home invaded.

We found many moths inside, live ones and dead ones. Moth corpses on the kitchen counter, piles of disembodied wings on the garage floor, moths fluttering inside lampshades, moths dragging themselves up the side of the kitchen sink, moths crawling slowly out from behind the coffeemaker.

If you live nearby, you know what I’m talking about. It’s been a banner year for Miller moths, the adult stage of the Army Cutworm that feeds on crops and grasses farther east in spring and summer and then matures to a moth form that migrates westward and up-mountain, seeking nectar in flowers.

Sometimes we don’t see them at all. It depends mostly on the weather. The moths may seem a pestilence, but they do no real harm because they do not feed on our clothes or our rugs.

I am more sad than annoyed about the moths that turn up inside our house. They are doomed, because they’ve lost their way. During the day, they hide from the light in small cracks, and then turn the wrong direction at night, emerging indoors rather than outdoors where they could fly away and lay more eggs. In here, they move around until they wear out, exhausted at the end of a fruitless life, and perish.

As to the moths that succeed in migrating back east, it is their worms that do the damage, and they do it elsewhere. Meanwhile, the moths themselves are an important part of our ecosystem, being a major food source for grizzly bears.

This is the season when the backdrop turns golden as the leaves change. This seasonal cycle of change is predictable and reassuring, but other changes are unsettling surprises.

New houses seem to rise from the ground like mushrooms, popping up in empty spaces around town, along the highway, on the slopes. Where once I saw profound darkness out the window at night, I now see lights sprinkled across the landscape. Our patch of the valley at the base of the mountains is beginning to feel a bit like a subdivision.

I see faces I don’t recognize, and now I don’t know who is a tourist and who moved here earlier this year. In New York I enjoyed the passing crowd of strangers, but in our small town I have treasured knowing lots of people, progressively more the longer I remained. But some have left, others have died, and the newcomers (whoever they are) don’t seem eager to greet me. (Or have I become less eager to meet them?)

When this process altered our Brooklyn neighborhood beyond recognition, we left and came here. That kind of change is expected in New York City; it’s part of the city’s life cycle. Here, I hoped, the situation would be stable and comfortable. (Of course, to be fair, I am partly at fault for writing this blog and launching it out to into the worldwide webiverse, helping to pave the road to our paradise with my good intentions.)

More than once recently I have set out on an old, familiar hike to find that new property owners have repositioned fences or built new ones. The game trails I like to follow have changed, and like the wildlife I cannot go exactly the way I went before. Of course I find this a bit disturbing.

I am also troubled as I begin to see in myself the same instinct that not long ago I lamented in some of my neighbors. We came here because we loved the isolation and the blessed lack of crowds, and we fear the threat of losing that. So let’s not make too many changes, I begin to think. But how many are too many? And which ones are the right ones?

I remember the scorn I felt at a cocktail party in Kent, Connecticut — a bastion of country homes for rich New Yorkers — when I overheard someone saying they wanted to put a tollbooth on Route 22 to keep out any newcomers. Now that we have our place, let’s keep out the others.

Where is the fairness in this situation?

In a few weeks, the residents of Dubois will choose a new mayor. Many who live outside town limits will have no voice, although the results could affect their lives considerably.

One candidate is a woman who has lived here for 25 years, owned numerous properties, and serves as a member of Town Council. The other is a man with a history of launching successful businesses who has lived in our county since childhood but moved to Dubois only last year, relocating his latest business to town. Both candidates say a top priority is finding a way to manage the growth of the area while retaining what we all value about Dubois.

What defines that value is clear from a bevy of community studies carried out since way back in 1986. Respondents speak about the wildlife and the scenery. We value the openness and uncrowded nature of our environment. We also treasure our Western culture.

But how to manage growth and assure the future of our town while retaining all that is far from clear. In fact, the candidates often seem to disagree completely about the best way to proceed.

“Accept change as inevitable,” was the last point on a list called Rules for Working Well, which I found somewhere and kept posted above my desk for years. Accepting it is one matter, I learned eventually, but effectively responding to it is quite another.

Will our town lose its way and turn the wrong direction as it emerges from this turning point, exhausting itself in fruitless efforts? And which is the right direction?

© Lois Wingerson, 2022

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Author: LivingDubois

I am a retired science journalist, devoted to enjoying and recording the many pleasures of life in the Wyoming's Upper Wind River Valley.

One thought on “Migrations, Invasions, Disruptions: The Challenge of Change”

  1. Army cutworm moths (ACMs), family Noctuidae, serve a major ecological function: They are a primary summer food source for grizzly bears in the high alpine reaches of Greater Yellowstone. They play an important role in Grizzly bear ecology.

    Lepidopterist Karolis Bagdonis (now deceased) offered summer workshops in Dubois for his Texas students. He told me about tracking grizzlies, searching for Noctuidae in summer with his students. [One could easily tell an “alpine” grizzly from one that did not dig through talus slopes: the “alpine” grizzly had shorter claws, filed down from all that digging in rocks while looking for ACMs.] The bears ate moths, high protein sources, but did not digest wings. Students were able to ID ~14 different species of butterflies & moths by examining grizzly scat, and ID-ing wing patterns found in the scat.

    Karolis was a brilliant scientist/lepidopterist, and regular customer at my bookstore (Two Ocean Books) in the 1990s and early 2000s. He was a patient instructor, and I’m sure he is responsible for stoking my interest in butterflies and moths.

    Outfitter John Henry Lee told me of watching 1/2 dozen grizzlies for 3-4 hours one day in late Aug/early Sept 2001 with several of his summer clients, as bears dug for ACMs at the Continental Divide high above the North Buffalo Fork.

    If you have time, read a 1999 YNP study, “The Ecological Relationship Between Grizzly Bears and Army Cutworm Moths; First Year Summary” (Hillary Robison, PhD Candidate University of Nevada, Reno)

    Here are some excerpts that relate to bears and moths:
    “Army cutworm moth (ACM) adults migrate from Great Plains agricultural areas to the Rocky Mountains and aggregate in high elevation talus slopes. These ACM aggregations provide an important food resource for grizzly bears. Much is known about the agricultural aspect of the life history of ACMs. However, relatively little is known about their alpine and migratory ecology and population genetics.

    “In 1952, grizzly bears were found feeding on ACMs and ladybird beetles aggregated in alpine talus. Since this discovery, grizzly bears have been seen feeding on ACMs in the summer and fall at several remote high elevation sites in Montana and Wyoming. Army cutworm moths are a critical summer and fall food source for grizzly bears. Grizzly bears excavate the moths from the talus and consume them by the thousands from July through September. When compared to other food sources, ACMs are the highest source of digestible energy available to grizzly bears.

    “When ACMs and whitebark pine nuts (WBPNs) are abundant in the fall, grizzly bears move to high elevations to forage on these rich food sources and in doing so geographically separate themselves from areas of human activity. Due to this geographic separation, far fewer grizzly bear management situations and grizzly bear mortalities are recorded during years when ACMs are present than during years when ACMs are absent.

    “Whitebark pine resources are similarly important, as abundance of WBPNs in the fall is positively correlated with increased grizzly bear fecundity, but inversely correlated with grizzly bear mortality and the number of grizzly bear management actions . Female grizzly bear survivorship and reproduction is important to grizzly bear population persistence. Since female grizzly bears comprise a large percentage of all bears foraging at moth aggregation sites in the Absaroka Mountains and because the goal of the Endangered Species Act is to recover species and to ensure their persistence through time, the availability of ACMs to grizzly bears is important to the conservation of the grizzly bear population.”

    Maybe the new incomers you write about, including those who lock out old-time locals and neighbors (both old and new) will have an important, and positive, ecological/economic role in the growth of Dubois – who knows?

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