The meadow vole is an under appreciated keystone species that carries the weight of an ecosystem on its tiny back.
The farm store sign read, “Voles wintered well. Get your rodenticide here.” The salesman, sure that widespread use equaled acceptance, explained that over 20,000 agricultural acres in our area had already been treated with rodenticide to combat this clear and present danger. He assured patrons that the poison would only kill rodents even though the label clearly warned otherwise.
There is no doubt that meadow voles, small mouse-sized rodents with short tails and small black coals for eyes, wintered well. Their lawn tunnels and burrows are still apparent. Some areas with high vole activity feel like tilled soil underfoot. The stems of many shrubs such as rabbitbrush and sagebrush gleam bright white where voles had stripped their outer bark.
Viewed in this light, the tiny vole is a competitor with human interests, a double negative without redemption. However, those who remember their math will recall that two negative signs actually make a number positive. Could it be that our focus on vanquishing the meadow vole has blinded us to the positives?
Voles dominate their world, representing up to 40% of the small mammal community. They achieve this dominance through a reproductive strategy that that makes rabbits look like celibates. One captive female produced 17 litters in one year for a total of 83 young. Her daughter produced 13 litters (totaling 78 young) before she was a year old. The potential of a rate of reproduction that high is staggering.
What keeps voles in check is the fact that virtually every predator in the system dines on them, making the average lifespan of an adult just over two months. The fortunes of great horned owls, long-eared and short-eared owls and harriers are firmly linked to those of the vole. Many other predator populations such as, weasels, foxes, coyotes, badgers, most raptors and a variety of snakes, are positively associated with meadow vole abundance.
The lowly vole carries much of the responsibility for sustaining an entire ecosystem on its furry back. Without its high potential for mass production, it could not maintain its essential role.
There is no hiding the fact that voles can be a nuisance and may even cause damage to ornamentals and crops that we hold dear. Populations can peak about every 5 years and sometimes these peaks can be staggering. In ideal habitat and at the top of a population spike, vole numbers may top 1500/acre. That makes for happy and healthy predators and worried farmers.
However, voles do aerate soils with their burrows, allowing water to percolate more deeply. They distribute seeds, fertilize with their urine and droppings and generally help to maintain the long-term productivity of the soil.
What we need is a new paradigm, a new way of looking at voles and, by extension, all wildlife. If we can shift our thinking from one of competition to recognizing we are all part of a larger and carefully balanced community where each member plays an essential role, perhaps we will all be winners in the end.
Wildlife License Plates
Idaho Wildlife license plates provide essential funding that benefits the great diversity of native plants and wildlife that are not hunted, fished or trapped—over 10,000 species or 98% of Idaho’s species diversity. Game species that share the same habitats (such as elk, deer, antelope, sage-grouse, salmon, trout) also benefit from these specialty plates.
No state tax dollars are provided for wildlife diversity, conservation education and recreation programs. Neither are any revenues from the sale of hunting or fishing licenses spent on nongame species. Instead, these species depend on direct donations, federal grants, fundraising initiatives—and the Idaho Wildlife license plates.
Both my vehicles have Bluebird Plates. I prefer the bluebird because the nongame program gets 70 percent of the money from bluebird plates, but only 60 percent of the money from elk and trout plates - 10 percent of the money from elk plates supports wildlife disease monitoring and testing programs (to benefit the livestock industry) and 10 percent from cutthroat plates supports non-motorized boat access.
Incidentally, in 2014, the Idaho Legislature denied the Department of Fish and Game the ability to add new plates or even to change the name of the elk and cutthroat plates (very specific) to wildlife and fish plates, a move that would have allowed for changing images occasionally and generating more revenue. It would seem that they believe that we Idahoans don't want a well funded wildlife program. Go figure.
"WOW. What a phenomenal piece you wrote. You are amazing." Jennifer Jackson
That is embarrassing but actually a fairly typical response to my nature essays. Since The Best of Nature is created from the very best of 16 years of these nature essays published weekly in the Idaho Falls Post Register (online readership 70,000), The Best of Nature is a fine read. It covers a wide variety of topics including humorous glimpses of nature, philosophy, natural history, and conservation. Readers praise the style, breadth of subject matter and my ability to communicate complex and emotional topics in a relaxed and understandable manner.
Everyone can find something to love in this book. From teenagers to octogenarians, from the coffee shop to the school room, these nature essays are widely read and enjoyed.
Some of the essays here are my personal favorites, others seemed to strike a chord with readers. Most have an important message or lesson that will resonate with you. They are written with a goal to simultaneously entertain and educate about the wonderful workings of nature. Some will make you laugh out loud and others will bring a tear to the eye and warm your heart.
"You hit a home run with your article on, Big Questions in Nature. It should be required reading for everyone who has lost touch with nature...great job!" Joe Chapman
"We enjoyed your column, Bloom Where Planted. Some of the best writing yet. The Post Register is fortunate to have your weekly columns." Lou Griffin.
To read more and to order a copy, click here or get the Kindle version
Copies are also available at:
Barnes and Noble in Idaho Falls
Idaho Falls Chamber of Commerce Visitor Center (425 Capital)
Perfect Light Photo Supply
Museum of Idaho
Valley Books, Jackson Wyoming
Avocet Corner Bookstore, Bear River National Wildlife Refuge, Brigham City, Utah
Craters of the Moon National Monument Bookstore, Arco, Idaho