The Skagit Eagle Festival

The Bald Eagles of the Skagit River (source: Joshua Johnson/YouTube).

Floating down the Skagit River in Washington state in a small boat in the winter, you will likely spot many bald eagles along your trip. With wings spreading wide, the eagles soar freely in the sky, having recently returned from northern Canada and Alaska to the Skagit River to hunt migrating salmon.

Salmon at Skagit River (source: Chuck Hilliard/Flickr).
Salmon at Skagit River (source: Chuck Hilliard/Flickr).

The Skagit salmon depend on the glaciers of the Cascade Range to keep the waters of the river healthy and optimal for breeding. With an abundant salmon population, the eagle’s numbers have become so plentiful during the winter season that the region runs a month-long eagle-watching festival and a year-round interpretive center dedicated to the migrating birds.

During eagle-watching season in eastern Skagit County, which begins in January, tourists and birdwatchers arrive from all over the world to track the bald eagles. First started in 1987, the Skagit Eagle Festival is now a popular annual event. Sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce in the small town of Concrete, it features many activities, including local music, floating tours, outdoor walks and educational programs, including a Salmon Run along the river.

Bald Eagle feeding on salmon (source Kenneth Kearney Flickr).
Bald Eagle feeding on salmon (source: Kenneth Kearney / Flickr).

During this year’s Skagit Eagle Festival, Native American celebrations also took place along the glacier-fed river, which remains very important to the local tribes. The Samish Indian Nation’s cultural outreach coordinator Rosie Cayou-James and native musician Peter Ali teamed up to organize a special “Native Weekend” at Marblemount Community Hall, featuring Native American history, storytelling and more. Local tribal elders and experts made educational presentations and performed native music at the event. Cayou-James, the main organizer of the weekend, told GlacierHub, “The eagle festival is a way to honor the ancestors. I cannot speak for the other tribes, but the Samish feel very connected to eagles and orcas.”

The Skagit River runs from high in the Cascades to Puget Sound, benefiting both the people and animals that live along the river. It provides a habitat for the five major species of Pacific salmon. Consequently, the river has the country’s largest wintering populations of eagles outside of Alaska. But the health of the eagle and fish populations in the Skagit River depends on the health of the glaciers of the region, which are suffering as a result of climate change.

Rosie Cayou-James (source: Rosie Cayou-James)
Rosie Cayou-James (source: Rosie Cayou-James).

“Climate change has damaged the natural flow of salmon, which is the main source of survival for resident eagles and orcas,” Cayou-James explained to GlacierHub. Samish history instructs members to protect the proper relationship to the land and its resources, including the Skagit River and surrounding glaciers, by teaching how the natural and spiritual worlds “cannot be separated,” according to the Samish Indian Nation website.

In total, there are around 375 glaciers in the Skagit River watershed, as reported by the Skagit Climate Science Consortium. The glaciers keep the flow of the Skagit River high throughout the summer. In addition, glacier water keeps nearby rivers at low temperatures throughout the year, making them optimal for salmon. The salmon rely on the cool glacier-fed water to survive. Without glaciers, stream temperatures become higher and keep climbing, becoming lethal to adult salmon.

Because glaciers are extremely sensitive to climate change, higher temperatures have increased rates of melting, reducing snow accumulation in the winter and changing the timing and duration of runoff. Worse even, the glaciers of the Cascades have not been able to fully rebuild themselves in the winter through accumulated snowfall. The glaciers of the Cascades have shrunk to half of what they were a century ago, according to the United States Geological Survey. In addition, the average winter freezing elevation in the Skagit has risen consistently since 1948, reducing the area which receives the snow that could replenish the glaciers.

An eagle scans the water near Sammish Island (source: Dex Horton Photography/ Flickr).
An eagle scans the water near Samish Island (source: Dex Horton Photography/ Flickr).

As climate change has put Pacific salmon in a difficult situation, the annual eagle festival and educational programs run by leaders like Cayou-James have become more important. Because of the glacier loss caused by increasing temperature, salmon habitat is dramatically changing. With a decrease of the salmon population, the eagles are also in danger. As more and more people get to know the eagles of the Skagit River through the Skagit Eagle Festival, there is hope that opportunities will arise for the people of the region to come together to combat climate change before it is too late.

 

 

Glacier Counties in Washington Give Strong Support to Sanders

You’ve heard of red states and blue states–but what about glacier states and non-glacier states?

Most political analysis focuses on voters’ age, gender, race, or other demographic characteristics. But looking at voter proximity to glaciers is also a fascinating metric. In fact, last weekend’s caucuses in Washington state point towards an association between glaciers and support for Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. In counties with glaciers in them, Sanders scored almost three percentage points higher on average than he did across the entire state.

County map of Washington, with locations of major glacier peaks Baker, Rainier and Adams indicated by their initial letters (source: Washington Office of the Secretary of State)
County map of Washington, with locations of major glacier peaks Baker, Rainier and Adams indicated by their initial letters (source: Washington Office of the Secretary of State)

Sanders performed well in Washington state overall, receiving 72.7 percent of the vote, much as he has done in the other states with glaciers (Colorado 58.9 percent, Alaska 81.6 percent). In fact, Clinton, despite her wins in a number of other states and her lead in the delegate count overall, has so far failed to defeat Sanders in a state with glaciers. The only exception is Nevada, in which she achieved a small majority, 52.6 percent. Since this state contains only one tiny glacier, Wheeler Peak Glacier, with an area just over 0.01 square kilometers, its results may not seriously challenge this possible relation between glaciers and support for Sanders.

To explore this relationship in greater detail, GlacierHub examined the results at the county level in Washington. We decided to focus on the state’s three most glaciated peaks, Mt. Rainier (88 square kilometers of glaciers), Mt. Baker (49 square kilometers) and Mt. Adams (24 square kilometers), since we hypothesized that this association would be weaker for smaller glaciers.

(source: Washington State Democrats)
(source: Washington State Democrats)

These three glaciers all straddle the borders between counties. We used this information to establish a set of six glacier counties (Whatcom and Skagit at Mt. Baker, Lewis and Pierce at Mt. Rainier, Yakima and Skamania at Mt. Adams). We use the term “non-glacier counties” for the other 33 counties in the state.

The county-level results tabulated by the Democratic Party in Washington show that Sanders outperformed his main rival, Hillary Clinton, with particular strength in these glacier counties. The proportion of caucus participants in these counties who cast their votes for him ranged from 73.3 percent in Pierce County to 90.2 percent in Skamania County. These figures are all higher than Sanders’ lead in the state as a whole, which is 72.7 percent. Taken as a set, 75.4 percent of the caucus participants in these six glacier counties voted for him. (A two-tailed chi-square test indicates that this association is significant at the p <.01 level.)

Continuing to drill down on this question, GlacierHub examined preliminary caucus returns from one glacier county, Skagit County, the only glacier county for which these results are available, and found that they support the relationship as well. The caucuses pick delegates to upcoming county conventions, as one step in a long process that leads to the final selection of the state’s delegates to the Democratic National Convention. Candidates were awarded the proportion of delegates from a caucus that corresponds to their percentage of support at that caucus.

As shown by data provided to GlacierHub by Bob Doll, chair of the Skagit County Democrats, the votes of 3818 residents at 17 caucuses determined the allocation of 438 delegates, with 73.5 percent going to Sanders. The proportion was higher—82.4 percent—in Concrete and Rockport, the two caucus sites closest to Mt. Baker.

These findings can invite speculation of factors that could have caused them: perhaps the residents of the areas closest to glaciers are concerned about the changes in streamflow associated with glacier retreat, or its effects on tourism, in ways that might influence them to favor one candidate over another. It might be that the immediate visibility of climate change’s effects influenced their voting patterns.

To be sure, this association might not reflect any specific glacial influence. The glacier counties have a higher proportion of white residents than the state as a whole (78.9 percent vs. 77.3 percent), a population among whom Sanders is widely recognized to do well. Moreover, these are rural counties, another region that has tended to support Sanders. Or perhaps the residents of these counties might identify with Sanders as a fellow mountain resident, since his state, Vermont, is one of the most mountainous states in the country with the smallest proportion of its territory in flat areas. (In contrast, his home borough, Brooklyn, may be judged the least mountainous of New York City’s five boroughs, since it has the lowest high point, but this fact may not loom large for Washingtonians, many of whom do not have a detailed knowledge of the city’s topography.)

We may gain some insight to this relationship later this spring, when caucuses and primaries, with hundreds of delegates at stake, will be held in several other glacier states, including Montana, Oregon, and California. In the meantime, there is at least one piece of anecdotal evidence that points to the importance of glaciers in Washington State. As the attached image shows, a Washingtonian, preparing for activity at a caucus, noticed that the state’s highest peak had emerged from the clouds which usually surround it, and paused to record the view that she saw. The words that she chose to describe this moment—playful as they may be–attribute an awareness to the mountain. Perhaps such engagements with the natural world could play a role in voting, and in other political action as well.