« Return to this article

Know the West

Geologic vandalism, the return of the Blob and Glacier’s top dog

Mishaps and mayhem from around the region.


Nothing seems to inspire vandalism quite like a prominent geologic formation on a parcel of public land. In 2013, dim-witted Boy Scout leaders toppled a 200-million-year-old boulder from its pedestal in Utah’s Goblin Valley State Park; earlier this year, a graffiti artist going by the moniker “creepytings” defaced rocks in seven national parks. Unfortunately, the punishment meted out to those dunderheads does not appear to have deterred copycat criminals at Cape Kiwanda, a rugged stretch of cliffs along Oregon’s coast. In early September, around eight hooligans knocked over a beloved block of precariously perched sandstone known locally as the “Duckbill.” Oregon State Parks initially believed the rock had tumbled on its own — until a vigilante drone pilot named David Kalas turned over footage of the vandals in action. “They were just standing on top of the rubble of the rock, laughing, smiling, giggling,” the heroic Kalas told KATU News. “I just want them to learn a lesson, you know, because if they do this here they will probably do it elsewhere.” Authorities continue to search for the barbarous rock-knockers.

What’s warm, enormous and driving coastal ecosystems haywire? Time to get reacquainted with the dreaded Blob, the giant pool of bizarrely balmy water that showed up in the Northeast Pacific in late 2013 and has dominated ecological and meteorological headlines since. Among other eerie phenomena, the Blob has been implicated in fisheries closures, the appearance of California squid in Alaskan waters, and the mass deaths of marine life from sea lions to fin whales. Scientists suspect the warm patch is a product of high pressure and weak winds, which have failed to stir up cold water from the Pacific’s depths. The patch appeared to dissipate this summer, leading fishermen and whale-huggers alike to hope for lasting normalcy. This month, however, University of Washington atmospheric scientist Cliff Mass reported on his blog that the Blob is back, baby. Some parts of the Pacific, Mass wrote, are now reaching 4 degrees Celsius — that’s more than 7 degrees Fahrenheit — above normal, and the federal government expects the anomaly to linger at least through December.

Speaking of alarming aquatic aberrations, the Beehive State spent the summer coping with its own kind of watery disaster — “the largest documented algae bloom in Utah history,” according to the
Salt Lake Tribune. Although scientists are still trying to figure out the precise dynamics of the algal eruption, which turned Utah Lake a sickly olive green, nutrient-rich effluent from wastewater treatment plants is a prime suspect. Climate change, which may have helped heat up the lake’s waters this summer, could be a factor, too. “This is not Mother Nature doing what Mother Nature does,” Walt Baker, director of Utah’s Division of Water Quality, told the Tribune. “There have been blooms before. But what we are seeing is unprecedented.” Get ready for more blooms and blobs, now and in the future.  

Depending on whom you ask, wild horses are either majestic totems of the untamed West or hooved pests grazing public lands to death. One thing they won’t be: surgically sterilized. That’s because the Bureau of Land Management has decided to drop a controversial experiment that would have tested three population control techniques on more than 200 animals at the Wild Horse Corral Facility in Hines, Oregon. One method in particular — the surgical removal of the ovaries of pregnant mares — drew the wrath of advocacy groups, which sued to block the procedure. Jennifer Best, assistant director of Friends of Animals, told the
Associated Press that the BLM “has absolutely no authority whatsoever to experiment on wild horses with new and risky surgeries.” Now the BLM will have to find another way to put the brakes on an equine explosion that has produced 67,000 grass-devouring wild horses and burros — 15 percent more than last year, and more than twice as many as federal managers say the West can support.

Watch out, mountain goats — there’s a new top dog in Glacier National Park. Say a hearty “good girl” to Gracie, the border collie who’s serving as the park’s first-ever “Bark Ranger.” Gracie’s groan-worthy title belies her very serious job description: shooing away the pesky mountain goats that congregate around the Logan Pass parking lot, menacing tourists and slurping up poisonous antifreeze. Although Gracie is still in training — herding wild ungulates is a few notches more complicated than learning to sit and stay — precedent suggests she’ll figure it out. In Waterton Lakes National Park, just across the Canadian border, patrol pups reduced dangerous conflicts with deer tenfold. To follow Gracie’s progress, check out her Instagram account at @barkrangernps. No word yet on whether the goats have learned to distract the Bark Ranger with a well-thrown tennis ball.

Tips and photos of Western oddities are appreciated and often shared in this column. Write [email protected] or tag photos #heardaroundthewest on Instagram.