February 2, 2018

On going away periodically and fallowing the fields

Any visitor to the house is interesting when you live in the country, up a quarter-mile lane. During my childhood, my mother routinely entertained the Avon lady with her lotions and smell-goods, and sometimes the mailman ventured up our lane with a package for my father. But the encyclopedia salesmen were the most interesting, as they always carried an example volume ("A", typically, but sometimes "N"). Their visits seemed timed to ensure that my brother and I would be home, so we could devour brilliant pages of Antarctica, Antietam, and Appaloosa while my mother smiled and listened for the price. "Maybe next time." 

Seriously, trying to sell encyclopedias in farm country in Iowa during the emerging farm crisis of the 1980s must have been only job more challenging than farming at that time.

At some point, however, a decision was made to purchase the entire set of Encyclopedia Americana with the two-volume dictionary. I don't know if it was a good year for corn or a smoother salesman, but it turned out to be a well-used purchase. My brother was (and is) publicly known for this behavior, but the actual truth is that both he and I used to sit in our shared bedroom and leaf through "P" and "R" and "C" and their peer volumes into the night, exploring the world that existed beyond Rural Route 4, Creston, Iowa. 

And, what a world it was. Tribesmen of Indonesia danced in those pages, and the wildlife of Africa and Asia charged around the spine of the books. The volumes put our lives in context, there on the farm. Thinking about it now, I'm sure that Donald Trump never sat down with an encyclopedia.

Fast forward to 1998, the year I finished my doctorate program and decided to take a pay cut from my short postdoc in Georgia to accept a full time teaching gig at a small undergraduate University in eastern Iowa. Like the encyclopedia, there was something about a career in academia that seemed enchanting. After 20 years of teaching and research, I can confidently say that the workload is never ending. No teacher at any level every says "Well, I'm all caught up, now." And, the bane of a research professor's job is that there are only so many minutes in the day, and our brains are wired to continuously think of new ideas and new possibilities for exploration. It is easy to lose oneself in the job.

The way out is the academic sabbatical--an every-seven year break in routine, which, tangentially, had its origins on the top of Mount Sainai with Moses. Leviticus 25 records the following direction to Moses:
When you enter the land that I am giving you, the land shall observe a sabbath for the Lord. 3Six years you shall sow your field, and six years you shall prune your vineyard, and gather in their yield; 4but in the seventh year there shall be a sabbath of complete rest for the land, a sabbath for the Lord: you shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard. 5You shall not reap the aftergrowth of your harvest or gather the grapes of your unpruned vine: it shall be a year of complete rest for the land. 6You may eat what the land yields during its sabbath—you, your male and female slaves, your hired and your bound laborers who live with you; 7for your livestock also, and for the wild animals in your land all its yield shall be for food.
As a wildlife biologist working in agricultural landscapes, I find the ethic behind these directions to fallow the fields in the seventh year intriguing. Incredibly insightful, actually. 

But, I find the ideals hidden in that passage even more interesting as I begin an academic sabbatical period in the pastoral lands of southern England. Our family has arrived for a multi-month stay, during which I will be engaged with the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust to assist with research on grouse in agricultural landscapes. A break for the mind. No pruning. None of the general reaping. Instead, preparing for the next period of our lives by living off the energies that have been invested over the last years. Side note: if the energies we invested to clean our house and prepare for the sabbatical abroad are included, we have no worries of running out of energy...

I am a big believer in taking advantage of the sabbatical opportunities afforded to university faculty. Our job is a unique one, for sure. And, it is stimulating and rewarding to have the opportunity to step away periodically and engage in a new direction--to bring back new experiences and information to our courses and research back home. It is certainly breath-taking, almost 40 years after first viewing "England" in the Americana set, to wander into the little village that serves as the backdrop for this time with family and new friends. 

Today, it seemed worthy to record the first day of this adventure--with a feeling like opening the first page of an unread volume of the encyclopedia. What comes next? Not sure, but it doesn't matter.  I'm on sabbatical.   

November 21, 2017

The gray bits about elephants and hunting

It's more complicated than you'd think

In the past weeks, news of the US Fish and Wildlife Service's decision to allow imports of elephants from Zimbabwe has been front-and-center. I thought a few facts might be useful as folks weigh their response to this decision. Now, even President Trump has described his own administration's action as a 'horror show'.  Is it?

African elephant in Etosha National Park, Namibia. 2017.
Photo by Kelly Powell.
Most gut reaction to the news is shock--perhaps partially because most liberals (I'm one) are primed to react with shock to anything the Trump Administration decides to do--indeed, Don, Jr. decided to pose with his trophy elephant's just-removed tail in a manner that I don't feel is respectful of the species and respectful of the process of hunting in general--and those photos fuel anger about the issue. That didn't help. But, the strong reaction is also partially because most folks don't know what is happening with elephants and elephant conservation and management around the world.  So, let's address the latter. I can't control Don, Jr.'s actions.

Some quick clarifications:

  • Elephants are listed as a species of conservation concern under international agreement 
  • Poaching is a huge problem in elephant conservation.  The African Wildlife Foundation says 8% of the population is poached each year. So, is habitat destruction and encroachment of humans into wild places in Africa. 
  • However, the plight of elephants varies tremendously from country to country. 
  • The most recent US Fish and Wildlife Service decision only applies to elephants hunted in Zimbabwe. 
  • The decision only affects elephants imported from Zimbabwe to the United States (elephants can still be legally hunted by trophy hunters in Zimbabwe from other countries). 
  • Elephants can currently be imported by hunters who hunt in Namibia and South Africa, as well as elephants hunted during certain time in Zambia and Zimbabwe.  
  • The decisions made about elephant import to the US, made by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, come down to the question, "Does prohibition or allowance of import support conservation of the species?"

Be honest--did you know that elephants could still be legally hunted in Africa? Many people are not aware of this, and cannot conceive of it. 

How to react?  One problem with this issue is that conservation groups disagree on the role of hunting as a support for conservation.  The African Wildlife Foundation would like to retain the ban on imports of elephants to the US from Zimbabwe. In contrast, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) points to the example of Namibia where regulated trophy hunting has had positive results to support the recovery of wildlife populations that were previously headed for eradication. Note that WWF uses a similar rubric as the US Fish and Wildlife Service--only supporting trophy hunting when there is clear evidence that it helps conserve the species.

Another problem with knowing how to react is that most citizens of the US cannot imagine life in Africa. I've lived in Namibia for one year, and I've stayed with families that live in mud huts in the bush. They can recount stories of people being killed by elephants and crop damage by elephants--the recovery of elephant populations in Namibia has been astonishing. And, this causes human-wildlife conflicts similar to those issues with wolves in the western US and deer-car collisions in much of the eastern US. Hunting is a management option in those situations. When problem elephants in Namibia are identified by authorities in the regulatory agency, a permit is issued to a waiting list of clients of professional hunters. The money paid by the client for the hunting opportunity may be US$25-50,000. And, that money is designated to be used to support conservation in the community, just as hunting supports habitat conservation in the US.

Now--a good question is whether that money will reach its intended target (see this National Geographic article on the topic), and this is one reason for the recent decision by the US Fish and Wildlife Service.  The Service decided that regulations and political structure in Zimbabwe had improved so that a client could trust that these funds reach their destination. You can read the decision here. All politics aside, I truly believe that the decision has nothing to do with Trump's family's hunting interests--but the most recent political upheaval in Zimbabwe (I predict) will most likely mean a reversal of this specific decision. Zimbabwe's political climate is now different than when the US Fish and Wildlife service made their decision, and it's hard to justify the decision based on a more stable regulatory system until Zimbabwe decides who will be their leader.

This is a tough issue, and I'm not going to argue a specific side here. Hopefully you can think about your decision on the issue with a bit more information about elephant conservation and the role of hunting of elephants in Africa. I hunt deer to fill a freezer, but I can't imagine hunting an elephant--it's a personal decision. I'd much rather pay for a photo safari, and I'm not rich enough to even think about elephant hunting.

But, stay tuned as human encroachment into elephant habitat will only increase in future years, and elephant conservation will continue to be a tricky issue.  For the moment, I hope the information provided here shows how 'gray' the issue can be for these large, gray mammals, even for conservation organizations.




Time-lapse video of elephants at a waterhole in Etosha National Park. Video by Larkin Powell.

April 15, 2017

Easter is in the wind

If you were to ask me about Easter when I was growing up, I’d tell you about the lamb cake my mother made each year.  It was a white-frosted lamb sitting in the midst of a pasture of coconut that had been colored with green food coloring, accented with colored jelly-beans or other bright Easter candy that was left over from the Easter Bunny.

That cake required a double-sided mold, and to me the magic of Easter was how my mother knew how much cake batter to put inside the mold so that it would expand perfectly to fill all the cracks and crevices—up to the ears. 
Easter was usually a time of family gatherings when I grew up, and a busy time because my Dad’s occupation has involved doing taxes that were also always due around Easter.  One year, I think my Mom was distracted and she set the cake mold in the oven upside down and used too little batter because the poor lamb came out faceless.  In the natural world, this would have been a problem for the creature, but it was quickly remedied with various materials and a lot of frosting…and the next day, the lamb had his face, and all was well before we cut him into slices of rich chocolate cake with vanilla ice cream.
My brother and I didn’t get a lot of candy during the rest of the year, and Easter was also a time of joy when we searched for our Easter basket that was loaded with jellybeans and chocolate.  We would go to church, but the main memory of Easter Sunday is of spending the afternoon with cousins at my Grandparents’ house. 
Easter was an odd holiday, timewise—first, the visit to Grandma’s house was always a lot shorter than the visit at Christmas, and we cousins had much less time to get out toys or perhaps get in a short game of football if the weather was nice.  It was always over too quickly before we had to get in the car to go home.
And, of course, Easter never arrived on the same date, so there was a mystery around Easter—it would be announced rather than anticipated like its cousin December holiday.  And, as an adult, I have forgotten to put Easter on my spring calendar more than once, which has bewildered my mother to no end. How could you forget Easter?
Easter means different things to different people, but to me it was always a reminder of spring. A promise of new life. The grandest metaphoric myth that provides hope while reminding us of our insignificance in the cycle of life that has happened for all time. Birth and death. Birth from death. Emptiness transformed to wholeness.
For the past 10 years, my job has been to train fledgling biologists to observe, capture, and start to record data on prairie-chickens in Nebraska. For me, this has marked Spring, and usually by the time I have them trained, it is time for Easter to happen.  So, perhaps I haven’t forgotten Easter—in some ways, I have been more in tune than ever in my life with the natural rhythms that are used to describe the timing of Easter—the first full moon that occurs after the vernal equinox, or the first day of Spring.  I’ve been out and watched the moon waning in the morning as the prairie-chickens gather to continue their eons-old cycle of mating in the midst of the prairie.
Except this year. For the first year since coming to Nebraska, I have no field projects to start in the spring. No students to train.  But, I did have a visiting student from Thailand who needed to see the sandhill cranes, and so we took her to the river to watch them dance in the fields and find shelter at night on the sandbars of the Platte.
If anything can substitute for the prairie-chicken, it is the sandhill crane.  Darkness came to the river as thousands of birds descended, and eventually we could tell they were there only because of their calls to each other.  Those birds must have many adventures during the day, because they sure have a lot to talk about when they land in the river and get acquainted with their neighbors again.
As we walked away to our vehicles in the dark, there was a promise behind us.  The sun would rise, the cranes would leave and as darkness descended again, they would return until the spring winds carry them away until next spring when we see them once more. Cycles of life, in our own back yard.
There is a Christian story that will be read in churches on Sunday about a group of ladies who found an empty tomb. But, I have an opinion that if a Christian were to live a life focused solely on the miracle of that empty tomb, without connecting to those around them, they have missed the message of Christ’s life.  Indeed, the writer of the Gospel of Matthew states that the second-most important commandment is to love others. In similar fashion, Buddhism also suggests that we create meaning by helping others. There are many paths with the same message.
The moon has been growing from a slim crescent the last few days, until becoming a full moon on April 11.  It is time for Easter.  How do we find ways to reach out beyond ourselves? I encourage you to start by exploring the sacred spaces around you. Find the connections between the message of Easter and your life by looking at your flowerbed or taking a short walk in a park or a timber.  Find new flowers and new buds on branches. Look up in the sky to watch the geese and other birds migrating north, and find a way to watch the sun rise and set on the same day.

Then, reach out to someone. We can’t all make a lamb cake, but find a way to mark this special time of year.  Football games in the spring mud are good. Family gatherings or coffee with friends also work. Giving someone the surprise equivalent to a basket full of chocolate is a brilliant idea.  The message of Easter is that it doesn’t matter if your effort falls short.  A lamb cake’s face can be repaired, and next year will be here before we know it to try again.

Easter is always in the wind. Happy Easter, everyone!

February 18, 2017

Saving the world through a mid-life crisis

This week my School held a meant-to-be-comforting meeting for its junior faculty to discuss the future in uncertain times, and a few of us who are starting to get long in the tooth were invited to provide some perspective. It occurred to me that perhaps hoping for comfort from a set of people with their own mid-life ponderings highlighted by tinges or splotches of gray hair was not the best idea, but we vamped. We rose to the moment to talk about our early days, and we spoke from the heart about how we had turned mistakes into eventual success. And, there were cookies, so everyone went home happy.

As the cookie was digested, happiness turned to thoughts of insignificance for me, as the message most clear from the meeting was that there will always be young folks to take your place, and they might even be smarter than you. So, Mr. Senior Faculty Member, just remember that as you think about retirement and the need for the University to keep you around. I sulked.

Years of experience have contributed to my current grumpiness, as my initial plans for saving the world have gone south.  I blame my high school speech teacher for starting this with an off-handed comment that someone with an unusual name like mine is destined for greatness. So, I started my quest. The world slapped back more than once, but somehow I arrived where I wanted to go--a University campus with brick buildings filled with people using phrases like "high impact" and "science-supported decisions" and "learning objectives," and it felt like home. Some successes occurred. Struggles eventually resulted in advances. Brilliant opportunities happened. Even then, I realized that the singular demographic principle that I studied, rate of growth, had turned to bite me, as my long-term goals were still farther in the distance than I wanted. And, the years left in my career could now be counted using some of the digits on my four appendages.

I suppose this is how a mid-life crisis happens.

My internal ponderings have not led to purchases of candy-red sports cars or the like. But, one does start to compare yourself to those nearby as you claw for examples of relevance and meaning in your day-to-day existence. My father figures, in their own ways, made contributions to their communities--one kept a small town's vehicles running for almost half a century and the other solved micro-economic problems for farm families. Although they set the bar of relevance fairly high, I suppose there are lessons in their stories about finding your niche and doing a job well to help people.

But, how does their impact compare to pile of published manuscripts about ducks and prairie chickens and a rotating door of students through my classes? Further, the world still was an environmental mess. A real mess. Maybe worse than when I started?

The cookie from our faculty gathering was mostly a forgotten entity by the time my wife and I called our son on the same night this week to chat. He is at the University in his first year, and I suppose his new-found ability to fend for himself and mostly excel at life decisions is also cause for a realization that my wife and I have one less responsibility in this world. Still, he needs life-polishing from time to time, and I had noticed a $38 charge on his student account that had not been explained. I used my conversation time to ask him what kind of illicit material he had charged to us.

"I needed a new SD card for my camera for class," he replied, which was disappointing as I hoped it would be something outrageous like two large pizzas or a video game, so we could have a discussion about good choices.

"Well, you owe me $38," I muttered.

"How about I pay you back by saving the environment?" asked the idealistic kid with no job, who didn't know he'd just landed a glancing blow on a sensitive spot on my psyche.

"Good," I retorted as I recovered. "Because, I'm not going to get that done."  And, that was the honest truth. I had given up.

"Well, we'll know a lot more about prairie chickens," he replied.  And I was finished. Game, set, match. Points go to the man-boy, who made his parents roll with laughter fueled by pent-up anxiety. A message of comfort laced with truth. 

Do what you can, where you can. Save the world a little bit at a time. And, keep making those big goals, son.

February 11, 2017

Downturn in the ag economy: Trump and the 2018 Farm Bill

If you are a member of the ag community, your head must be spinning--and for good reason. The President you helped to elect is eliminating trade deals that benefit you, while the ag economy stumbles. Layer on top of these dynamics the divisive Congress in DC, and hopes for a timely 2018 Farm Bill appear slim.

In 2015, I published an essay on the impending bust in the ag economy, in which I suggested planners should begin to think about the 2018 Farm Bill as an opportunity for an innovative direction for conservation on farm lands. I wrote: "History shows that political will and innovation come together during times of economic crisis to shape the future of conservation."

Since writing that piece, I've honestly been amazed at the trepidation of the ag community to admit that a bust in the ag economy was on the horizon. You can see this hesitation in the descriptions offered by many (except for farmers directly involved) in this recent piece by Harvest Public Media. However, this week, the Wall Street Journal (a non-ag publication) finally declared that the bust is here. Why the hesitation to talk about impending economic woes? Is it a function of the typical optimism of farmers?  Is it a function of the PR machine of agri-industry that has a vested interest to encourage large-scale production of low-price corn and beans?  Or, is it simply a human tendency to hide your eyes before a crisis occurs? 

Trepidation or not, the bust is occurring, and we have to talk about it. We have to plan for it.

I've updated the figure on land values from that journal article to post it here.  The trends for states in the Great Plains and Midwest illustrate changes in my metric for assessing booms and busts--comparing current land values to land values 10 years ago.  The use of this metric clearly shows past booms and busts, and 2013 was the peak for most states.  The question now is...when will the slide towards the bottom of the trough stop? 

Here, I'll restate my call to my fellow conservation planners with a focus on the 2018 Farm Bill.  It turns out that 2018 is perfectly positioned to be near the bottom of the trough, most likely--and the innovative farm conservation packages of the 1930's, 1950's, and 1980's came about right at the bottom of the trough. 

Stay tuned.  I'm sure President Trump will have a chaotic effect on events in the next few months, but I'll predict that political will to support the ag economy may surface, just in time for the mid-term elections!  When do those occur? 2018.