December 28, 2011

2011 in pictures--photographically speaking

The local newspaper ran a couple of special pages today with their photographers' favorite photos from 2011.  I thought it would be a fun way to close out 2011 on the blog.  I have a Flickr site, to which I upload photos that were fun to take, have some meaning, and turned out decently.  Here are the top photos that I uploaded in 2011, as judged by the number of 'views' and 'interest rating' they received on Flickr:

Himba boy near Kamanjab, Namibia.

My Dad's grain truck, from the mid 1960's that still is used
every fall.  They don't make them like this anymore.

River runs through it: valley view from the Brandberg, near Uis, Namibia.

Stripes lined up: Etosha National Park, Namibia. 

Worlds colliding: Two forms of transportation--Damara people
near the Brandberg, near Uis, Namibia.

Pemaquid Point Lighthouse, Maine.

Dancing droplets: Irrigation of corn in the Nebraska Sandhills.

Flamingo flood, Namib Desert: Heavy rains in Namibia during
January-May of 2011 created waterbodies where none had been
in recent times. These flamigos found a wide river in the
Namib Desert, near Walvis Bay.

Upland Sandpiper: near Rose, NE

Biplane aerodynamics: Morning in Nebraska Sandhills, along a road.
There were tens of dragonflies resting on plants, like this.
I took the photo from my pickup, driving slowy forward and
snapping lots of angles until I got straight in front. I like this one the best.

Eastern Kingbird: near Rose, NE.

Drafting: Snow Geese and jet near Kearney, NE.

A quiet courtyard in the old city of Barcelona, Spain.

December 16, 2011

Around the world with gorillas

A male mountain gorilla chews on vegetation while tourists
watch in Rwanda (photo by Reid and Gus Bates).
Our family met the Bates family from Louisiana while we were on our sabbatical in Namibia. They were also on a Fulbright fellowship, and our kids went to the same school in Windhoek.  We had some great adventures (here, here, and here) during 2009.

While we settled back in the States, the Bates family found another opportunity to travel in Africa...with another adventure to Rwanda. They recently had the opportunity to mingle with mountain gorillas! You can read about their exciting day by going to their blog here. In short: they paid to spend the day sitting in the forest just feet away from a group of gorillas!

The Bates' experience is just one more example of innovative ways to support conservation. As we look to the future in the Great Plains and the world...innovative solutions are going to come in many forms.  And, they will not be easy.

On their blog, Gwen sums it up well:

The gorillas are truly one of the few great natural resources that Rwanda possesses. They bring in millions of dollars to the economy in terms of tourists buying permits, paying for accommodations, spending money on food and souvenirs, drivers and petrol. They unfortunately are under great pressure from loss of habitat, poaching, and disease. It’s quite a balancing act that has to take place to keep all the elements in equal proportion and not letting one element tip the scales. How long Rwanda can continue to do so is anybody's guess.

Clean-up on aisle 12...!

(Photo by Mark Havnes | The Salt Lake Tribune) An Eared Grebe waits in a box on
Wednesday to be released after crash-landing in Cedar City on Monday night
apparently thinking some areas were water. At least 1,000 birds died
and 2,000 survived to be transferred to reservoirs in Washington County
(text from the Salt Lake Tribune).
Making news this week: the crash-landing of thousands of grebes in a Walmart parking lot in Cedar City, Utah.  The death toll looks to be about 1,500 birds according to press accounts.

Evidently, the birds were migrating in a storm and mistook the parking lot for a lake surface.  There have been myths about ducks mistaking the blue football field at Boise State (Idaho) for a lake, but they appear to be untrue.

Ecological traps are situations in which animals respond to cues, which normally would lead to enhanced survival or reproduction.  But, in an altered landscape, those cues can be misleading---leading to the 'trap' of misinterpreting the cue.

A typical example of an ecological trap--birds respond to the density of non-native, cool-season grasses in the spring to build a nest.  Throughout recent history, native cool-season grasses were mixed with warm-season grasses and forbs, which provided cover and sources of insects (for food for chicks) later in the season.  Early growth of grass would normally indicate an area that would be good for nesting and rearing young.  But, where non-native brome grass has overtaken a pasture, for example (wonderful forage grass for cattle), the forbs and warm-season grasses will not 'show up' later in the nesting season.  The birds, of course, do not know this, and the situation may result in reduced productivity...hence, a trap.

As my research lab continues to work with habitat selection of grassland birds, we may find more examples of ecological traps.  But, none will probably seem as harsh as the reality of crash-landing on pavement. 

December 14, 2011

Why we do what we do

It is the end of the semester, and life gets a bit crazy for students and their professors these days.  During grading of final exams, one can start to ponder why one didn't go into a life of research (no teaching) or running a car wash or some other job that does not require the grading of 5 pages of essays for 45 students.  Not saying it's happened to me, but it might have. 

The alternative job that I would most enjoy would be to be the 'car guard' in the parking lot of a grocery store in a country like Namibia.  Well, specifically Namibia.  I watch your car while you shop and you give me 50 cents. 

The allure of such a prestigious car guarding position can be so great that it is nice to be reminded 'why we do what we do' at the University.  A couple of things recently bounced me back from my foggy dreams of standing on tarmac, watching the shoppers with their treasures.

Josiah Dallmann, sophomore Fisheries and Wildlife major at UNL, explains
his undergraduate research results to fellow delegates at the Midwest Fish
and Wildlife Conference in Des Moines, Iowa.
Last week, four of my students and I participated in the Midwest Fish and Wildlife Conference in Des Moines, Iowa last week.  Students had the opportunity to share their research results and mingle with biologists and managers from across the Midwest.  I went to my first MFWC in 1990 as a graduate student at Iowa State, so am starting to be 'one of the old guys'--although not as old as I made my former advisor feel when I introduced my students to him as his 'academic grandchildren...'  It is always good to meet with colleagues and share this experience with students. 

I make no apologies for trolling social media, because it is an enjoyable passtime for an introvert who has made certain life choices and wants to watch others exploring the choices that I discarded.  Biologists who work for NGOs or agencies.  Friends who decided to stay in my hometown.  Colleagues who selected different regions of the country for their careers.  All worthy choices, and the what-if game is fun as you page through postings of first babies, hunting trips, and new puppies.

Stephanie Walden, UNL Fisheries and Wildlife alum, suits up for a low-level,
aerial waterfowl survey.  Photo stolen from Facebook.
But, I do take my share of ribbing about spending time on social media.  And, then a photo like this pops up, and you realize--this is the other reason you troll if you are a teacher: to see if anything, anything, anything at all rubbed off on your students. 

Nice job, Stephanie!  I enjoyed seeing your excitement as you suited up to do your first aerial waterfowl survey.  Made my day.







December 2, 2011

Compensatory harvest mortality in deer?

Two fawns find food and water during November in southeast Nebraska.
Photo by Larkin Powell.
The December 2 issue of the Lincoln Journal Star carried an insightful Letter to the Editor, regarding deer harvest.  I'm currently covering 'harvest management' in my Wildlife Management Techniques course.  The concept of Compensatory Harvest Mortality is often over-simplified or applied in a misleading manner.  Because it is hard to explain the concept to wildlife students, it was nice to see a glimmer of appreciation for the concept from a member of the public.

Compensatory Harvest Mortality, in short, is the concept that hunting (harvest of wild animals) does not always result in a net reduction of the population (we call situations in which harvest does result in a net reduction, Additive Harvest Mortality: harvest 'adds' to other forms of mortality).  Think of a situation in which you can make an annual count of a wildlife population immediately before harvest occurs (this rarely actually happens in the US, but happens in many other countries through 'game counts' on private land).  OK, so you have 100 deer or 100 quail on a piece of property.  Now, harvest happens (in the fall, normally), and 20 animal are removed, leaving 80.  Those eighty animals have to survive through the winter, spring, and summer until the next count, and they also will be mating and having offspring.

If a species has completely Additive Harvest Mortality, those 80 animals survive and reproduce at the same rates that the 100 original animals would have.  Survival and reproduction do not adjust to the new population density.  The 80 animals will have fewer offspring than 100 animals would have had, and the 20 animals removed will add to the number of animals that die from other causes.  If the probability of surviving a year for that species is 75%, then 75 would have survived without harvest.  But, only 60 survive from the 80 that were left after harvest.

But, in a Compensatory situation, the 80 animals that are alive after the harvest will now have higher productivity (more offspring/female) or higher survival, because of the lower density.  More food per animal equals better nutrition equals higher survival or bigger clutches/litters.  It is possible that the net result, measured in the following fall, could (and stress: could) be that the effect of the harvest has been erased by the ability of the remaining individuals to reproduce or survive at higher rates when they face less competition.

Obviously, Compensatory harvest mortality is the optimum situation for harvest biologists (people who set regulations for hunting) who want to provide opportunities for many people to hunt and take game animals.  The problem is that we rarely understand wildlife populations in enough depth to document the effects of density on reproduction and survival.  We have such data for quail (although there is still disagreement) and deer; recently my research lab provided indirect evidence for prairie-chickens in southeast Nebraska and there is some suggestion from the Nebraska's annual wing counts that prairie-chickens produce more young/adult when the breeding population is smaller.

With that, here is the excerpt of the letter from a Lincoln resident in the Lincoln Journal Star:


"This letter is in response to "Lengthen deer season" (letter, Nov. 23).  The writer stated that the "deer population has gotten way out of hand" and that "Nebraska Game and Parks should have a lengthier season."

"I disagree with this for the following reasons.  Studies show that the more deer are hunted, the more they compensate by having more offspring.  After a deer season, when a high number of animals are killed, two things occur.  First, there is more food for the remaining deer, which helps trigger increased reproductive rates.  Second, nature's reaction to the loss of large numbers of deer during a short period of time is for a greater number of does to ovulate and mate at an earlier age.  This increased reproductivity in heavily hunted areas can result in abnormally high deer populations year after year.

"Studies also show that in nonhunted, unmanipulated wild areas that have an optimum number of predators, deer populations tend to stay at or just below the maximum number the habitat can safely support.  Since all game animals in Nebraska are managed to promote hunting, to lengthen the deer season will only result in more deer, not fewer."

A proud youngster with his first buck. 
If bucks are removed without harvesting
does, the result can be higher populations
as the does are left with many resources
and fewer competitors for food.  The necessity
to harvest does has been reinforced by
recent regulations for 'earn a buck' (harvest
a doe before you can harvest a buck) in
many hunting districts in Nebraska. 
Photo by Larkin Powell.
So, a couple comments:

First, the writer nailed the concept of compensatory harvest mortality in the first 'reason' stated: increased reproductive rates are triggered by lower densities.  Nicely worded.

And, second, the writer did a nice job of summarizing how this can happen--higher pregnancy rates (percent of does that are pregnant) and more young does that are pregnant (thereby increasing their lifetime contribution of fawns to the population).

However, the writer overstates the impact of the 'hunting effect'.  Hunting does not result in "abnormally high deer populations year after year".  And, a longer deer season would not result in"more deer" than a shorter season.  If deer had the capacity to have 8 or 10 or 15 fawns at a time, then this type of response might be possible.  But, deer can have 1 (common), 2 (sometimes) or 3 (rarely) fawns.   While they can respond with higher reproduction, they are limited by their species' reproductive potential--it only compensates for increased harvest to a point. 

It is very possible to harvest more deer than the population can compensate for.  In fact, wildlife biologists count on this fact.  This is exactly why Nebraska Game and Parks Commission has increased the number of permits, especially for does, in the past few years.  And, it is why they have lengthened the season--an October 'antlerless' (does and fawns only) season was added to the normal November season to help reduce deer numbers.  To take the example to the extreme, if a longer season and cheaper licenses resulted in reducing a population of 100 does to 10 does, there is no way that the 10 does could reproduce at rates high enough to make the population higher than 100, as the letter-write infers.

Managing wildlife populations always involves stakeholders.  This is an example of how important it is to keep educating the public about the reasons for management decisions.  Kudos to the author of the letter,  however, for explaining the concept of Compensatory Harvest Management.  I may use the letter in my class next year, rather than my long-winded explanation...!

October 28, 2011

Killer cows

There were stories told on my school bus
by junior high boys
about farmers who were pinned in a stall
by startled steers

or news of a friend's father
crushed by an angry bull
in a corner by the barn.

These men had a unique
perspective on cattle which
was not easy to sing to the
tune of Old McDonald's Farm.

But to share that perspective,
all you need is to come round
the endrows of a field of corn
to face a heifer who has taken
advantage of an open gate
and has a glimmer of an idea
that freedom in corn
is a better option
than the pasture behind the fence.

The way her dark eyes
look past you,
or through you,
toward the open field
with breath billowing in the
early fall morning,
and the way the steam rises off
her broad black back,
and the way she points a front hoof
as a warning that she is moving forward
and is not concerned that you are standing
before her

is enough to remind you that she
could be
a killer cow.

Ee-I-Ee-I-Oh. 

L. Powell, 22 October 2011
Creston, Iowa

September 8, 2011

Data set envy: long term trends in an agricultural landscape

Grey partridge
I'm spending the week at the Congress of the International Union of Game Biologists, meeting in Barclona, Spain.  I won't complain about the setting of this meeting--it is a great town--but, there are problems that arise when you attend meetings like this.  You get too many ideas to ever actually work on them.  And, you tend to get 'data set envy' when you see presentations from countries around the world.

I encountered such envy when I saw Nicholas Aebischer present a plenary talk about the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust's long-term data sets of several species of pheasant-like game birds in the UK.  I will start by noting that my colleagues and I are excited if we can access data that goes back to 1966 (Breeding Bird Survey) or 1955 (Nebraska Rural Mail Carrier Survey).  In one case, I've worked with data from the Agriculture Statistics Service that went back to 1866...a record of crops planted in Nebraska. 

But, the GWCT in the UK has a 'bag record' (an index of the population from hunter harvests--the 'bag' counts from hunts like the one in the print at right) of grey partridge that reaches back to 1826.  Wow.  1826!  That's a long-term wildlife data set...!   

Because it is a hunter-bag count, the numbers reflect two things--the number of hunters (and their success) and the number of birds.  The Trust explains the trends on their website as follows (all images are also from their web site):

"Gray partridge bags form the longest series in the NGC. We were able to produce trends in annual bag density that started in 1826, when Darwin was only 17 years old. There are large annual fluctuations, most probably linked to weather. Indeed, the collapse of bags in 1869 corresponds to the coldest year on record since 1740. Despite large swings from year to year, the underlying pattern (green line) charts the rise in popularity of this gamebird during the first half of the 19th century and its heyday during the second half of that century up to the First World War. The high average bags reflect the high densities arising from the extensive mixed agriculture that developed especially after the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846, the ruthless elimination of predators by private gamekeepers and improvements in shotgun design. Partridge bags remained high until the Second World War, but declined thereafter, especially after the introduction of herbicides and the increase in agricultural mechanisation in the 1950s and 1960s. The BTO index (inset) starts in 1966, and catches the tail end of the decline."

The bag index of grey partridges, as collected by the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust in the UK.
When we look at our declines of wildlife populations in the US--from records that start in the 50's or 60's (like the period of time in the inset on the figure above)--we always wonder "what did populations look like prior to the 50's and 60's?  How much change had they seen prior to when we started keeping records?"  I would guess that some species in Nebraska would mirror the partridge trends from the UK--because our Nebraska agriculture was following a similar pattern at the same time.  But, it's just a guess---because the data doesn't exist.

September 6, 2011

Our view is blocked: an evolutionary response?

I’m sitting in my hotel in Barcelona and, of course, I did not receive a room overlooking the Mediterranean.   Instead my room looks up at the hills surrounding the city.   I’m not sure I’ve ever been given the prime room in a hotel, but in this case I would probably rather gaze at the greenery.  The hills are beautiful and rolling, and they remind me a bit of the small mountains that surrounded our family when we lived in Windhoek, Namibia.

On the top of each of Barcelona's hills is a bizarre collection of towers which appear to host receivers and transmitters for radar, cell phones, as well as radio and television communication.  Of course, my first response was: “They’ve ruined a perfectly good hill.”
Why is that?  Why do we have a knee-jerk reaction to landscape alteration when it blocks our view?
The more I thought about this, the more it intrigued me.  We, as humans, don’t react much when a prairie is plowed and fragmented by farming—that is progress and it feeds the world.  We don’t react strongly when we know that our neighbor is dumping oil or chemicals in his backyard—even though it might reach the groundwater.   It’s his backyard, and he can do what he wants.

I grew up on a farm in southern Iowa.  If you want to send your neighbors talking, put a new shed on a hilltop.  Or, better yet, tear down a barn that has always been there.  Or, plant your crops in strips (as my father did) rather than in big blankets of boredom.  Do something to change the way the neighborhood ‘looks’ and you might get a comment the next time you’re in the farm-and-home store.  At the least, people will drive by your place slowly.

This interests me, because I’ve been thinking for the past couple of years about wind energy.  Our lab may become involved in research on how wind energy affects prairie-chicken populations—there is concern that placement of towers in Nebraska’s  contiguous grasslands could disrupt movements, affect choice of nesting locations, or affect survival of adults.  Again, interesting—we should probably be more concerned about timing of haying that affects chicks and their bullsnake predators.  Or, we might choose to be wary of the ever-slow encroachment of cedar trees that provide cover for predators.  But, those things are not visual, or they happen so slowly that we don’t realize it is happening.  But, a wind turbine is something to get excited about.

Why do we shy away from wind turbines?   I’m starting to think that it is mostly all about our view.  They are going to change the way that our grass-scapes look, and we don’t like that.  Something bugs us.
Think about it—you are driving down the interstate (pick Iowa as a place for this thought-story: they just installed a lot of turbines along I-80 in western Iowa).  You come over the hill, and suddenly the landscape is populated with turbines as far as you can see.   Many people’s reaction to this is to make some comment to the effect of: “That has just cluttered up things, hasn't it?” 

We have this aversion to our view being blocked.  Never mind the fact that you are driving in the middle of a pack of 6 semi-trucks and 18 cars who can’t decide who is going to go first and who can’t get their cruise control set at a constant speed.  No, it’s the wind turbines that disgruntle us.  The real risk of danger to our lives is the cars around us, but our gut responds to the change in the viewscape.
I’ll hazard a guess that humans are hard-wired, through evolutionary time, to respond to changes in our viewscape.  We know that our eyes are one of our most important senses, and we pick up on visual cues pretty quickly, compared to other mammals (even I can hide from a deer in an open field if I stand still).  For our cave-man Homo ancestors, and Australopithecus before them, a change in the viewscape probably was the best cue to be on your guard for predators or competitors.   

So, it probably stands to reason that we are uncomfortable at the notion of our landscape being altered by big towers with blades on them.  The question is—is the cue a false cue?  Or, should we listen to our gut?  I’m still wondering, as I look at the hills of Barcelona.
-------------------
Note: I created the conglomeration imagery above.  My apologies to their original owners.

August 31, 2011

Herding cats, Great Plains style!

I'm spending a couple days at a conference on decision-making in natural resource management.  The day's big winner for best video shown during a talk is below.  Last talk of the day was about the difficulties of working with stakeholder groups, because of their oft divergent goals and baseline beliefs.  Thus, the 'herding cats' theme. 

I think it's great.  Hope you enjoy it. 


Groups often express different values with regard to issues of importance in natural resources.  The current response to thecontrol of water levels (i.e., flood) in the Missouri River is a great example.  To me, this confirms that modern wildlife management needs to include training in conflict resolution and facilitation of groups.  And, as the video indicates...the satisfaction of 'bringing in the herd' at the end of the day makes the frustration worthwhile!

August 24, 2011

Nebraska State Fair: learn where your oil comes from

The state of Nebraska has been embroiled in a lengthy argument over the plans for a new pipeline that would bring crude oil from Canada to a refinery near Houston.  A similar pipeline already crosses eastern Nebraska, and the new pipeline would cross the Sandhills--which has led to the uproar about disturbing fragile Sandhills soils/plant communities and the potential for oil to leak into the groundwaters of the Ogallala aquifer.

Because the pipeline project crosses many states and originates in a foreign country, the US State Department is the initial regulatory agency involved--providing the permit to build.  So, there are also issues of the regulatory powers of states to influence decisions that will impact their citizens.  It's a mess.

This week, several citizens from Nebraska (including some 60+-aged folks and others who you would not normally associate with such protests) conducted a sit-in in front of the White House in Washington, DC; many were arrested for their silent protest.

So, it was a little surprising to me to see that the Nebraska State Fair had accepted the sponsorship of TransCanada, the company lobbying to build the Keystone Pipeline.   If you click on the link for the Fair (above), you'll see the TransCanda logo at the bottom of the page. 

So, will fair-goers be subject to propaganda from TransCanada?  Probably.  Is that bad?  I'd argue that it's not.

Whether you support the planned pipeline or protest the pipeline, I think Nebraskans (compared to 1-2 years ago) have a much better idea about where our oil comes from.  We put gas in the tank of our cars every week, and we rarely think about where that has come from and the processes that get it into our fuel tank.  That has changed--many Nebraskans are much more familiar with alternatives to transporting oil by pipeline, and newspapers and TV stations have shown pipeline maps every week for that past year.  It's been a learning experience.  Regardless of the outcome, that is a valuable step to becoming a nation that thinks about energy.

For several years, agriculture officials have encouraged people to 'learn where their food comes from'.  The State Fair helps provide that information--with booths showing live births of farm animals, for example. 

This year, it looks like the State Fair has the opportunity to help Nebraskans learn more about where their oil comes from!

July 28, 2011

Market hunting, poisoning wolves, and invasive species

An apparent market hunter in Hall County, Nebraska in the 1890s with his
large take of prairie-chickens.  Such hunters often shipped their goods to
Chicago via the railroad.  Photo available in the collections of the
Stuhr Museum in Grand Island; scan made from a photocopy.  
Some readers will remember that I'm spending odd hours (my 'free time') scouring libraries, historical societies, and museums for material that I eventually hope to place in a book.  This past week, I spent an afternoon in the Stuhr Museum of the Prairie Pioneer in Grand Island, NE.  I knew they had some good archives and I wasn't disappointed.  I want to share with you the passage below, found in the book "History of the First Settlement in Hall County, Nebraska" written by William Stolley in 1907. 

Mr. Stolley was a founder of the settlement in the 1850's and wrote his book in German.  It was translated to English in 1946 and published as a special edition of the Nebraska History Magazine.

To set the stage, I had been trying in vain to find information and photos about market hunting in the late 1800s in Nebraska.  This passage was pure gold for me.  I also found a separate photo (not in his book) that is the first photo I've seen of a market hunter in Nebraska.  It was a good afternoon in the research room! 

Towards the end of his book, Mr. Stolley writes this reflection on the change in fauna that he has seen since moving to Nebraska--over a span of 50 years.  I've added some notes in [brackets] in the following direct quote from the book:

------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
Especially in the case of wild fowl has so-called 'civilized society', which crowded out the Indians, demonstrated that it must have descended from vandals.  They kill, destroy, and shoot at them until there is nothing left to shoot.

All rivers and creeks were alive with beaver, otter, mink, muskrats and raccoons, along with various kinds of geese, ducks, pelicans, swans, and other water birds.  These birds of passage appeared by the thousands every spring and fall.  Cranes, gray and white [sandhill and whooping], and several species of wood cocks [perhaps referencing snipe, curlews, and/or sandpipers] were seen in large flocks.  All this had changed entirely in the fifty years that have passed since the founding of our settlement.  The above-mentioned birds and animals who great multitudes gave the land its peculiar character and appeal in those early days [I just love that line] have decreased in numbers to almost the vanishing point.

On the other hand, it must be affirmed that the world of song and other small birds has increased enormously, probably due to the plantings of woods and shrubs which offer them a better opportunity for building nests.

Prairie chickens and quail also are more numerous than they were in the early years.  They multiplied very rapidly, as wolves and foxes were greatly decimated in a few years by poisoning [it should be pointed out that Mr. Stolley provides evidence, earlier in the book, that he poisoned about 10 wolves during one night, using strychnine wrapped in buffalo meat; the wolves were attempting to scavenge on a buffalo he had shot for meat in 1859].  Later, when the railroad reached us, the flocks of prairie chickens and quail were cleaned up in a few years [market hunters sent thousands of birds to Chicago and other destinations on the trains] so that game laws were necessary to prevent their complete extermination.  Now, these birds, so useful to the farmer, are again increasing rapidly in numbers.

That is a question which arises involuntarily in my mind.  If things go on in as insenseless a manner as in the past, then of the wild fowl, probably only the European sparrow will remain.  [and here is where this really takes an interesting turn!]  I imported the birds from New York early in May, 1876, in the hope of using them to combat migratory grasshoppers.  For 24 years since I set free five pair of these sparrows on our farm, they have proven themselves worthy representatives of their tribe, and seem to be ever mindful of the command of their Creator, "be fruitful and multiply."

When fifty more years have passed into oblivion and all wildfowl can only be seen as mounted specimens in museums, I hope that the hotels and restaurants in Grand Island will still serve delicious sparrow pie at a reasonable price.
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Some blog experts suggest that the number of hits on an blog is related to 'catch phrases' that are picked up by search engines.  If it's the case, then this blog title may get a couple of hits for me...

Photo focus: Taking land out of CRP is good for prairie-chickens?

I just returned from a quick trip to the Nebraska Sandhills to visit the site of our research on vegetation selection by greater prairie-chickens.  The Photo Focus comes from near Rose, NE.

Water catches the early morning sun as corn is irrigated in Nebraska's Sandhills, near Rose, NE.
Landscape view: corn is irrigated with a center pivot in the midst of pastures in Nebraska's Sandhills near Rose, NE.

I've written (here and here) about the need to re-think models of conservation for wildlife on private lands, because of the uncertainty of Farm Bill programs based on ag commodity prices.  Long-term, sustainable conservation will never be possible under Farm Bill conservation programs, in my opinion.  Short-term, regional effects on populations?  Yes.  But, sustainable habitat for local populations?  No.

And, my opinion is supported by dynamics taking place in the Sandhills.  Many readers will recognize the Sandhills is North America's largest, 'contiguous' grassland--mostly because the sandy soil has prevented large-scale row-crop development.  However, in the eastern Sandhills, there are regions where enough loess is mixed in with the sand to make ranchers/farmers consider planting crops.  Several center-pivot irrigation systems were installed 20-40 years ago.  The look like little islands in a sea of grass as you fly over the region. 

During the past couple of decades, beef prices were high and corn prices were low and fuel prices were high--leading many to abandon the idea of planting crops in the Sandhills.  No profit.  Most farmers (they would probably call themselves ranchers) used the CRP program to plant these circles back to grass.

As adept readers might predict, the current high price of corn and low price of beef has led to the opposite trend.  Several center pivots are now operational again, including the one pictured above.  The eastern Sandhills is not immune to habitat fragmentation under the current commodity price structures.

So, how does this affect prairie-chickens? 

As you might expect, the initial removal of grasslands is bad for any grassland bird.  Less habitat.  But, if we go back 10-20 years, to the time where the landscape was a mix of large, native grasslands with restored pivots (through CRP) in the mix, our current research might actually predict that replacing the 'restored', grassy pivots with corn is a good thing for prairie-chickens.  What?

The problem appears to be how the pivots were restored.  Most were seeded with a mix of native grasses, but were not managed after the initial seeding.  Switch grass has taken over these pivot areas.  Normally, switch grass is considered a fairly decent grass for nesting birds--it is thick and a good place in which to hide a nest. 

But, remember, these pivots are little islands in a sea of mixed-grass prairie--less dense because it's a semi-arid region.  The thick habitat appears to be an "ecological trap"--hens respond to it because it looks like great nesting habitat.  So, they nest in it.  But, predators also respond to it.  Mammalian predators probably find these pivot regions easy to search for nests--they are nice, small patches with lots of birds in them.  Research on pheasants in Iowa has shown that small grassland patches have very low survival, regardless of habitat structure. 

And, that is what our research suggests in the Sandhills.  Although we're still in the preliminary stages, these thick grassland patches have very low nest survival. 

So, given the current landscape and past disturbances creating these circular habitats, my assertion is that planting corn in them is actually better for prairie-chickens than leaving them in CRP.  It will force the hens out into the native grasslands and 'help' them avoid the trap of nesting in CRP*.   Of course, managing the existing CRP in the Sandhills properly is the other option (!), but it is not happening under current USDA guidelines.

That's my prediction and opinion.  I'd enjoy hearing yours.

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*Before you take this completely out of context, my lab's research shows that CRP habitat is incredibly beneficial for pheasants and prairie-chickens in row-crop areas of eastern Nebraska.  So, the thoughts above relate specifically to what appear to be interesting dynamics in the Nebraska Sandhills.

June 30, 2011

Reclaiming lost potential

This post has nothing to do (much) with wildlife management.  But, I couldn't pass up this photo that a friend, Gwenn, sent us from Rwanda.  Her friend took it, and Gwenn commented that it was not the strangest thing they had seen transported on a motorcycle in Rwanda.

Goes to show that a person has to think creatively about how to use resources. (See...I'm trying to bring this back to natural resource management.)  Sometimes we don't realize the potential that exists in something we see/use everyday!

Enjoy...

June 19, 2011

Elephant: a truly invasive species?

Readers may know Salem, Massachusetts as the birthplace of Nathaniel Hawthorne or the Salem Witch Trials of 1692.  But, you may not know that Salem was one of the first ports that received the first elephant to step foot on American soil!

The year was 1796, and the merchant's idea was to purchase the elephant for US$450, bring it to the US, and make a profit through shows or selling the beast.  You can read all about the import and subsequent circus travels here[image at right is a handbill from the elephant's visit to Boston, where people were advised not to go near it with important papers, as it had a fondness for grabbing and shredding documents]

Americans, of course, were intrigued by this odd creature that was returning to the home of its ice-age ancestors (the State Museum in Nebraska has a great collection of these prehistoric pachyderms).  Our infatuation with the unusual has led to the import of many wildlife species, and most of these stories end badly--new predators that suppress native prey species or filter-feeding aquatic species that knock ecosystems out of whack. 

Elephants don't match the definition of an invasive species (high reproductive potential, mainly), so--200 years later--we're not overrun by elephants in North America.  However, some biologists have suggested that elephants (and lions and other critters) should be reintroduced to the Great Plains through a process called 're-wilding'.  That's interesting to think about.  Obviously, the suggestion is more than a little controversial, especially given our success with exotic introductions during the 20th century. 

Maybe the US should have elephants roaming the plains?  During a recent trip to Namibia, our students were amused when the native Namibians were astounded to hear that we did not have lions and elephants in the US.  You could just see their amazement that elephants were not a universal creature.

Our family recently visited Salem, where I read about the story of the 18th-century day when the elephant walked down a very long wharf towards the amazed townspeople.  As I think about the Re-wilding of North America, despite my conclusion, I'll have a new image in my mind--that of an elephant making the slow walk down the gangplank and wharf, towards Salem. 
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Image obtained from this site.

June 18, 2011

When not to teach

Our family recently visited the home of Louisa May Alcott, in Concord, Massachusetts.  Although the story of the writing of "Little Women" is inspirational, the sub-text to the popular female author's home is the story of her father, Bronson Alcott.  He was a member of the group of philosophers who formed the roots of the transcendental movement.  Bronson also encouraged his daughters to become educated, and was ahead of his time with regard to pedagogical methods.  He was criticized and ridiculed for his methods, and his schools failed over and over to make any money.  He was just born 200 years too early.

I think that Bronson would be a problem-based learning teacher, if he were alive today.  The heart of his pedagogy was to have learners actively exploring their subjects.  He definitely was not an advocate of the "sage on the stage"!

I was especially drawn to a list of 58 "maxims" for teaching that was sold at the shop.  Of course, I didn't purchase one because I was certain it would be available on the internet.  I wasn't disappointed.  I've copied and pasted some of my favorites below.  Thanks to the American Transcendentalism Web for posting the entire lot here.

There are a lot of things to consider in the list below.  I've been pushing for the last few years for a new approach to educating our wildlife biologists.  Bronson Alcott would shudder if he were to look at a Wildlife Ecology and Management textbook.  But, that is a story for another day.

I was especially interested in the maxim that states to teach nothing that students can teach themselves.  I just completed a semester in which I employed a Team-Based Learning approach, which forces students to study basic material before I start to lead them (through activities or lectures) the higher-level concepts.  Some students like this.  Others don't.   Sometimes my colleagues (who use the same approach) and I receive comments that students are paying for us to teach them.  Why should they have to read the book?  They are paying us to do the heavy lifting.  Right?!

Well, all I can say is that Bronson Alcott would have a response to those students.  And now, so do I.  "Please see Maxim #34 on the attached list." 

Perhaps I'll add some of these to my syllabus next year...

----------------------------------------------------------------------------------

SELECTED [by LAP] GENERAL MAXIMS: By which to regulate the instructor's practice in instruction

Bronson Alcott
10. To teach, to improve the science of instruction and of mind
16. To teach, regarding the matter as well as the manner of instruction
21. To teach, gradually and understandingly, by the shortest steps, from the more easy and known, to the more difficult and unknown
27. To teach, by short and perfectly obtained lessons
28. To teach, by encouragement
30. To teach, interestingly
31. To teach, principally a knowledge of things, not of words - of ideas, not names
32. To teach, by consulting in the arrangement of lessons, that proportion of variety which is adapted to the genius and habits of the young mind
33. To teach, by keeping curiosity awake
34. To teach, nothing that pupils can teach themselves
35. To teach, as much as possible by analysis
50. To teach, by allusion to familiar objects and occurrences
52. To teach, pupils to teach themselves
53. To teach, by intermingling Questions with instruction
54. To teach, with relation to the practical business of Life
55. To teach, endeavouring to fix things in the understanding rather than words in the memory
56. To teach without bringing pupils in comparison with one another, or touching the spring of personal emulation

----Thanks to the New York Public Library collection for the image above.

June 12, 2011

Battle of the ages: bull snake vs. prairie-chicken hen

I think it is always good to approach science, and life in general, with the attitude that there are things we know, things we think we know, and things we don't know.  This certainly applies to one of my areas of research: the ecology of birds while they are nesting.  I've been studying this general field since 1993. 

'Things we know' about nesting birds would include the fact that most species have nest success rates (at least one chick leaving the nest) in the range of 5-35%.  Probably a lot lower than the general public realizes, but as they say---nature is red in tooth and claw.  Predators have to eat, too.

'Things we think we know' might include general guesses at what is causing nest predation events.  We can look at the remains of nests and egg shells, and makes some educated guesses.  Perhaps an empty nest means that a snake came by and ate all the eggs or chicks.  A nest filled with munched-on egg shells might mean a mammal of some kind.  Stuff like that...we think we know.

'Things we don't know' includes the daily behaviors and adventures of females that are sitting on the nest.  How often do they leave the nest unguarded?  Are they successful at chasing off predators on a fairly regular basis?  What times of day do they leave the nest?  Do females with successful nests have different behaviors than females with unsuccessful nests?  We really have no clue.  Or, at least we didn't until we started putting video cameras on nests.  In the past 10-15 years, tiny video cameras and associated recording devices have given us an insight into these behaviors.  And, you always learn some thing new.

My prairie-chicken research crew is monitoring hens and nests this summer with video cameras.  Josiah Dallman is an undergraduate research associate, and his summer project is to learn about nesting behavior through video.  There are some keen insights that we can gather from the first look-through of the video, with the take-home message that there is a lot more activity around a prairie-chicken nest than we originally thought.  The hen leaves during the cool morning and late afternoon for 15-45 minutes.  Deer come by and investigate.  Hail storms shower the nest with golf balls.  Life on the prairie.

I'll paste two 'predator' videos here for you.  The first is a visit to a nest by a badger. You'll see an initial 'pounce' and the hen flushes.  The badger checks out the camera at one point.  The badger eventually spends most of the footage hidden, at the left of the screen...you'll see grass moving while it eats the eggs from the nest.  The video is shot with infrared light, at night.

The second is the 'battle of the ages' video.  This hen has already lived through the hail storm.  During the 3-4 days before this video was taken, a snake visited the nest more than once (during the day), and she successfully chased it away.  Then, on the fateful night, the bull snake (we'll pretend we know it is the same snake, but it makes sense) comes back and will not be deterred.  Neither will the hen give up her nest.  It is a battle to the death.  In fact, the field crew later found the hen dead about 5 meters from the nest.  The bull snake and hen leave the video area and continue their battle, so we don't know exactly how the hen died.  But, our best guess is that she was so stressed by the events on the video that she expired--we have to be very careful when we handle the birds for tagging (they are all radio-tagged so we can find their nests).  If stress can kill them during banding and tagging, surely stress can kill them during natural events as well?  You can draw your own conclusions...feel free to comment!

So, it is the battle of the ages.  I've never seen a video like this...with such a back-and-forth between a hen and predator.  Most of the time, the hen gives up and lives to lay another nest.

In fact, this battle goes on across the prairies (and forests, and wetlands) every summer, and has been going on for ages.  The choice of nest site.  Predator versus prey.  The protective nature of a parent.  The decision of when to give up and start over.  This is the sacred dance of population dynamics.  Enjoy the clips.

video



video


June 4, 2011

Namibia trip photos

A quick toss to my Picasa album of 140 (or so) photos from our UNL Namibia study tour.  The group is below: 8 students, plus Dr. Pegg (at right).  We're pictured with Peter and Doris Becker (towards the left), a farm couple from Namibia.  Peter traveled to Nebraska as part of his training in South Africa; our family met him and Doris during 2009.  Our group stayed with them, on their farm, on the last night of our trip.

Enjoy!

May 31, 2011

I will not stop for petrol in Uis

I will not stop for petrol in Uis.

Uis ("wees"), Namibia is an old mining town with one petrol station.

Uis has its tin mine and it has the fact that 13 soccer players, traveling through, were buried in its cemetery after using a poisonous plant to stoke their camp fire.

And, while I feel sorry for the 13 boys who had one last ill-fated night under the moonlit Namibian sky, I feel most for the grave digger who was told to dig 13 graves in the rocky soil that is Uis.  Thirteen graves is more than his annual average, I am sure, and finding 13 spots where you can dig deep without hitting bedrock must have seem an impossibility.

Beyond the mine and the graves, Uis is mostly known for being a town with a petrol station, because no matter where you start from, or where you are going, you will have to stop for petrol in Uis. 

It is a geographical phenomenon.

When you stop for petrol, you car is immediately surrounded by guys with crystals from the nearby Brandberg.  Tourmaline, amethyst, smoky quartz.  Citrine and fluorite.  The crystals are the size of peanuts and golf balls, and they are bunched on cardboard or styrofoam display trays, covered in dust.

"Sir the mine is closed.  You must buy so we can have bread."

"Sir, you bought from him.  I am hungry, too."

In your face.  Arms through the window that you left down a split second too long.

Ironically, the stones are actually pretty and they catch the sun in magical ways.  You might have considered buying if the guys didn't descend on you like a butterfly finding the last dew drop in a desert.  Tourists, it seems, are a valuable resource.

"Sir, maybe two small stones so I can feed my daughter?"

The guy pumping petrol appears to be in on the push, because he is taking way too long to fill my tank!

"Sir, do you have coins for me?  I will tell you a funny story?"

Odd, but somehow it is hard to think you might laugh after this assault on your sanity, but it turns out to not be a problem---his story is not funny.   But, it earns him coins.  His gambit, that you will eventually give in, pays off.  The fact that a bad joke is more appealing than the rocks they are selling says something about their marketing strategy.

And so, I tell myself, I will not stop for petrol in Uis.  Never again.

I will fill up at the last possible town before Uis, or I will risk running empty as I go past Uis at 80 km/hr.

The next town offers protection.  Petrol stations where the owners have security to keep the pumps clear of these guys.  Protection that balances the risk of running out of petrol in the desert by skipping Uis.

Protection.  So that I can ignore them and their hunger.  So I don't have to decide whose story is the saddest or who is just a con man.  So I can concentrate on my trip, and get out to purchase a Coke without being mobbed.

"Sir, can you also buy me bread when you go in the store?"

There is no need to call me "Sir" while I am ignoring you.  I am not going to stop to buy petrol in Uis.


30 May 2011
L. Powell, in Windhoek (realizing it is fine to be uncomfortable at having successfully skipped the petrol station in Uis; sometimes, you just have to allow yourself to feel uncomfortable, I think)

May 30, 2011

Lost image

The moment every photographer fears

is when the river,
winding through grass as tall as your head, points
directly to the setting sun

or when the lion,
standing cross-wise in a warm
patch of light,
meets your gaze only for a moment

or when the woman,
dusty and out-of-breath from a
hard day in the field,
turns and smiles with white teeth,
full lips, and calm, dark eyes

or when cool days cause leaves
to fall on rocky paths in
stochastic sets of color
before you walk on a frosted morning.

Fear,
that the camera is not at
hand, or the lens cap is on,
or there is nowhere to stop the
car, or that the settings are one
stop off, or that the focus will suffer.

Dread,
because there is no
bringing back the sun from dusk,
and lions only look once, and it is
not possible to ask her to smile again
in the same way.  And, frost melts.

Moments such as these can be reconstructed by poets
and relived by storytellers
and even enhanced by painters.
But, for the camera, they are gone.

Now, you realize that you collect
moments with the lens,
and you use images
to invite others
to stand by the river
or seek landscapes with lions
or look for beauty in dusty fields,
or be the first down forest paths.

This is photography.
The art that arises from perpetual fear.

29 May 2011
L. Powell, near Uis, Namibia

Home again

It was while I was shaving
that the mountain burst into flames.
Granite ignited by the sunrise, and
I was home again.

It was while I pulled into their gate,
with the familiar sign and dusty lane
that the fields turned green.
Grass and bush transformed by familiarity, and
I was home again.

I was while we were talking
about old times and stories
that I smiled.
Two people brought together, and
I was home again.

It was while I was driving
down the long road
and crested the hill to see the valley.
Ridges and grassscapes and horizons brought once more into focus, and
I was home again.

It was when I was walking
on paths that went where I told them to go
that the way seemed sure.
Clarity spawned from not worrying about where to put my feet, and
I was home again.

It was when I was leaving
that I knew.
I had been home again.

28 May 2011
L. Powell 
At the Brandberg.  At home.

Zebra snake mathematics

There is a zebra snake in my bathroom!

Without first seeing its coils,
striped crossways as if
instructions of where to
hack it to bits,
I would have not given the
risk so high a measure.

But now, with visions of
slithering, heat-seeking, camouflaged stealth,
no other thoughts cross my mind.

Awareness of danger is a
discontinuous function,
jumping from 'empty' to 'full'
as the result of one casual glance.

Snake mathematics,
where 1 may as well equal
100 or 1000.

Soon, a major distraction,
such as breakfast or a sunrise,
resets my concern
to zero.
Some may argue that
apathy is where the real danger lies...

It is a binomial landscape
that I walk.
"Snakes" or "no snakes" serving
as a guide to my primordial instincts.

There is a zebra snake in my bathroom!

L. Powell
27 May 2011
Brandberg, near Uis, Namibia


Written after changing rooms when a zebra snake (spitting cobra) showed itself in my first chalet.  It was later re-identified as a harmless tiger snake, but the former identification was the most interesting.

May 26, 2011

Namibia study abroad trip

Just a quick note and toss to another blog...I've been enjoying a study abroad trip with students from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in Namibia, where my family spent a year in 2009.  It's been great to see former friends and stay with people we met during our year abroad.  Check out the students' blogs and photos here.


Here's a photo to get you in the mood--students dancing with Himbas (one of Namibia's indigenous groups).  With the Himba people, who cover themselves with red ochre, "Go Big Red" takes on a new meaning!

May 8, 2011

And, back to Namibia: follow along if you like

If you'd like to follow along with eight University of Nebraska-Lincoln students, the intrepid Dr. Mark Pegg, and me, who will soon be tripping through Namibia, here is a blog for our adventure.  Here's to leaving spring for fall, in the southern hemisphere!

May 5, 2011

Understanding farm families: conservation on private lands

In a previous post, regarding the loss of CRP acres as corn prices soar, I commented that wildlife biologists were going to have to find new ways to work in this new paradigm--and that "Farm Bill biologists" might need to re-tool.  Some courses in ecotourism and entrepreneurism might be in order, as one example.

I do feel, strongly, that many conservation-minded urbanites don't understand farmers--especially the fact that their land purchase represents an investment, for which they need economic return.  Just like purchasing a store-front property at the mall.  Somehow, we forget that land is a private resource, and perhaps the confusion comes from that fact that wildlife on the land is a public resource.  The pairing of public/private can get tricky.

My Wildlife Ecology and Management course just finished their habitat management unit, in which we focus on Farm Bill programs.  There are no textbooks that cover the topic well, so I provide the students with a study guide.  In the study guide, as I did on my previous post, I discuss our pheasant research on CRP in eastern Nebraska--and the fact that within a few years, most of the land had been plowed back up for corn/soybeans.  But, I add this encouragement for students to consider:

"We should emphasize—these decisions are made by landowners who are supporting their families.  Every one of the landowners on our study site also liked wildlife, but when you can make more money by changing the way you do business, any sane person would make the same decision.  We shouldn’t expect anything else—farmers compared costs and benefits!  As wildlife biologists, we have to figure out how to do our job in this environment."

As an instructor in the era of texts and tweets, you're never quite sure if your ideas make it into the milieu of things that students continue to think about.  So, I enjoyed getting this spontaneous email today, from one of my students:

"I come from a farming background and I really appreciate the inclusion of this paragraph because it sees the issue from both standpoints.  Too often it seems farmers get bashed for not doing what is good for wildlife and the environment, but it doesn't mean we don't care, because I certainly do, it's just sometimes difficult to live that lifestyle and make enough of a profit when supporting a family."
I just hope that a couple of students with urban backgrounds also read that paragraph in the study guide twice!

May 2, 2011

A sonnet to a house sparrow

Oh, for a sparrow's dream to build a nest
When Spring comes forth to claim a feathered heart.
This take of space and hole and tree is test
Of purpose keen when speed is want ov'r art.

Sings loud the male to cheer his busy mate,
As tattered shreds of blades of old are teased
Into a bowl to rest and incubate,
Then feed and grow and fledge, last pause, well pleased.

But for the will of hands of mine, intent
To save said nest for birds of sheen more blue.
Our sparrow starts once ov'r to pay the rent
Of love besought, but not denied, so true.

A plain brown blur in bush and nest reminds
Love of blue birds may cause to miss Divine.


L. Powell, Lincoln, NE   
Watching house sparrows take over a nest box intended for bluebirds or chickadees.  After one attempt to clear the box, I decided to let birds do what birds do.  

Image courtesy of the Texas Bluebird Society, which captioned it "this non-native bird must not be allowed to nest." 

---------------------------
A side note: my PhD co-advisor, Dr. David Krementz is well-known for his support of sparrows in bluebird boxes.  As the Omaha Audubon newsletter writes, regarding the practice of removing sparrows from nest boxs intended for bluebirds:   "Still, there are those--such as David Krementz, a wildlife biologist at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in Athens, Ga.--who believe house sparrows have as much right to live as bluebirds. Bluebird enthusiasts are "playing God," says [D]r. Krementz, who studied house sparrows for his Ph.D. thesis and learned to "like everything about them." He adds that house sparrows have subtle but interesting coloration, animated mating behavior and feed on Japanese beetles, moths, wasps, crab grass and ragweed.

"[D]r. Krementz has infuriated bluebird lovers by setting out nesting boxes to attract house sparrows and starlings, which he uses in his field research. But he practices a live-and-let-live philosophy that he thinks bluebird devotees might well follow. "When I got bluebirds in my starling boxes, I let them be," he says. "I didn't pull their heads off or gas them." "

April 3, 2011

Betting conservation on corn futures?

Each spring semester I tell my students, toward the end of my Wildlife Ecology and Management course, that it is somewhat ironic that 100 senators can have more impact on conservation than 1,000 wildlife biologists.  It's because of the Farm Bill.

I still believe my statement.  The Farm Bill creates habitat and changes land use decisions very effectively.  Through the Farm Bill, land is placed back into quasi-native vegetation to reduce impacts of soil erosion and reduce the acreage in crop production (originally intended to reduce the over-supply of crops on the market and bolster corn, cotton, and wheat prices).  Along the way, wildlife habitat became an important impact of the Farm Bill.

My own research lab has shown that you can double production of pheasants in a landscape with properly managed CRP grasslands--an definite impact of the Farm Bill on wildlife.  We've also shown benefits for prairie-chickens--if you are worried about native species!

And so, wildlife biologists at the state and federal level have begun to see the Farm Bill as the Holy Grail.  Our saviour, come to bring cropland back to grassland!  We train cohorts of 'private lands biologists' and even nickname them "Farm Bill biologists".  They do very good things--and work tirelessly with landowners to develop management plans that can produce the results that our research predicts.

Today's Lincoln Journal-Star provides a hint to the complexities of putting all of our private land energy into the Farm Bill basket.  Higher grain prices are changing minds of farmers, and land is coming out of the Farm Bill programs--back into corn.  It's a trend that concerns those Farm Bill biologists who thought they had created landscapes that could support wildlife again.

I would argue that it is time to start thinking about other, or additional, models of private lands conservation.  Let's look at the relative risk of betting conservation on corn prices.  Farmers are well-aware of how much grain prices fluctuate, but I'm not sure conservation-minded wildlife biologists follow corn futures.  The figure below shows the history of corn prices in the US.  The Farm Bill, as such, was passed in 1985.  Look at the volatility of corn prices since that year!  We appear to have now entered a new plateau of prices, in which conservation will cost more--to compete with corn prices for the same parcel of land.



For further comparison, we always talk about the 'volatility of tech stocks'.  Well, here's the history of the NASDAQ during recent years.  Except for a couple of really risky periods, I think I might rather bet on the NASDAQ than corn, if push came to shove...


So, back to my message to my students.  Am I still convinced that 100 senators can impact wildlife conservation?  Yes, I think they can.  But, I'm more and more convinced that wildlife biologists are needed to find new ways to do conservation---that go beyond the Farm Bill.

The farmer interviewed for the Lincoln Journal-Star article sums his decision up nicely: "No doubt about it.  It's the crop prices that are a definite incentive to raising corn, rather than CRP."  His concern is his family's livelihood, as anyone would expect. 

Back to my research project--the one that showed that a landscape with many acres of well-managed CRP could produce the heck out of pheasants.  The follow-up to the story is this:  5 years after we concluded that research project, only 10% of the farmground, from our set of research site, remains in CRP.  Corn prices swayed the minds of 90% of the landowners to switch back to corn and beans.  Quite the legacy, eh?  It's my own fault--I bet on corn to save grassland birds.

Today's newspaper article, to stay positive, does suggest that many landowners are signing up during the new Farm Bill sign-up period--to replace the ones who are opting out.  Time will tell whether it's an exact replacement of acreage.  But, even if the number of acres are replaced in a county, the landscape has shifted.  Acres here are replaced by acres there.  Will the pheasants and quail find the new acres?  Some probably will.  But, it's not a long-term, sustainable change.

My opinion---it's time for a new model for our approach to private lands conservation.  One that is a little less risky that betting on corn futures.  I'd be happy to hear your opinion!