March 27, 2011

Bounty on the plains

I've been enjoying a bit of sleuthing around old collections of photos and news articles duirng the past week.  Today, I was going through the on-line collection of photos taken by Solomon Butcher, who worked tirelessly (it appears) during the late 1800s and early 1900s to document the pioneers in Nebraska. 

Many of Butcher's photos are similar to this photo--a family sitting in front of the sod house.  This particular photo is of the B. F. Cox family near Cliff Table, Nebraska (Custer County, near Broken Bow), and it was taken in 1886. 

There are a couple of things that impressed me as I looked at this collection.  First, every house photographed in rural Nebraska in the 1880s was a sod house. But, by 1905, only 25 years later, every photograph is of a two-story wood-frame farmhouse.  Amazing the difference of 25 years, just in terms of housing. I'm sure the conditions of sod houses (many photos, like this one, show a broom near the front door!) contributed to families wanting something better!

But, the other thing that interested me was that almost every photo of families in front of sod houses included antlers of deer or elk, or bison skulls.  Sometimes positioned on the roof, sometimes laid against the house.  But, obviously positioned for the camera.  It is clear that the family has prepared their homestead, and themselves, for the photo.  The only other common 'props' shown were domestic animals, windmills, and guns.  What were these early settlers trying to say with these props? 

I'm guessing they were sending a message back to their family members, back East:  "We are surviving!"  "We are harnessing the resources of this country [windmills, horses]."  And, in the case of the antlers and skulls, "Look at this amazing bounty of wildlife that is around us!"

Some of the antlers and skulls appear to be 'sheds' (antlers found on the ground), but records indicate game animals were important to the survival of early pioneers.  I was especially impressed with the size of these elk antlers shown in this particular photo.  There haven't been elk in Custer County for a long time--we do have elk in the Pine Ridge of western Nebraska.

See anything else in this photo?  It's fun to get a peek into their lives, through one, posed, moment in time.
Photo is a public image from the works of Solomon Butcher, in collections of the Nebraska State Historical Society, [Digital ID 10200].  

March 26, 2011

A little less serious

Things may have been too serious around the ALE blog recently.  Just to throw in a dose of (hopefully) fun, here's a little video I created using my son's Nintendo DS hand-held video game. It's like the old 'flipnote' books that created 'moving pictures'.  It is not really related to any wildlife theme, but there is a mountain goat involved. 

On  a quasi-serious note, my son informs me that his school has a much better version of this software that students have been using for the past 3-4 years to create fun video cartoons.  It makes me what point do (1) students forget they can be creative, or (2) college teachers forget students can be creative.  Maybe there is a mutual loss of creative memory when students enter our courses at the University? 

I think I should expect more of my students on a regular basis if they've been doing this stuff since elementary school...  Anyway, enjoy!  As you can tell, I had a relaxing Spring Break.

March 25, 2011

State and federal control issues

The first portion of my Wildlife Ecology and Management course covers the tricky parts of wildlife management in the United States.  Some of the problems come because we are, literally, united states.  States are given the responsibility to manage wildlife for the good of the people, except in cases where the federal government needs to step in.  And, the question--through the years--has been, when does the federal government NEED to step in?

Migratory birds are one example, where federal laws trump state laws.  These days, the states and the federal government set regulations through collaborations on Flyway Councils (Pacific, Central, Mississippi, and Atlantic flyways meet separately).  But, it wasn't always that way.

I found a great newspaper article that shows the strains of these relationships, while I was pouring through records in the Adams County Historical Society today in Hastings, Nebraska.  The following was published in the Hastings Democrat on 24 September 1931:

"Frank B. O'Connell, Secreatary of the state game, forestation, and park commission, has informed County Clerk T. W. Jones that the federal government's new game laws on ducks and geese have gummed up the state game laws so the latter will not be in full force during the coming hunting season.  The commission therefor will insist that the following rules and registration apply:

"The seasons opens one half hour prior to daylight on October 20, and closes at sunset on November 19.  The state law, which becomes ineffective, has fixed the season for the month of October."
The article goes on to explain that bag limits will be 15 ducks per day (30 in possession) and 4 geese per day (5 in possession).  I'm sure my colleagues at state agencies and federal agencies would say this is just run of the mill stuff.  Yet, I enjoyed finding an article from the exact time that the state and feds started clashing over the management of waterfowl. 

And, I just really like the phrase "gummed up."  I use it a lot.  It speaks volumes, but I'm sure it's not the phrase the Secretary used in private...

Photo of waterfowl hunters in 1930 from Nebraska’s Niobrara River Valley. Photo provided by Larry Schaffer, published in July 2003 NEBRASKAland magazine. Used with permission of the owner, Lois (Cole) Schaffer. Lois is the sister of Zane Cole, the young man in the center of the photo. Her father, Guy Cole, is at the right; Guy’s brother-in-law, Pat McGinnis, is at left.  I obtained permission to use this photo for a teaching exercise, which I wrote about here.

Photo focus: irony at the zoo

We spent part of Spring Break at Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo.  The gorilla exhibit is always interesting, and the gorillas seemed quite interested in their visitors.  One has to wonder...exactly who is watching who, here?

Zoos have a special role in conservation.  A conservation biology textbook notes that more people go to a zoo, annually, than attend all professional baseball, football, basketball, and hockey games (combined).  Wildlife biologists are quick to point out the role that hunters and fisherman have played in conservation, through their monetary support of conservation and habitat efforts.  But, I don't think you can count out the millions of zoo lovers, either--the majority of the folks at the zoo in Omaha were moms with their kids.  The same textbook informs that almost 50 species of animals and plants (worldwide) are still on the earth because of ex situ (off-site) conservation efforts in zoos or aquariums.

March 23, 2011

My Year with Leopold: February

Continuing my year-long Leopold project, and trying to catch up with "real time"...we come to the February installation:

Leopold's February chapter is fraught with symbolism. To heat his weekend cabin, he cuts down the "Good Oak." With its growth rings easily visible, Leopold follows his saw...cutting backwards through the years. The oak has watched over great changes in the landscape and in wildlife populations--and human-kind's interactions with wildlife.

I've traveled to Leopold's "Shack" in Sand County, and I've stood at the spot where the Good Oak grew. There's a plaque to mark the spot...kind of spooky for Aldo-ites who know the story.


I spent the day, today, at the Public Library in Nebraska City. The city served as the launching-off point for ox wagons that serviced the various forts on the Frontier, and people like Morton (salt fame) grew exceedingly rich. Small town now, but it has quite a history.

I was digging through history in the library, much like Leopold was digging through history as he viewed the Oak's stump. I happened upon a real gem: A. J. Leach's "Early Day Stories." Published in 1916, the book relates stories experienced by Leach, who journeyed into Nebraska as a pioneer teenager in 1852. He eventually settled in Antelope County, home of current-day Neligh in eastern north-central Nebraska--in the transition between the Sandhills and the former tallgrass prairies of eastern Nebraska.

Leach's stories include the wagon train journey with his family in 1852, as well as stories from the 1860's and 70's when he searched for and established his own homestead. As opposed to other accounts that I have read, Leach focused most on wildlife that was around him. At one point, he begs Nebraska schools to teach bird studies to all youth so that they will learn more of their surroundings. Remember he was writing this in 1916!

There is an especially poignant set of paragraphs, where Leach describes the bounty that existed in Antelope County in 1869, as he traveled in search of a homestead:

“I doubt if the Garden of Eden was more beautiful than was Antelope county
before it was desecrated by man. I do not see how the Garden of Eden
could have surpassed Antelope county in beauty, for God created both, and no
doubt pronounced them both good. The results were different—in the
first case God drove man out of the garden—in the second case man drove out
or marred many of the beautiful things that were found in Antelope county.
He has driven out the elk, the deer, the antelope, the wild turkey, the
curlew, the otter and the beaver. He has ruined the prairie grass and
all the most beautiful of the wild flowers; but let him be given credit for
what he has done in compensation. He has planted orchards and has
dotted the county all over with thousands of acres of planted groves, which
has partly changed the face of the country from that of native prairie to
one of diversified prairie and timber, and by his railroads, telephones and
telegraphs has made communication easy with the rest of the world. If
a strike occurs in the morning in the coal mines of Wales, or if the emperor
of China abdicates his throne, or if there is an earthquake in Italy, we
read of it in the evening papers. Therefore, it may be that things are
about evened up after all.”

By the end of this paragraph, Leach appears to convince himself that the loss of wildlife may be just an unavoidable hurdle in the path of progress. Amazing to think that 100 years ago, people were marveling at the speed at which information travels!

But, Leach takes up a very Leopold-like (writing 35 years before Aldo took his trip down memory lane across the growth rings of the Oak) style as he recounts what exactly happened to some species in Antelope County:

  • skunks had been scarce when he came in 1869; by 1916, they were very abundant.
  • swift fox (now only found in far west and southwest Nebraska) were easily trapped because they did not enjoy the cunning of their cousin, the red fox; Leach thought they had probably been extirpated by 1890.
  • jackrabbits had dramatically decreased in number, except where there were large patches of pasture land.
  • buffalo were gone by July 1872 (3 years after he arrived to homestead); he had described their omnipresence when he entered the state in 1852.
  • elk and mule deer (he calls them 'black tails') remained for 5-6 years beyond the buffalo; "white tails" were mostly gone after 1890.
  • wolves followed the buffalo and were mostly gone by 1872
  • beaver were gone by 1880; they had been in every stream in 1869.
  • otters were gone by 1888.
  • wild turkey, magpies, ravens, and curlews (all once common) were rarely seen by the time of his writing in 1916.
  • wild geese, wild ducks, prairie chickens, sharp-tailed grouse, pelicans, "blue herons", and "white swans" (probably trumpeters) had been "greatly diminished" in his time.
Leach lists several other bird species that had increased, held their own, or were new to his area. In doing so, he makes a dramatic point that the wildlife in Antelope County had experienced significant turnover within the time of one generation.

These are stories we read, in generality, in textbooks about the American West. But, to read the witness of a single person about a county I know in Nebraska is especially impressive.

Leach's words are like the Oak's growth rings. A testament to the passage of time and the potential for humans to have dramatic impact (positive or negative) on the fellow passengers on the voyage, as Leopold would say.

Something to ponder on a late winter day. "Rest! cries the chief sawyer, and we pause for breath."
Image is
public image of modern-day Antelope County taken by Matt Steinhausen.

March 12, 2011

Lost on the prairie, with cranes

He stood on the edge of the prairie,
By a river that stretched to the horizon.
The wind, the grass, and the
Water were enough to remind him of her.
He wanted to take her hand and
Watch the sun sink into the braided landscape.
But he was alone.

Cwrrr, cwrrrrr, cwrrrrrrr.”
Cranes called in the distance as they
Found him.
High in the sky,
The flock divided over his head,
Twisting, gliding, positioning,
To become one again.
Tornadoes of feathered chaos
Filling the air with redundant noise.
Now, waves of cranes,
Careening through the sky to
Replace voids
Left momentarily.
And rising again.
Uncertain and anxious,
But determined to
go somewhere.

God, he missed her.

The sun slipped below the prairie
To paint the clouds with shades
Of purple and orange.
And, like a band without a drum
Major, the cranes continued to parade
Back and forth
Across the dark sky.
Slowly organizing and losing
Their cries now comfort.
The beat of their wings matched
The pulse of his heart.

By the time the last bird had landed
Safely in the river,
He was surrounded.
Disorder had become order, and
He was no longer alone on the prairie.
He had found his way home.
He was with Her again,
Among the cranes.

L. Powell
Kearney, NE 11 March 2011

For D., and anyone else who has found themselves while listening to the cranes.

March 6, 2011

My Year with Leopold: January

As with all great projects, this one starts by being already behind. So, we'll try to catch up with a posting in March about my adventure in February to fulfill my January portion of the project...

Aldo Leopold begins, appropriately (!), "A Sand County Almanac" with "January". The essay is entitled "January Thaw" and it describes a hike over Leopold's property in Sand County, Wisconsin. The theme of the essay is deduction and hypothesis development--Leopold spots several signs of animals (tracks, dive-bombing hawks, darting mice), and he makes predictions about what is going on in their lives on this warm winter day.

I use this chapter in my senior-level capstone course to discuss the art and science of hypothesis development and the scientific method. Good stuff.

One of my favorite sections in the essay happens after Leopold bumps into a meadow mouse, who darts quickly away. Leopold suggests the mouse is...

"...grieved about the thaw. Today his maze of secret tunnels, laboriously chewed through the matted grass under the snow, are tunnels no more, but only paths exposed to public view and ridicule. Indeed, the thawing sun has mocked the basic premises of the microtine [Microtus is the genus name for 'voles'] economic system!"

As I blogged earlier, I participated in a student workshop at a TNC property near Wood River, NE. We had just experienced a February thaw, but winter had descended upon the prairie for at least another day.

I took a quick walk around a prairie to hide some radio-telemetry transmitters for an activity that afternoon, and I was amazed at the number of trails cut through the prairie by big and small animals. Although I hadn't planned it, the above passage in Leopold popped into my head. It was pretty obvious where these little highways had been, and were now exposed. Ironically, the snow was beginning to fall, and it would soon cover the mouse-highways up, again---along with the transmitters and little blue flags that I planted for our students! Doh!

It was darn windy out on the plains, and the snow was smacking me in the eyes. I found it pretty easy to think about how vegetation and snow cover would make for important habitat for creatures that don't have toasty, brick houses with heaters waiting for them.

I plopped down on my chest to try to get a mouse-level perspective of the prairie. Is this a safe haven for a mouse? I heard something rustle under the, I like to think so. I'd give anything for a 'snorkle-cam' with infrared light source to see the world beneath this matt of grass.

"The mouse is a sober citizen who knows that grass grows in order that mice
may store it as underground haystacks, and that snow falls in order that mice
may build subways from stack to stack: supply, demand, and transport all neatly
organized. To the mouse, snow means freedom from want and fear."

To emphasize how snow can protect mice, here's a most hilarious (and illustrative) video of a red fox in Yellowstone National Park, hunting mice under the snow. The snow does a pretty good job of hiding most of the mice. Luckily for the fox, it doesn't hide all of the mice! Watch the fox tilt its head...triangulating on the sounds.

It's fairly clear to me that I probably miss 95% of what is going on in a prairie (or a forest, or a wetland) when I walk through it. Leopold's lesson for January seems to be to keep your eyes and ears open. Too bad I can't hear as well as a fox!


My Year with Leopold is a blogging project in which I'm forcing myself to read a chapter of "A Sand County Almanac" each month, and find a way to experience one of the themes in my own way. I'll share my experiences during the year. Play along if you want to. Send comments or links to your own blog!

Thanks to Chris Helzer for reminding me about diving fox videos!

"My Year with Leopold" Project

Last December, I watched the movie Julie and Julia which featured a young woman ("Julie") who decided to cook her way through Julia Child's "Mastering the Art of French Cooking". Julie blogged about her successes and failures, among other things, during the year--she named her project the Julie/Julia Project.

It's an interesting movie.

But, it got me thinking...because I enjoy blogging...what could a person, in my field of wildlife ecology/management, do for a year as a blogging project?

Well, maybe there are several things a person COULD do. You could select a different campground in Nebraska and camp out once each month (would be fun in the winter!). You could cook a different game recipe every week, following the tradition of the Julie/Julia Project. You could read an article every week from the Journal of Wildlife Management---that doesn't sound fun.

Then, it hit me---Leopold's "A Sand County Almanac" is almost made for such an adventure. Aldo wrote it with monthly themes...perfectly made for a year-long adventure. Living in the paths of Leopold, the Father of Wildlife Management.

For those unfamiliar, "A Sand County Almanac" was written by Aldo Leopold and published (posthumously) in 1949. The first section of the book is split into 12 sections---one adventure and reflection on his interaction with nature in Sand County, Wisconsin for each month. Hence, "almanac." The second section of the book is composed of several essays, including the concluding essay, "The Land Ethic." Obviously, that essay is this blog's foundation.

So, I've got my direction. Once a month, I'll read the appropriate chapter and select some activity to either mimic or build upon a theme in the reading. And, I'll blog about my adventures. At some point, this might be fun to do with a class of students. And, anyone is welcome to play along. I'm NOT calling this "Larkin and Leopold" (although the alliteration is almost too good to pass up) because I think it's something anyone should be able to do!

Of course, you may be's March. And the year normally starts with, I've got a bit of catch-up to do. But, this should be fun---a forced, personal adventure with Aldo Leopold at my side.

March 2, 2011

Value of wildlife in Nebraska

If there was any doubt that wildlife have direct, economic value to the state of Nebraska, that question has been laid to rest. A German hunter, this past weekend, paid $117,500 for the winning bid in an auction (in Las Vegas, where else?!) for the rights to a bighorn sheep hunt in western Nebraska.

Nebraska's bighorn sheep population currently sits at about 250-300 individuals. Only two permits are awarded, most years--no permits were given out last year. One permit is awarded at auction, and another is drawn in lottery-fashion for a Nebraska resident. Both winners receive lodging and guiding as part of the hunt package.

The money raised by the auction is used, by Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, to improve bighorn sheep habitat.

I think this is great. It helps the public see that wildlife and our ecosystems can be valued directly, and may help them understand (eventually) the indirect values of the same ecosystems (e.g., wetlands help clense drinking water for cities). I hope we eventually get beyond the status of only seeing value in huntable/watchable wildlife...but that's another blog for another day.

There are complicated issues regarding valuation of wildlife. The biggest problem is that wildlife in Nebraska belong to Nebraskans-at-large (the entire state)--this applies to all states in the USA. So, when Game and Parks receives the money and uses it in the state for conservation, that makes sense to most people. Some people have a problem with individuals benefiting from wildlife on their farm/ranch--a public resource on private land. But, those same farmers/ranchers are also the ones who spend time and money to manage the habitat to support 'our' wildlife. Seems fair, to me, to give them a little kick-back for their efforts--to keep them engaged in conservation.

If you want to read more about this, I'll post a self-serving link to a small booklet that I wrote, called "Farming with Wildlife". It explains how this works in Namibia, a country in southern Africa.

Just for comparison, the hunt for a bighorn sheep in Nebraska brought in more money than it costs to purchase a black rhino in Namibia (which often sell for $50-75,000). Hunts of black rhino go for twice the cost of a sheep hunt: about $250,000. Imagine what a group of private landowners could do, for conservation, with a similar amount of money!

Personal photo of bighorn sheep in Glacier National Park, 2010.

March 1, 2011

Those without experience need not apply

The job market for wildlife biologists has always been competitive. As a rule, there are more people interested in working with wild animals and their habitats than there are jobs. Recent cuts in state and federal budgets have made entry-level positions even more rare.

Entry level positions were where college graduates used to get on-the-job training: the hands-on stuff that they didn't get in college classes. As my colleagues and I wrote recently (see page 45 of this on-line publication of The Wildlife Society), Universities are starting to feel the pinch to fill the gap of real-life experience for students. Agencies expect our graduates to be ready to hit the ground running.

So, it stands to reason that students with more experience and longer resumes will be more successful!

Last week, some of my colleagues in the Nebraska Chapter of The Wildlife Society stepped up to the plate to provide a day of valuable experiences to students. The Nature Conservancy helped plan the day, and we had 15 professionals from the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, US Fish and Wildlife Service, TNC, Pheasants Forever, and the Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory on hand. The theme of the day was 'grassland ecology and management'.

I really enjoyed the day, and we had about 40 students attending from UN-Lincoln, UN-Kearney, Chadron State, and Wayne State. They learned about each other's programs, and we'll look forward to more student/professional collaborations in the future!

Students had a change to try their hand at finding hidden radio-transmitters with telemetry (photo by Chris Helzer). The new snow made the challenge a bit harder than normal. I led this session, and can attest to the pleasures at being outside for 3-4 hours in the cold wind! Reminds a person that they live in Nebraska...

Chris Helzer, with The Nature Conservancy, shared his experience with prairie management. The TNC's property near Wood River, NE is a great resource for these field outings, and they have conducted experiments with patch burning and other management treatments.

Students had a chance to provide some data to the Valentine National Wildlife Refuge (photo by Chris Helzer). Biologists brought several crops (the first storage stomach in birds) from pheasants, prairie-chickens, and sharp-tailed grouse. Students dissected them and attempted to identify the contents to develop an assessment of their diets. Poison ivy was a big contributor to their diet, along with some small, mysterious (and yet unidentified) seed that had a bright blue core.

Gerry Steinauer, a botanist with the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, explained how prairie restorations are accomplished with these seeders (pulled by ATV's). Students saw the processing facility where seeds of prairie plants are sorted, dried, and mixed to create high-diversity seedings.