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.
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.

*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.