December 29, 2012

A Christmas Elk?

With appreciation from the Keith County Historical Society, Ogallala, Nebraska. Donated by Mrs. William H. Copeland. 

It's the end of the year, and I have been busy as I try to organize all the photos and stories that I gathered this year from various archives around Nebraska.  As many of you know, I am currently writing a book on the history of wildlife in Nebraska--with a focus on how people have changed landscapes and therefore affected the wildlife in our state.  The book will be filled with stories and photos like the one above.

Culture also changes with time.  The photo is from the Keith County Historical Society. The photo shows shows the Keith County Market, a butcher shop in Ogallala, NE at Christmas time in 1888. It was donated to the Historical Society by Mrs. William H. Copeland, the granddaughter of the butcher at the right in the photo. These personal records are key to understanding how important wildlife has been to the history of Nebraska, and how our landscape and culture have changed since these photos were taken. How many species of wild animals can you see in this photo?!

Did you run out and grab your Christmas Elk this year?  Odds are, you did not.  And, odds are that you did not eat elk all year.  Most of us gobble up beef as a main source of protein, now; as we explored on this blog before, citizens of the US did not always enjoy beef.  We relied much more on wild animals, and had a much more diverse diet! 

So, Happy Holidays to one and all, and enjoy this photo as a window to days gone by, when elk were available in the vicinity of Ogallala (they are now about an hour south or a couple hours north) and when Christmas meant a trip to the butcher to get a measure of nature's bounty.

By the way: if you have stories or photos you would like to share with me, click here to find out how to contact me.  I would love to hear stories or see photos from your family's collection!

December 28, 2012

Our agreement

I have an agreement with the
large bucks of Nebraska
that stipulates that we will
only come face to face
when I am not carrying my rifle.

This agreement works especially well
for two reasons:
I did not go hunting as much as I should,
and bucks are well-suited to avoid me when I do.

Just yesterday, I was visiting a friend
and awoke early to look out the
bedroom window
to spot a 10-point creature
slowly making its way across
the alfalfa field to the far cedars.
Hunting season: check.
Permit purchased: check.
Gun/ammunition: no.

But, as much as I need a day in the field
that ends with that sacred moment
hidden in a swale while you come
face to face with your own mortality,
I am also grounded by
the view of the tail of that buck as it disappears
into the cedars to prove
that I mean absolutely nothing to him.

Arriving at night

We came to this place
down a road that seemed like
most other roads
in the narrow glare of our high-beams.

We set up camp
with the help of shadows that seemed familiar.
The fire's glow created
a room for two
in this open field,
and there were no surprises as
we drifted to sleep.

But as we awoke,
the dawn made us aware
this place was like no other we had seen before.
The new view from our camp
broadened even as the fog rose
and finally we were standing
as captains of a ship
that has risen from the depths
in an ocean of grass and hills.

And we ask,
How could we have missed this
in the dark?

December 23, 2012

Pittman and Robertson never considered this

I always enjoy games where people try to connect two seemingly disparate topics. Want to play? OK, try this on for size:

(1) Mass shooting tragedies and (2) funding for wildlife research

What is the connection? Give up?

The connection is that tragedies like December's horrific shootings in Connecticut usually start conversations about guns and gun control. Those conversations make some people nervous, and those people go to gun stores and buy handguns and other firearms they fear may be outlawed in the near future. When they buy those guns, they pay an excise tax (11%; handguns: 10%) that is applied to all guns and ammunition. And, the federal government distributes those funds to the states to fund habitat management and research to support game species of wildlife (as well as hunter education programs).

And, it appears to be happening again. Gun stores are reporting record sales. And, wildlife research should be well-funded for the next couple of years. An odd turn, to say the least.

The legislation that supports this excise tax was passed during the midst of the Depression in 1937; it was the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act, but is most often referred to as the Pittman-Robertson Act. Pittman and Robertson were federal legislators from Nevada and Virginia. The Act was a grand idea, and a unique part of the American experience--hunters supporting conservation.

Of course, Pittman and Robertson most likely never considered the large collector market, much less the potential for non-hunting weapons to contribute to the pot of funds. In the coming year, we citizens will debate the best way to protect society, and especially our children. A bit of common sense shall do us well.

December 1, 2012

The Great Plains shelterbelt plan

If you watched Ken Burns' "The Dust Bowl" documentary, you saw some brief references to a large plan to create a network of shelterbelts, or wind breaks, throughout the Great Plains. I did a bit of digging around, and found some interesting photos and tidbits about this program.

For Cornhuskers, you might be interested to know that Lincoln, Nebraska was home to this regional project for the USDA Forest Service. The USDA Agroforestry Research Center on the East Campus of UNL is the modern-day, visible sign of this federal investment in the midst of the Depression.

The US Forest Service archives have a couple cool photos that I thought I would share here. It is an example of how the landscape of the Great Plains has been altered by government policies. The shelterbelt program was credited with slowing wind erosion in local areas.

The US Forest Service estimates that shelterbelts were placed on 30,000 farms (over 200 million trees), and the total length of shelterbelts was 18,600 miles (circumference of the earth at equator: approximately 25,000 miles).

The addition of trees to the Plains has had far-reaching effects on wildlife diversity as well. More deer, turkeys, and shrub and forest-dwelling birds now populate the Plains.

Public Photos:
Map of areas of highest planting intensity, 1935-42, available on-line at:

Photo of Raphael Zon, standing in front of map of proposed planting areas, available on-line at:

November 23, 2012

Dust Bowl statistics from Nebraska

Many folks around the country have been tuning into The Dust Bowl, a documentary by Ken Burns that has been showing on PBS stations.  Nebraska was not at the heart of the drought and was not a literal part of the Dust Bowl, centered on TX, OK, KS, and southeast CO. But, the drought affected Nebraska. Did we see similar trends in Nebraska as depicted on the documentary?

I published a paper, with three colleagues, in 2009 (Hiller et al. 2009. Great Plains Research Volume 19) that detailed the history of Nebraska land use for agriculture, and our data summaries allow an easy comparison to the statistics and trends noted for the southern Plains in The Dust Bowl. So, here are some Nebraska land-use trends.

The Dust Bowl noted that because of high wheat prices in the 20's, everyone had "broken out" (the language of the dry land farmer for plowing) land to increase acreage. So, when the drought of the 30's hit, there was more land under the plow than ever before. Correct in Nebraska?

ANSWER: turns out to be truer than true. In Figure 2A in our paper, you can see that Nebraska had more land under agricultural production in the late 20's than ever before. And, we have not been back to that level of agricultural use of land since. So, yes--Nebraska had broken out land. Interestingly, if you look at Figure 2B, you will see that Nebraska's wheat production had not gone up...the breaking out of land was for increased corn production. That is different than the trends in the southern Plains, where drier lands prevented corn and necessitated wheat.

The Dust Bowl noted that there was a massive demographic shift caused by the drought. People sold farms when they could not pay the bills. Did the same thing happen in Nebraska?

ANSWER: Yes. Very much so. Take a look at Figure 1 in the Hiller et al. paper. By 1910, the size and number of farms in Nebraska had largely stabilized--there was consolidation after the initial homesteading failures. But, in 1930, a critical change occurs in the trajectory of both size and number of farms...and again, we have never looked back. Fewer, larger farms became the trend, and that trend is still true: we are still consolidating.

The Dust Bowl noted there the demographic shift for the Southern Plains included a large exodus of people leaving for California and states west. Was this the same for Nebraska?

ANSWER: Maybe, but mostly not the same. Although I have found some photos in the Library of Congress of displaced farmers from Nebraska that moved to Wisconsin and Oregon, the state population did not markedly change because of the depression and the drought (effects of both have to be considered). Census figures (links below) show that the population of rural Nebraska peaked at 679K in 1910, while the state population has yet to peak--thus, urban Nebraska has continued to grow, while rural Nebraska has shrunk since 1910. In 1920, the rural portion of the population, for the first time, dipped below 50% of the state population (it was 48% in 1920). In 1930, the rural percent of population was 42%, and in 1940 (assumedly after effects of the drought had been seen) the rural portion was 40%. Growth, overall, was slow in the 30's, but the state did not shrink because of outward migration, and the rural portion of the population actually declined at a slower pace than it did between 1910 and 1920 or between 1920 and 1930 (losses of 9% and 6% of the total state population, compared to a reduction of only 2% between 1930 and 1940). Lots of stats there, but the bottom line: Nebraska did not see massive exodus like the southern Great Plains.

The Dust Bowl noted that the drought caused a large shift in agriculture: federal government's involvement in ag through subsidies and complex farm policy, and a furthering of the push to install large systems of irrigation. Did those happen in Nebraska?

ANSWER: There is no doubt. These two forces have changed Nebraska's landscapes more than the drought did, and will continue to do so in the foreseeable future. Nebraska has more irrigated acres than any other state (>8.5 million acres, one out of every six irrigated acres in the US, according to UNL ag economist Bruce Johnson). Our irrigation system is so complex that at one point, an irrigation canal goes under the Platte River and I80 and resurfaces on the other side! And that system supports the state's economy. Just look out your window as you drive through I80 on your way to Colorado.

Nebraska population census stats from:

October 13, 2012

A bit of a tadoo about a tree

The 'land ethic' is interesting when it comes to application.  Many people who genuinely care for the land have given in or given up on something of concern when the price becomes too high.  Not so in Texas, where a 100-year-old oak tree was moved to make way for a highway project

This is a fun video to watch.   An incredible amount of effort for one tree.

If nothing else, it is a demonstration of the power of 'yellow' equipment being put to the test.

A tip of my hat to Mom and Dad Powell for showing me the video.

October 6, 2012

Economic impact of landscapes in Nebraska

Ever wonder how much money comes from hunting and fishing and nature viewing (and etc.) in the United States and Nebraska?  The Nebraska Game and Parks Commission has participated in a study to establish some estimates.  Watch the video below:  the quick answer--it approaches $2 Billion (with a "B"!) every year. 

As a comparison, net agricultural receipts in Nebraska has been hovering around $7-8 Billion each year.  I bet you didn't realize that Nebraska's landscapes were competing with production agriculture (Nebraska's largest portion of the economy) for such impact on Nebraskans?

My colleagues in Namibia train their students in wildlife and nature conservation to be proud of their contributions to their nation's economy.  We need to do the same in the US. 

Maybe we get stuck on teaching Aldo Leopold's "A Land Ethic"--and we try to convince everyone they should be 'doing conservation' for the general good feeling you get (by having a 'land ethic').  But, we miss the opportunity to make the point that conservation can pay!  It's a new way to think about wildlife education.

September 5, 2012

Wolverine in southern Iowa?

Residents of a nursing home in southern Iowa received a visit from a bedraggled animal recently, and my hometown newspaper published a photo of the critter with a headline that posed the question of whether this was a wolverine? Local wildlife experts expressed doubts of the wolverine identification, but also expressed uncertainty as to its actual identification.

I posted the photo on my facebook page and asked my colleagues to comment. As of today, most agreement seems to be that this is a very wet, probably very upset woodchuck. The white markings on the nose and behind the chin make me agree. What do you think?

Photo from the Creston News Advertiser. The story can be accessed through the link.  Thanks to Mom and Dad for sending me this story!

August 3, 2012

Great grey owl

His book says owls
are no wiser than other birds,
still it drew us
under the tall lodgepole
lit by the moon.

We heard hooting after a
hard day that ended with
few words as we slipped
into sleeping bags
to escape in our
own dreams.

"Dad, can we go find it?"
can only be answered one way,
and soon we were
skirting other campsites and
apologizing for the intrusion of our flashlight.
In our pajamas and flip-flops
we plunged deeper into the woods
to follow its call.

One last hoot above us,
and we were there,
gazing up at the shadow
of the great owl
in our wilderness.

Photo from:

June 29, 2012

Photo Focus: generation gap

My research lab is starting to work with a team of colleagues on a project that will investigate potential effects of wind turbines on prairie-chickens. Such information may be helpful to folks who make decisions about where to put turbines in grasslands.

As you roam the green earth, sometimes you find a scene that just begs to be photographed. Today's Photo Focus is one of those scenes, from the rangelands of Nebraska's Sandhills near Ainsworth, NE.

June 23, 2012

Pheasants like managed CRP in eastern Nebraska

One of Ty's radio-marked hens on her nest. 
Photo courtesy of NEBRASKAland Magazine/Nebraska
Game and Parks Commission
My research lab has a focus on understanding how habitat management affects populations of wildlife.  During the past decade, we've been working on Farm Bill-related research: how does breeding habitat provided by CRP affect wildlife?

The research project that started this focus was a project on pheasants in northeastern Nebraska.  NGPC and Pheasants Forever had established a landscape with a high level of CRP grasslands, and the grasslands were managed during their 10-year contract by discing and interseeding a clover-type mix.  Would this management attract pheasants?  Would their nest and brood survival increase?

The answer to both questions turned out to be "Yes!"

And, both papers from Dr. Ty Matthews' dissertation are now published in the Journal of Wildlife Management, available now as Early View papers:

Ring-necked pheasant hens select managed Conservation Reserve Program grasslands for nesting and brood-rearing -- available here

Mid-contract management of Conservation Reserve Program grasslands provides benefits for ring-necked pheasant nest and brood survival -- available here

The latter papers shows that pheasant hens that nest in these managed CRP habitats can double their productivity, providing many opportunities for hunters in the fall. 

All of this is great news for land managers, and our study confirmed that all of the public/private partnerships between landowners, NGPC, and Pheasants Forever to accomplish the management were worth the effort.  Unfortunately, the post-mortem on the project is that this unique landscape in northeastern Nebraska is not raising pheasants anymore.  It's raising corn.  High corn prices have made that decision a no-brainer for the private land owners who manage that landscape. 

So, we have good data to inform habitat management, but we continue to struggle with policy implications that are critical to change landscapes.

June 15, 2012

Private lands access for hunting

Photo from the Library of Congress collection from the FSA, which documented agricultural life
during the depression of the1930s.  This is a pubic photo.   The archive indicated the photo's title
was "Western Hospitality."  The location was somewhere near Atkinson, Nebraska.
My home state of Nebraska is 98% privately owned.   For those of my fellow hunters who live in urban areas, there is an annual process to find land on which to hunt.  Nebraska has a great CRP-MAP program, which allows access to specific private lands under CRP contract.  But, if you want to have some acres to yourself, you've got to find a landowner who wants to allow hunters on their land.

The irony is: many landowners complain about too many deer, but they are slow to give access to hunters.  Maybe it is too many bad experiences?  Maybe.

But, it wasn't always this way.

I have been digging around in the Library of Congress photo archives in Washington, DC.  Today, I found this photo, which shows a completely different view of private lands access.  Come fish and hunt all you want to, and then--come on down for dinner!

I thought some of my friends would enjoy this...after their bitter experience of knocking on doors for weeks.  By the way...I am looking for a place to take a 15-year old boy deer hunting this fall!

June 14, 2012

CRP: net loss of 90,000 acres in Nebraska

A CRP field.  Photo available on-line: Nebraskaland magazine.
Today, the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission posted the following note on their Facebook page. It demonstrates the current crisis in conservation, related to Conservation Reserve Program acres under contract. Bottom line: the landscape is changing in big chunks.

Although NGPC led with the positive (almost 1300 contracts in Nebraska were submitted as applications), the net gain is negative. Watch for effects of landscape change in the near future.

"Outdoorsmen and women rely heavily on Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) lands to provide habitat for game species, as well as places to hunt. A better than expected general CRP sign-up will help keep most of those places intact. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) will accept 104,298 acres in Nebraska offered under the 43rd CRP general sign-up.

"The USDA received 1,385 offers in Nebraska, of which 1,249 were accepted. There were 113,911 acres offered. In Nebraska, 201,190 CRP acres will expire Sept. 30, representing a net loss of 96,892 acres.

"Nationally, 3.9 million acres will be accepted.

"Without CRP, many game and nongame species would have been displaced or lost. CRP has benefited the nation for more than 25 years in the form of wildlife habitat, hunting and outdoor recreation opportunities and reduced soil erosion off these sensitive acres.

"There are many programs within CRP, both old and new, targeting wildlife habitat, wetland conservation and soil/water quality for landowners who are interested in enrolling. Producers should contact their local Farm Service Agency office for more information."

Civil war and the cattle industry

I am digging around in the Library of Congress collections this week, and found this line drawing. It was published in Harper's Weekly in 1864. Interested in how this relates to wildlife? Read on.

Before the Civil War, most Americans did not eat beef. The carcass was too large to eat, without refrigeration, and most folks thought it tasted odd. Game animals and hogs were the staple of most farms. But, the Civil War required massive amounts of food for large armies. The beef industry was born, and this document clearly shows the magnitude of the herds that were driven with the army.

As the Civil War ended, the Homestead Act had been established. The move west was on, and cattle soon replaced bison on the Plains. There were many reasons for the downfall of bison, but competition with domestic cattle was certainly one driver, albeit a minor one perhaps, in the push to clear the Plains of bison.

The notes below this drawing are also intriguing. They describe the chore of bringing along the beef:

"Confederate cattle raid Sept. 16th 1864. Genl. Wade Hampden [sic] suddenly appeared at Coggins point in the rear of the army, on the James river, and carried off the entire beef supply, about 2500 head of cattle. The rebel soldiers were much inclined to joke with the pickets on the loss of their meat rations; the Union men, on the other hand, thanked them heartily for removing the tough remnants of herds that had been driven behind the army all summer and which were at once replaced by a fresh stock much fitter for the table."

This is why I am addicted to archives...

May 29, 2012

Private investment in conservation: it works

I'm currently on a kick to convince at least a couple other people that conservation of habitats and wildlife can occur with private investment--not just government subsidies (e.g., Farm Bill).  So, it is fun to find examples of where this seems to work.

This past weekend (Memorial Day), our family decided to take a little trip to rural Nebraska.  We wanted to do some fishing, canoeing, and see the Ashfall Fossil Beds.  So, we chose a little lake in northeast Nebraska: Grove Lake Wildlife Management Area, which is managed by the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.  Of course, the minimal campsites in the WMA were completely filled when we arrived, but we got lucky when we found a tent spot on a private campgrounds, adjacent to the WMA.

The Grove Lake Bait Shop and Campground is a place you should check out.  The owners, Randy and Mary Erb, are great hosts.  Randy told me that he'd been running the bait shop for 32 years.  Grove Lake is in the middle of nowhere, and a bait shop makes a lot of sense.

"I started the campground two years ago," he told me.  "I don't know why I didn't do it 30 years ago!"

The benefit of this private campground is to support a state-managed conservation area, so that tax payers don't have to support better/more facilities at the WMA.  And, a Nebraska family makes some money on the deal. 
A pond at the Grove Lake Bait Shop and Campground
gives us a chance for a few practice casts before we head for Grove Lake
(photo by Kelly Powell).
I would guess there are plenty of other places in Nebraska where the same model could be used by an investor.  The cabins are always filled at Mahoney State Park?  Well, build some across the road, make them nicer, and rent them for cheaper. 

All of this, philosophically, is fun to think about--private investment in conservation.  But, sometimes a photo says it all--the best part of our visit to the campground was some time away and time together.

World population growth: "we're at peak babies"

In my last blog, I mentioned that wildlife biologists (among others!) should be concerned about world population growth.  The main reason: feeding people is always going to be the highest priority for land use.  If we have more people, land will be used 'harder' or more land will be used for growing food.  Less land for wildlife.

Let's be clear: I like to eat, and I like to know that other people can eat.  But, I do think there should be spots on the globe that do not have to be used for agriculture.  Wild areas.

In the spirit of learning more about population growth predictions, I'm including a video from the TEDx series of talks: in this talk, Hans Rosling gives a powerful demonstration that quickly debunks the myth that certain religions have more babies than others.  And, he presents data to suggest that we are "at peak babies": the number of babies produced per woman is predicted to be level. 

What if we lower birth rates, rather than being satisfied with 'level' birth rates?  He doesn't address that, and I think it would be a good goal.  He does provide the key to how birth rate declines have happened in many countries. 

Give it a view.  I promise it is worth the 13 minutes it takes to watch it--just for the graphics, it's worth it!

May 20, 2012

Five days to build a city of 1 million?

My probably-most-favorite columnist, Alan Guebert, is at it again.  Today's topic: linking the need to feed the world with our current farm policy.  Need versus action.  And, "actions speak louder than words" as all grandmothers and mothers like to tell us.

Guebert quotes the recently-released report from the United Nations, "Food and Agriculture: the future of sustainability": "Our current population trajectory means that from now to 2030, the world will need to build the equivalent of a city of one million people in developing countries every five days."

Yikes.  Maybe ABC needs to develop Extreme Makeover: City Addition!  I am not sure even Ty Pennington could pull this one off.

Guebert tosses out some statistics: taxpayers can expect to pay $7.8 billion, per  year, for crop insurance subsidies through 2016.  In the past 15 years, taxpayers have paid $11.2 billion, per year, for direct subsidy payments to grain and cotton farmers (payments designed to take land out of production). Agriculture uses 80% of water used each day.  And, Guebert questions whether this set of payments supply the food and water that these 'new cities' will need.

In some ways, there is nothing new here: we have been warned about exponential human population growth for a long time--but, we are now in that part of the growth-curve where things really start to happen.  And, our farm policy has gotten incredibly complex and dominated by agribusiness interests.  We know that.

Conservation, of course, is caught in the midst of this dynamic.  We (conservation-minded folks) have generally been supportive of ag subsidies that result in more native vegetation and fewer crop fields.  Does that make sense, now?  And, any community ecologist can tell you that when the size of the population of one species increases (i.e., above figure), resources are going to be limited for other species.   Get ready for the IUCN Red List of threatened and endangered species on the planet to grow.

So, Guebert makes a good point in his column--we have some big choices as a society, in the US, as to the kind of agriculture policies that we are going to employ.  But, Guebert does not mention the elephant in the room--population size.  If population size did not increase, as projected, we wouldn't have to build those cities and feed those people.

As hard as the questions about ag policy may be, questions about controlling human population size appear to be even harder to talk about.  Birth control  and pregnancy planning are topics that are directly related to levels of education, economic distribution, and empowerment of women to make choices (that is why the "developing" county and "industrialized" country graphs have different population trends in the figure, above). 

It is hard to imagine our current set of politicians, in the US, sitting down to have any meaningful conversation about these topics.  It is hard enough to have the conversation in a local coffee shop.

So, Ty, I think it is time to start gathering your power tools.  Better include some old-fashioned hand tools, as well.  There may not be electricity where you're going.

May 19, 2012

Rural futures

The University of Nebraska system recently held a Rural Futures Conference--the purpose was to engage a broad stakeholder group in discussions about the university's role in shaping the future of rural Nebraska.   
The conference featured several panels of experts discussing their views (in front of 500 interested spectators). One panelist mentioned that there were many ways the university can support rural areas, and one was to "put their money where their mouth is." That is, the university should invest in Main Street at least as much as they invest in Wall Street.

I thought that was a pretty challenging statement. I am guessing most high-ranking administrators in attendance were a bit nervous about that statement.

It has been a few days since the conference, and I've been thinking more about that challenge. Here are just a couple of ideas for how to start meeting that challenge:

1. Really support the training of Nebraskans. Stipends and benefits for graduate students have been the university's hidden eye-sore for a long time. This applies to most universities in the country. Low pay, high expectations, and little to no benefits. Especially health benefits. The average graduate student is not a single 22-year-old, now--grad students are coming back to school later in life, and they have complex families.  We are training Nebraskans and we are also training the world--international students are similarly vulnerable during their graduate training in the US.  Health insurance issues are complex, but we can improve what we offer.  The university should step up and support the engine of the discoveries that are coming from its bowels. 

2. Support rural training with affordable tuition rates and housing. I think the University of Nebraska actually does a pretty good job at keeping tuition in line. But, housing rates at the University are ungodly high. I recently priced a graduate dormitory for a visiting student from Ethiopia. They wanted $750\month for a starkly furnished room (bed and desk) in a very old dormitory, with no meal plan--just the room. I can see why so many students live off-campus.

3. Investments in local communities. Universities truly have power of investment. Decisions about where to house certain activities can have a large impact--the University of Nebraska does have satellite research and extension centers in all parts of the state, which contribute (through university-paid salaries) directly to the local economies. We should keep thinking about this model--not every new venture has to be in Lincoln. Perhaps the Rural Futures Institute should be physically located in rural Nebraska!

With regard to financial investments, Duke University has some interesting programs that might spark ideas. They have invested in the local Durham neighborhoods that boarder the school. There are neighborhood clinics supported by Duke. They have funded low-interest mortgages. I suspect UN could make a similarly impressive page of how the Medical Center plays roles in rural communities already. But, there are some key decisions that could be made to switch some investments to funds that include local companies. 

4. Invest in faculty and staff positions that benefit Nebraskans. Universities are running, these days, on income generated from high volume of external grant dollars. The indirect costs associated with those grant dollars help make up the slack from decreasing investments from the state legislatures (across the country) in universities. The current economy and our political climate's philosophy of lower taxes means that states have less money to spend on programs, like universities. To date, the University of Nebraska enjoys good funding from our state, because the University is seen as contributing to the state. Once that perception changes, however, you don't have to look far to find states (Iowa, for example) who have substantially decreased funding to state universities. Tuition hikes and increased pressure for high-level research are the only answers (well, and finding large donors for programs--as is hoped for the Rural Futures Institute).

My point: if universities go too far in the research direction, teaching and Extension programs are minimized. And, that is what makes the connection to the state. The RF Conference, if nothing else, compiled evidence from testimony after testimony that Nebraska has needs that are not going to be filled by high-dollar research grants. The university must find ways to invest salary lines in Extension and teaching positions that make a difference to the state--without worrying about whether these positions will result in high research kick-backs in the future. This is going to take a little re-thinking: it is a delicate dance, as research is also the innovation engine for the state (as well as a funding device for universities).

That is the challenge of the Rural Futures Institute, as I see it! Should be a fun ride for those of us already on board!
PS:  One of the nice adventures at the conference was meeting people from outside Nebraska and outside the US.  "Rural Futures" is not a Nebraska invention, which is good to remember!  For additional, similar, already-running efforts see:

A UK economic planning/consulting unit "Rural Futures"
University of New England's Rural Futures Institute in Australia
A multi-institutional lab in the US: Rural Futures Lab
The North American Rural Futures Institute
Rural Futures: a newsletter from New York's Senate

April 22, 2012

Dancing to remember

Galan Coons whirls as he dances the prairie-chicken dance.
One of the highlights from this weekend's Prairie Chicken Festival near Burwell, NE was a traditional prairie-chicken dance by Garan Coons, a Sioux dancer and storyteller.  I found his message to be incredibly meaningful to those engaged in conservation on private lands.

Garan told the traditional story of why the Sioux people dance the prairie-chicken dance, and in the style of oral tradition, here is my version:

There was a Sioux brave who went out to hunt to find food for his family.  He was searching for deer or turkey, but wandered all day without finding any.  As the day closed, he found a prairie-chicken.  He did not want to kill the bird, because he knew it was small and it gave music to the plains.  But, his family was hungry.  So, he decided to take the bird, so he could feed his family.

That night, the prairie-chicken came to the man in his dreams.  "I'm sorry to kill you," he explained.  "But, my family was hungry."

The bird replied that this was the way of the earth--to provide for your family.  "But," the bird said, "you must now remember me." 

And so, the Sioux people have always danced the dance of the prairie-chicken, to remember the sacrifice that the birds give to provide for the Sioux people.

It is a wonderful lesson to provide an ethic (a land ethic!) for conservation on lands that we use to provide for our families.  We know that it is impossible to go back to the days before the Great Plains was plowed and fenced, as our population depends on the land for food.  But, we can find ways to take from the land while remembering the sacrifice that the land provides. 

Maybe "remembering" comes in the form of a chicken dance.  Or, perhaps it is simply the pause a hunter makes while looking at the deer and the surrounding land, before starting to field dress.  For a landowner, it can be taking time to do little things that make a big difference for the soil and critters and water that flow through a farm. 

We had a wonderful weekend with the Gracie Creek Landowners group, the hosts of the Prairie Chicken Festival.  It was great to see them dancing their own dance, to remember the prairie chickens!

April 4, 2012

Conservation in a new age of high-valued commodities

Conservation biologists are working in a new era.  Frequent readers of this blog will recognize my constant drumbeat on this theme (here and here, for example).  Landscapes are changing, even as I write--with grass and trees being removed to make way for high-valued corn and beans.  Even the Nebraska Sandhills are seeing revitalization of center pivots that had been put to sleep 20 years ago.

I have previously shown a graphic of corn prices, showing that we are entering a new era in which CRP payments will find it hard to compete with potential rental rates paid by large-scale farmers.  I hear anecdotal evidence that land is selling at ever-increasing values across Iowa and Nebraska--land prices that push the limits of the margin that seems probable for making a profit.

Some have argued that we are in a bubble--that land and commodity prices will eventually crash, which will be horrible for farmers, but good for CRP and wildlife.  At a meeting of administrators of land grant universities today, I heard a different view. 

There is a group of economists who believe that world-wide commodities are indeed in a new era--and that they will not return to previous levels.  We are not in a bubble, they argue.

Jeremy Grantham has been a voice for this camp, and I have taken a graphic that he provides to support his argument.  The graphic shows a commodity index calculated by GMO Capital: the index includes agriculture commodities (but also several other commodities like coal, iron ore, and copper). 

Grantham's argument is that commodities (with the exception of some major fluxes caused by global wars) have decreased in relative value over the last century--at about 1.2% per year.  We became more efficient at producing them, essentially.  But, the recent up-tick since 2000, which I have also illustrated with my corn price graphic, is here to stay, Grantham argues.  He suggests that commodities are now raising in price because there are real shortages, caused by global population growth.  Grantham argues that this demand is real, and we are now in an era of continued demand for commodities with little room for efficiency of production (we are pretty much technologically maxed on efficiency) to balance the demand.

Commodities will remain high, says Grantham.  That has big implications for landscape use in agricultural and mining regions.  And, big implications for wildlife and conservation.  Is he right?

It is an exciting era if you are a creative conservation biologist, because new, innovative methods are going to be needed.  One can look at this as 'glass half full' if you want--and see how landscapes will be altered in ways that they may not have been altered before.  Or, you can be excited by the challenges.  For the time being, I'll put myself in the latter camp.  Regardless, it is clear that wildlife management will be conducted under a new paradigm.

April 1, 2012

April Fools!

My family has a tradition on April Fools Day that dates back to my grandfather.  The story has it that every April 1st, he would go to the window and exclaim, "Well, there's a robin in the yard!"  The family would run to the window to look, and he would joyfully shout, "April Fools!"  No robin to be seen.

A side note: the low-stakes subject of this April Fools may explain a lot about my heritage (there was no risk of physical harm and no risk of personal embarrassment that often accompanies pranks on April 1).  It doesn't take much to get my family excited?

I remember both my parents making similar annual jokes about robins or other critters in the back yard when I was growing up.  My son is now 14, and his grandfather has routinely called to exact the April Fools joke.  In recent years, the animal of choice has often been a bobcat.  The prank is played out on the phone, so the question goes something like, "I just called to tell you we have a bobcat in the back yard!"  After the desired shock expressed by my son, the April Fools gag has been revealed.  There is no bobcat.

So, it was interesting this morning when Dad called and asked my son if he could believe there was a bobcat in Dad's back yard.  "Yes" is the response that he got from my son.  Although still 'cool' to see one, bobcats are a lot more common in southern Iowa than when I was a kid at home.   So, it is not completely unusual that one might be in the back yard--as reflected in my son's less-than-shocked reaction.  It sounds like my Dad needs to get a new April Fools animal--maybe a unicorn?!  Or, maybe he should pick some southern species expanding its range--an armadillo or perhaps a peccary? 

This exchange between my Dad and my son got me thinking about the robin--the focal species of the 'original' April Fools gag played by my grandfather.  Robins are known as the sign that spring is here, even though they often stick around during winter.  But, why in the world would it have been unusual to see a robin in the yard on April 1?  It would have had to have been rare for it to be used for the prank, right?  You wouldn't run to the window and note, with shock in your voice, that there was a house sparrow would you?  It wouldn't make a good prank--no one would run to see it.

Hypothesis #1: climate is changing and March and April are warmer--leading to more robins on April 1 now than in the past.  This turns out to not be the case.  I downloaded average March and April temperatures since 1940 for Lamoni, Iowa (my grandfather's home town).  Mean monthly teamps for March and April are steady during that time period (I ran a linear regression analysis). 

Hypothesis #2: robins are more common.  I downloaded the American Robin data from the Breeding Bird Survey web page, and the trend since 1967 for survey routes in Iowa is shown here.  Sure enough, it is more than twice as likely to spot a robin in your back yard now than it was in 1967 (the earliest year of data for robins in Iowa).

Robins are adaptable birds in urban environments, and there is some evidence to suggest that robin populations decreased prior to the period of the BBS data because of DDT use and DDT levels found in earthworms--a primary food source for robins.  Hence, their relative scarcity in the 1960s made them an excellent candidate for an April Fools prank.  But, their recovery makes them a poor candidate, now.

Just goes to show--a good comedian is forced to change their material every few decades.

March 18, 2012

Hungry for hunters and anglers?

Word on the street (well, in our local newspaper) is that The Hunger Games book series has sparked a massive interest in archery programs across the US.  Kids are signing up for archery leagues in record numbers.

It is hard to tell if our literature reflects society or drives society.  In this case, a book is driving interest in archery.

In the past month, colleagues at the University of Nebraska reported--under headlines aptly constructed as "Where the Wild Things Aren't"--that references and images of nature have been disappearing from children's books since 1938.  This follows the feeding frenzy over the concern of "Nature Deficit Disorder" from Richard Louv.

More evidence that literature is at least tracking our societal trends, and perhaps playing a role in our choice of activities?

State and federal agencies are currently spending millions of dollars to recruit and retain hunters and anglers.  Maybe some of that money could be spent to support authors and screen writers who cleverly wrap hunting and angling into stories in which youth can engage.  It appears they are hungry for it.

Photo from:

March 10, 2012

Is freezer space a limiting factor for deer control in Nebraska?

This morning's newspaper announced a new program from Nebraska Game and Parks Commission to address deer populations in Nebraska.  The previous earn-a-buck program is out.  The River Corridor plan is in.

Earn-a-buck required hunters in certain hunting districts to take an anterless deer (hopefully female) before shooting a buck.  The goal was to remove the population's reproductive 'engine'.  The new program also targets antlerless deer, and provides incredibly cheap licenses for long periods of time along river corridors in Nebraska.

The problem with the Earn-a-buck program was that people grumbled about it (although we Nebraskas didn't grumble as much as Earn-a-buck'ers in other states have grumbled).  And, most critically, it took effort to enforce.  There are stories of the same doe making the rounds to the check-in stations for multiple hunters--which led to tactics of making cuts on ears and such, just to make sure each doe was a fresh one.  Point: Earn-a-buck required extra law enforcement effort.

Second Point: Earn-a-buck did not help the effort to get more  hunters in the woods.

My students in Wildlife Ecology and Management learn about population regulation, and there are two things required for a predator to regulate (dependably curtail rising numbers) a prey population.  Classic ecology:  first, there must be a numeric response to increases in prey.  So, as deer numbers increase, predators (the hunters) must increase in numbers.  Game and Parks has successfully done this, state-wide, through cheaper permits and access programs.  While the number of gamebird hunters is dropping, the number of big game hunters (deer hunters included) is rising.

Statewide is one thing, but damage management has to be concerned with the local level.  The Earn-a-buck program had the potential to frustrate local hunters in regions where numbers of deer really needed to be dropped. 

The second factor needed to regulate a prey population is for the predator to increase its kill rate (number of deer taken per year by hunters, in this case).  Normally, wild animals have territorial boundaries and only so many predators can be attracted to a certain area.  And, predators only have so much room in their stomach.  So, there is a limit to the number of deer that a mountain lion can kill in an year.  Same with hunters. We only have so much freezer space. 

There have been some interesting proposals by my colleagues to increase the number of deer that a hunter can take in a year, by allowing highly regulated sales of meat.  I support their call, but that proposal has a lot of political opposition.  There are programs to allow easy transfer of meat from hunters to non-hunters and donation to facilities (nursing homes, soup kitchens) that need meat.  Those programs count on hunters taking the extra step (after processing the deer) to donate it.

So, can deer  hunters regulate deer in Nebraska?  The current tactic by Game and Parks appears to be to really hammer on the first factor above:  offering cheap licenses (now down to $11/license for two antlerless deer--that is almost giving them away from free!).  And---the River Plan targets specific areas where deer populations are most problematic and where farmers encounter the most deer damage to crops. 

It is possible that cheap licenses may accomplish both goals--more hunters taking to the field and those same hunters making the decision to continue to shoot deer by getting a second, third, or fourth cheap license (or more).

But, we still have only so much room in the freezer.  The big question is--can Game and Parks attract enough hunters to overcome the limitations of our freezer space?  It appears to be working in eastern Nebraska, according to Game and Parks' data.  Stay tuned.

March 3, 2012

Institutional fatigue

Fatigue makes cowards of us all.

                 --Vince Lombardi

Guilt is a pretty good motivator for some folks.  It has potential to work especially well for the point where I have learned to identify when I am feeling guilty as part of a process to make more rational decisions. 

Lately, it seems the Guilt-O-Meter has been stuck on 'full'.

Here are some guilt-trips that have been thrown out in the past week in my professional life:
--faculty don't come to faculty meetings or planning meetings
--professionals don't come to the Nebraska Wildlife Society meetings
--faculty need to increase their grant success
--we need to increase the number of students in our majors
--faculty are not available for one-on-one student advising
--faculty should have more graduate students in their labs
--no one submitted nominations for campus awards
--no one submitted nominations for Nebraska Wildlife Society awards
--no one is volunteering to fill campus-level or department-level committee positions
--suitable, exciting candidates are not applying for Dean or department-level leadership positions

My thoughts are in regards to university faculty life, but I would guess that other professions are experiencing similar situations. The label that I am attaching to the cause of my frustrations is "institutional fatigue". It is a term that does not appear to be in widespread use, and I am not convinced that university leaders are aware that it exists.  

The only reference to 'institutional fatigue' that I can find is a description of how political instability breeds fatigue in international, on-site workers who are trying to carry out missions of cooperation between the EU and NATO.  The suggestion is that the workers are quickly tiring of trying to interpret the direction of the mission and how they should contribute to on-the-ground work.

Hmm...sounds similar.  Insert 'faculty' for 'on-site workers' and 'university administration' for 'EU and NATO'. 

So, there are two levels of this fatigue:  first, people seem to be wildly busy--to the point where folks are not contributing to 'normal' activities (serving on committees, nominating people for awards, attending faculty meetings) at 'normal' levels.  And, second, the fatigue is exacerbated by conflicting messages of what is important to the organization.

One big problem--some institutional structures have become obsolete.  My prediction: at Universities, the 'department' will be replaced in 15-20 years with a different structure.  Departments are obsolete as decisions are made at higher levels and more work is between-departments than within-departments; faculty perceive this and have stopped attending faculty meetings because nothing is accomplished of meaning.  Professional societies may also re-structure in the coming years.  The local-level structures (i.e., Nebraska chapter of The Wildlife Society) are already re-evaluating how important their existence is to their members.

Professionals of all types are working at a different level than our colleagues of 50 years ago did.  We are called to be more efficient and produce more than our colleagues did in the past.  The structures in which we work are still the same, however. 

Something is going to have to change.  My bet is that fatigue and its associated guilt are eventually going to cause some major changes in the way we work.  And, that transition will be much better if we address it proactively, rather then reactively.

February 26, 2012

Double whammy

I really enjoy reading syndicated columns written by Alan Guebert.  You can check him out at the Farm and Food File.  Alan looks at the big picture and calls it like he sees it, and that often means talking about things that make folks uncomfortable.  That must be why I like him!

In today's Farm and Food column, Guebert, points out the double-knock that current corn, wheat and soybean prices are providing to conservation efforts based on the Farm Bill.  Two problems exist:  (1) high prices encourage farmers to remove land from CRP (and other Farm Bill programs) contracts because they can make more money by planting crops (and who can blame is their land, after all), and (2) high crop prices create a need for more money to cover federal crop insurance programs, which are also housed in the Farm Bill and directly compete for funds designated for the conservation portion of the Farm Bill.

The latter point is one that I think is lost to many wildlife and conservation biologists.

USDA-reported (NASS) annual market prices (per bu) for Nebraska corn
(Powell in review: Animal Biodiversity and Conservation).
Wildlife policy folks have always wrung their hands when discussing incentives for conservation on private lands--and we worry about issue #1 above: the relative rental costs paid for conservation (CRP) or crops.  For the last few years, CRP has not been able to keep up, and the reason is found in the corn price figure shown here.  I recently made this figure from USDA statistics for annual Nebraska market prices.

Wildlife policy folks need to worry more about #2 above, because the budgets for CRP dictate the total pot available for conservation programs.  If you want to turn this into a triple whammy, the end-result is that you have less money in the pot, and the per-acre rent costs are higher: meaning you end up with fewer acres you can support for conservation.

Guebert provides some statistics: the net farm income from crop and livestock sales was $99.1 billion in 2011: a record.  But, another record also occured: crop insurers paid at least $9.1 billion.  Variability in climate paired with high crop prices is only going to make this trend continue. 

Guebert also points out that the Congressional Budget Office forecasts that federal crop insurance will cost $89 billion over the next 10 years.  This is one-third more than the $65 billion that the CBO predicts the USDA conservation portion of the Farm Bill will cost. 

Where does that leave folks interested in wildlife policy.  Well, I will end with a portion of the abstract to a paper I just submitted to a journal, where I call for more innovation in this area--away from reliance on the Farm Bill:
Private lands are critical to conservation planning for wildlife, worldwide. Agriculture subsidies, tax incentives, and conservation easements have been successfully used as tools to convert cropland to native vegetation. But, uncertain economies threaten the sustainability of these incentives. The wildlife management profession is in need of innovative models that support effective management of populations. I argue that biologists should consider the option of facilitating the development of private reserves to reduce the dependence of conservation on public investment.

We need much more discussion in this area, for sure. You can ask questions about HOW my proposal would work, but Guebert's column supports my assertion that there are no questions to be asked about WHETHER a proposal is needed!

February 11, 2012

Back up the train on ag literacy

The 2012 Nebraska Legislature is considering a bill, LB884, that would create an Agriculture Literacy Task Force. The senators supporting this bill need to re-think their arguments.

Certainly, agriculture is the backbone of Nebraska's economy.  Ag drives decisions made everywhere in the state.  Nebraska agriculture provides food, fiber, fuel, and jobs.  LB884 states:

 "Despite the state's connection with and reliance on agriculture for betterment of the state and its people, a minority of its citizens [my emphasis] are directly involved in production agriculture and other industries upon which agriculture relies; and there is an inherent need to incorporate agriculture literacy into the curriculum of Nebraska's schools."

In fact, LB884 goes as far to state that the situation is so dire that "since an emergency exists, this act takes effect when passed and approved according to law."

I cannot decide what metaphor makes more sense, to describe the bill.  Is it like a small child who steals the toys from all of his friends, and then cries because no one will play with him?  Or, is it like an old man sitting on the porch, looking back at the way things used to be and nostalgically wishing for the past? 

Maybe it is both.

The bill's supporters have been quoted in various media sources as nostalgically pining for the days when everyone knew where their food came from.  "Kids think all eggs are white," they stated.  "They think all farmers wear overalls."

So, perhaps we are a bit nostalgic.  Brown eggs are pretty cool.  Agriculture is certainly different these days.  But, I'm not sure that 'agriculture' realizes how different it is.  Is it possible that agriculture has awoken to find itself transformed, and perhaps not ready to head down the road it has built?  Maybe the problem is not nostalgia.  Perhaps the problem is a fear of the future.

There are two graphs that everyone should see before continuing forward with this discussion, I believe.  I stole one and I helped create the other:

From Hiller, Powell, McCoy, and Lusk (2009, Long-term agricultural land-use trends in Nebraska: 1866-2007,
 Great Plains Research).

Data, which I show my introductory Wildlife Ecology and Management course every year, from the Nebraska
Rural Initiative.  Only 21 of the 93 counties have grown since WWII.

The reason I think it is important to see these figures is to think about WHY these demographic trends occurred.  Our farms are larger, and there are fewer farms because of that.  Agriculture has increased in efficiency and pushed many participants towards urban jobs (many of which are related to food processing, fuel creation, etc. and are end-points of agricultural products).  I have to admit to being completely amazed to see the peak population data.  Even as a population biologist (wildlife, admittedly), that surprised me.

Agriculture cannot declare 'an emergency' that was its own doing, in the same way that a young child should not complain there is no one to play with after stealing his friend's toys.  The rural environment, for better or worse, has been created by the agriculture economy and policy decisions made in our country.  We cannot go back to the days of horse-drawn cultivators, or even the days of 4-row combines.  Agriculture needs to look to the future, instead of whining about the present.  The only 'emergency' is that some portions of the agriculture sector do not, evidently, see this point.

LB884 should be dead on arrival, and its proponents should go back, scratching their heads, to develop a different strategy that tackles the real problem--agriculture is now part of a new world.  We need to be sure that we are working towards goals that can solve food production problems for the anticipated world population growth, which will also need energy.  And, food and energy need to be withdrawn with methods that ensure, ecologically, future food and energy production.  Any Sandhills rancher could suggest that we cannot overgraze the global pasture to feed our growing global 'herd'--the pasture needs to be there next year, as well.

Had enough metaphors for today?!

Let me end with suggestions for a better approach to ag literacy...or really to "resource literacy".  The College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources at UNL recently held a workshop for its faculty, who developed a draft set of objectives for curriculum content in this area.  The question was framed in terms of 'what do UNL students need to know about food, water and fuel before they graduate'?

The discussion was engaging, and the product shows a forward-thinking mentality that is broader than just production agriculture.  Statements were submitted (and I am paraphrasing from my memory), such as:
  • Students should be able to describe the water cycle in a food production landscape.
  • Students should be able to contrast and compare components of food production systems in the United States with those in other countries.
  • Students should be able to calculate their energy [and water] footprint.
  • Students should be able to describe their food footprint.
  • Students should be able to compare the long-term resilience of various sources of energy.
That, my friends, is agriculture literacy for the 21st century.  Nothing about eggs or overalls.  Everything about our future.  It's time for the Nebraska Legislature to back up the train, and think about this before they leave the station.

January 16, 2012

Solomon Butcher in five movements

"If, in looking over the pages of this book, you find a fuller description of some other portion of the county than your own, pause before criticising the historian and ask if it is not your own fault that you are not more fully represented. If you have done any great deeds in Custer County which are worthy to go down in history, was it not your duty to have them recorded?"

--S. D. Butcher, Pioneer History of Custer County and Short Sketches of Early Days in Nebraska (1904)

Photo is a public image from the works of Solomon Butcher,
in collections of the Nebraska State Historical Society,
[Digital ID 10200].  

They seem relaxed and composed, this family,
as they have their picture made
in front of their sod house
by the nomadic photographer.
The husband, with his hat on one knee
and his oldest on the other.
His dog in front and horses behind
with that blasted, blessed windmill
that took two months to build and another
two for the well.
The wife, with her hair pulled back
and her youngest in a tall chair.
Her broom by the open front door
so that you can see her prized glass window
that they packed in two quilts for the
wagon ride from Kearney.

I have to wonder how they met:
the photographer and the family.
Did he ride over the hill
and catch them tinkering on the windmill
and mending pants?
Or, did he give them the hard-sell
at the hardware store in town
or at church?
Was this a photo they wanted to take
or are they seething inside at their inability
to say 'no' to a salesman?
How long did they wait before they saw
their photo? Were they all alive the next time
he came calling to sell them this mirror of their life?

I say this only by pretending I was the oldest boy
in the photo, and by thinking about my family:
but, I bet the previous day was nothing
like the quiet scene of the photo.
Especially if the man came home and told
his wife that he had hired the photographer to stop by
the next day.
Dusting and swearing and sweeping and shouting
and washing and crying.
But, it is clear that peace came back to the valley,
at least until the photographer left.
My money says the wife's smile
is hiding something.

Those gleaming antlers seem purposefully
piled to talk to a father-in-law who
opened a parcel on a rainy afternoon in St. Joseph
to reveal a copy of this photo.
The attached letter probably said
"We are doing well" and described the new well
in detail, and also the garden and the field
plowed to hold the claim.
Unwritten: your daughter has
meat to eat.

Finale malinconico
We have friends who send us their family photos
for Christmas.
Some wear shirts all of the same color, and I imagine that half
have never worn that color before.
Some stand in front of a mountain or a beach to
show how far they can go from their home.
Some relax in casual clothes, under an unfamiliar tree in
a park that the photographer suggested.
I think about this Butcher photo of the family from
Custer County as I leaf through our Christmas cards
and how far we have come from those days
of living in a sod house on 160 acres.
How far we have come from a time when a
pile of elk antlers, two horses, a smiling wife,
two babies, a broom, a wagon, and a windmill
could tell the world
that your dream was still alive.

L. Powell, 15 January 2011
Kearney, NE

Photo focus: Invasive species in a new light

We'll start the new year with a couple of Kelly's photos from a walk we took on a 54-degree (F) day in January (!) along the Platte River by Kearney, NE.  Kelly enjoys finding texture and interesting light conditions.

Unfortunately, her subject this time is an aggressive, invasive species that causes pains of agony for managers along the Platte.  It sucks up tremendous amounts of water, and make impenetrable areas of vegetation.  Biologists have been resorting to using helicopters or aquatic 'tanks' to treat large areas with herbicide to stall the spread of Phragmites.

However, it turns out it can be quite photogenic.

Phragmites along the Platte River in Nebraska, January 2012 (photo by Kelly Powell).

Sunlight dances on the surface of the Platte River (photo by Kelly Powell).