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.