December 30, 2013

Banks, corporations, and the Nebraska landscape

A person can easily get down in the dumps about wildlife in the Great Plains in the face of seemingly uncontrollable economic forces.   Been there, done that.  Wrote about it several times: here, here, and here.  I talked about it here.

So, it was with astounding refreshment that I watched the ENTIRE 36 minutes of the embedded video, below.  The Nebraska Farmers Union invited a renowned trial lawyer, David Domina, to speak about the state of agriculture in Nebraska during the NFU's 100th Annual Convention in December of 2013.  Next year, I will be in the audience. 

Domina suggests that ag is sexy and strong for only a segment of agriculture, at present.  He presents a compelling review of the forces that are behind every farmer's set of decisions--what crops to plant, where and when to sell, what chemicals to use, and how to manage the crop.  These are decisions that affect our Rural Future.

The Farmers Union thought his message was important for farmers.  I'll suggest it is equally important for wildlife biologists who care about private lands.  And, Domina lists some real solutions.  Spoiler alert: they don't include planting irrigation 'corners' to sorghum to try to prop up pheasants.  He's talking changes to banks and the way we treat corporations in the US.  Big changes. 

Watch the video.  Think about landscapes as he talks.  Tell me it doesn't make sense.  I dare you.

I highlight some of the segments I really enjoyed below the video.

00:31  "The state of Nebraska agriculture appears, on its face, to be extraordinarily strong.  In the last five years, many Nebraska farmers have seen their personal net worths increase in a way that they never increased in the history of this state."

19:35  "Farmers have enjoyed a tremendous run, and gotten great publicity about it.  Others in rural communities have not done so well and are struggling.  Farmers have become softer because good times make us soft...."

20:40  " concentration is an enormous problem.  Eight-five percent of the cattle slaughtered in the US by 3 slaughter houses--75%, nearly, of the hogs.  Seventy percent of the seed controlled by 4 companies and the traits--nearly 100%, nearly, by one."

21:45 "We cannot demean ourselves and dignify the corporations that enjoy that consolidation by treating them as our perfect and uniform legal equals.  We are citizens of the United states and we have the rights to vote.  We have the right to due process of the law.  We have the guarantees of the constitution, and we create corporations.  They are not citizens.  Unless we deal with that problem, the transitory prosperity of the Nebraska farmer will be transitory."

34:15  "That is the challenge of Nebraska agriculture.  No matter how much your land has inflated, no matter how good it feels to think about your net worth in light of that increase in price, no matter how much you enjoyed $7 corn and long to have it back--and think it may come long as you are a price taker, and subject to manipulation, you have to defeat that manipulator by insisting on a vibrant market.  And, that market begins with a quality financial institution system."

November 30, 2013

How 'public' is the Public Trust Doctrine?

Biologists with Nebraska Game and Parks Commission take
measurements from a male mallard duck captured in the
Nebraska Sandhills.  Ballot initiatives take decision-making
on wildlife issues away from biologists who work with
wildlife and habitat on a daily basis.  Photo by Larkin Powell.
One of the fundamental legal principles used to guide the management of wildlife in the United States is the "Public Trust Doctrine".  The Doctrine is not a document.  The Doctrine is not a set of rules.  Instead, the Doctrine is an accumulation of legal decisions, made over the years.  If you take a series of Supreme Court decisions and study them, you can determine the general manner in which natural resources (and wildlife among them) are managed in the U.S.  And that is the Doctrine.

The nuts and bolts of our Public Trust Doctrine (with regard to wildlife) are this:  people do not 'own' specific wildlife (e.g., such as those on their land...which is the case in some other countries in the world).  And, the 'king' does not own wildlife in the United States--our separation from England made that loud and clear, and our history dates back to people who were not happy about the fact that the King of England had deer in his forests that could not be touched by the common person.

Who does own wildlife in the US?  People in the U.S. own the wildlife in common as citizens of individual states.  The State holds that ownership as a 'public trust.'   In a few instances, the federal government has been given that 'trust'...with endangered species, with migratory species, and when issues of inter-state commerce arise.  

The upshot a citizen of Nebraska, I own the wildlife of Nebraska along with all of my fellow citizens.  I don't have a right to take a specific individual, however (I have to wait for hunting season that has been established by the State).

This 'public trust' gets interesting from time to time.  Typically, we citizens put the management of our wildlife in the hands of a state agency that we (citizens) have formed (at some point in the past).  In Nebraska, that is the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.  In Iowa, it is the Iowa DNR.  Their biologists and managers make decisions on behalf (and somehow in the interests) of all state citizens.

However, with the advent of ballot initiatives (Nebraska was one of the first states to use a ballot initiative by the way--to create our unicameral legislature), that Public Trust has often been yanked out of the hands of the state wildlife agency and placed squarely in the hands of the voting public.  

A timely example is in the state of Michigan, which is reported to have up to three ballot initiatives related to wildlife pending for next November's general election.  A couple of them are related to an emotional issue--wolf management (to hunt or not to hunt).  A special interest group wants to ban the hunt; the state wildlife agency has approved the hunt.  Thus, the stage for the ballot initiative is set, and it will be a show-down.  

So, should the public take the reins on issues like this?  Ballot initiatives are surely legal.  But, the basic question was stated nicely by a member of a citizens' group (article here): “Are you going to have scientists manage your wildlife? Or are you going to have emotional commercials and who can spend the most on TV commercials?"

Ballot initiatives are here to stay, and my advice to my students has been---know that this can happen, and be prepared to work within the ballot initiative system.  That means--be prepared to get information to the public to let them make an informed decision.  It may mean out-competing a special interest group using faulty information.  Public relations is something for which our wildlife students do not receive much training.

Our profession needs to come to grips with the trend for ballot initiatives.  It is clear that the "public" in Public Trust Doctrine does not HAVE to refer, by default, to the state wildlife agency.  It is also clear that results from ballot initiatives can be swayed by emotion and short-term thinking rather than long-term objectives for management for the common good.  Something to ponder...

November 28, 2013

More about pheasants: listen to Harvest Public Media

In a follow-up to my previous posts about landscape change, you might enjoy listening to a story by Grant Gerlock--it was carried by NET radio this week.

Go here and click on the play button at "listen to this story".

The title is:  "Pheasants losing habitat to farmland"


NET video: changing landscapes

I was interviewed a week ago by Grant Gerlock with Harvest Public Media.  Grant asked me to describe the changes that have take place on a section of land near Ord, NE.  Here is the video of that discussion:

Ghosts on the landscape

A view of the landscape around my parents' farm in southwest Iowa
during harvest season.
I spent a few days this fall at my parents' farm in southwest Iowa.  I grew up on this farm, and it was harvest time. 

My wildlife colleagues and I have been discussing the trend of simplified landscapes in farm regions.  Farms that raised 3-4 crops in the 1950s now raise two crops (corn and beans) at most.  Some raise only corn.  Farms that used to host a variety of livestock (cows, pigs, horses, sheep) now have none.  Gone are small grains (oats, wheat), and gone are pastures that used to surround farmsteads to provide forage for the small flocks of livestock.   In 2002, the average number of commodities grown by US farmers was 1.2.  Yes, 1.2.  And, that was before the ethanol boom.

Even the crop fields are 'simpler' than they once were.  High commodity prices and the use of no-till planting (planting directly into unbroken soil from last year's harvest without plowing or discing) have reduced the perceived need for grassed waterways.  Grass strips around fields and along streams have disappeared.  Large machinery, such as 12- and 16-row combines and planters, needs to turn around in the fields, so small trees have been taken out.  Finding a shady spot to make repairs is tough.

A recent trend, which pushed the Nebraska Forest Service to issue an alert, has been the removal of trees along streams and creeks to enable as much crop area as possible to take advantage of high commodity prices.  All of these trends make folks concerned with wildlife populations and soil erosion a little nervous.  Well, actually, the trends scare us. 

As I drove the combine and tractor through the fields and around the neighborhood, I witnessed these trends first-hand.  It was a weekend of seeing 'ghosts' in every direction. 

Near one of my Dad's fields, across from the neighborhood cemetery, is the ghost of the 1-room schoolhouse.  It hasn't been a school house for a long time.  However, it was where I first went with my parents to watch them vote.  No sign of it, now.  Just a ghost.  

There are many places where I could see ghosts of barns and abandoned houses that I remember as a kid.   The structures are now completely gone.  Some of the spaces now host a large silver grain bin, or a cottonwood tree may remain to bear testimony to the fact that this space was once a thriving farmstead.

Fences have disappeared in the last 15 years.  If livestock are not on pastures, there is no need to for a fence to keep them from escaping and there is no need to fence your crops to stop livestock from going in your crops.  No one drives cattle down the roads anymore in this neighborhood, so a corridor of fences is not needed.  Of the 12 sides of pieces of my parents' farm, I believe that 4 of them have had fences removed.  And, their farm may be unique, in that they still have pastures next to 5 of those sides of their property.  So, at least 5 of their fences are still being used to keep in/out livestock. 

So, you can see fence-ghosts.  Lone metal t-posts are left to remind neighbors of the location of property lines.  My parents have good neighbors, and my father and one of his neighbors now plant their crops side-by-side at the property border.  The grass strip and some trees that once surrounded the fence line has disappeared.  It's a sign of good neighbors, and a sign of change on the landscape.  The folks who once farmed that land used to climb that fence to fish in our pond.  It would be a much easier walk for Lester and Olive, now.  And, they would not believe how the landscape has changed.

At Christmas, our family used to conduct a 'wildlife census' by walking around the property near the house to see how many pheasants and quail we could scare up.  We haven't done one of those walks in a long time; mostly, we knew what the result would be.  This past weekend, I saw only one pheasant while harvesting.  And, I saw none of the hunters that used to over-run the neighborhood in the 70s and 80s.  A few more ghosts to add to the list.  Ghosts wearing orange vests, and ghosts with white rings around their necks and wonderful long tail-feathers.

I thought about these things as I worked the combine through strips of corn and beans that my father uses to combat soil erosion.  I navigated across the grass strips that he has kept in his farm fields.  My father has planted his fields with a concern for the soils that he stewards.  People have slowed their pickups to look at his unique strips of crops for over 35 years.  And still, only one pheasant on his farm.

Economic forces are heavy forces.  These ghosts on the landscape represent progress, in some form.  Or, at least they are symbols of change.  It is clear that our rural landscapes are not natural landscapes; they are industrial landscapes where natural resources are extracted efficiently.  The problem is--many people think rural landscapes are natural landscapes.  They expect 'natural products' like pheasants to come along for the ride.  In fact, some of these landscapes are no more natural than a parking lot.  And, that is tough for this former farm kid to write.  But, economics is economics; the landscapes are designed to produce corn, and they do that well.    

Pheasants are only going to come back when land owners decide they need to manage for pheasants.  In previous landscapes (1950s) pheasants did come along for free.  So, it is difficult to convince a person that it takes planning, management, and insight to grow pheasants in a modern farm landscape.  For the moment, most people seem to believe in ghosts.  

September 8, 2013

Children are NOT like flowers

Yesterday was a nice, warm Saturday in eastern Nebraska, and our family trekked out to a local orchard to pick raspberries and apples.  By day's end, a pie featuring both fruits was in our tummies.

On the way home, we passed a billboard.  It was a billboard of the type that can be seen in the Great Plains states--which are 'redder' states, as a group, than anywhere else in the country.  We (speaking from the perspective of the majority) are conservative, we farm, and we are pro-life.  We put up billboards about all three.

This billboard was pro-life.  It was bedazzled with images of flowers, and it read, "Too many children?  That's like saying there are too many flowers."  Simple.  Effective.  I like flowers.  Why stand in the way of populating the world with more children?

The irony was that the billboard was standing in the midst of a cornfield.  

Today's column by Alan Guebert (Farm and Food) commented directly on the problem not addressed by the billboard in a Nebraska cornfield.  Human population growth.

Guebert commented on the current "manifest destiny" arguments that we must bolster production of agriculture in terms of efficiency and quantity so that we may "Feed the World".  The argument centers around the projection that the world population will be 9 billion by 2050.  If you look back at my blog, you'll see that I commented on the possibility that recent evidence suggests we may not get that high, but that's another story....maybe.

Guebert's main criticism of the agriculture community is that we do not discuss world population growth--the "demand" side of the equation.  We only discuss the need for "supply."   He writes, "How do we in U.S. agriculture constantly chew over how much food the world might need in the future and never once get within a hoe's length of discussing population?"

He comments that one reason is that the conversation becomes very complex when you are discussing world population growth, so it is easier to avoid the discussion.  Just like the billboard--it's a lot more complicated than the cuteness of our kiddos.  Guebert asks, "Is that [the tendency to avoid the issue] stubbornness or arrogance?"   

Guebert also quotes a study from the University of Leeds that estimated that women around the world have a combined 80 million unwanted pregnancies per year--which is nearly equal to today's annual population growth, worldwide.  We know that income, education, and women's rights play directly into that equation.  We also know that children in developed countries eat a lot more than children in developing countries--contributing more to the worldwide food deficit.  

Yes.  For some families in our world, there can be too many children.  Sorry, Mr. Billboard.

Bringing this topic home (for me and other Nebraskans), the University of Nebraska has developed a Water for Food Institute.  We can hope that the Institute will contribute to the broader discussion, and perhaps erect a few billboards of their own.  

How about: "Help feed the world: send your daughter to college and use a condom." 

It is not as cute as a billboard with flowers on it, I will admit.   Pass the pie, I'll keep thinking.


You can read Alan Guebert's full column "Feeding the world, but not talking about it" here

August 20, 2013

Landscape change

In the past, I have talked about the slow speed at which the landscape changes...and how humans often do not perceive the change that is happening, even on their own farm and potentially even when they are the architects of the change.

Well, the current rate of landscape change has sped up.  The culprit is high commodity prices, which is not news....for the past couple of years, marginal grounds have been 'recovered' by removing trees and canceling CRP contracts to put ground into production.  And, why not?  There is money to be made.  If you owned that piece of ground, you might make the same decision.

But, a couple of bell-weather signs of the SPEED of this change have come out in the past couple of weeks.

First, the state of Nebraska and the state of Iowa have both released news releases about the dramatic loss of trees.  Nebraska went as far to issue a press-release that had the wording of an endangered species announcement....and the species of concern?  The cottonwood.  Who would have thought we would get to the point where people were concerned about one of the fastest growing, most common species (and our state tree)?

Last, today the Upland Game forecast was released in Nebraska.  Besides the words that most Nebraskans have grown accustomed to (pheasant numbers appear to be down, but late production might still offer some hope), the following phrases were included:

"Habitat loss in the eastern counties continues to be a concern.  Hunters are again advised to scout areas prior to hunting to make certain areas are still available."

Yup, that's right...the landscape is changing so fast that you might not be able to hunt (or even find) the spot you loved last year.  Wow.  Grass disappearing quickly.

Worst of all...that favorite shade tree might be gone.  We live in interesting times.

August 18, 2013

Feral and free-ranging cats in history: 1933

In the course of doing research for a new book, I ran across an interesting editorial on feral and free-ranging cats from 1933.  The editorial appeared in Nature Magazine (published by The American Nature Association in Baltimore, MD).

To place the editorial in context, remember that the 1930's were essentially 50 years (a couple of human generations, but perhaps 8-10 cat generations) after settlement of the western US by Europeans.  In the Great Plains, these 50 years had seen massive transitions, including the obvious removal of Native Americans.  Barbed wire had also appeared, farms now dotted the landscape, and mechanization was beginning to shape the size and shape of the farm.  A transition that had not occurred to me was the appearance of cats in this landscape. 

Cats were introduced by Europeans aboard ships (to control mice).  It is intriguing to think about the spread of cats in the western hemisphere.  And, as cats spread, the number of feral cats increased.  Feral cats, by definition, are cats that are outside, have no owner, and are not tame.  Free-ranging cats are cats that are owned but allowed to roam outside.

By the 1930's, when the editorial below went to press, the problem of feral and free-ranging cats was already a controversy.  Cats are still in the news.  I have colleagues at the University of Nebraska who have recently contributed to the discussion about feral cats by providing management guidelines to those seeking to find solutions to feral cat issues.  You might check the University of Nebraska's Extension publication or a book by Dr. Stephen Vantassel if you have further interest in the topic.  Stephen suggests there are 60 million feral cats in the US (we have a bit over 310 million people!).  The Wildlife Society, to which I belong, has released a position statement on feral and free-ranging cats, as well.

All of the recent publications listed above have roused public outcry from some types of cat lovers.  And, outcry of this type is referenced in the 1933 editorial, below.  As you read the editorial, I think you will also notice the unique mix of the feral cat issue with the issue-of-the-day: declining wildlife in North America and the transition from sustenance hunting by humans to sport hunting.  Wildlife laws were in place, but large bag limits (e.g., 15 ducks per day) were the norm.  Thus, sport hunting and cats found a place on the same end of this editorial! 

Here, in its entirety from the March 1933 issue of Nature Magazine is the editorial "Cats: is some regulation of the feline a wild life necessity?"

Public-use image from Wikipedia.
"Curled up in the corner of the sofa or purring contentedly before the fire, Tom or Tabby looks like a much-domesticated, well-civilized pet.  Even to intimate that this view is debatable is to invite the ire of many.  The friends of the cat are legion, ranging from those who own felines with imposing pedigrees to those who befriend any and every alley cat.  And the number of cats forms a greater legion than that of their defenders.

"It is just this great number that moves us to risk the deluge and to say something about cats.  They pose a question of outstanding interest to lovers of wild life.  It is a question that becomes more important as cats increase and our wild life wanes.

"An heritage from a wild ancestry, there remains innate in the feline, however finely bred, the instinct of the marauder.  In the dim past its ancestor lived in and from the forest, preyed upon and preying.  Predatory instincts in a civilized environment cost us great sums for police and courts and jails.  This trait is, in a cat, natural, not discreditable; in man, punishable.  But that it does exist makes the cat a problem.

"The solution most frequently proposed is that licensing of cats be compulsory.  To this proposal the American Humane Association, in a brief statement, raises protest, declaring that "the idea back of the project is that if there were fewer cats there would be more game for sportsmen to shoot."  It is true that most of the inspiration of the movement to license cats comes from sportsmen.  It is likewise true that if there were fewer cats there would be more game.  And, further, it is a fact that, as the Humane Association says, "there would be more game if there were less shooting."

"It is plain that, between hunters and the cats, the game birds are in a sad way.  It is our ardent hope that it will not be long before sportsmen recognize the inevitable and put their own house in order.  At the same time we cannot see why, in the event of such a millennium, the feline should be preserved in a monopoly on hunting.

"The Humane Association asserts that the public will have no sympathy with the licensing idea; that the farmer will not relinquish the aid of the cat in fighting rodents; that cat lovers will organize and post ten times more land against hunters.  This last argument, we fear, is likely to appeal to bird lovers and true conservationist as an excellent reason for licensing cats.

"We agree that the licensing idea is not a good one.  We feel that a license for the cat would give it a preferred status as a killer.  There are too many of these already. And we believe that cat license laws would be even less readily enforceable than are the current dog licensing laws.  We recognize that one can fence against the dog fairly effectively, but no fence discourages a cat.

"While we are alternatively agreeing and disagreeing with the Humane Association, we do not feel that the whole picture has been given.  Our birds of song and beauty are favorite victims of the marauding cat.  We have every sympathy for the bird lover who, having watched a family of baby birds develop in the back yard nest, destroys by the most convenient means available the cat which is about to wipe out the little family.  If this cat bore a license, there might be a lawsuit.  As it is there may be nothing more serious than the exchange of a few harsh words and an coldness between one bird lover and one cat lover.

"Now that we have discarded the license idea for what we regard as adequate reasons, what remains?  Not much, we fear, except the na├»ve hope that we are progressing in our ability to think of our fellow man.  There is great joy and value in our human affection for a dumb creature, whether cat, dog, horse or other.  But when we let that love become so dominating and so selfish that it infringes upon the right of our neighbor to invite songbirds to his bird houses, feeding tray and bird bath, we forfeit rights of consideration in return.  As for the thousands of criminally thoughtless and inhumane people who turn cats loose to fend for themselves instead of turning them over to the local humane society, they have no right to the affection or companionship of any animal, dumb or otherwise.

"Let us recognize, then, that the cat is naturally and frequently a predator; that the extent of damage done by the marauding feline is our own human responsibility; that the welfare of wild life in general demands a far better control of the homeless cat; and that those who wish to keep such a pet should feed it well and keep at a minimum its urge and opportunity to hunt."

Editorial is from The American Nature Association. 1933.  Cats: is some regulation of the feline a wild life necessity?  Nature Magazine 24(3): 103. 

July 27, 2013

Photo Focus: tree claim in the Sandhills

My son and I recently drove past this 'tree claim' out in the middle of the prairie near Ogallala, Nebraska. It is a great example of how policy (plant trees to get your land claim) affected landscapes in Nebraska. Of course, there is no homestead now. Just a bunch of lonely cottonwoods, planted in rows.

Tree claims , as part of the Timber Culture Act of 1873 (the original Homestead Act was in 1862) were mentioned in Laura Ingalls Wilder's By the Shores of Silver Lake:

“This country’s going to be covered with trees,” Pa said. “Don’t forget that Uncle Sam’s tending to that. There’s a tree claim on every section, and settlers have got to plant ten acres of trees on every tree claim. In four or five years, you’ll see trees every way you look.”

July 2, 2013

Cutting to the heart of it: why we conserve our land

The Switzer family has a ranch north of Burwell, NE (photo below of their pastures).  I have enjoyed working with the Switzer family since 2009, when I met them in Namibia (of all places).  They traveled to Africa to see how Namibians "did" ecotourism.

The Switzers have diversified their ranch operation to include two unique operations, in addition to cattle ranching: an outfitting business (run by son Adam) and an ecotourism/recreation operation (run by daughter Sarah).  

For the past two years, our family has enjoyed participating in The Prairie Chicken Festival in April, a celebration of that special critter that is spread about the Nebraska Sandhills.  You should jot it down on your calendar for next year, as it is a wonderful weekend--great food, great people, great information, and great viewing opportunities of prairie-chickens and sharp-tailed grouse mating displays from the Switzer's unique blinds.

The World Wildlife Fund is one of the organizations who has helped support the Switzer's work.  In fact, many agencies and organizations have supported their work, and the Switzers have done a good job putting together a good support group.  Recently, World Wildlife Fund put together a video (filmed at this year's Festival) about their operation and how it illustrates what can be done for conservation in the Sandhills.

Take 8 minutes and watch it.  You will hear some real Nebraska ranchers talking about their land and their families.  It is a wonderful video.  Click here to watch it:

March 16, 2013

Cursed with wings

Public image by Alan Wilson.
I was bracing myself as the north wind
charged across the small meadow amid the grassy dunes
when I heard the geese.
They were nowhere to be seen in the sky
and their calls sounded less like the typical
"let's get moving, let me take the lead"
and more like calls for help.

And then I saw the lead goose with her
squadron in tow, as she crested a far dune
with only inches of clearance.
Their flight path traced the silhouette of the dunes
as they dove leeward to duck the wind
for a moment and then up and over
and into the fray for a few moments more.
The geese traveled slowly with wings that pumped furiously,
perhaps a wing beat for every yard advanced.

I have been told it is unwise to try to deduce the psyche of
wild animals or ponder their thoughts,
but is was clear on this day
that the group felt they were cursed with wings.

Over eons their wings had been shaped
to follow verdant hills that slipped southwards in winter
and sprinted northwards in spring.
The early-season zephyrs might normally fill their
long, wide wings like a mainsail
to push them towards northern prairies.
But, their wings were no match for this boreal burst,
which was meant to stall spring and surprise wayward fowl.

Today, indeed, they were cursed with wings.
With each beat, perhaps a thought about walking?
But, they stayed in the air as the legs of a goose offer
no option to stop and walk at a faster pace.

In this wind, adaptation favored the mule deer that burst naively into the
meadow, jumped in alarm when he almost crossed the formation,
and then outran them for a short stretch before trailing back
into the dune field and shelter.

Winds change.
Perhaps this courageous band of geese
flew towards tomorrow
as they loudly struggled against the winds of March.
Away, and out of the meadow,
they left me with the wind.

March 5, 2013 in Ainsworth, NE

March 2, 2013

Invention from necessity: lions, lights, and turn-signal switches

Here is a great story of a young boy in Kenya who found a new way to protect his family and their livestock from lions.  Conservation is usually a series of small steps to solve big problems.  This is a great example of a contribution from outside the ranks of professional biologists!

January 31, 2013

The Blues Rangers from Mississippi

Extending a land ethic to the next generation is an important task. From time to time, you find someone who has concocted a unique way to do this. I was impressed, today, by our lunch time entertainment at the North American Duck Symposium in Memphis, TN. Four 'forest rangers' with the USDA Forest Service in Mississippi have formed a blues band, known as the Blues Rangers. They have written songs to teach conservation to kids, and they sing in local schools.

We heard the Rattlesnake Blues, along with songs about invasive species, ducks (!), habitat fragmentation, and prescribed burning (one of the guys in the band is a prescribed burning specialist with the Forest Service). The video clip here is a song about neotropical migrants and how they suffer from loss of forest habitat...."they got nowhere to land!"

Enjoy, and think about ways you might follow suit?

January 2, 2013

Good news for landscapes: birth rates are dropping

Joel Brinkley wrote a most interesting editorial about world birth rates this week. Brinkley's piece, "Falling birth rates portend a very different world," can be found here.

Brinkley reports that only 116 of 224 nations have birth rates above the "replacement rate" (steady population) of 2.1 children per couple. Thirty-four countries, according to Brinkley, have birth rates lower than 1.5. The US is at 2.06, just below the replacement rate.

What does this mean to predictions for world population growth?

"Demographers say the world's overall population will continue growing in the decades ahead but eventually will begin to stagnate and drop -- perhaps later this century. That does offer some benefits. The World Bank's dire prediction -- food production worldwide will have to increase 66 percent by 2055 -- may not turn out to be as problematic as predicted," Brinkley writes.

Some early signs of impacts? Brinkley suggests that the current crisis in the milk industry of the US stems from the fact that there are not as many children to drink milk--leading to overproduction which has led to the need to subsidize prices for milk farmers. Other industries, such as the housing market, will continue to see impacts--as fewer new owners will be in the market.

Landscape view: corn is irrigated with a center pivot
in the midst of semi-arid pastures in Nebraska's Sandhills
near Rose, NE. Photo by Larkin Powell
How is this connected to landscapes and conservation? Many folks have all but given up hope for natural landscapes in states like Nebraska--the mantra that we have to pull out all the stops to "feed the world" is emotionally hard to argue with. I mean, who wants to make babies in Africa starve, if we can solve the problem by ripping out some more prairie and putting in some more irrigation pumps to produce more corn? And, it turns out that the babies are also competing against ethanol for that corn, as well. Landscapes versus food is one thing; landscapes versus food AND fuel is not a fair match.

There are many who suggest that the "feed the world" argument is a straw-man argument in the first place--most of our ag exports goes to wealthy nations, not starving nations. But, even if we assume we can produce our way to feeding the world, falling birth rates have to be seen as good news. Ag production cannot be the only focus--education of women, contraception, and economic development all lead to lower birth rates and fewer mouths to feed.

And, in the end, lower demand for food means more water in our rivers...where it belongs.