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.