July 16, 2014

What is happening to yucca in the Sandhills?

It is possible that yucca is the only plant, other than "grass", recognized by most people as they drive through the Nebraska Sandhills.  Yucca is the megaflora of the treeless plains.

That's right--yucca is the bison of the prairie plant world!

Yucca is pretty cool, too--it has a unique pollinator relationship with a moth.  The Sandhills species of yucca is Yucca glauca, which is also fun to say--try it 3-4 times fast.

Most of the Yucca glauca in the Nebraska Sandhills has turned
yellow this summer.  Very few are flowering.  Last year's flower
stalks are seen in this photo.   Photo by Larkin Powell 
Ranchers sometimes call it "soapweed" as the root was evidently used to make soap by pioneers.  You can try it if you want.

This summer, most of the yucca in the entire Sandhills region has turned a pale yellow.  UNL range ecologists first noticed this and have been pondering the event since May.  My colleagues informed me that a UNL plant pathologist is currently working to determine the cause, but it is believed a pathogen such as a bacteria may be responsible.

Yup--plants can get sick, too.

Plants may have gotten stressed in the 2012 drought and the severe 2013 winter.  No one yet knows if the yucca will recover, or if this will be fatal to many plants.  We do know that it is widespread--it is actually amazingly widespread.  On a recent trip to view my research projects, my colleague and I saw sickly yucca from Burwell to Ainsworth to Valentine to Thedford, and I recently saw similarly yellow yucca near Ogallala, Nebraska.  My photo here is from a ranch southwest of Valentine.

In our entire trip, we only viewed 5-6 flowering stalks as well.  Although each yucca plant does not flower every year, you would expect to see more flower stalks that we viewed--evidently the plant is saving resources to fight the pathogen.

What will this mean for the relationship with the plant's pollinators?  If yucca disappears from chunks of Sandhills grassland, how will this affect the ecosystem?  We'll save predictions until we know more about the fate of the plants, but it is clear something odd is happening to the yucca of the Sandhills this year.

And, it is another reminder that nothing ever stays the same.

June 28, 2014

Privacy issues: commercial access to public hunting and fishing license data

I was trolling through my emails on Tuesday evening, when
the following email popped up:

With the 2014 hunting season right around the corner, we are excited to share what we have to offer you at HUNTABC.com  [name changed].  We hope to make sure you have a memorable and successful season!

The State of Nebraska shared your contact information with us as someone who has hunted in the state in the past. We thought you might be interested in learning more about HUNTABC.com, and the exciting information and opportunities that we provide.

Well, that's interesting...my hunting license information was "shared" with an commercial entity?  How many of you were under the impression that your height, weight, last-4 digits of SS, address, and email, and credit card information might be considered public information to be shared with anyone who asks? 

I know that had not occurred to me.  It seemed especially odd, because I remembered (and a friend confirmed by showing me a screen-print of the hunting registration web page) that I was told that my information would NOT be shared with an outside entity when I registered to hunt.

So, on Wednesday, I wrote a constructive email to Nebraska Game and Parks Commission to note my concern.  I noted that I had found a state statute that prohibited the use of election roles for commercial use, and I offered to help NGPC change the state statutes for hunting and fishing license roles in similar fashion.

NGPC responded: 

Permit information has been public for years and as you have read, by state statue, it is public information so it is supplied on request to organizations or individuals wishing to view it or use it. It is not prohibited from commercial use. The language on the permits purchase section is being corrected by the State Office of Chief Information Officer.

It wasn't exactly the type of response I had been hoping for.  No apology for the completely false picture of security they had painted on their registration web site.  Everything, apparently, was my fault for being so completely ignorant of public records policies.  Regardless, I repeated my offer to NGPC to help change state statute.

Why am I concerned about this?  Why is this a potential nightmare scenario for state agencies?

Well, state agencies across the country have been trying to lure (pun intended) fishing and hunting participants back to "the fold".  The number of anglers and hunters has seriously declined in the past decades.  Millions of dollars have been spent on this mission--urban fishing clinics, hunter education workshops, Outdoor Expos, and more. 

And, then, this out-of-state organization comes to Nebraska and asks for all of the names and emails (apparently that is all that was provided) from the hunting and fishing license roles.  By state statute, that request was approved (an internal memo at NGPC notes that no youth information was released).  Most amazingly, the company was silly enough to state that they had received my information from the state.  I guess that honesty is one saving grace...

Privacy issues are at the forefront of concerns of the American public at the moment (e.g., more are concerned about on-line privacy than terrorism).  All hunters and anglers were told, when they registered, that their information was secure and would not be released.  Will news of this breech of assumed security harm recruitment and retention issues?  I assume it will.  Will this make it harder for University researchers to conduct surveys of the public?  Sure it will--the first question we are asked during these interviews is "will my information be kept confidential?"

If NGPC was a company, I would move to a different company to get my hunting license.  But, I can't. 

The best move for Nebraska Game and Parks Commission is to ask state legislators to pass a new statute that places license information in the same category as election roles.  There is no reason that hunting license information should be available for commercial use.  Period.

Image from http://www.pinterest.com/pin/251568329159389995/

June 18, 2014

Stormy weather affects wildlife as well

My state of Nebraska has seen its fair share of stormy weather recently, with 'twin twisters' this week, a large hail storm a couple weeks ago, and a variety of other weather that is common on the Great Plains.

As we think about the effects of stormy weather to crops and personal property and human life on the Plains, I thought I would post a couple videos to show the potential for weather to affect wildlife as well.

These two videos were from a project led by Josiah Dallmann, an undergraduate research student, and Lars Anderson, a graduate research associate, at the University of Nebraska during the summer of 2011.  We put videos on greater prairie-chicken nests to document nest attendance as well as nest predators.  These were taken on private ranch land south of Bassett, Nebraska.

The first video's purpose is to show you where the nest is, in the second video.  In this video, you should see a cute little clutch of light-colored eggs in the middle of the frame.  Then, at about 30 seconds, a hen returns to the nest after leaving to find food.  You'll see her come across the top of the image, and you can see the radio-collar that she is wearing--which allowed us to find her nest.  She settles on the nest and 'disappears'.

The second video shows a massive hail storm--the nest is not as easy to see, but is in the center under the taller vegetation.  During this storm, two other hens that we were monitoring died while protecting their nests.  The hen in the video survived the storm, and the video lasts until a hail stone hits the video cable and the video feed ends at that point.  You can skip towards the end of the video to see the hail...it starts with heavy rain and lightening.  Hail stones in the video are about the size of ping-pong balls!

We know that wildlife face tough conditions as they battle the elements to survive.  I have to admit that I never thought about what it might be like to sit on a nest through a large hail storm.

June 7, 2014

Short term versus long term: land ethic in action

I would suggest that Aldo Leopold's "The Land Ethic" can be condensed down to three words: "Think Long Term". 

These days, high land prices and high (although falling) commodity prices have most landowners thinking short-term.  And, as I like to say, "Who can blame them?"  If you are a landowner who has busted your back to make ends meet and the sky suddenly opens and the stuff that you are good at growing increases in value...there is a good chance you are going to think, "I should make more of this stuff."

And, that is the rub.  Not only are landowners in danger of changing the landscape (something that I care about) in this situation, but they are also prone to making personal financial mistakes (something that they should care about).  That is, they often over-extend themselves during these times.  They buy bigger machinery that plants and harvests "stuff".  They buy more land to grow "stuff"--the land costs more, but the high commodity prices will make it pay.  Right?  Well, maybe in the short-term.  Probably not for the long-term. 

I've done an analysis of the historic trends for land values in Nebraska, and it is clear that we will see some kind of dramatic lowering, or correction (another nice term for "crash"?) of farm land values in the next 2-3 years.  In fact, these crashes are occurring every 30 years.  Start with the Dust Bowl.  Then go to the recession of the 50's.  Then, you have the 1980's Farm Crisis.  And, that brings us to our impending change in valuation. 

That is not good if you are a farmer.  It may be an opening for conservation--because it is hard for conservation efforts to compete (think "CRP") with high-dollar commodities. 

It turns out that North American farmers and conservationists are not alone in their angst with thinking 'long-term'.  The BBC recently reported that the current ag subsidies in the EU, which were supposed to include efforts to "GREEN" the farm landscape, became so diluted (read: "easy for farmers to skirt around") that they were meaningless.  It's a problem in short-term versus long-term thinking. 

I'll quote directly from the article, which you can read here:

"A lead author, Lynn Dicks from the department of zoology at the University of Cambridge, told BBC News: "Politicians are talking about the greening of the Common Agricultural Policy - it's a nonsense. If a firm made these sort of claims it would be stopped by advertising standards. 
" "It was a good idea to make greening compulsory for farmers to get their grants but the trouble is that the plan was so diluted in the negotiations that it's completely ineffectual." 
"Ariel Brunner from Birdlife is angry that the greening, according to the report, will do little or nothing to help species like farmland birds which have been in freefall because of intensive farm methods. "EU citizens were promised a green reform but handed a 'greenwash'. Dramatic loss of biodiversity in the countryside must be addressed," he said. 
"The Commission's original greening plan came under attack from farmers and farm ministries in member states. Even the authors of the Science paper admit it is extremely hard to impose a blanket environmental policy across the diverse landscapes in Europe. 
"The Secretary-General of the EU farm union, Copa-Cogeca, Pekka Pesonen, told BBC News: "We do not believe the measures initially proposed by the Commission would have had any real beneficial effect on the environment.  
" "It also makes no sense to take land out of production when food demand is on the rise, and estimated to increase by 60% by 2050.  
"That is why Copa-Cogeca advocates green growth measures: measures which benefit the environment at the same time as maintaining production capacity, efficiency and employment. The final agreement on CAP reform is more realistic and practical to apply than the original proposal." 
"The authors of today's paper argue that is short-sighted. They say: "Intensification clearly provides some short-term economic gains for farmers and the food industry [emphasis: mine]. But these have to be weighed against the loss of public goods such as climate stability, landscape quality and biodiversity. The EU has lost a chance to improve agricultural sustainability." "
The bottom-line is that we're never going to make the world a better place if we only use the "We must feed the world" tag-line as the focus for every decision.   We've got to think long-term--which includes feeding ourselves and living good lives.  Will we want to live in the world that exists in 50 years, if we only think about food production as a viable use for land?   

May 29, 2014

Strawberries and watermelons

Teachers are usually happy to stop lecturing and have their students work on some practical exercise, and I am no different.  I teach students about sampling wildlife populations, and there is a favorite exercise that involves pretending that a pot of dried beans is a wildlife population.  The students then sample the wildlife population and attempt to determine something about it.  Sometimes, we use mark-recapture (using a marker to mark the beans) to estimate how many beans we have.  Or, we might mix black and white beans and try to estimate the proportion of black beans in the population.

I've had some interesting experiences with this exercise, especially when I used it in Namibia (students ate the beans).

I'm currently teaching on the outskirts of Bangkok, Thailand at King Mongkut's University.  It turns out that I'm too far from any store to go buy beans, so my students solved the problem for me.  They went and bought two bags of flavored candies.  100 candies in each bag.  Enough for 4 groups to have 50 pieces of candy with a mixture of the two colors.  When we were done pretending that the watermelon-flavored ones (green ones) were animals with a disease (we wanted to estimate the proportion of the population with a disease---and we wanted to see how few samples we could take to do it efficiently), we ended up eating the exercise, once again.

I like this trend!

Students work on their population sampling exercise, after living through
my lecture on maximum likelihood estimation.

May 24, 2014

Behind it all

Most scientists don't get into the business of their occupation to explore philosophies, even though they might obtain a PhD, or Doctor of Philosophy.  The philosophy part sneaks up on you as life goes along.  And, lately I've decided it may be even more important than the 'other stuff' I was grilled on during my graduate exams.

Case in point.....how many PhD scientists does it take to develop management strategies to effectively conserve wildlife and their habitats in the Great Plains?   Well, none.  Impossible task.  Current economic cards are stacked against any efforts to provide meaningful levels of wildlife habitat on farmlands.  

And, as we say....who can blame a landowner for trying to make the most of their investment?  Dollars in, dollars out.  If it pays, it stays.  

Especially, it turns out, if that landowner was raised with a traditional Western ethic of what the land means.   

Pick your driver of this ethic.  Perhaps you choose Genesis 1:26?  "Then God said, 'Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.'"

Perhaps you might choose the 19th century notion of Manifest Destiny, the idea that America was a chosen nation to expand westward and assert its economic and political influences on the land.

Or, maybe you might choose the Puritan work ethic, the notion that a person should show their Christian ethos through hard work and diligence.

Whatever the driver, it is easy to see how we, as a society, have developed the ethic of the land that we have.   And, as much as we might claim to have high interests in stewardship of soils and water, it is pretty clear that economic interests have a tendency to win out in most situations and over the long term.   It is because of what is behind it.....our ethic.  Our philosophy of how we should use the land.

Entrance to the forests surrounding the
Meiji Jingu shrine in Tokyo.
I recently spent a refreshing afternoon with a college friend from Tokyo, while I visited Japan.  He took me to a Shinto shrine (Meiji Jingu) in the heart of Tokyo.  The shrine was surrounded by acres and acres of forest land.  As we walked, he explained the reason.   

"In the US," he noted, "you build a church without any land around it.  That is the sacred spot.  Here, we believe that the spirits are found in the trees and the animals, so we leave space for them.  We find our gods in these forests.  You come here and say, 'where is the building....the church?'   I say...look around you.  This is what is important....the land."

So, we had a nice conversation about the pressure of development, and how people approach their surroundings.   It is a complex topic....certainly, the pressures of a 12 million-person city have taken a toll on the land in and around Tokyo.  People all around us were wearing white masks over their faces to protect them from smog allergies.   So, it is not as if the Shinto philosophy has an answer to the needs of our expanding human population.

Worshippers bow at the Shinto shrine, facing
nothing but a large open area.
But, there was a different feel in the air (and I don't think it was the smog...) as we walked through the forest on the way to the shrine.  It is hard to explain, but it felt like we were walking through a sacred space....because we were.  And the respect for nature by those around me was palpable.  

At the shrine, I tossed a coin in a container, bowed twice, clapped my hands loudly twice, and bowed again before offering my prayer.  It was a prayer of appreciation for diversity of thought and the challenge before us.

Aldo Leopold, author of The Land Ethic, wrote, "There are those who can live without wild things, and there are those who cannot."  He was describing the differences in philosophy and ethic that drive us to different actions.  I am convinced, more and more, that the future of our lands is not in the hands of the sciences of ecology or agriculture.  Rather, the future lies in our philosophies.  And, on a sunny day in Tokyo, I was even more confident in my opinion.

May 10, 2014

Annual survey: "what was most important class topic?"

I have been teaching NRES 311 Wildlife Ecology and Management this semester at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.  It's the first introduction to wildlife that students have in our program.  The course includes 6 units on the history of wildlife management, decision-making, population dynamics and harvest management, managing threatened and endangered species, wildlife/human conflicts, and habitat management.

On the final exam, I ask the students to list the most important topic from the course--a topic that (in their opinion) I should never remove from the course.  Here are this year's responses, ranked in order by how many students mentioned them:

Decision-making (15)
Role-playing stakeholders/differing perspectives (10)
Farm Bill programs for habitat (7)
Invasive/exotic species management (7)
Habitat management (7)
Proximate/ultimate causes of conflict (5)
Human/wildlife conflict (4)
Uncertainty in wildlife management (complex job) (4)
Threatened/endangered species (3)
Hunting is useful for management (3)
Agricultural landscapes and wildlife (2)
Field trip (1)
Predators (1)
Importance of this career field for our nation (1)
Collaborations are critical for management of wildlife (1)
Density dependence and carrying capacity (1)
Landscape change/history (1)

For the past few years, decision-making has topped the list.  It is taught during the early part of the semester, which means they are not prompted by much on the current exam over the final unit.  I'm happy about that, as I re-designed the course to emphasize decision-making 3-4 years ago.

It's always fun to see what students think is the best topic.  Someone always seems to enjoy predators more than anything else!  But, I'm also to see my biases creeping onto the list.  I want them to learn to think.  Decision-making.  Identification of proximate and ultimate factors in problems.  I want them to work in teams and think about other perspectives.  I am glad those stick in their heads, as it might be easy for them to get lost in the furry/fuzzy photos of endangered owls and polar bears.  

Where in the world will these students be working?  What will our world look like when they assume mid-level management jobs and start to make huge differences?  I am not sure.  It's the bane of the teaching profession--you rarely get to see the results of your efforts.  My fingers are crossed, and I feel much more confident about our world's future after seeing this list.  

CRP field in eastern Nebraska

January 8, 2014

How crop insurance affects our landscapes

Every-day decisions on farmland are a major driver of the state of the landscapes that we see around us.  Those landscapes affect the people who live on them, as well as the wildlife, water, and other natural resources supported by the landscapes.

Readers of this blog will be familiar with the idea that economics drive landscape decisions--the decisions made on a daily or annual basis by landowners who want to do the right thing for their families.

Here's a 4-minute video, produced by the World Wildlife Fund, which explains--using artwork with stick figures and easy economics---how federal crop insurance has a big effect on the decision to ranch cattle or plant crops.  On marginal lands, this has become a major part of the decision-making process.  Grass is disappearing at huge rates, and Nebraska (my home state) leads the nation in conversion of grass to crops.

And, people still wonder why pheasants, ducks, and prairie-chickens are not as common in Nebraska.

Watch the video.  Watch the current debates in Congress about the Farm Bill.  And, encourage your representatives in Congress to support our landscapes and support our farm families with a Farm Bill that makes sense.  At the moment, as the video suggests, your tax dollars are paying to make grasslands disappear.