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 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