Do predator control programs help gamebirds like Pheasants? (Hint…No)

Ring-necked Pheasant - Phasianus colchicus

South Dakota’s favorite bird…an introduced game bird that does have an economic impact in the state. but are predator control programs like Kristi Noem’s actually beneficial to pheasant populations? Or, in fact, is it likely to WORSEN the situation? For the scads of hunters and others who evidently have found my blog…read this post. Don’t take my word for it regarding this misguided predator control program. Take the word of Sportsmen’s groups…of outdoor magazines…of conservation groups…of the SCIENCE behind bird populations, predators, and habitat. If you truly want to save your resource and stop playing political games because you’re “liberal” or “conservative”…follow the FACTS. Then petition Noem to stop this nonsense and instead focus on habitat conservation efforts.

Wow.  Traffic on my blog literally shot up ten-fold since I posted about the idiocy of Kristi Noem’s predator control program in South Dakota. And with that traffic of course comes the haters, with direct emails to me, and attempted blog replies that offered nothing more than name calling. Not surprisingly, most were from hunters.  If you can get past the four-letter words and try to make some sense of some of the emails I’ve had, the general thought is that killing skunks, opossums, red fox, and raccoons is very helpful for Ring-necked Pheasant populations. And thus, these hunters are all for Noem’s little misguided foray into “conservation”.

Let’s look at the facts. Do you like to hunt Ring-necked Pheasants? Chances are you support groups like Pheasants Forever? Here’s what Pheasants Forever has to say about predator control programs:

Stating an investment in increased habitat is FAR more effective than predator control in improving pheasant populations, they state:

Less-expensive methods to improve game bird populations and nesting success exist. Experts have focused on the amount of habitat (composition of the landscape) and the arrangement (configuration) that increase nesting success by reducing the effectiveness of predators. Well-designed habitat projects can reduce predation by up to 80 percent.

Regarding predator control, they state it’s ineffective at helping broad-scale pheasant populations…and in fact, it may INCREASE interactions among predators and pheasants:

It is important to understand that sustained trapping efforts tend to stimulate reproduction by predators (compensating for artificially low densities) and create populations with proportionately more juveniles that wander more across the landscape thereby increasing the chances of encountering pheasants.

Overall, here’s their summary statement on predator control, and where money SHOULD be spent…on habitat restoration:

While predator removal and exclusion methods can increase nesting success on small areas, these methods are too expensive for use on a landscape basis and do not significantly increase the number of nesting birds over the long term. Through the addition and management of habitat, we not only decrease the impact predators have on existing nests, but also increase the number of nests and population size in an area. Predators will continue to eat pheasants and their nests, but weather and habitat conditions will drive population fluctuations.

What’s laughable about Noem’s program is that she ignored the advice of her own people, and ignored past research in South Dakota that has focused on Ring-necked Pheasant populations. Former Governor Daugaard held a “Pheasant Habitat Summit” in 2013 and followed up by commissioning a “Governor’s Pheasant Habitat Work Group”.  You know…actually investing in RESEARCH and DISCUSSION before unilaterally making a bad decision to start a predator control program. Land owners, hunters, and government personnel participated. Regarding predator control, the working group found that “When suitable habitat is available and weather conditions warrant, pheasant populations flourish without direct predator control“. Even when a misguided bounty program like Noem’s is established, they found “Bounty systems in other states have been ineffective because the origin of the predators cannot be verified”.

More information from sportsmen’s groups.  Midwest Outdoors published a piece on the “5 widespread myths about pheasant and quail populations“. One of those 5 myths is shown below:

Myth: Predators are the main reason there are fewer pheasants and quail.

Busted: Yes, coyotes and fox will eat pheasants and quail, and raccoons and skunks are likely culprits when it comes to raided nests. But predators don’t eat habitat, which is far and away the biggest reason why pheasant populations decline. High annual losses to predators should not be misunderstood to mean that predation is responsible for long-term upland population declines. Landscapes with good habitat often have high numbers of pheasant numbers, as well as high numbers of many potential predators.

 

The impact of predators is magnified and often pinpointed as the primary problem after habitat conditions deteriorate. Confine pheasants and quail to smaller and smaller parcels of habitat, and a predator’s job gets a whole lot easier. Thankfully, well-designed habitat projects can reduce predation by up to 80 percent. Through the addition and management of habitat, not only does there tend to be a decrease in the impact predators make on existing nests, but more habitat is likely to increase the number of nests and the overall gamebird population. And habitat for pheasants and quail comes at a fraction of the cost of other intensive predator reduction methods that are cost-prohibitive across a large area.

Just like Pheasants Forever, they note it’s HABITAT that’s the key, and if you have adequate, well designed habitat, that alone decreases nest predation by predators. And just like Pheasants Forever, they note it’s a FAR bigger “bang for the buck” in using conservation dollars to promote pheasant populations.

Another sportsmen/hunting group, Quail Forever, states the following (hint…it ‘s similar to statements from all the other groups:

Bottom line: Through the addition and management of habitat, we not only decrease the impact predators have on existing nests, but also increase the number of nests and population size in the area. This management comes at a fraction of the cost of other predator reduction methods.

MORE HABITAT, LESS PREDATION, BEST OUTCOME
Less-expensive methods to improve game bird populations and nesting success exist. Experts have focused on the amount of habitat (composition of the landscape) and the arrangement (configuration) that increase nesting success by reducing the effectiveness of predators. Well-designed habitat projects can reduce predation by up to 80 percent.

 

Programs such as Noem’s may actually do more HARM than good for Pheasant populations. For example, red fox are noted as the most effective predators on Ring-necked Pheasants, by our own Game Fish and Parks. But red fox populations are quite low in South Dakota, as they simply cannot compete with Coyotes. There’s a direct, inverse relationship between high coyote densities and red fox densities. As this story notes, hunters wrongly blame coyotes for predation on Ring-necked Pheasants, but our own Game Fish & Parks notes Coyotes have a minimal impact on Ring-necked Pheasant populations. Human intervention in removing predators results in unpredictable impacts on other wildlife, and ironically, hunters calling for removal of Coyote should note that would likely HARM Ring-necked Pheasant populations, as Coyotes not only help keep Red Fox populations low, but also help control other small mammalian predators on Ring-necked Pheasant nests.  This isn’t just one isolated case of an unintended consequence of predator control programs. Some other studies note that predator control programs focused on creatures like red fox simply create more of an ecological niche that other predators come in and fill, such as feral cats.

The one common thread from our own GFP…from Pheasants Forever…from Quail Forever…from all groups associated with conservation and wildlife management…NOTHING has anything close to the impact on Ring-necked Pheasant populations as 1) habitat, and 2) climate. So what factors could contribute to any perceived decline of gamebirds in South Dakota. HABITAT LOSS.  Starting in the mid-2000s, the eastern Dakotas have seen an expansion in cropland that literally rivals rates of deforestation in the tropical rain forests.  Here are multiple studies that have quantified recent grassland loss in the Dakotas:

  1. Wright and Wimberly (2013) found a net loss of 1.3 million acres of grassland that resulted from conversion to corn or soybeans in five states comprising the western Corn Belt over the five years from 2006 to 2011.
  2. Johnston (2014) also used the CDL to analyze land cover trends across the eastern Dakotas and found that corn and soy agriculture expanded by 27% (3.8 million ha) during the two years from 2010 to 2012.
  3. Reitsma et al. (2015) reported a net grassland loss of 4.6 million acres resulting from cropland expansion in the state of South Dakota over the six years from 2006 to 2012.

 

I’m a scientist. I look at evidence. I look at FACTS. The FACTS couldn’t be clearer.

  1. Predators aren’t driving any broad-scale decline in gamebirds such as pheasants. 
  2. Habitat loss is far and away the biggest concern for gamebirds (and other wildlife) in the Dakotas
  3. Predator control problems are expensive and ineffective, with a miniscule impact compared to dollar-for-dollar habitat conservation efforts.

I’ll end with one more driving factor for the long term…climate change. As noted above, conservation and management groups all noted TWO factors that had the biggest impact on gamebird populations..habitat, and weather/climate. The climate is changing…whether you “believe” in it or not.  What are the potential impacts on gamebird populations in South Dakota? Let’s look at Sharp-tailed Grouse populations in the state.  They are found from the southern to northern border in South Dakota, in much of the western half to two-thirds of the state. They are found as far south as the Platte River in Nebraska. What about the future?

Using projected changes in both land use (habitat loss) and projected changes in climate, this (wonderful!!!) study found that your grandchildren aren’t going to be hunting Sharp-tailed Grouse. Not in South Dakota anyway.  The top map below shows the “current” distribution of Sharp-tailed Grouse. The areas in red in the bottom three maps? Those all show areas where Sharp-tailed Grouse will be severely impacted by climate and land use change…with a bulls-eye right on South Dakota and northern Nebraska. Three climate scenarios are shown, with “A2” being the most severe scenario, and “B1” being the least severe. REGARDLESS of scenario, this research shows that SHARP-TAILED GROUSE WILL BE EXTIRPATED FROM THE SOUTHERN TWO-THIRDS OF SOUTH DAKOTA BY 2075.

Sharp-tailed Grouse - Tympanuchus phasianellusSo please, sportsmen…if you want to preserve your resource, do ALL of us some good. Predator control? NOBODY (other than our rather clueless governor) believe it’s an effective long-term solution. You want a big bang-for-the-buck? Petition Noem’s office for habitat conservation and preservation programs. Contribute to groups that foster habitat protection. That’s a “win” for all concerned, as it not only benefits Ring-necked Pheasants and reduces predation, but it helps non-game species as well.

And if you’re like me and have a son…and if you worry about his future…play the long game as well, and start paying attention to the long-term devastation climate change is going to have in the state.

Ring-necked Pheasant - Phasianus colchicus

A young Ring-necked Pheasant hanging out on a fence post. Do you want to preserve these birds, and also end up helping ALL wildlife in the state? Stop supporting this ridiculous predator control effort, and focus the state’s attention on habitat conservation.

I DARE you to name a state more ass-backwards than South Dakota

South Dakota Redneck Bounty Program

A small feel for what it’s like when you pull up to the Outdoor Campus in Sioux Falls. They’ve brought in a trailer and dumped it next to a trail, and there are bright, obnoxious yellow signs EVERYWHERE touting the new South Dakota Redneck Bounty Program (my title). The Outdoor Campus was a great place for kids to learn about and appreciate the outdoors. Now when they come in, THIS is what first greets them. This is what breaks my heart, that with this program being mandated from on high, that kids coming into the Outdoor Campus will now associate the outdoors with a program that’s all about the exploitation and killing animals.

EDIT: NOTE — Read this related post! If you are upset about the bounty program like I am, direct your anger to the right outlet! That’s not the Outdoor Campus themselves! 

ALSO: READ HERE for what the evidence and experts say about predator control programs, and where your money is better spent.

With a long last couple of weeks that included a conference that went 5 days (including a Saturday and a Sunday), I had today off. With the latest storm-of-the-century winding down, I thought I’d head out and do a bit of birding, given that with fresh snow and ice, the birds were likely bunched up. I’ve seen some sparrow migrants at my feeders in the last day or two, including several Fox Sparrows and White-throated Sparrows.  Knowing sparrow migration can be spectacular here both in terms of number and species, I thought I’d try birding the Outdoor Campus in Sioux Falls, given the feeder complexes and habitat that might attract migrants. They bill themselves as “South Dakota’s premiere outdoor skills education center”. They have a little pond, teach kids to fish and canoe, have displays about critters in the state, and have some nice trails to hike, all in the heart of Sioux Falls.

Over the years, I’ve helped out the Outdoor campus on occasion. They have an area with big windows looking out on the feeder complexes, and I’ve donated photos to hang in that room. I’ve given talks at there about birds, birding, and photography.  I’ve donated photos for other purposes. However, after today’s visit, the emotional side of me almost wants that cooperation to end. As I walked past photos of mine in the “bird room”, as I walked in the front DOOR and saw photos of mine advertising upcoming meetings, I frankly was tempted to rip them all down and bring them out with me.  Why?

Our “beloved” dim-witted new governor, Kristi Noem, unilaterally declared war on wildlife in the state. Despite the objections of HER OWN EXPERTS (sound familiar, Donald Trump?), she unilaterally directed Fish & Wildlife funds to go towards a new trapping and bounty program. Her brilliant theory? Sometimes critters will eat Ring-necked Pheasant eggs.  We can’t have that!  The fewer Ring-necked Pheasants we have, the fewer there will be for people to blast away at and kill!! So this “brilliant” woman established this program to trap and kill as many predators in the state as possible. Thinking it’s 1819, not 2019, she actually instituted a bounty on any creature she herself thought might occasionally snack on pheasant eggs.  The bounty includes pretty much any small and medium-sized predator in the state, including raccoon, opossum, skunk, coyote, red fox…etc…etc…etc.

Do you know how many Red Fox I’ve been fortunate enough to see in my 25+ years in South Dakota.  THREE. THREE RED FOX, in 25 freaking years. But evidently they’re a huge threat to pheasants and must be trapped, killed, and their tails must be brought in for reward.

So what do you see now when you go to this premiere educational center? They have a trailer parked outside, and a bunch of signs up touting the availability of traps, and noting where to go to bring your tails for your bounty.  That’s right…it’s 2019, and in the heart of Sioux Falls, we now have a bunch of signs up asking people to go out and kill animals, cut off the tails, and bring them in for a reward.  As this laughable piece touting the program notes, one of the state administrators of the program states this is a way to “get people outside, get them excited for the outdoors“.  Because nothing says “fun” like trapping creatures, then killing them and cutting off their tails.

Sportsmen themselves are appalled at this program. Kristi Noem was supposed to visit a monthly meting of The Black Hills Sportsmen’s Club, but Noem skipped the meeting when she found out the group was circulating material protesting the bounty program. As the Sportsmen’s Club points out, research shows trapping and killing small predators does nothing to actually increase pheasant populations. The Club also rightfully points out that the number one way to improve pheasant populations is to increase suitable habitat. Yet South Dakota currently is a hotbed for conversion of grasslands to cropland, and shelterbelts and other protective cover are being ripped out at an unprecedented pace to increase cultivated acreage. Instead of directing funds to improve habitat, as science states is the logical way to go, she instead chose an action that defies logic and the expertise of her own wildlife people.

I wish I could say this kind of thing is an isolated incident in South Dakota, but we’re known for our ass-backwardsness. Short-term thinking, small minds, and an outright HOSTILITY towards “experts”, science, logic, and truth…that’s pretty much the state logo.  I’ll leave it with a quite from the Dakota Free Press story linked above, regarding Noem’s cowardly refusal to meet with the Sportsmen’s Club.  And I will count the days until I retire and I can leave this state.

But start talking about science, and Governor Noem’s eyes glaze over. Disagree with her, and she turns her back. She’s more interested in crowning herself with more titles than actually solving problems.

Outdoor Campus Redneck Bounty Program

Another view with more signs about the bounty program. This is what breaks my heart. Because of this program mandated from Noem on down, this is now what people will see when they first arrive at the Outdoor Campus. This is what a kid visiting for the first time might associate with “the Outdoors”…that the whole reason it’s there is for exploitation…for killing. That’s what’s most upsetting about seeing this activity at the Outdoor Campus.

 

The Monarch Butterfly vs. South Dakota Politics

Monarch Caterpillar - Danaus plexippus

A Monarch Caterpillar having lunch. This was taken in a roadside ditch in Minnehaha County, South Dakota, but it’s not nearly as common a sight as it could (should) be. Ditches here are mowed, sprayed, and otherwise managed, resulting in ditches (even on rarely used gravel roads) often looking like golf courses or urban lawns.

Yesterday I birded several locations to the northwest of Sioux Falls. I traveled through not only Minnehaha County (where Sioux Falls is), but also nearby McCook, Lake, Kingsbury, and Brookings counties. When I go birding around here, I typically travel on gravel roads, to minimize interaction with other cars and reach places where I can actually stop and watch for a while. While traveling gravel roads through these counties yesterday, I was struck by the incredibly variable management of roadside ditches.

What’s that? You don’t pay much attention to the ditches when you’re driving? I can’t say I normally do either, but I was recently at the North American Congress for Conservation Biology Conference (NACCB), where there were a number of presentations on the plight of the Monarch Butterfly. They’re a species dependent upon milkweed. One of the problems is that SO much of the United States landscape is now being used for agriculture, urban development, energy development, and other uses, and milkweed is crowded out.  Even in areas adjacent or near to agricultural land, herbicides are often used for weed control, further reducing milkweed abundance.

This spring, I was contacted by researchers who were studying landscape change, and how it potentially impacted Monarch Butterflies. Specifically, they were interested in using our landscape modeling to look at future landscapes, and the resultant impacts on both milkweed and Monarch butterflies. In the model they used, they were assuming that roadside ditches in most areas were places where milkweed was likely to be found.

As I quickly learned on my drive yesterday, that characterization is clearly NOT true in many areas, and seems to be strongly driven by local politics, in terms of local land management.  When driving in Minnehaha County, I often come across sprayer trucks, actively spraying herbicide in all the ditches to keep herbaceous weeds in check.  I also often come across tractors with mowers attached, mowing the ditches close to the ground.  Yes…even for the GRAVEL roads that rarely get traffic, the ditches are treated in this manner.  The result? The ditches around here often look like a well-manicured lawn (see photos below).  Hell, they often look BETTER than my yard does!! They often consists of nearly 100% brome grass (an exotic, BTW), while milkweed stems are few and far between, and are typically relegated to small spaces where a sprayer didn’t reach.

When driving through parts of Kingsbury and Brookings counties, I was struck by the incredible difference in the ditches. Many ditches clearly hadn’t been mowed in some time, if they were ever mowed. Grasses were mixed with wildflowers, other herbaceous plants, and yes…MILKWEED (see more photos below).  Milkweed was often present in very high abundance.  The issue clearly isn’t adjacency with actively growing agricultural crops. As the photos below show, the Brookings and Kingsbury County ditches often had an abundance of herbaceous plantlife in areas directly next to corn and soybean fields.

It is possible that I just happened to drive on some gravel roads yesterday in Kingsbury and Brookings counties where no action was taken, but spraying was occurring elsewhere.  On the Brookings County website, for example, I was disappointed to find this page, that notes the county DOES spray right-of-ways with “products such as 2,4-D, Tordon 22K, and possibly mixtures of them“.  They do note on their web page that they spray in May, so clearly they don’t spray all ditches, as the photo below (with the milkweed) is on a gravel road on the very western edge of Brookings County.

During the NACCB conference, one talk I heard focused on recovery efforts for the Monarch, and plans in place to improve Milkweed abundance and improvement. Even a dead-red, conservative state like Oklahoma is taking action, with the Oklahoma highway department specifically managing ditches for Monarch and pollinator habitat. They are specifically planting wildflowers and milkweed along highways in an effort to help not only Mmnarchs, but other species that depend on these plants. The discussion at the conference was a similar “Monarch Highway” stretching from Texas up northward through southern Canada, an area with highway ditches specifically devoted to herbaceous plants, including Milkweed.

Could such a thing happen up here in South Dakota? I’ll see it when I believe it. We have such an focus on agricultural production, that I find it hard to believe they’d accept any land management action that could possibly harm that production in any way.  Not that I BELIEVE an aggressive, pro-Milkweed, pro-Monarch Butterfly agenda would harm agricultural production, but in this VERY red state, environmentalists are usually portrayed as the enemy.  For a large portion of the populous here, I have no doubt they’d view a program like Oklahoma’s as an attempt by environmentalists to meddle in local affairs.

It’s hard to imagine now, but when we moved to South Dakota 25 years ago, our Congressional delegation was completely Democratic. Hell, we had Tom Daschle as a Democratic Senate Majority Leader.  How times have changed. Serendipity may have led to the 3 Democratic Congressional delegates 25 years ago, but in today’s anti-environmentalist concerns for issues like the Monarch Butterfly as far removed from most South Dakotan’s minds.

Minnehaha County Roadside Ditch

I wish my yard looked this green, lush, and free of weeds. Driving home yesterday through northern Minnehaha County, THIS is what roadsides looked like. Even for lightly traveled gravel roads such as this one. Frequent spraying and mowing ensure a monoculture of brome grass, with nary a milkweed stem in sight.

Brookings County Roadside Ditch

In contrast to the Minnehaha County ditch, this is what I saw in many parts of Kingsbury and Brookings Counties. This ditch clearly hadn’t been mowed or sprayed this summer, and was full of herbaceous plants other than brome grass, including many milkweed stems.

 

 

 

Climate Change is for the Birds

This morning was one of the most bizarre birding trips I’ve taken in a while. The forecast was clear skies and low wind, a combination you need to take advantage of when it happens in South Dakota. I headed up to the Lake Thompson area in Kingsbury County, South Dakota, to shoot gulls, terns, shorebirds, herons, egrets…all the wonderful water-loving birds you find up there this time of year.

I wanted to arrive just before dawn, and given it’s a 1 1/2 hour drive, I was up and on the road quite early. I knew right away something was different. Even before the sun arose, the lighting was strange. There were clearly no visible stars in the dark sky, but yet I had no doubt it was indeed cloud-free.  We had a hint of this phenomena yesterday, but this morning it hit full bore…a sky full of smoke from the fires hundreds of miles away in the western US and Canada.

Not was I was expecting when I left this morning, and it certainly changed the types of photos I went after! As usual at this time of year, there were birds everywhere. However, even after sunrise, the light was so poor that it was difficult to grab any decent photos.  It wasn’t until about half an hour after sunrise when it started to get bright enough to shoot. It’s not often you can point your expensive camera right at the sun at that time of day, and not permanently fry your sensor, but the light was so diffuse this morning I certainly could.  I ended up settling down at a wetland area near Lake Thompson, trying to shoot the numerous Black Terns against the odd, but beautiful lighting.  Not a situation I’m used to shooting in, but I was able to get some photos I thought were “cool”.

I’ve been in South Dakota 25 years now, and lived at basically the same latitude down in southern Nebraska before that. Until the last few years, I just don’t remember fire seasons out West being SO bad, that our air here on the eastern side of South Dakota was this affected.  But last year too, on one rock-hunting trip, the air was so bad that my eyes were watering and I started wheezing a bit. Something has changed!  That something most likely is due to, or at least severely exacerbated by, climate change!

Climate change is for the birds. But at least for one morning, it made for some cool photos.

Black Tern (Chlidonias niger) - Flying through smoke-filled skies

Black Tern, flying through the reflection of a smoke-diffused sun. This is at LEAST half an hour after sunrise!

Black Tern (Chlidonias niger)Highway 81 Lakes and Smoky Sky

 

 

Who’s to blame for climate change impacts? Environmental activists!!

Senator Mike Rounds (R) - South Dakota

Our beloved former Governor turned Senator, Mike Rounds. Not only did he strongly advocate for the US to leave the Paris Climate Accords, evidently he found the REAL cause of climate change…environmental activists! I wonder if he also blames them for that massive bald spot and his ridiculous comb-over attempt.

The West is burningScandanavia is sweltering. Ocean temperatures off the coast of California are the highest they’ve ever been. Clearly something is happening, right? A normal person would look at the evidence in front of them, believe their own eyes, and declare climate change to be humanity’s number one threat.  Those in the GOP are far from normal. Over the past week I’ve encountered at least two stories where those in the GOP aren’t blaming carbon dioxide levels or humanity for disasters striking the US. No, it turns out the REAL culprits are environmental activists themselves!!

The first story has been widely reported over the last day, when Orange Hitler tweeted California wildfires are being magnified & made so much worse by the bad environmental laws which aren’t allowing massive amount of readily available water to be properly utilized. It is being diverted into the Pacific Ocean. Must also tree clear to stop fire spreading!” The “logic” behind the tweet? Trump evidently believes California’s environmental and water use laws that actually let rivers, you know…FLOW…are causing a lack of water, resulting in massive fire outbreaks in the state.  I prefer this gentleman’s take on the GOP logic:

California climate and water expert Peter Gleick tweeted that Trump’s explanation was “gobbledygook bullshit” and “unmitigated crap.”

Note I attribute a blanket “GOP logic” rather than just “Trump logic”, as he’s clearly not alone in his level of delusion. When taking my son fishing along the Missouri River this past week, I looked for news about water levels.  There are abnormally high water levels in the northern portions of the Missouri River, and as a result, they are releasing large quantities of water through the turbines at Oahe Dam in Pierre, South Dakota.  The resultant downstream flooding has caused an outcry against the Corps of Engineers for supposedly mismanaging the river’s flow.  There’s only so much the Corps can can do, as the water has to go somewhere, but former-South-Dakota-Governor-turned-Senator-yet-always-clueless Mike Rounds took it one step further. So what’s causing the downstream flooding, according to our resident super-genius?

Rounds thinks climate-change driven policy choices might have caused greater challenges in balancing the mainstem dam system’s electric power and flood control functions. Arguments based on climate change have led increasingly to adoption of wind power, Rounds said, and wind power production is not uniform, because the amount of wind varies.

Yes…it’s those damn climate change activists, insisting on wind turbines as an alternative energy source. Because of them, Rounds claims, it’s much more difficult to manage water flow through the Missouri River dams. And thus…CLIMATE CHANGE ACTIVISTS ARE CAUSING THE FLOODING.

I don’t know what’s sadder…the fact that our Nation’s supposed leaders have the gall to claim environmental activists are causing environmental disaster…or that evidently 40% of Americans are stupid enough to believe them.

 

Killing Science, $1 at a time

Landsat Image - Garden City, Kansas

A Landsat image near Garden City, Kansas, depicting the view of irrigated agriculture using center pivots. Monitoring agricultural change and productivity is one of but many applications of Landsat data, providing scientific and economic benefits to the Nation. The latest move by the Department of Interior to potentially begin charging a fee for Landsat data would devastate Earth science activities around the globe. (click for a larger view).

Nature today published a story about a Department of Interior committee studying the possibility of charging fees for data from the Landsat satellite program, data that are currently available for free.  The first Landsat satellite was launched in 1972, with 6 additional satellites launched since then. The latest was Landsat 8, launched in 2013, while Landsat 9 is scheduled for launch in late 2020.  Landsat satellites have provided continuous Earth observations for the last 46 years (!!!!), an invaluable and unmatched record for recording changes on the Earth’s surface. The number of applications of Landsat data is astounding, including monitoring forestry activity (forest harvest and regrowth), agricultural productivity, monitoring urban sprawl, quantifying changes in surface water extent in response to flooding or drought, assessing the impacts of natural disasters, mapping geologic landforms, and a host of other uses. As the Nature article notes, a 2013 committee commissioned to assess the economic costs and benefits of the Landsat program found that while the program costs the US government approximately $80 million a year, economic benefits for the country are staggering…well over $2 billion per year.

Management of Landsat has changed over the years, but USGS and NASA are the two Federal agencies currently managing the program. Until 2008, the data came at a cost to the user...a cost that historically could be quite high.  A disastrous attempt to semi-privatize Landsat data distribution in the 1990s led to costs for each Landsat “scene” (an area approximately 115 x 115 miles) of up to $4,000!  While highly valuable data for a number of applications, the high cost was a major roadblock for usage of the data. In 2008, the USGS made the decision to begin distributing the data free of charge…and usage of Landsat data grew exponentially. Before the policy change, USGS distributed a mere ~50 scenes per day.  Once the data were made freely available, usage jumped more than 100-fold, with thousands of Landsat scenes downloaded per day.  Having freely available data from the world’s premiere long-term observation platform of the Earth’s surface has since transformed Earth science.  Applications once hindered by data costs were now free to tap into the entire Landsat database.

The Nature story notes that under the current administration, the committee is considering again re instituting a fee for access to Landsat. Given the other actions of Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, and other administration officials with roles overseeing environmental science, it’s easy to speculate as to the real purpose of the committee.  DOI, EPA, NOAA, and other scientific agencies and programs in the Federal government have been targeted for draconian reductions by the Trump industry.  Elimination of environmental science and privatization of traditional government activities has been a major focus of this administration.  My own personal interpretation…this is a move to 1) curtail the vast array of environmental monitoring and analysis that’s occurred since Landsat data were made freely available, 2) bow to the will of industry lobbyists who wish to continue the push towards privatization of Earth observations and increase corporate profits, and 3) eventually extricate the US government from running the Landsat program and other similar Earth observation systems.

Any truly unbiased analysis of the Landsat program would label the 2008 move to freely available data as a smashing success, both in terms of economics and the scientific benefits. Returning to the 1990s and charging high fees for Landsat data access would result in an immediate, sharp decline in environmental and economic applications that use the data.  Given that the one overarching theme of the Trump administration is “corporate profit above all else”, it’s impossible to view this potential move with anything other than a highly cynical eye.

 

Birds Under Systemic Attack in the U.S. Under Trump

Young Whooping Crane - Grus americana

A researcher at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland, dressed in white garb designed to emulate an adult Whooping Crane, and a young, 2-month old Whooping Crane “colt”.  Researchers only interact with the young while wearing such outfits, to avoid any human imprinting on the young.  Patuxent has played a vital role in conserving Whooping Cranes and bringing them back from the edge of extinction. Thanks to the GOP and this administration, the entire Whooping Crane program and its minuscule $1.5 million cost is being eliminated.

There are around 600 Whooping Cranes in the world, with about 30% of those in captivity. Of the few hundred birds in the wild, most breed near Wood Buffalo National Park in Alberta, while a smaller and more recently established breeding population is found in central Wisconsin. The species has become reestablished in the wild only due to strong conservation measures and to the diligent and long-term efforts of captive breeding and reintroduction programs such as the 51-year year effort at Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland. When the program started in 1966, only 42 Whooping Cranes were left. The dedicated efforts of Patuxent scientists were vital for bringing the species back from the edge of extinction.

In 2016, Patuxent scientists developed a plan that would wind down their captive breeding program, with a plan to end the program in another 10 to 15 years.  Thanks to the Trump administration, that program is now in the process of being disbanded immediately.  In a multi-TRILLION dollar federal budget, the $1.5 million U.S. Geological Survey budget for the Whooping Crane program was a minuscule drop in the bucket.  But with a GOP political ideology that’s focused on corporate profit and short-term financial gain over ANY environmental concern, the death of the USGS’s Whooping Crane program is just one small part of a sinister, death-by-a-thousand-cuts to wildlife conservation in the United States.

The proposed cuts in both the proposed fiscal year 2018 and 2019 Trump budgets are more a declaration of war on the environment than they are a sound, fiscally responsible means of streamlining federal programs. The Ecosystems mission area of the USGS is responsible for an array of wildlife research and management programs: The Trump budget proposes a 30% cut in those programs for the coming fiscal year.  Many programs are slated for complete elimination, including the popular Cooperative Research Units, a network of an onsite USGS presence on academic campuses across the US.  Designed to foster local cooperative research on wildlife issues, the entire $25 million budget for the Coop units for 2019 is likely to be eliminated. The Climate and Land Use program is being forced to change its name to “Land Resources”, with nearly ALL climate-related research eliminated (as well as much of the landscape research).  Eliminating even the WORD “climate” is a common theme in proposed budgets across ALL Federal agencies. The “Energy and Minerals” Mission Area is the one USGS mission that maintains most of its funding, but the proposed changes are startling in scope.  While funding would remain stable or even increase for mineral resource exploitation, the entire “Environmental Health” program, designed to assess potential environmental consequences of resource extraction on Federal lands, is slated to be eliminated.  In other words…we want to exploit the Federal lands that YOU AND I own, but we don’t want to even look at the environmental consequences of that exploitation.

Other agencies in the Department of Interior are also slated for severe cuts, including cuts to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and the National Park Service. The GOP goal is to transition the primary focus of DOI to the exploitation of our natural resources, with environmental concern and conservation efforts being severely curtailed.  The Endangered Species Act, originally championed under the GOP and the Nixon Administration, is similarly under attack, with multiple efforts in Congress underway to undermine the law.

600 Whooping Cranes on the planet.  600 birds, found in only two concentrated breeding areas, and thus extremely susceptible to some disturbance or disease event, yet while the GOP attempts to raise our military spending by a ridiculous $70-80 BILLION a year, they have the gall to point to the $1.5 million Whooping Crane cost as a “luxury” that our Nation can’t afford.  Not to mention a trillion-dollar tax cut for corporations and the rich at a time when corporate profits are at record levels.

There’s so many disgusting things happening in Washington right now that it’s hard to stay on top of all the latest headlines.  Russia-gate, potential impeachment, obvious racism and bigotry emanating from the president himself (no, this president doesn’t get a capital “p”), mass killings and gun control issues…it’s overwhelming.  Conservation stories such as these are having a hard time getting any play in the mainstream press.  With the damage that’s being done RIGHT NOW, it will likely take decades for us to recover, after what’s shaping up to be four years of continuous and widespread attacks on our Nation’s wild resources, and the long-established programs designed to protect and manage them.

I just hope birds like the Whooping Crane can weather the storm until Americans come to their damned senses.

The “melting pot” of Hawaiian birds

Just back from 10 days in Hawaii, a region with one of the most screwed-up ecosystems on the planet. As a birder, it was certainly a fun trip, as I added at least 30 “new” species to my life list. Of those 30, however, only one-third were native to the Hawaiian Islands.  No area of the United States has suffered a greater loss of native bird species than Hawaii.  The reasons are many, but they all have a man-made origin. The devastation began when the islands first became populated, and ecosystems were directly impacted by mankind. Forest clearing and the introduction of fire certainly had an impact, but other anthropogenic factors were the most devastating.

There are no native reptiles or amphibians on the Hawaiian islands, and only one native mammal, a species of bat.  However, with the arrival of man came rats and mice, cats, as well as introduced mongoose that were brought to the islands to control the rat populations.  These introduced mammals all were new predators of eggs, young birds, and even adult birds…threats Hawaiian birds had never had to deal with before. Introduced pigs, goats, and sheep devastated the natural vegetation of the islands.  Disease also has had a devastating impact on Hawaiian birds, as introduced avian malaria has wiped out entire species and devastated other species.  Introduced plant species have changed the vegetative composition of Hawaiian ecosystems, and even now, a new fungal disease has started to wipe out Hawaii’s Ohi’a tree, one of the most common and important forest tree’s for Hawaiian birds.

For someone from South Dakota, it’s thus a fun place to bird, but it’s also sobering. Hawaii has certainly become a “melting pot”, regional ecosystem experiment, where birds, plants, and diseases from all regions of the globe are thrown together…winner take all. Unfortunately it’s the native plants and animals that are losing in this experiment.

Here’s a sampling of some of the birds I was able to photograph, and a bit of information as to where these now well-established “Hawaiian” birds actually originated.

Hawai'i 'Amakihi - Chlorodrepanis virens

An ‘Amakihi, specifically, the Hawai’i subspecies. Similar subspecies are found on O’ahu and Kaua’i. This is a native species. They are one of a very few Hawaiian honeycreeper species that has continued to thrive, despite all the ecosystem changes. They were quite common on our visit to the Big Island, and I found them on both the dry and wet sides of the island.

Erckel's Francolin - Pternistis erckelii

There’s no shortage of “gamebirds” now on the big island. Many species of pheasant, quail, and other similar birds have been introduced. This was one of the most common that we saw on Hawai’i, an Erckel’s Francolin. We found them on dry grasslands on the western side of the island, forest edges, and even forest clearings in the wet rain-forests of the eastern side of the island. Nasty looking spurs on these guys…I’d bet the males use them to good effect during the breeding season.

Yellow-billed Cardinal - Paroaria capitata

20 years ago, before I started birding, my wife and I visited O’ahu. Even as a non-birder I noticed the striking Red-crested Cardinals. It wasn’t until I became a birder a few years later that I learned they weren’t native. Hawai’i island doesn’t have the Red-crested Cardinal, but they do have a similar looking bird, the Yellow-billed Cardinal. They are native to parts of South America, but were introduced to Hawai’i several decades ago. They’re not actually closely related to cardinals, they are a species of tanager. We found them in a variety of settings, all over the island, but they certainly have adapted well to a human presence. They were almost ubiquitous in and around suburban settings and parks.

Photo of White-tailed Tropicbird - Phaethon lepturus

This one was a huge surprise to me! We were visiting Kilauea’s main crater, an active crater with a lava lake at the bottom, when I saw multiple white birds streaking through the sky in and around the crater rim. I never got close enough for a great photo, but it was quite obvious what they were once I got my binoculars on them…White-tailed Tropicbirds! I certainly wasn’t expecting to find a tropical sea-bird flying around the crater of an inland volcano, but these guys actually nest on the cliff walls in and around Kilauea’s summit! They are native, and given their unique habitat choice on the island, they are one species not heavily impacted by anthropogenic activity. Their choice of nesting location shields them from the rats, cats, and mongoose that have devastated other nesting birds on the islands.

Photo of African Silverbill - Euodice cantans

One of the best places I birded on Hawai’i was on the slopes of Mauna Loa, between 5,000 and 7,500 feet above sea level. There were many native mamane trees on the dry eastern slopes, and these dry woodlands with scattered trees and grasses were wonderful for a wide variety of species. This included native Amakihi and Elepaio, but also included MANY non-native species. That included roving flocks of these guys, African Silverbills. They are a native of western and central Africa.

Photo of Red-billed Leiothrix - Leiothrix lutea

Another non-native species that was common in the dry mamane forests on the slopes of Mauna Loa…Red-billed Leiothrix. Beautiful birds, these guys were mingling with mixed flocks of other small birds, including the native Amakihi. They are native to southern China and the Himalayan region.

Photo of 'Apapane - Himatione sanguinea

Like the Amakihi, this is another of the few native Hawaiian honeycreepers that seems to still be doing well…the ‘Apapane. They are still quite common and widespread on Hawai’i. Wherever we found Ohi’a trees on the wet, eastern side of the island, we found ‘Apapane. Alas though, even the few native Hawaiian honeycreeper species that have survived are faced with devastating population losses. The Ohi’a tree on which these guys depend (shown in this photo) have been subjected to a new fungal disease that just started devastating Ohi’a populations on Hawai’i in 2010. In the few short years since, large areas of Ohi’a-dominated forest have been affected. We ourselves saw huge swaths of forests with all the large Ohi’a trees dead. So far the fungus is confined to the island of Hawai’i, but it’s a horrible development for Hawaiian birds that are so dependent upon this plant.

Photo of Grey Francolin - Francolinus pondicerianus

Another of the non-native Francolin’s, this is a Grey Francolin. These weren’t nearly as common as the Erckel’s Francolin, and they seem to be restricted to the dry lowlands on the western side of Hawai’i. I also saw a number of Black Francolin on Hawai’i, but wasn’t able to get a photo of them. The Grey Francolin shown here is native to southern Asia.

Photo of Nene - Branta sandvicensis

The state bird of Hawai’i, the Nene. We saw them flying over on occasion, but the ONLY place we ever saw them on the ground? Golf courses. Nene nearly went extinct several decades ago until captive breeding was used to rebuild the population. Despite seeing them on a number of occasions on Hawai’i, it’s not a complete conservation success story. Populations on the main island of Hawai’i are still likely not self-sustaining. As ground nesters, eggs and young are extremely susceptible to predation from rats, cats, and mongoose. Even brooding adult birds may be attacked. Without captive breeding, it is unlikely the species would survive on Hawai’i.

Photo of Zebra Dove - Geopelia striata

A Zebra Dove sitting on a fenceline. A native of southeastern Asia, these guys are EVERYWHERE on the Big Island, particularly in and around urban and suburban areas. Zebra Doves have pretty much become the equivalent of Rock Pigeons in the continental United States…a species that is found everywhere humans are found.

Photo of Yellow-fronted Canary - Serinus mozambicus

A beautiful, yet non-native, Yellow-fronted Canary. They are native to sub-Saharan Africa. We found them in a number of habitats, but particularly on woodland edges with grasses and grass seed available nearby.

Photo of Black Noddy - Anous minutus

A Black Noddy…specifically the Hawaiian sub-species, known locally as the Noio. When visiting southern part of Hawai’i, we saw them on multiple occasions, cruising in and around the coastal seacliffs upon which they nest. A native seabird that seems to still be doing quite well.

Photo of Saffron Finch - Sicalis flaveola

One of the first birds we saw after getting off the plane in Kona were a pair of absolutely gorgeous Saffron Finches near the Airport. Beautiful, found in many places all over the island, but alas, not native. They are a tanager relative native to South America.

Photo of Eurasian Skylark - Alauda arvensis

European settlers introduced some of their favorite European species in multiple locations throughout the globe. One of their favorite birds from “back home” were Eurasian Skylarks, a song known for their melodious songs. They are now well established on the Big Island, and we saw them EVERYWHERE on the grassy western slopes of Mauna Loa.

Photo of Pueo - Asio flammeus sandwichensis

For our first 4 days on the island, we stayed at an area about 20 miles north of the Kona airport. Despite driving across several parts of the dry, western part of the island in those first few days, it took THREE FULL DAYS before I finally saw a bird that was actually NATIVE to Hawai’i. That bird was a “Pueo”, the local name for the only native owl found in the Hawaiian islands. Most think it’s a subspecies of the Short-eared Owl. There was one road on the western slopes of Mauna Loa where I had incredible success finding these guys, including 5 individual owls in one 8-mile section of road one evening.

Photo of Pueo - Asio flammeus sandwichensis

Both the first and last native bird photos of our trip were of a Pueo. This was our last evening on the island, with a lone Pueo sitting on a fence post on the western slopes of Mauna Loa.

 

Evolution in the blink of an eye…

Prairie Deer Mouse - Peromyscus maniculatus bairdii

The cool thing about science and nature is that interesting stories are all around us. The tiny Deer Mouse, shown here, has overcome long odds, with the vast majority of its historical habitat gone. However, through some remarkable, fast-track evolutionary adaptation, they’re now able to cope with their new world. Photo by Gregory Smith.

It’s been a busy last week, without any time for birding or photography.  Or blogging, for that matter. I was down in Nebraska for a few days, mixing work and pleasure. The “pleasure” part was my fantasy baseball draft in Omaha Saturday.  Our fantasy league is likely one of the longest running leagues in the country, going back to 1985 during our freshman year in college, when fantasy baseball was still very new.  What’s great about it is that many of the original league members are still participating! It’s great fun, not only the draft itself, but catching up with old college friends.

The “work” part of my Nebraska trip was participation in the 2017 Great Plains Symposium, on the campus of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Much like the baseball draft, the symposium too was like stepping back in time, as I reconnected with some of my old college professors who were participating in the symposium. The focus of the symposium was “Flat Places, Deep Identities: Mapping Nebraska and the Great Plains”.  I gave a talk one some of the work I’ve been doing, mapping past, present, and potential future landscapes in the Great Plains.  It was a great symposium, a little different kind of crowd than I’m used to.  Given the work I do, most of the conferences and symposiums I attend deal with the physical sciences. This conference melded mapping, history, socioeconomics, and other social sciences that I’m not exposed to as much.  It was quite fascinating, particularly hearing about the history of Nebraska, using maps to help tell the “story” of change over time.

As part of the symposium “goodies”, participants were given a copy of The New Territory, a quarterly magazine that focuses on Missouri, Arkansas, Kansas, Nebraska, and Oklahoma.  I admit I’d never heard of the publication before. The content fits quite well with the focus of the symposium itself, with many human interest stories about the geography and people of the region. As a physical scientist, one piece caught my eye though. entitled “Evolution in the Cornbelt“, by Conor Gearin. The story focuses on the Prairie Deer Mouse (Peromyscus maniculatus bairdii), a common little fellow from the Great Plains that feeds on the tiny seeds of grasses and weeds in the prairies.

Researchers at Iowa State and Purdue University were curious how a species so adapted to life in the Great Plains has been able to thrive, given that >99% of the original tallgrass prairie in the region has been plowed under, converted to agriculture, urban land, or other man-made land uses. The grass and weed seeds the Prairie Deer Mouse had historically fed on were much more sparsely distributed than they were 200 years ago, yet the species is still quite common.  They started field work to assess the distribution of the nice, including setting up artificial nest boxes that the mice could use for habitation and food storage.  The results astounded the scientists.

Prior to beginning the work, it was assumed that deer mice populations would be the highest in “edge” habitat, areas such as grassy ditches, fencelines, or other “boundary” conditions where remnants of their traditional food sources may still be found.  However, they quickly found that the highest populations of deer mice were often right in the middle of very large corn and soybean fields, far from any traditional food source.  Clearly, Prairie Deer Mice had adapted to an agricultural setting, and were feeding on man-raised grains and pulses. The question was, how could a tiny mouse that was so well adapted to eating tiny grass and weed seeds shift gears and start feeding on corn and soybeans?

The researchers found historical deer mice in historical museums, creatures that had been preserved with taxidermy. Anatomical comparisons with Prairie Deer Mice from today found some stark differences.  The older specimens were well adapted to feeding on tiny seeds, with small mandibles and jaws that didn’t open very far.  The modern specimens had 1) significantly longer lower mandibles, 2) structural changes that allowed their mouths to open wider, and 3) larger upper mandibles. Accompanying the larger mandibles were more robust “hardware” for linking bone to muscle, with beefed up jaw muscles that enabled the tiny mice to feed on much larger food items than they had historically.

In the blink of an eye, geologically speaking, Prairie Deer Mice had shown measurable, obvious evolutionary adaptation in response to their new environment and food sources.  The researchers found high densities of deer mice in the middle of corn and soybean fields.  Some inevitably will succumb to the mechanical tools humans use to turn and manipulate the soil, but with such a rich, dense, bountiful food source, the mice had quickly evolved to fill the new ecological niche and feed on corn and soybean waste.

For a scientist like myself, I’m completely dumbfounded by the sheer ignorance of those who doubt science…who doubt climate change is real…who doubt in evolution.  The actual empirical evidence is overwhelming, conclusive, and “in-your-face”, for those who bother to open their eyes to the world around them. It’s a fascinating story, and the writer (Conor Gearin) did a great job not only summarizing the research, but telling it in a true story-teller’s fashion.  To me, this is exactly the kind of story, and writing style, that could perhaps help to turn the tide against the anti-science wave that seems to be cresting in the U.S. right now. Great story, and The New Territory really looks like a publication that’s worth subscribing to or picking up if you get a chance.

Grand River National Grasslands, Harding County, South Dakota

Expansive grasslands of the Grand River National Grasslands, in Harding County, in far northwestern South Dakota. Grassland habitat like this is greatly reduced in the Great Plains. However, that doesn’t seem to be a problem for one species, the Prairie Deer Mouse, who evidently can do quite well without an actual “prairie”.

Hearing Neil deGrasse Tyson — Science in today’s world

Neil deGrasse Tyson - Sioux Falls, SD

Neil deGrasse Tyson, speaking at the Boe Forum at Augustana University in Sioux Falls. All science related of course, getting sidetracked on some amusing other issues at times, but a great speech. My biggest takeaway…the need to restore humanity’s sense of wonder about the universe (and our own world).

We had the GREAT pleasure last night to hear Neil deGrasse Tyson speak at the “Boe Forum” at Augustana University in Sioux Falls.The Boe Forum on Public Affairs was founded in 1995, with a goal “to provide access to individuals who can address events, issues or problems of worldwide or national concern and of broad public interest.”  They’ve certainly had some wonderful speakers (and some less wonderful speakers…think Newt Gingrich and Rudy Guiliani) over the years. They’ve managed to draw some very big names, including Colin Powell, Mikhail Gorbachev, George H.W. Bush, Al Gore, Desmond Tutu, Vicente Fox, Sandra Day O’Connor, Pervez Musharraf, and Madeline Albright. Augustana University has just opened their new “Froiland Science Complex”, and said they wanted a “moonshot” science speaker to coincide with opening of that science center.  They certainly succeeded by managing to draw Neil deGrasse Tyson to Sioux Falls.

Tyson ended up talking for two hours, and while my son was getting a wee bit antsy towards the end, I must say that it was a very engaging, surprisingly funny, and interesting talk that kept me very engaged the entire time. There were a few things that surprised me a bit, things I disagreed with.  Given today’s political climate and how it’s affecting science, I was hoping for more content on the intersection of the two, but overall it was a terrific talk.  Some of the takeaways for me:

1968 – 1972 – Birth of the Environmental Movement — The highlight of the talk to me was a section where he specifically talked about the period of 1968 to 1972 and the profound effect it had on humanity and our country.  Apollo 8 was the first mission to orbit the moon, in 1968. As they rounded the moon, astronaut William Anders took the iconic “EarthRise” photo (bottom of this post), looking across the moon’s surface back at Earth.  The next year we landed on the moon. As Tyson noted, these events totally changed humanity and how we view our own planet.  Some very simple observations noted how little we understood our earth up to that point.  He showed a photo from Star Trek, of the Enterprise orbiting the Earth. Their depiction of Earth had the continents, the oceans…but no clouds!  Tyson gave other examples of artwork and even scientific renderings of Earth up to that point, and none of them portrayed the clouds that are always present! The sense of wonder during the space race, the first looks at our planet from space…it changed how we viewed our planet.  In the period from 1968 to 1972, you thus ended up with the establishment of the first Earth Day. The Environmental Protection Agency was founded.  The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration was founded.  We started cleaning up our air, our water.  We noticed the massive decline in our national symbol, the Bald Eagle, and banned DDT to save the species (a resounding success!).  The Endangered Species Act was founded in 1973.  This period STARTED the environmental movement.

Reinvigorating interest in science — The take-home point from the examination of the 1968-1972 period?  All that sense of wonder…that feeling that our Earth is a special place…that’s GONE, or at least incredibly diminished right now. Many people today simply can’t see past their own short-term guilty pleasures to even THINK about the future.  At the end of Tyson’s talk, he had a question-and-answer period. One of the questions was related to these points, and how we can get back to those days of the 1960s and 1970s where environmental conservation, where caring about our planet, really was part of the American consciousness. The answer from Tyson wasn’t related to politics, it wasn’t related to things like the March for Science coming up on April 22nd, it wasn’t related to need for better PR.  No, the answer was much more basic, and was rooted in k-12 education. We just don’t value science as much as we should in those formative years. As Tyson stated, what’s going to end up giving us a kick in the butt isn’t just a change in k-12 education, but a realization that we’re losing our economic competitiveness.  With education driven not by national-scale policy but local and state policy, the States that embrace science and technological innovation, starting in k-12, are the ones that will be competitive for industries that drive our economy. Given how much of a focus their is in this country right now on economics, money, and growth, the cynical side of me believes that it will be economic competitiveness that will end up re-igniting the interest and science and innovation, rather than any pure desire to invest in science for science’s sake.

Star Trek depiction of Earth

Prior to the famed “EarthRise” photo from 1968 and our landing on the moon a year later, humanity had little awareness of how to even portray our Earth. As Tyson noted, up until the late 1960s and the space race, this was a typical depiction of Earth (from the original Star Trek) series. Continents…check! Water…check!! Atmosphere, clouds, and weather…something’s missing! The space race had a profound impact on the way humanity viewed our own planet

Intersection of Science, Culture, and Politics — Speaking of the March on Science on April 22nd, one of the questions he received was about scientists and their role in activities such as this. Overall for the night, he really avoided politics, although there were a few timely, light jabs thrown in.  When the audience member asked this question, I thought we might finally hear his thoughts on the impact of politics on science right now. He did touch on that intersection, but it was different than I was expecting. He’s an educator, some may view him as an entertainer, but at his heart, he’s a scientist through-and-through.  His answer began by saying he was on the fence, that in his own mind, he’s still trying to decide how scientists should react in this kind of political environment.  But for the March itself, he said what he really hoped was that such an event wouldn’t be necessary.  As he hammered home all night long, science isn’t political.  Science provides its own truths, as as he stated, it doesn’t really give a damn what you think about it, what your personal, cultural, or political beliefs are.  In short, you can tell that what he’d like to have happen is that the science would speak for itself, that the knowledge and understanding we produce would stand on its own, and that humanity would return to a time where we’d base our decisions on that knowledge.  You can tell he’s struggling a bit with the issue, and is likely as bewildered as many of the rest of us as to how truth, how fact, are being ignored in the face of cultural, political, and ideological attacks. He definitely didn’t seem to have a clear answer on how scientists respond.

Human ego and science — Tyson ended his talk with a theme similar to his discussion of the 1968-1972 period, and its effect on humanity.  He talked about the “Pale Blue Dot” images, the first from Voyager One in 1990, where the instrument looked backed towards Earth and took an image representing our planet as tiny, pale blue dot in a sea of stars and emptiness.  The Cassini satellite studying Saturn provided a similar view more recently, with a 2013 image that shows Earth as a tiny blue dot hiding in the shadows below the foreground image of Saturn and its rings. The end of the talk itself was a reading of material from Carl Sagan, from his 1994 book “Pale Blue Dot”.  The following summarizes that material (a bit revised, from a talk Sagan gave that year):

We succeeded in taking that picture, and, if you look at it, you see a dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever lived, lived out their lives. The aggregate of all our joys and sufferings, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilizations, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every hopeful child, every mother and father, every inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every supreme leader, every saint and sinner in the history of our species, lived there – on a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam.

 

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and in triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of the dot on scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner of the dot. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light.

 

To my mind, there is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.

"Pale Blue Dot", Cassini

‘Version 2″ of the Pale Blue Dot photo, if you will. This is from the Cassini spacecraft orbiting Saturn, looking back at Earth (the small dot in the bottom right).

Religion and Science — Tyson touched on topics related to the Sagan reference all night long. In the overall scheme of the universe, we’re insignificant. We’re not “special”.  At one point he listed the 5 most common elements in the Universe.  He then listed the most common elements in a human body. The list is identical, with the exception of helium (given it’s pretty much non-reactive, it doesn’t form elements found in the human body).  The point he makes…we’re just “stardust”, made up of the same common elements found throughout the universe.  On a night when he would occasionally brush up against the edge of talking in depth about the intersection of culture, politics, and science, but never really dive into the deep end of that pool, this may have been the most “controversial” part of the talk (particularly given that the talk was at a University associated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church, and was speaking in very “red” South Dakota). When touching on politics or culture, you can tell he tries very hard to avoid offending anyone, and he barely mentioned religion.  But as I listened to this part of the discussion, I did wonder what some of the more religious people in the room were thinking.  We’re not “special“.  We’re almost certainly not alone in the Universe, given that we’re made up of the same material as is found throughout the rest of the Universe. We live in a country, however, where a huge swath of the population is unable to separate the science, even the empirical world staring them in the face, from their religion.  In the end its a personal ideology that ends up driving the behavior and interactions of so many Americans, science (and reality!) be damned.  Overall for the night, in what would be interpreted to be a tough cultural and political setting for a science purist like Tyson, he did a great job walking the fine line of informing, without offending.

If you ever get a chance to see Tyson speak, it’s well worth your time.  He’s a wonderful speaker, with a rare ability for a scientist…he knows how to connect with people.

Apollo 8, William Anders' "Earthrise"

The iconic “Earthrise” photo, taken by Apollo 8 astronaut William Anders on Christmas Eve, 1968.

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