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.

 

Representation of Diversity – Or not

I never relay where I work on my blog. Or on social media. Why do I do that? Because anything I post is my opinion alone, and doesn’t relate in any official capacity to my work. All I will say is that right now I am BORED OUT OF MY FREAKING MIND, since I have been unable to report to work for the last 3 weeks. And as time passes, that boredom is gradually transforming to being PISSED OFF.  PISSED OFF at our elected officials who can’t do their jobs, and allow others to do theirs.

So instead of working on a journal paper I REALLY need to finish, instead of creating graphics to support that paper…I made this graphic. Showing how complete unrepresentative our political representatives are, particularly if you’re in the GOP. 88 PERCENT of the GOP House and Senate are white males. Mostly RICH white males, who’s life experience can’t possibly relate to the hardship they’re causing millions of Americans right now.

116th US Congress - Demographics

Demographics of the 116th US Congress. If you’re a rich, white male, you’re WELL represented. If you’re primary mission life is the acquisition of wealth, you’re well represented. If you’re a minority? A woman? Well, you’re kind of screwed.

South Dakota State Guts Research – Polishes Turd with Statement

Replacement SDSU Staff

There IS a strategy behind the SDSU collapse of support for the GSCE program. World-renown researchers Wimberly, Roy, Hennebry, and Zhang have reportedly been replaced with these “new and improved” alternatives.

Clear not all politicians stick with politics. Some obviously branch out in other lines of work…say…working for South Dakota State University’s Division of Research and Economic Development. A few weeks ago the entire research staff of SDSU’s Geospatial Sciences Center of Excellence (GSCE) quit, after being fed up with budget cuts and a seeming disinterest from SDSU in supporting the center. GSCE immediately went from being literally one of the world’s premiere research centers for remote sensing and geospatial sciences, to an empty husk with no staff.

Today, SDSU’s Divison of Research and Economic Development sent out the statement below.

University Community –

 

The purpose of this correspondence is to inform you of some changes within theGeospatial Sciences Center of Excellence (GSCE). Beginning August 22, the GSCE will move from the Division of Research and Economic Development to the Department of Geography in the College of Natural Sciences. The move will provide better alignment with the university’s research strategy, a deeper integration within our university budget process, and provide for integration of the research success strategies of the center and its host college and department.

 

Additionally, Dr. Bob Watrel will serve as the center’s acting co-director.

 

The center will continue to serve as a hub of excellence in geospatial science research and research education. The interdisciplinary research conducted provides quality education for future scientists, educators and decision-makers. We will continue our valuable partnership with the USGS Earth Resources Observation and Science (EROS) Center.

 

The GSCE move into the College of Natural Sciences will be integral to the college’s strategy for impacting society through research. To date, the university has invested more than $100 million of public and private funds into the university’s research and creative capacity. We are committed to continue to optimize investments in support of our institution’s vision of being a premier land-grant university.

 

Thank you for your commitment to South Dakota State University. We appreciate all that you do and look forward to an exciting academic year of discovery and education.

 

Division of Research and Economic Development

Office of the Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs

Other than the content of the statement, one question that immediately comes to mind…why is the “Division of Research” linked with “Economic Development”? It’s not exactly a surprise to me in today’s political climate, certainly not in South Dakota. But it DOES highlight the emphasis of what SDSU seemingly wants to focus on…research related to economic gain to South Dakota itself. Hence the reported frustration from SDSU president Barry Dunn with all the GSCE work that covered areas outside of South Dakota.

But back to the statement itself…how does one interpret this jumble of alphabet soup? This collection of buzzwords and catch phrases that have an uncanny knack of using as many letters as possible to say absolutely…nothing.  In case you aren’t fluid in this language, here’s an interpretative key:

  • “The move will provide better alignment with the university’s research strategy.” – Interpretation – SDSU HAS no research strategy but we’re polishing this turd the best that we can.
  • “…a deeper integration within our university budget process” – Interpretation – Nobody is safe from our reckless budget cutting, not even world-renown research centers that are self-sustaining and bring a massive reputation boost to SDSU.
  • “…provide for integration of the research success strategies of the center...” – Interpretation – All the research success of the center has walked out the door, and thus it’s quite easy to “integrate” what remains.
  • The interdisciplinary research conducted provides quality education for future scientists.” – Interpretation – We’re encouraging “future scientists” to pursue other careers, as we no longer have any science staff to provide a quality education.
  • The GSCE move into the College of Natural Sciences will be integral to the college’s strategy for impacting society through research” – Interpretation – We were caught with our pants down here. We cut budgets and are now paying the price. We have no strategy moving forward.
  • “To date, the university has invested more than $100 million of public and private funds into the university’s research and creative capacity.” – Interpretation – HEY!  LOOK OVER HERE!  SHINY DISTRACTING OBJECT, BIG DOLLAR NUMBER!! We just lost the most visible research entity at the University but are trying to emphasize what we USED to do to support research.
  • “We are committed to continue to optimize investments in support of our institution’s vision...” – Interpretation – We are committed to continue cutting budgets despite the risk to students and the reputation of the University.
  • Thank you for your commitment to South Dakota State University. We appreciate all that you do and look forward to an exciting academic year of discovery and education.” – Interpretation – Alumni…please continue to send donations to SDSU or we’ll continue hamstringing research at the University.

Perhaps the only sign of any intelligence in this entire word salad…whoever wrote it wasn’t even willing to sign their name to this obvious turd polishing.

 

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.

 

 

 

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.

 

Small minds, and POOF, a S.Dakota science institution is gone

South Dakota State University - Geospatial Sciences Center of ExcellenceSmall minds, insular thinking.  It’s an infection that’s spread across the United States in the last several years, and one victim of the “disease” is the death of one of the most successful science programs of its kind in the entire world.

In 2016, Barry Dunn became president of South Dakota State University. One thing he did when arriving was review the state of the “Geospatial Sciences Center of Excellence” (GSCE)…a truly WORLD-renown science center established in 2005 to develop and apply remote sensing and other geospatial data for research and education purposes. Some of the biggest names in the field were lured to South Dakota State.  In the last 13 years, Mike Wimberly…Matt Hansen…David Roy…Geoffrey Hennebry…Mark Cochrane…all were key parts of GSCE and its development.  Over the last 13 years, they’ve had a massive impact on the field, applying remote sensing data and analysis techniques to applications that include understanding disease vectors and risks of West Nile virus…helping to establish and use the next generation of satellite sensors…mapping fire extent and severity…mapping changes in our ever-declining grassland ecosystems…and many, many more.

Students from all over the world moved to South Dakota, of all places, to work with such a wonderful collection of researchers.  The research impact has been enormous.  The reputation is sterling.  The senior scientists at GSCE brought in huge amounts of external research dollars. It has been, by all logical measures, a raging success.

It’s now decimated. During his review process, Barry Dunn in his infinite wisdom decreed SDSU GSCE wasn’t of any benefit to South Dakota, partially because 1) it didn’t do all its work IN South Dakota, and 2) it didn’t have enough South Dakota students. So, they cut $1 million in core funding. They effectively gave the research leads a 25% pay cut.  The result of the drop of support?  For the next semester that starts in a few weeks, literally NONE of the GSCE Senior Scientists will remain.  That’s right…ALL have decided enough is enough, and all are moving on to greener pastures. A science center like no other, one South Dakota could put up against ANY similar science center in the world…and it’s gone belly up, thanks to new “leadership” at South Dakota State.

Small minds, insular thinking…what the hell has happened in this country? Doing work that’s WORLD-renown and applied in all continents is deemed a NEGATIVE, because they didn’t do all their work in South Dakota? Too many foreign students is a “problem”?  It’s a problem that’s certainly not limited to SDSU, GSCE, or South Dakota.  To me it all falls under the same kind of anti-intellectualism, anti-“expert”, anti-SCIENCE paradigm that seems to have infected America.

A South Dakota institution is gone after far too short a time, all thanks to tiny little minds with a lack of vision and appreciation for the bigger picture.

Kill things or South Dakota will go to hell

Wear Fur Sign - South Dakota

Wear fur! If we’re not all wearing fur like the OH-so-modern model on this billboard, we’ll all be run over by furry beasts.

The title of the blog post? That’s my takeaway from the billboards that have been on our two main interstates for YEARS…ever since we moved here 25 years ago.  I know of two signs, and I believe there are more.  One is on I-29 in the far southeastern edge of the state. That sign states that South Dakota will face “Economic Ruin” if we don’t hunt and trap animals in the state. Because as you know, this is the 1700s where fur-trapping is the major economic driver of the state.  Take that away, and our economy will fall apart.

The second is a sign on I-90 near a favorite rock-hounding site in western South Dakota near Kadoka.  My son and I were out there today so I thought I’d share the wisdom of this second sign.  In short…we all need to kill furry critters and wear their fur. Otherwise we’ll be inundated with the little furry bastards.  Grab your shotgun (this is South Dakota…you KNOW you have one), grab your traps, and get the hell out there and kill as many as you can.

Or else!

Economic ruin. Ecologic ruin. Thank GOD South Dakota has these thankless heroes out there killing all the animals in the state, saving us from disaster.

Remind me again…why the hell do I live here???

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.

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