Articles for the Month of February 2016

North American prairies most sensitive to climate change

Nature - Seddon et al. (2016) - Map of vegetation sensitivity

This map from Seddon et al. (2016), just published in Nature, depicts sensitivity to vegetation production as a result of climate change. Red areas represent areas where natural vegetation communities are more likely to be impacted by climate change. With South Dakota, Nebraska, and the rest of the Great Plains in an area of strong temperature and precipitation gradients, we are also in a hot zone in terms of potential impacts of climate change on our ecosystems. Click for a larger view.

Nature this week published a very good paper about ecosystem sensitivity to climate change, with maps that portray ecosystems most likely to be impacted by changes in water availability, changing temperatures, or changes in cloudiness.  One of the paper’s main discussion points is that the heart of North America, irght here in the Great Plains, is one “hotspot” of climate change impacts.  For the general public and news outlets, it’s typically things like sea-level rise, or extreme temperature changes occurring in the Arctic and northern latitudes that tend to get noticed. However, as this study indicates, even here in the Great Plains, ecosystems are in peril due to the effects of climate change.

Given the obvious north-south temperature gradient and the obvious east-west precipitation gradient in the Great Plains, this probably isn’t too surprising.  I grew up in southern Nebraska, and after a (thankfully) short stint in the Washington D.C. area after college, we moved to South Dakota, where we have now been for 24 years.  We are in southern South Dakota, a mere 4-hour drive to where I grew up.  When moving here, in terms of weather, I was expecting similar conditions to how I grew up, given the short distance.  In the summer, that’s largely true, as summer temperatures are more uniform across the Plains, even as you move north and south.  In the winter however, I quickly found out that in just a 200-250 mile distance to the north, temperatures are substantially colder.  We’re having incredibly warm February weather right now (hello climate change!!), with a temp of 54 yesterday in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.  Back in southern Nebraska, a mere 200+ miles away? Temps reached the lower 70s.

The Great Plains are also marked by a very obvious, very strong gradient in precipitation.   There’s a reason the forests of the eastern U.S. pretty much stop once they get to the Great Plains, as precipitation strongly decreases as you move from east to west.  South Dakota itself is a great example, as “East River” (east of the Missouri River) is primarily dryland farming, mostly corn and soybeans.  As you reach the middle part of the state, precipitation is significantly lower, corn and soybeans start to disappear, and you get into the dry grasslands that make up most of “West River” South Dakota.

Nature - Seddon et al. (2016)

This image from the Nature paper shows what’s most likely to impact native ecosystems: 1) Water availability, 2) Temperature increases, or 3) changes in cloudiness. The strong blue shades in the Great Plains indicates that it’s water availability that’s going to strongly impact our ecosystems, due to both precipitation changes and increased evaporation as temperatures rise. Click for a larger view.

In the Great Plains, we are sitting in a strong transition zone, both in terms of temperature and moisture availability. Thus, while most folks may think of the Great Plains as a boring, simple landscape of grass and crops, as this study shows, we’re also an area that’s likely to be hammered by the effects of climate change. The results of the paper show that it’s not necessarily the increased temperatures themselves that are going to strongly affect ecosystems, it’s water availability.  It’s not just how much rain that falls in an area that drives ecosystem and vegetation response, it’s how temperature and precipitation interact to affect overall availability of water resources.  The warmer the temperature, the greater evaporation that occurs, and the less water that’s available for vegetation.  The Nature paper indicates that the ecosystems (natural vegetation) of the Great Plains likely can handle the increased temperature in isolation, but combined changes in precipitation and temperature will result in water availability changes that could dramatically affect natural ecosystems in the region.

There’s no doubt that the quite (politically) conservative Great Plains of the U.S. is a hotbed of climate change denial.  As the results of this paper show, it’s going to be increasingly difficult for Great Plains residents to deny climate change is impacting their region.  I’m almost positive that it’s not the effects on natural vegetation that will “flip the switch” in the minds of current climate change skeptics in the region.  However, as change becomes more and more pronounced, there’s no doubt the economics of the region, particularly the agricultural sector, will be strongly impacted.

Nothing seems to get a man/woman to “believe” than a direct impact on their pocketbook. That impact may be coming much sooner than most in the Great Plains would ever suspect.



“Hunting” interests bringing handguns to a prairie near you!

The South Dakota legislature has been working on a bill that would legalize the use of handguns for hunting gamebirds.  From a practical standpoint, it’s a head-scratcher.  The bill would authorize the use of handguns loaded with .410 shot shells.  As the article link above points out, such a light shell, shot from a handgun, might be effective up to a ridiculously close range of 10 feet, but beyond that, there’s little chance of doing anything other than inuring a bird.

To be blunt…I don’t think this bill has anything to do with hunting. If you’re going hunting for grouse or pheasant, you’re not going to grab a handgun.  This bill is about “legitimizing” handguns, pure and simple.  It’s a bill designed to show that handguns have some supposed legitimate use, rather than turning on other human beings.

A debate has started on the South Dakota bird listserver about the bill, a debate that has brought hunters out of the woodwork.  Of course the argument from the hunting crowd has absolutely nothing to do with the bill itself.  Hunters are ignoring the actual issue, and instead rushing to come to the defense of hunting overall.  The main argument being made is that hunting overall is a net benefit to birds, because of all the habitat that’s being protected by groups like Pheasants Forever, Ducks Unlimited, etc.

As for hunting itself, I have no doubt there’s more habitat due to the power and money of hunting interests.  Overall in the world we live in, that’s good, but again, to be blunt, there’s one very obvious difference between hunting and birding.  I have no doubt many hunters enjoy the habitat itself, but the one overarching reason that habitat is set aside is to ensure there are enough birds and other animals for people to harvest.   Someone on the South Dakota bird listserver said no “informed” birder would equate fewer hunters as a benefit for birds.  I would beg to differ, and I’m POSITIVE the birds staring down the barrel of a shotgun would beg to differ.  The habitat protection is great, but as with anything related to human beings, that habitat protection comes with a price.

Despite the benefits of preserving that habitat, it’s also impossible to ignore the motivation behind that habitat protection, what the real goal is for setting aside that land.  In my utopian world, we’d protect land just for the sake of conservation, not to ensure there’s an adequate pool of creatures to kill.   In short…birders love the resource, love the wild bird itself. For birders, it’s about the birds, and in my perfect world it would be nice to set aside land just to let nature take its course. For hunters, it’s about the ensuring there’s something to harvest.  For hunters, it’s about the hunter him/herself, it’s about using the resource for their own benefit and satisfaction, more than the resource (THE BIRD) itself.

When I drive on the grasslands West River, and I see a group of hunters lined up on a fence, popping off prairie dogs for no other reason than to have something to kill, it’s damned hard to see the “good” side of hunting. To be blunt (why pussyfoot around at this stage and hide how I really feel), in a situation like that, I see a sick desire to kill for the sake of killing.  When you see hunters clamoring to have the chance to kill a mountain lion, or a coyote, or any other animal that’s not being harvested for food or other actual purpose other than to satiate some kind of blood lust….it’s damned hard to see the “good” side of hunting.  When I’m driving around Presho in the late fall looking for raptors, and I see hordes of hunters slowly driving around, jumping out and blasting away when they see a pheasant or grouse, it’s hard to equate their activity with “enjoying the outdoors”, and much easier to see that it’s all about the desire to harvest as many birds as possible. When I’m in the same area and I see a shot raptor lying in a ditch…it’s hard to see the “good” side of hunting, and it’s awfully damned hard to see the birds themselves being put first.

Give me the habitat protection, by all means.  But hunters…don’t pretend it’s all about the birds. It’s all about YOU.

Where have my songbirds gone?

Cooper's Hawk - Accipiter cooperii

“Clyde”, the very fat Cooper’s Hawk who has slowly been consuming all birds in the neighborhood.

What shows up at your feeders is so unpredictable.  In winter, I always expect Dark-eyed Juncos foraging on the ground below my feeders.  Many winters, they’re about the only bird it seems I ever see, in my yard or elsewhere.  Not this year, where they’ve been scarce in my yard.  That’s been made up for with many more American Goldfinches than normal.  I have one very tall tube feeder, and most of the winter it’s been very crowded, with most perches full and other Goldfinches waiting in the nearby tree for an open spot.  It’s been a good year for Chickadees, Downy Woodpeckers, and I have at least two (a male and a female) gorgeous Red-bellied Woodpeckers who are quite regular at my suet. Despite the lack of Dark-eyed Juncos, it’s been a fairly “birdy” winter in my yard.

That “birdiness” level has been slowly declining all winter though.  Simple attrition from a snowy winter would probably explain it, but in my yard, there’s another obvious factor.  That factor is Clyde.  Clyde is the Cooper’s Hawk that has been frequenting my yard, and buzzing my feeders all winter long.  Why “Clyde”?  I dunno.  It starts with a C.  He looks like a “Clyde”.  Very workman-like and efficient, very “blue-collar”. Comes in regularly every day, punches the clock, does his thing, kills a bird or two…just the same hum-drum “Clyde” kind of a life for a Cooper’s Hawk.

My wife is not fond of Clyde.  My wife does not appreciate the “nature” occurring in the yard. Clyde isn’t exactly subtle when he buzzes the yard and grabs a songbird.  He’s also getting quite bold. Last week I opened the front door, and Clyde was sitting on the front step, munching on a goldfinch.  Normally, you’d expect a wild bird to immediately bolt.  Not Clyde.  Clyde looked up at me, paused a second, before seemingly sighing and reluctantly flying off with his breakfast, clearly put out that I had interrupted him.I do have one concern about Clyde.  He appears to be gaining weight at an alarming clip.  He’s had a well-fed winter in my yard!  It’s showing on his waist line, as he is one FAT Cooper’s Hawk!

Unlike my wife, I do think it’s very cool to have Clyde around. With the Big Sioux Recreation Area and a lot of forested habitat right across the street, Clyde may end up sticking around the area permanently.

%d bloggers like this: