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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.

Killing Government Science and more — Science, Nature, and Other News

Some news and views from over the last week.  For anyone interested in science, and the huge role that government plays in science in America…it’s been one damned depressing week,as details of the first Trump budget come trickling out. Overall, it’s an absolutely devastating picture for science and environmental funding. A few stories on federal science and environmental funding, followed by some other more cheery stories.

Trump's 4 Horsemen of the Environmental Apocalypse

Seen this week rampaging through the hallways of Federal science agencies were the 4 Horsemen of the Environmental Apocalypse, led by Trump, Steve Bannon, Scott Pruitt at EPA, and, well…one of the original 4 horsemen. I have to include an actual Horseman of the Apocalpyse, as clearly this administration has struck a deal with the devil himself, choosing short term greed and selfishness over the very welfare of the planet.

Trump Budget Kills NOAA Climate Science — Who needs satellites to study weather? And who needs scientists to actually do the science?  Evidently not the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).  The proposed Trump budget that has trickled out this week proposes drastic cuts to NOAA, with a 17% cut overall for the program.  For programs that deal with climate change, it’s even more ominous, such as a 26% cut to the Oceanic and Atmospheric Research branch.  Observing what’s happening to our earth’s weather systems? The budget proposes a 22% cut to the satellite data division.  This is a pretty common theme across all of the Federal science agencies, with science evidently something the Nation can afford to sacrifice, so we can build more missiles that are too expensive to actually use, or build outrageously expensive planes that are $164 BILLION over budget and are lacking key functionalities. Government science in aggregate is only 3.4% of the entire budget…yet to pay for a ridiculous $54 billion increase in defense spending (with the U.S. already spending nearly 40% of ALL global military expenditures), science takes a disproportionate hit compared to many other programs.

EPA Budget set for 25% cut — It’s not just NOAA taking a hit.  The Environmental Protection Agency, LONG in the cross-hairs of conservatives who don’t appreciate trivial things like environmental regulation getting in the way of making money, is currently slated to be slashed by 25% in the Trump budget.  The budget proposes cutting 20% of EPA employees, and eliminating or sharply scaling back some major environmental programs. Great Lakes cleanup funds are proposed for a ridiculous 97% cut. Funding for restoring ecosystems in the Puget Sound would be slashed by 93%.  Environmental justice programs would be cut by 79%.  A program to help cut emissions of greenhouse gases such as methane has a proposed 70% cut. I have friends and acquaintances who work for EPA.  The mood there is nothing short of apocalyptic. Wall Street is loving it, given the salivating leaders of corporate America who envision a world without regulation, where they’re free to pollute and destroy the environment, all to squeak out a little bit more in short-term profit.  I’ve said it before…I honestly wonder if any of these people have children, and for those that do, how they can so COMPLETELY ignore their future health, safety, and well-being, all because of short-term selfishness and greed.

Ryan Zinke - Secretary of the Interior

Ryan Zinke, newly confirmed Secretary of the Interior riding his horse to work on this first day. He’s said some of the “right” things in his first few days. He said during his confirmation hearings that he believes in climate change, and that we’re causing it. He’s said he believes science should drive policy, not the other way around. Given a 4% lifetime score from the League of Conservation Voters, we will see if this is just rhetoric meant to placate those who would potentially criticize the direction environmental conservation is going under the Trump administration. Hopefully Zinke realizes the massive responsibility he has for managing our Nation’s lands, and is being honest when he states how important DOI’s scientific research is for supporting sustainable use of those lands.

Department of Interior head “not happy” —  If (just theoretically speaking of course) a scientist was a part of the Department of Interior, things may seem apocalyptic right now as well, but perhaps with just 2 or 3 horsemen of the apocalypse roaming Department halls instead of the full-out 4 horsemen that are set to rampage through some of the other Federal science agencies.  The new DOI secretary is Ryan Zinke, who was confirmed this week, and promptly decided to ride a horse to work for his first day. Rumor has it that Mr. Zinke also has a penchant for proudly proclaiming he’s an ex Navy SEAL, which of course as we all know has direct relevance to managing our Nation’s lands, and the science behind it.  To be fair, Zinke has SAID the right things. As this article points out, he’s “not happy” with the Trump’s proposed 11% cut to Interior.  Few details have emerged so far, but what has become apparent is the disparity in how that cut would be applied across DOI.  Fish and Wildlife is set to take a massive cut compared to other DOI components, primarily because of their role in providing the science that supports the Endangered Species Act.  You can’t enforce the ESA if you don’t have the science behind it, and evidently the strategy of the Trump administration is to simply eliminate the science!  Problem solved, just as eliminating climate science “solves” the climate change issue!  Zinke is a fisherman and hunter, and DOES value the outdoors.  That helps.  Zinke also has a 5% lifetime score form the League of Conservation Voters.  That’s what’s sad, is that someone who has been very environmentally hostile in the past is viewed as a BRIGHT spot in the Trump administration. Here’s hoping that his early rhetoric is actually translated into meaningful action to protect the function of Department of Interior science.  Here’s hoping Zinke means what he says, and he isn’t just saying what’s politically or personally convenient.

Yes, it CAN get too hot for life on Earth — Past theory was that despite the potential for massive global warming to occur, temperatures in the tropics were somehow regulated by an “internal thermostat”, feedback mechanisms that prevented tropical areas from experiencing the same kind of temperature increases found elsewhere in the globe. It was an important theory, because the implication was that the Earth could warm significantly, yet the tropics would be somewhat shielded from that warmth increase, and would still support life. New research demonstrates that this likely isn’t true. The Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum occurred 56 million years ago, a time of the highest global temperatures of the last 100 million years.  Evidence shows that tropical areas did indeed experience drastic temperature increases, increases that resulted in widespread die-off of tropical biomes that couldn’t handle the increased temperatures.  The most drastic temperature increases we’re currently seeing are in Arctic regions, with temperature increasing over two times as fast as the planet on average.  However, as this study shows, there’s no place on Earth that’s immune from the effects of climate change. As this study shows, it IS quite feasible for temperatures to warm up so much that some parts of the earth become inhospitable for life.

Ten million lives saved – Vaccine effectiveness — Certain Trump administration officials, including Trump himself, have expressed skepticism about vaccines, with some even perpetuating the myths about vaccines causing autism and other harmful effects. Here’s one of the BRILLIANT tweets from Trump, showering the world with his “wisdom” about vaccines:

I’m not against vaccinations for your children, I’m against them in 1 massive dose. Spread them out over a period of time & autism will drop!

There you have it, straight from “Doctor” Trump’s mouth. I’m sure he’s done a lot of research on linkages between autism, and the timing of vaccinations. He has some other gems as well regarding vaccines, and there have been some suggestions that he’s partnering with well-known vaccine skeptic Robert F. Kennedy Jr. to assess the “dangers’ of vaccines. Although there shouldn’t be any need to provide more empirical evidence to shut the anti-vaxxers up, new research from the University of Illinois-Chicago has gone to the trouble of quantifying just how many lives have been saved due to the widespread use of vaccines. It was the early 1960s when vaccines against these diseases became widespread, thanks to the development of new human cell strain that allowed for safe and rapid production of vaccines.  According to the research, from 1963 to 2015, over 200 MILLION cases of polio, measles, mumps, hepatitis A, rabies, and varicella were prevented in the United States ALONE. Over 450,000 deaths were prevented by vaccine use. Globally the numbers are staggering, with over 4.5 billion individual infections prevented, and over 10,000,000 lives saved.

Climate change…vaccination use…evolution…the science behind all of these is quite clear. I find it hard to see how any rational human being can deny actual empirical evidence such as that provided in the study above.

The cost of Volkswagen’s deception – 1,200 shorter lives — When Volkswagen installed “defeat” devices on their vehicles from 2008 to 2015 to fool pollutant measurements, it did more than increase air pollution.  A new study shows that due to the lower air quality induced by Volkswagens sold in Europe during that time, that around 1,200 people will have substantially shorter life spans, by around a decade. Volkswagens were emitting 4 times as much nitrous oxide as allowed by European law, contributing to the estimates of premature death for hundreds of Europeans. Retrofitting all remaining Volkswagens on the road is necessary to avoid 29,000 “life-years lost”, and over 4 BILLION Euros in increased health care costs. THIS is the type of world being currently pushed by the Trump administration, where regulation is greatly reduced, and companies like Volkswagen can worry more about profit and less about the health and well-being of people.

Panda "AnAn"

A panda munching on a cookie. Hmmm. According to research released this week, the black ears help “convey a sense of ferocity” to potential predators. I’m not quite seeing the ferocity.

Why Pandas are Black and White — Well, screw the esoteric research many scientists devote their lives to.  Here’s a basic “research “question people can relate to…why are pandas black-and-white?  I’m not exactly sure of the value of the research (I’m sure other scientists might say the same about my research), but they looked at the black and white patterns on pandas and tried to relate to other carnivore species to see if there were survival or adaptation advantages to the black-and-white pattern.  Doesn’t sound like much of a surprise in terms of results. They are largely white because it helps them hide in snowy areas. The black?  The body markings help them blend in areas of dappled light and shade, while markings on their head are thought to help them differentiate among each other and communicate with other pandas. Another supposed finding is that things like the black ears will deter predators by providing a “sense of ferocity”.  OK, it may be pretty basic research, but at least they had me interested until that last point.  I have a very hard time looking at a panda bear and having any “sense of ferocity” conveyed my way.

Seven Earth-like planets a potential hotspot for life — Trappist-1, about 39-million light-years from Earth, is very unlike our sun. It’s an “ultracool dwarf star”, with a temperature much cooler than our sun. However, scientists recently found that 7 rocky, earth-like planets orbit the star, with three of them potentially in the “Goldilocks” zone where temperatures are just right for life. They’re very different than our earth. Given that they’re much closer to their sun, they make complete orbits in as little as 1 1/2 earth-days for the innermost planet, to around 20 days for the planet furthest from Trappist-1.  They also are likely gravitationally locked, with the same side of each planet always facing the sun. The next step will be to try to take measurements of the atmospheric composition of each planet, which will give clues to the potential for each to host some form of life.

Refugee scientists on the run, scared — From Nature.org, a fascinating story of “refugee scientists”, scientist from regions of conflict like Syria who have had to adapt to keep their research alive. Not to mention their very lives. Obviously scientists are only one small segment of the populations that are affected by these conflicts, but stories like this really help put a human face on things. The article provides the stories of four different researchers and the lengths they’ve had to go to to escape their home countries and rebuild their lives.

Women feel more pain then men? — According to new research from scientists at Georgia State University, women feel more pain on average than men because cells in their brains that process pain signals are more active than those in men.  Guys, I hate to say it, but this REALLY makes us look like wimps. During cold and flu season such as right now, there are plenty of stories of men being incapacitated for days by a virus, while the women in their lives soldier on and struggle through it without stopping their normal lives. I guess I had always held out hope there was some biological driving force behind the general wimpiness of men, but no, evidently even biology favors more pain-free lives for men.  We have no more excuses guys…we truly ARE wimps.

 

Losing the Rainforests…and South Dakota habitat

This week the New York Times had a wonderful (as always), yet sad piece about deforestation in the Amazon rainforest. Approximately 360,000 acres in the region were deforested every year during the 1990s, a number that jumped to 660,000 acres a year during the early 2000s.  A massive push to slow deforestation rates occurred in the 2000s, temporarily slowing the rate of deforestation.  However, in the last few years the deforestation rate has skyrocketed, to over 850,000 acres every year, an area the size of Rhode Island. Every. Year.  Clearly that’s not sustainable.  Even the supposed “success” in the mid-2000s of slowing the rate of deforestation only “slowed” it, it certainly didn’t stop it or reverse the trend.  That’s the world we live in now, where SLOWING the inexorable loss of habitat is considered a major conservation success story, even if those slower rates still would have wiped out most of the rainforest during this century.

We don’t have rainforests in South Dakota.  From a birder’s perspective, we don’t have much bird habitat whatsoever in the eastern part of the state, given the preponderance of corn and soybeans that takes up the vast majority of the landscape.  Still, as a birder, I have reveled in the little reservoir pockets of remaining habitat, small micro-habitats where birds have thrived, despite the massive use of the landscape for agricultural production.  I used to bring my camera with me EVERYWHERE.  Every day when I went to work, my camera came with me.  I would stop at these little pockets of habitat, and take bird photos. Over the years, I’ve gotten some truly wonderful photographs in these small remaining pockets of habitat.

I don’t bring my camera with me to work any more. I don’t bring my camera with me when I run errands. In fact, I don’t do nearly as much birding right around Brandon and Sioux Falls as I used.  Much of the reason is that many of my former little micro-habitat “hotspots” are gone, something that’s just happened in the last several years.  There have been multiple reasons behind it.  The first is simple economics…with demand for corn and soybeans, farmers are cultivating every possible patch of land to maximize production. Fence rows, shelter belts, and other little pockets of habitat are being plowed under to expand planted acreage. There have also been active “safety” programs in the last few years to clear brush and trees from the edges of the roads.  It’s been a truly massive project, with roads all over the state undergoing this kind of “grooming”, removing habitat that is anywhere close to road edges.

We don’t have the rainforest like the Amazon, but habitat loss is having an impact right here in South Dakota.  Here are some small, and some larger, examples of what’s happening with habitat change in South Dakota, and how it’s affecting bird species. Bird photos accompanying each image are some of the actual bird photos I’ve gotten from each location over the years.

Ditch Road - Minnehaha County, South Dakota

Ditch Road, just north of Sioux Falls in Minnehaha County. There’s a stretch of road that runs over 5 miles that has a straight drainage ditch running along side it. In the last year, nearly all of the thick trees and shrubs that were found between the road and the waterway have been removed (the area encircled in red shows the vegetation that used to be there). It’s part of the aforementioned “safety” program to remove things that people could evidently crash into and get hurt.  (I always thought the point of driving was to stay ON the road). With the water and vegetation, it used to be an absolutely wonderful spot for songbirds and even some waterfowl, particularly in migration.  Warblers, Vireos, and Chickadees and Nuthatches, many woodpeckers, and other songbird species were often found here.  Not any more…

Big Sioux Recreation Area near Brandon, South Dakota

Big Sioux Recreation near Brandon, South Dakota – One that’s near and dear to my heart, given that we live on the edge of Brandon across the street from the park (house shown above). One of the best places to bird in the park used to be right amidst the campground areas themselves. The looped road shown above was lined with cedar trees, and thick brush separated many of the camping stalls from each other. The image above shows what it used to look like. The cedars in particular really attracted many birds, including one memorable winter when a hoarde of about 20 Long-eared Owls took up residence in the Campground (see photo above). In the last 2 years, all of the cedars have been removed from the campground area, as have most of the shrubs that separated camping stalls. If you want to play football? Thanks to all the vegetation clearing, it’s now MUCH more open in the campgrounds! If you really LOVE being close to other people while camping, with no pesky vegetation to get between you and the next guy, you’ll love the changes!  If you’re a bird lover? Not so much…

Minnehaha County Wetland

Minnehaha County Wetland — This one has a Google Earth image that actually catches the transformation as it happened. This is a small area in northern Minnehaha County on 253rd Street and near 481st Avenue.  Prior to 2015, the area in red was a mix of wetland, damp grasses, and weedy patches.  It was an absolutely WONDERFUL place to bird, a little patch of wet, weedy habitat that attracted species like Le Conte’s Sparrows, Swamp Sparrows, Bobolinks, Sedge Wrens, Marsh Wrens, and many other birds. In 2015, the owner installed drain tile, shown as the lines that run through the image above.  The drain tile dried out the land so it could be used for cropland, and today, this entire patch is a corn field. Drain tile installation has been RAMPANT in eastern South Dakota in the last few years. In some cases it’s been done to improve conditions on existing cropland.  In many areas though, like this, it’s being installed in areas that are naturally too poor to support crops, and need an artificial drainage system.  It’s hard to have Swamp Sparrows in an area, if you have no “swamp”.

South Dakota Shelterbelt

Shelterbelts – There aren’t a lot of woodlands and forests in eastern South Dakota, but the variety of birdlife in these little oases of trees can be truly astounding.  During migration they are definite bird “traps”, with tired songbirds stopped to rest and feed in these areas before continuing on with their migration. The photos are just examples of what you can find in these shelterbelts, as I haven’t birded this specific location before. However, it’s a great example of what’s been going on in much of South Dakota. This is north of Sioux Falls, near the intersections of Highways 121 and 122. This shelterbelt had been there the entire 23+ years we’ve lived in South Dakota, and it had some very large mature, old trees.  That changed last year, when all of the woody vegetation in the entire area circled in red was removed. This last summer it was all a big open field, planted in corn. There are many places in eastern South Dakota where this is happening, as farmers try to compensate for lowered corn and soy prices in the last few years by planting more and more acres.

Increase in Cropland Cash Rents - 2009 to 2014

What’s behind South Dakota cropland gains? — So what’s driving the agricultural change in South Dakota?  Beyond the little micro-habitat examples given above, there are some very large swaths of grassland being converted to cropland, with some much of the new cropland on land that had never been plowed before. The map above gives you some indication of the economic forces driving cropland gains in the state, and the concomitant loss of vegetated habitats.  Some of the largest recent changes in cash rent values for cropland in recent years are concentrated right in eastern South Dakota. As this article states, South Dakota had the largest increases in overall cropland value from 2004 to 2014, an increase of over 350% in just 10 years as average cropland values rose from $734 an acre to over $3,400 an acre. Prices for the major crop commodities of corn and soy have softened substantially in recent years, but that seems to have driven an intensification of land use in some parts of the state, as farmers try to maximize production by expanding the acreage that they plant.

Grassland conversion in the Great Plains

Grassland Conversion in the Great Plains – In 2013, colleagues/acquaintances published a paper the summarized the recent loss of grassland and wetland in the northern Great Plains. The map above shows the percentage of grasslands in an area that were converted to soybeans or corn between 2006 and 2011. Southern Iowa is a bit misleading, given that this shows “percentage” change, and there wasn’t nearly as much grassland there in 2006 as there was in parts of eastern South Dakota.  It really has been the eastern Dakotas where a huge chunk of cropland gains in the U.S. have occurred in recent years.  From a birder’s perspective…it hasn’t been a happy story.  Click here for the journal paper from Chris Wright and Mike Wimberly.

Bye-bye Birdie…Repubs set to gut Endangered Species Act

Greater Sage Grouse -- Centrocercus urophasianus

A Greater Sage Grouse, one of many species that have been considered for protection under the Endangered Species Act in recent years. In the case of this species, political and economic interests won, and Sage Grouse were removed from consideration for protection. The partnership between conservative political groups and economic interests has been very successful in recent years in fighting species listings on the ESA, and with an environmentally hostile Republican Congress now emboldened with a new Republican President, the ESA as a whole has never been under more of a threat.

Mention “Greater Sage Grouse” to a birder, and you’ll get an enthusiastic discussion of a unique, large bird with spectacular breeding displays.  Mention Sage Grouse to a hunter, and you’ll get an enthusiastic discussion of a wily game bird that’s much sought after, particularly as numbers and hunting opportunities decline.  Mention Sage Grouse to energy developers, real estate developers, and conservative politicians in the West, and “Sage Grouse” is a four-letter word. As the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) considered the species for protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), it sparked a fierce political battle, with Republican politicians in the West teaming with oil, gas, and real estate interests to fight protection.  Despite populations of Greater Sage Grouse declining by over 50% in the last 40 years, and despite the loss of vast areas of former sagebrush habitat, in 2015 the USFWS decided not to list the species under the ESA. It’s disingenuous to discount the impact political pressures had on that decision, as the Greater Sage Grouse still faces significant threats due to habitat loss.  However, one of the contributing factors in the USFWS decision not to list the species was, ironically, widespread conservation efforts that started happening in the West after the species was being considered for listing.  In effect, the threat of listing, and the very existence of the ESA, sparked protections that may have substantially reduced threats to the species. Without the ESA and the threat of legal protection, those conservation efforts likely would never have occurred.

There are other species where equally contentious political battles are currently being waged.  The Lesser Prairie Chicken was listed as “Threatened” under the ESA in 2014, and for good reason. On the global IUCN “red list” of threatened species, the Lesser Prairie chicken is listed as “vulnerable” to extinction, primarily due to the loss of >85% of its original habitat.  Only 20,000-40,000 birds are left, a number that is 98% lower than before settlement of the Great Plains. Despite the obvious scientific reasons for listing the Lesser Prairie Chicken, in 2015, a court order vacated the USFWS decision to protect the species. An energy development group, the Permian Basin Petroleum Association, had teamed with a number of counties in New Mexico to sue the government to prevent listing.  After the court order, the USFWS released a statement that the court order was contrary to the actual scientific, biologic evidence, and that protections were still required to ensure the species was preserved. However, in a very disappointing move to conservationists, the USFWS decided not to appeal the court ruling.

Bald Eagle - Haliaeetus leucocephalus

Sights like this have become incredibly common in many parts of South Dakota as Bald Eagle numbers continue to increase. Bald Eagles were one of the original species included on the Endangered Species Act. With their precipitous decline up through the 1970s, the story of the Bald Eagle was in fact one of the driving forces behind the very establishment of the ESA. Despite countless success stories such as this, the ESA is under a threat unlike any other in its 40+ year history, all due to political and economic interests that value short-term monetary gain over environmental and conservation concerns.

Western states and associated economic interests have wielded considerable political power in efforts to derail listing of species under the ESA, The Lesser Prairie Chicken is but one example.  Political battles against the ESA have ramped up substantially since the Northern Spotted Owl listing in the Pacific Northwest (PNW) resulted in the eventual establishment of the Northwest Forest Plan, resulting in major changes in forest management in the region. Those politically opposed to the ESA use the Spotted Owl case as a rallying cry, citing (supposed) massive job losses in the timber industry as a result of the Northwest Forest Plan. However, after the Northwest Forest Plan was enacted, an economic analysis of the first 10 years of the plan found that 40% of communities in the region experienced some economic decline, 37% experienced economic gains, while the rest were relatively stable.  The economic impacts were thus decidedly mixed, not the economic disaster that was foretold, and it was also very difficult to disentangle the economic impact of the Northwest Forest Plan from other economic and political impacts on forestry in the Pacific Northwest.  At the same time the Northwest Forest Plan was beginning to take effect, there was substantial increases in competition for timber products from other timber-producing regions such as Canada, Russia, New Zealand, even the elsewhere in the U.S. (primarily the southeastern U.S.).  Asian economic declines and a sharp decline in demand for PNW timber in Asian markets also strongly contributed to timber industry declines in the region. However, the perception that it was the ESA and the Northern Spotted Owl that “killed the economy” in parts of the PNW is still widely held among those without a complete economic and political understanding of timber industry declines in the area.

It’s been disappointing to see the lack of political will to uphold the ESA and the scientific research that supports decisions to list or not list a species. Given the strong biologic evidence to support listing of the Lesser Prairie Chicken, and given that the 2015 court order to vacate the ESA listing occurred under the watch of a Democratic Obama administration, the decision not to appeal the ruling was viewed as a betrayal by many conservation groups.  However, it’s a sign of the power of political and lobbying groups that have rallied against the ESA in recent years. Even with a Democratic administration that is far more supportive of conservation concerns, the protective power of the ESA has eroded.  Scientific research and the actual biological basis on which ESA listings SHOULD be based have instead been replaced with the influence of politics and economics.

This weekend, we’re shifting to a new administration that will undoubtedly be much more hostile to conservation and environmental concerns than has been the Obama administration. The stocking of the Cabinet and other key government positions with businessmen who are openly hostile to environmental regulation ensures that stories like that of the Lesser Prairie Chicken will become increasingly common, where science and biologic need are dismissed in favor of short-term economic concerns.  The lack of political will to support provisions of the ESA will remove the regulatory and enforcement “bite” of the law, regardless of what happens with the law itself.

Even more distressing, however, are discussions about directly confronting the ESA itself. Rob Bishop (Republican, of course), head of the House Natural Resources Committee, states that he would “love to invalidate” the ESA.  Think about that.  The head of the Congressional Committee tasked with overseeing and preserving the nation’s natural resources, stating that he’d like to remove the very law that has been instrumental in preserving our national symbol, the Bald Eagle, as well as countless other plant and animal species

We’re a country where a wide swath of the electorate knows more about Kim Kardashian’s latest fashion statement than they do about the Affordable Care Act, what’s happening in Syria, the real state of the economy, or other issues that are truly important.  It’s that ignorance, that apathy, that enables the election of a narcissistic, childish, pig of a man to the most powerful position on the planet.  Here’s hoping that someday soon, we all snap out of that apathy, start paying attention, and hold politicians accountable. Otherwise we’re in serious danger of losing all the great strides we’ve made in conservation and environmental protection in the last several decades.

 

 

 

 

Money vs. the Endangered Species Act

Golden-cheeked Warbler - Setophaga chrysoparia

A Golden-cheeked Warbler (Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife). A little bird less than 5″ long, with a big reputation in its native Texas, thanks to its endangered status. Short-term economic growth, or the very existence of a unique bird species…which side do you think many Texans (and others) fall?

For my main website, I’ve been working for, well, years in getting individual species pages created for all ~980 species that have been found in North America.  I only have like 70 left to make, and just added a new one for the Golden-cheeked Warbler.  They’re kind of a “holy grail” type bird for some birders, given the fact that they’re considered an endangered species, and are only found in a very tiny breeding range in the oak-juniper woodlands of central Texas.  While making the species page, I came across an all-too-typical story from the New York Times.

The Golden-cheeked Warbler is the only species that nests only in Texas.  They have a very unique, specific requirement for breeding…they simply must have the long, stringy bark from an Ashe Juniper tree for building their nests.  Not just any juniper tree will do, it has to be a relatively old Ashe Juniper for the bark to be usable by Golden-cheeked Warblers.  The mixed oak-juniper woodlands where Ashe Juniper is found covers a relatively small area in Texas. The species only has been found to nest in 33 counties in Texas, covering an area that is likely less than 350 square kilometers.  Some of it is pretty rugged country, but like pretty much every other location on the planet, it’s an area that’s impacted by a human presence.

During the twentieth century, substantial areas of habitat were cleared in the Golden-cheeked Warbler’s breeding range.  Simple residential and urban development was one cause of habitat loss, with residences, businesses, roads, and energy development all carving up parts of their range.  Agricultural land use also caused substantial habitat loss, with forests and woodlands being converted to open grazing lands.  The direct loss of Ashe Juniper directly affects the species’ ability to nest, but it’s more than the loss of their favorite nesting material tree. Habitat fragmentation and the creation of more “edge” habitat opens up woodlands and forest to a much higher presence of Brown-headed Cowbirds. As with many songbird species, cowbirds lay eggs in the nests of Golden-cheeked Warblers, with the warblers thus ending up raising cowbirds rather than raising their own young.

With such a small range and with declining numbers, the Golden-cheeked Warbler was an obvious candidate for the listing under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).  They’ve been listed as endangered for more than 25 years (they were first listed in 1990), thanks to scientific studies that count the prevalence of the birds, and weigh the relative threats to well-being of the species in the future.  There’s no doubt the endangered status has benefited Golden-cheeked Warblers.  In the U.S. part of its range, several areas are protected and managed for Golden-cheeked Warbler habitat and breeding.  Brown-headed Cowbird trapping programs are in place to reduce the impact on Golden-cheeked Warblers.  Restrictions on land use and land-use conversion are in place to protect the remaining areas of highly suitable breeding habitat.  Threats to the species extend outside of the U.S. as well, with loss of habitat also a problem on the breeding grounds in Central America, yet protective programs are in place there as well.

The protections may have slowed the rate of habitat loss in the United States, but despite that, the species has continued a slow decline.  The bustling urban centers of Austin and San Antonio lie adjacent to their primary breeding habitat, as does Fort Hood, one of the largest military installations in the world.  Despite the obvious scientific evidence backing the need for protection of this unique species, the New York Times story gives a great summary of the political and economic pressures that are pushing back against conservation efforts for the bird.  Real estate and energy developers are powerful lobbyists that are pushing against the endangered status for the birds. As the New York Times story notes, representatives from those groups, people who have a vested economic interest in land use in the region, state that “bad science” was used in designating the species as endangered.  As a result, a petition is currently being pushed by these groups to delist the species.

Mind you, none of these representatives of the petition are actually scientists! Oh no, it’s very much like the battle over climate change, where people who know absolutely nothing about the scientific issue itself will speak of “bad science” in a vague, general sense.  There are no specifics, no hard-core evidence backing the claim that the species is doing well enough to be delisted.  Their claims all have a basis in economics, as removing the species from the ESA makes it much easier to exploit the landscape for real estate and energy development.  Another powerful agent that would prefer the species be delisted is the U.S. military.  Fort Hood lies in the heart of the breeding range of the Golden-cheeked Warbler, and has a very large area of prime breeding habitat within the installation.  The New York Times piece outlines some of the restrictions placed on military training activities on the base due to the ESA listing. A key line from the New York Times piece that pretty much sums up ALL of these kinds of cases where economic powers but heads with endangered species:

Mr. Perry (director of mission support) said Fort Hood nevertheless supported delisting because the installation pays hundreds of thousands of dollars to comply with the act, including funding a biological assessment every five years.

Note there’s absolutely nothing in his statement about the bird itself.  There’s absolutely nothing in his statement about conservation concerns.  No, the one and only focus is the fact that the installation ends up paying “hundreds of thousands of dollars” to comply with listing of the species.

Money. And political power.  The story also notes some of the other big names in Texas politics who have supported the de-listing, including the Bush family. That’s what proponents of keeping the Golden-cheeked Warbler listed are up against.

What does the science say? The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service completed a five-year review of the species, with a report released two years ago that state the species still needed to be listed as endangered due to ongoing threats to its habitat, and threat of extinction.  Given that ESA is theoretically driven by scientific assessments such as this, you’d think that would be the end of the argument.  You’d think those petitioning for delisting would have little chance of success.

You’d be wrong. ESA has always been a political football, most often when economic interests butt heads with local land-use or other restrictions, but also sometimes simply for the ideological battle of “conservation” vs. “economics”.  The Golden-cheeked Warbler’s protected status is just one example of many across the United States where similar battles are being fought.  In a world where “science” has somehow become a negative term for many in the U.S. in recent years, it’s just one more case where short-term greed and selfishness are pushing up (and often winning) against conservationists and environmentalists.

Birds vs. People…guess who wins?

Pirate Island

“Pirate Island”, created from dredged sand in order to provide breeding habitat for coastal birds. A nice idea! Then the selfish “Me First” crowd found the island and turned it into “Party Island” for all intents and purposes. It’s hard to image many birds breeding on an island with this much human activity.

There’s a bird “news” blog I like to read, LittleBirdieHome.  Three times a week, there are new stories posted that relate to birds, from the mundane stories such as “Johnny saw a Three-toed Kingbird down at Newton’s Corner!” to bird research published in scientific journals.  Many times they are feel-good stories.  However, as with any “news”, it ain’t always good.

This week there’s a story from near our old stomping grounds. After college, we lived in Maryland for a couple of years.  Every once in a while we’d head east on a weekend to enjoy Ocean City or another beach on the coast.  It was a nice change of pace for a Midwestern couple who hadn’t even seen the ocean many times.  However, it was also a complete MADHOUSE.  Just traveling back and forth to the coast on a weekend was often bumper to bumper, and you certainly couldn’t ever find solitude once you arrived

The story posted by LittleBirdieHome highlights the attitude that certainly seemed to permeate coastal areas when we were there.  People first!  WITHOUT exception!! That’s the general rule.  Wildlife?  That’s about 48th on the list of most important concerns for coastal visitors.  The story concerns newly created islands and a conflict between birds, and people.  Several small islands were created off the coast to benefit bird species that need quiet, isolated locations for breeding.  However, boaters in the area have made one of the islands into a favorite weekend getaway location, flocking to the sandy beach on the island and the relative solitude compared to the coast itself.  Breeding bird species, for which the island was built?  There’s simply not going to be many breeding birds when people are using the island so heavily.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, as it’s really no different here in South Dakota.  Public lands and parks are DEFINITELY “people first”, with wildlife concerns far down the list of most important land management concerns  It’s SO sad here to visit a favored State Park, only to find that areas of wonderful habitat have been cleared to make room for campers, archers, off-road vehicles, etc.  It seems the people-first method of management is universal in the United States, where the ONLY concern for the public is how they can use (and abuse) public lands.  While the article linked above notes that officials are considering permanently closing the island to human visitation, I would bet the farm that the boating/party/beachbum/LOSER interests win out.

I’d like to think that they’d default to the use the island was built for, but when it comes down to people vs. birds, people always win.  It’s as simple as that.

More invasive species…

Iguana - St. John's, Virgin Islands

Another non-native species on the Virgin Islands, a huge iguana.

A quick follow up on the previous post…on this day in the Virgin Islands, we had a giant iguana laying by the road, several places we had to slow down or stop because of goats in the road, and a “wild” donkey that chose our beach house yard to graze in for the day. Yes, some good birds again, but it’s the non-native species that dominate the ecology.

 

F***ing, Fat, Fake Nature Lovin’ Campers – FFFNLCs

Vegetation removal at Big Sioux Rec Area - 2013 to 2015

Big Sioux Rec Area campground – 2 years ago, and today. All shrubs and trees anywhere close to the road removed, any remaining trees trimmed way up. Can’t have any scratches on those $125,000 RVs!!!

We live across the street from the Big Sioux Recreation Area, a state park here in South Dakota.  It’s a riparian area along the Big Sioux River, with many very large cottonwoods and burr oaks, among other trees.  We’ve lived in Brandon for over 20 years now, and I’ve always enjoyed the park, including the birds found within.  That enjoyment is becoming less and less as time goes by.

There’s a definite pecking order in terms of what passes for “recreation” in South Dakota.  Birds and birding, and wildlife in general, seems to be very far down that list.  “Parks and Rec” often seems to mean accommodating a few select recreational uses of public land.  Hunting definitely tops the list.  What else would you think when you get to your favorite  South Dakota State Park, and are immediately greeted with a sign that says “Warning – Hunting Season in Progress”?  Nothing says rest and relaxation more than walking a beautiful path, looking for birds, all the time with a wary eye for any trigger happy hunter that may be targeting something in your general vicinity.

Accommodating campers seems to be the second highest priority.  The Big Sioux Recreation Area has always had camping spots, but until recently, they’d been wonderfully vegetated.  There are two loops with camping spots, loops that USED to be lined with cedar trees and other vegetation.  They were wonderful for birding. The deciduous trees and shrubs around the camping sites themselves were sometimes spectacular for warblers and other migrants in the spring.  The thick cover offered by the cedars and surrounding bushes always attracted birds.  A few years ago on a beautiful November day, as my son and I walked through the park, we were surprised by 15 or more Long-eared Owls that were roosting in the evergreens.  They were incredibly tame, allowing close approach.  People came from all around the area to see this unique circumstance, a group of tame, easily seen Long-eared owls that had chosen the Big Sioux Rec Area camping loops as their winter roosting spot.

Long-eared Owl - Asio otus

From 2007, a Long-eared Owl perched in trees in the campground at the Big Sioux Recreation Area. Those trees and any other vegetation in the vicinity are GONE, largely to make way for today’s generation of Fat Fake Nature Lovin’ Campers.

Last summer, the park began removing trees and shrubs.  Ostensibly, part of the reason was due to what’s become an all out war on Eastern Red Cedar by parks in the state.  However, one of the directly stated reasons for the move?  All the increasingly large campers that use the Big Sioux Rec Area were having a difficult time backing into some of the camping spots.  Those cedar trees that held all the Long-eared Owls?  They are ALL gone.  All the bushes and other vegetation that used to line the roads of the camping loops?  Gone.  What was once a wonderful habitat for birds is now a habitat for…FFNLCs.

What is a FFNLC, you ask? My very blunt term for “Fat Fake Nature Lovin’ Campers”.  Frankly, I usually put another “F” in front of the term, and you can imagine what that stands for.  DEFINITE “Fake nature lovers”, given what passes for “camping” at the Big Sioux Recreation Area.  Last night, I was walking through the park and passed a MASSIVE RV that has been parked in the same spot all week. Despite being there for several days, I had yet to actually see someone OUTSIDE, until last night.  Last night, there was a definite FFNLC, “roughing it” in the park.  This FFNLC was massive on a grand scale, just as was her RV!  And just as massive was the huge flatscreen TV she watching in the “wild” of the park.  The RV had a panel on the outside that opened to reveal this massive flatscreen TV. This FFNLC was sitting in a lawn chair with a huge bowl of chips(?), munching away with the volume turned ALL the way up so the rest of the park could also enjoy her viewing of American Idol.

NOTHING says “Nature” more than sitting in a lawn chair, with your satellite TV hooked up, watching a giant screen and speakers belting out American Idol.  And now you see why I usually add another “F” in front of FFNLC.  Even if there WERE a bird in the general vicinity of the VERY fat FFNLC, there’s no way I could have heard it over her TV.

Fox Sparrow photo - Big Sioux Rec Area

Fox Sparrow, taken in the campground loop at Big Sioux Rec Area. Alas, this spruce tree, like EVERY spruce and cedar tree in that loop, is now gone.

I don’t want to be mean about the “fat” part of FFNLC, but…c’mon, it fits SO well for FFNLCs.  This weekend, on a GORGEOUS afternoon, I took a walk through the park with my pups.  There’s a nice, long, paved bike/walking trail through the park that we like to take the pups on.  Beautiful day…many campers at the park…gorgeous trail…and for the 1 1/2 mile walk, do you know how many people I came across on the trail?  ONE.  ONE!!!  But yet you got back to the campground area itself, and there were certainly plenty of FAT FFNLC’s “roughing” it.  “Roughing it” nowadays evidently means never moving more than 15 feet from the vicinity of your massive, air conditioned, satellite TV equipped, more-comfortable-than-most-peoples-houses, 40-foot RV.  TAKE A FREAKIN’ WALK, FFNLCs.  TRY TURNING OFF THE TV and actually enjoying the park itself.

There’s obviously no going back.  My very birdy camping loops are no more, and it’s not going to change.  EVERY change the State Parks make around here end up REMOVING habitat, and putting in MORE camping stalls.  I guess I should enjoy what habitat remains in the Big Sioux Recreation Area, because its inevitable that any bird habitat presently found there is only going to be reduced even further as time goes by.

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