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.

Your tax dollars at work – Science or Birds?

Photo of Double-crested Cormorant - By Terry Sohl

Double-crested Cormorant. Clearly by the evil look in his eye, you can tell he’s up to no good. Clearly, this 2 pound bird is a much better fisherman than all the “sportsmen” in the Pacific Northwest, as cormorants have been (wrongly) accused of destroying salmon populations in the region.

Ah, the perks of being a government scientist.  The high pay.  The adulation. The outpouring and love from an American public that doesn’t seem to believe in science any more, a public that seems quite content to ignore those pesky temperature increases on their thermometer, a public that would rather believe that great-great-grandpa Eddie used to ride around on a dinosaur than believe in evolution.  It just keeps better and better.  At least there’s the work, right?  The thought of doing real, unbiased SCIENCE for the public good?

Well sure, there is the work itself.  It’s just a wee bit disheartening however to DO the work the government asks you to do, but have that work ignored by said government.  With that as background…

If you’re not aware of it, there have been active campaigns against the evil Double-crested Cormorant for decades now, with interest groups (primarily fishermen and other “sportsmen”) claiming that the birds are eating all their fish, and therefor they must be destroyed.  It’s been in multiple locations, from the South, to the Great Lakes, and most recently, on the Columbia River basin where fisherman are bemoaning declining salmon populations.  One COULD blame over-fishing.  One COULD also blame a much warmer northern Pacific (global warming anyone?) that has been shown to be taking a toll on salmon.  But no…of course it’s none of that according to these brilliant “sportsmen”.  It’s the evil Double-crested Cormorant that is eating all of “their” salmon.

You might wonder how a species that’s co-existed with salmon for thousands of years suddenly is (supposedly) single-handedly wiping out Cormorant populations.  The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was also wondering, and thus tasked their biologists to study the issue.  The conclusion from the government scientists?  Double-crested Cormorants weren’t having much of an impact, if any, on salmon populations in the Columbia.  The next course of action by Fish & Wildlife?  Giving their stamp of approval on a plan to KILL 10,000 Double-crested Cormorants in the region.

Yes, that’s correct. Your tax dollars pay for scientists to study EVIDENCE, to use the best available techniques and analyses to study issues such as this.  In this case, government biologists found no connection between the birds and the salmon.  That same government, however, decided to ignore their scientists and STILL start the slaughter of 10,000 birds.  Why?  I’m sure it has EVERYTHING to do with politics and keeping the “sportsman” (HAH!!) lobby happy.  It sure as hell has nothing to do with the science.

If I’m a tax payer, I’m wondering what the hell the government is doing, playing politics instead of paying attention to the science.

As a fellow government scientist, I’m left wondering why the hell any of us are doing our jobs, if our work is going to be ignored.

Tree Nazis strike again in South Dakota

Tree cutting - South Dakota roadsides

Another one of my (former) favorite birding spots, hit by the South Dakota Tree Nazis. If they have their way, no habitat of any kind will be left in the state, and we’ll have a nice homogeneous landscape of corn and soybeans.

Sigh…this is getting old.  I went out this morning to do a bit of birding, and thought I’d try “Ditch Road” north of Sioux Falls.  It’s a spot I like to go to in the mornings.  Ditch road has a ditch that often holds water, with thick trees and shrubs on either side.  The stretch I like to bird is on the west side of the road, so there’s some nice light as I drive it in the morning.

As soon as I turned the corner on to Ditch Road, my heart fell.  Yet another of my favorite birding habitats in the area has fallen prey to the South Dakota Tree Nazis.  If you haven’t heard of the group, they’re an evil underground effort to ensure that all of South Dakota is homogeneous corn and soybeans, and that every little bit of remaining bird habitat is removed.  “Spook Road”, another favorite birding spot just east of my home town of Brandon, has also fallen prey to the Tree Nazis.

In both cases, thick shrubs and trees lining the road have been completely removed.  From the rumors I’ve heard, it’s local and county government efforts to satisfy new insurance requirements.  I’m not sure if it’s true, but I had heard that due to an accident involving someone becoming injured or killed in a vehicle strike on roadside woody vegetation, insurance companies pressured local governments to remove woody vegetation that’s anywhere close to a roadway.

Trees aren’t exactly widespread on the South Dakota plains.  Urban areas certainly have plenty of trees, but otherwise they are typically restricted to riparian areas and fencelines.  In the case of the aforementioned Spook Road, there’s about a 3 mile stretch where a small creek intermittently crosses the road, and it’s the thick riparian/roadside trees and shrubs that were removed.  In the case of Ditch Road, it truly is a very thin strip of tree and shrub habitat, perhaps 30 yards wide in total, but it’s always been a very productive birding location for me, particularly in spring when migrant passerines move through.

And now, like many of my other favorite birding locations, the Tree Nazis have destroyed it.  As the photo above shows, ALL vegetation on the side of the ditch closest to the road has been removed.  I guess I should be thankful the Tree Nazis were feeling gracious, and left the vegetation on the far side of the ditch. It’s a far too common site though in the area, with trees along fencelines, shelter belts, and other roadside trees being removed at an incredible rate.

The South Dakota Tree Nazis have many splinter groups operating in the state as well, including the South Dakota Wetland Destroyers who have been incredibly active in the last couple of years, drain-tiling and destroying every tiny remaining spot of wetland in the area.  For an area that historically was chock-full of little wetlands, I now have to drive a ways to find a functional wetland with any kind of decent birding.

I’ve got a LOT of photos on my main website that were taken on Ditch Road. After what I saw today, all of those photos may now just be a remembrance of a time when Ditch Road had decent birding, before the Tree Nazis did their work…

Ethical dilemma – What to do about cowbirds?

Orchard Oriole and Cowbird Fledgling

Another species that often falls victim to Cowbird parasitism, a Orchard Oriole.

Spring and summer are wonderful times in South Dakota. After a long winter, the weather in the spring and summer is usually fantastic, the landscape comes alive after months of dormancy, and birds return in force.  Come June and July, my yard starts to come alive with the young of the birds that breed in the area.  Unfortunately, it’s also a time where, without fail, I’ll look out into my yard at some point and see a parent of some species feeding a cowbird young.  I don’t know if they’re more prone to cowbird parasitism, but it seems most years I see an adult Chipping Sparrow trying to feed a giant cowbird fledgling that’s easily twice its size.

Human beings definitely are guilty of anthropomorphizing wild animals, treating them as if they have human emotions and feeling sympathy as you would for a human being in a similar situation.  When I see a tiny Chipping Sparrow trying to feed a big, hungry cowbird fledgling, I immediately feel sorry for the Chipping Sparrow, knowing that its nesting success for its own fledglings has likely suffered at the hands of this giant interloper.  I often know where birds are nesting in my yard.  Chipping Sparrows often use my two spruce trees or this thick juniper to build their tiny nests.  In the spring I can often look directly into their nests, and therein lies the ethical dilemma.  What do you do when you see a giant cowbird egg amidst the smaller host bird eggs?

As a scientist, you of course know that cowbirds too are part of the natural environment, and what you’re witnessing is a natural occurrence.  Cowbirds are a native species, and other birds have always had to deal with cowbird parasitism.  On the other hand, there’s also no doubt that cowbirds are more common in many parts of their range compared to historical averages, thanks to human activity.  Cowbirds have always preferred open habitats, but habitat fragmentation and creation of more “edge” habitat has resulted in increased cowbird access to many species that rarely had to deal with it before.

All true!  Cowbirds HAVE benefited from man’s alteration of the landscape!  And that’s the justification I guess I tell myself when I peer into a bird nest, see a cowbird egg, and…pick it out and destroy it.  Yes, I know I’m anthropomorphizing the situation.  Yes, I know it’s a natural occurrence, cowbirds are a native species, and they have a right to survive just as the Chipping Sparrow does.  But in my own mind, it doesn’t seem “right” when I see that cowbird fledgling following around the little Chipping Sparrow fledgling, demanding food.

And thus, I do destroy cowbird eggs when I see them in a nest in my yard.  It’s one of those things I’m conflicted about though, as even though I almost always do it when I see a cowbird egg, I also feel kind of guilty after the act is done.

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