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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.

Ode to the Sparrow – Photo/Haiku of the Day

Ode to a Sparrow

A whisper in the grass

“Just a sparrow”, overlooked.

Autumn’s hidden jewel

Le Conte's Sparrow - Ammodramus leconteii

We’re approaching mid-September, and with it, one of my favorite birding migrations of the year. Warblers? Fall shorebirds? Migrating raptors? No, I treasure early to mid-Autumn for the wonderful array of sparrow species that migrate through eastern South Dakota. Among them are one of my top 3 species of all time…the Le Conte’s Sparrow. No “little brown job”…not “just a sparrow”…the Le Conte’s Sparrow is a brilliant array of complex patterns and beautiful warm tones.  With a reputation as a “skulker”, they’re a prized birding target for many, but during fall migration here, I’ve found them to be very approachable and rather easy to photograph. Along with the other 20 or so sparrow species that migrate through in the fall, a sparrow bonanza is just around the corner!

 

Photo/Haiku of the Day – Prairie Ghost

The Prairie Ghost

Swift ghost of the prairie

shepherding harem and young

As winter’s despair beckons

Pronghorn Buck - Antilocapra americana

Custer State Park’s famed “Wildlife Loop” never disappoints, but it’s just after dawn when the magical moments occur. Pronghorn are often seen in Custer State Park, but they are typically easier to spot in the early morning hours, before most visitors start to arrive in the park. On this morning, a harem of perhaps 6 females and their young-of-the-year surprised me by cresting a nearby hill. They then slowly worked their way towards me as they grazed, unconcerned about the photographer in the parked car. Last to crest the hill was the big male, the protector of the little band. I watched for 15 minutes as the herd fed in the adjacent grasslands. As they slowly moved on down the hill, the trailing buck paused for a moment to give me a stare.  I evidently passed his judgement, and he then trotted off after his harem as they disappeared around the bend.  The grasslands were still lush from a wet and bountiful summer and forage was good, but the leaves were beginning to change, and a harsh South Dakota winter was just around the corner.

South Dakota’s Jewel – Custer State Park

My family and I just got back from a long weekend in the Black Hills, spending most of our time in Custer State Park. The Black Hills are a 5 or 6 hour drive from our hometown on the far eastern edge of South Dakota. We travel a lot, but have somehow managed to avoid visiting the area for the last 4 or 5 years, other than occasional fishing trips with my son. After a wonderful, long, Labor Day weekend, I’m not sure why we don’t spend more time in the Black Hills and Custer State Park.  We love National Parks and Monuments, visiting 11 different ones during our summer vacation to Colorado and Utah, but I’d put Custer State Park up with any of them.

Part of the attraction is the diversity the park offers. Custer State Park is big, covering over 110 square miles. Habitats are diverse, ranging from wide open prairie to craggy peaks.  Access is quite easy, with several roads traversing the park, including a number of gravel roads that get far less traffic than roads like the iconic Wildlife Loop.  However, even the wildlife loop is never as busy as the popular National Parks. And as with most parks in the United States, once you step away from the main roads and start hiking, you can find yourself with as much solitude as you desire.

On this trip, we stayed at the “Creekside Lodge”, a wonderful little place from which to base your trip to the Hills. It’s part of the State Game Lodge complex, right off Highway 16a, one of the bigger paved roads through the park, and is in an area that provides quick access to many of the Black Hills attractions. We loved our room at the Creekside lodge, a 2nd floor room with a balcony that overlooked Grace Coolidge Creek. Every night, we’d have deer foraging in the grass right below our hotel room, and the room was large and very comfortable.

For me, it’s the hiking and the wildlife that makes Custer State Park special.  There are no bears in the Black Hills, but you’ll certainly find as many bison, deer, elk, Pronghorn, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, and prairie dogs as you could want.  That’s right, just one State Park, with habitats that support creatures as diverse as Bison and Pronghorns on the prairies, and Mountain Goats at high elevation. Every morning on our trip I’d wake before dawn, and drive and hike around the less-traveled gravel roads the connect with the Wildlife Loop road. Every morning, I’d find bountiful photo opportunities.

Yes, it’s “just” a state park, but don’t overlook Custer State Park!! It’s one of the most enjoyable places to visit in the region.  Here are just a few of the many photos I took over the weekend. Note I reserve the right to revisit these same photos in upcoming Photo/Haiku of the day posts!  🙂

American Bison - Custer State Park, South Dakota

The iconic American Bison. Custer State Park has a very large herd that has free reign throughout most of the park. While they could be seen almost anywhere, the wide open grasslands around the wildlife loop are a place where you’ll almost certainly run across large numbers of them.

Coyote - Canis latrans - Custer State Park, South Dakota

A lone coyote, giving me one last look before disappearing into the grassland. There are certainly plenty of coyote around, but they’re pretty shy. Drive the Wildlife Loop right around dawn though, and there’s a good chance you may find one.

Black-tailed Prairie Dog - Cynomys ludovicianus

A Black-tailed Prairie Dog at the entrance to its burrow. There are a number of large prairie dog towns scattered throughout Custer State Park, and they’re always a great place to look for wildlife.

Pronghorn - Antilocapra americana - South Dakota

The Wildlife Loop are offers some wonderful prairie habitat, and is a great spot to find Pronghorn. Pronghorn in South Dakota are generally very shy. It’s no wonder, given the hunting pressure on the species. Custer State Park is probably your best opportunity anywhere to get close to a wild Pronghorn. They’re used to the visitors and will often calmly forage just a few meters away from your car.  How close can you get to a wild Pronghorn at Custer State Park? How about….

Pronghorn - Antilocapra americana - South Dakota

This close! When you shoot wildlife, the problem is that you generally can’t get close enough for a frame-filling photo, even with a “long” camera lens. In this case, my long lens made it impossible to frame the entire animal in the shot, and thus I instead had the opportunity to shoot some wonderful portraits from point-blank range.

Mountain Bluebird - Sialia currucoides

One of my favorite species, the Mountain Bluebird. Near the “airport” (not much of an airport) on Wildlife Loop road, there’s a fence line with a number of bluebird boxes. It’s a terrific spot to find these beautiful sky-blue birds.

Mountain Goat - Oreamnos americanus

ALWAYS. BRING. YOUR. CAMERA!!! After this many years doing photography, I should know this by now! But when we decided to do the “Cathedral Spires” hike in the park, I left the camera in the car. I didn’t think we’d see any wildlife up there! Boy was I wrong. We ran into Mountain Goats twice on the beautiful hike up to the spires! Alas, all I had was my iPhone, but this even with just a standard iPhone 7, we were able to get close enough to these beautiful animals to get photos such as this one. This also gives you an indication of the diversity of landscapes in the park…from Pronghorns on the prairies, to Mountain Goats up high!!

Custer State Park - Dawn

A quick grab-shot with my iPhone of the rising sun, from Wildlife Loop Road in Custer State Park, showing the wide open prairies and rolling hills on this side of the park.

Long-billed Curlew Encounter

What a magical weekend!  My son and I continue to be enthralled with our new hobby…being rockhounds, looking for agates, petrified wood, rose quartz, and whatever else we may come across on the designated collection spots on the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands. We stayed overnight Saturday near Philip, South Dakota, and then were searching on Saturday evening and Sunday morning.  The geologic finds were extraordinary (more on that in a later post), but the biggest thrill of the trip for me was an encounter with Long-billed Curlew, a species I haven’t had very good looks at in South Dakota. Saturday evening, we couldn’t have asked for a closer, good look at a wild Long-billed Curlew. The story…

Long-billed Curlew - Numenius americanus

We first saw the curlew as it flew over the gravel road we were on, and landed in the grasslands on the west side of the road. It stood there staring at us from some distance, while my son and I got out of the car to take photos. We started taking photos, and then walked through the ditch to the fence line to get a bit of a closer view. Much to our surprise, instead of retreating (as most birds do when you approach…especially if you have a camera!!) it started walking directly TOWARDS us.

Long-billed Curlew - Numenius americanus

It wasn’t stopping! As I furiously snapped photo after photo, the curlew kept advancing directly towards our position, marching very purposely directly at us! It stopped less than 20 feet away, and began walking back and forth, often stopping to cast a wary look at us and let out a cry.

Long-billed Curlew - Numenius americanus

We remained motionless, standing at the fence line while the curlew paced and sized us up. Finally, it seemed to have had enough and started walking even CLOSER to us. Soon it was too close for me to get the entire bird in the photo frame. Sensing what was going on, we started to back up towards the car as the curlew stared DIRECTLY at us and gave us the scolding of a lifetime.

Long-billed Curlew (Fledgling) - Numenius americanus

We were a little slow on the uptake, but given the adult bird’s behavior, it became obvious that it was upset that we were too close to a nest, or to its young. It wasn’t until we got back in the car and started to drive away that we spotted them…one…then TWO beautiful little spotted puffballs that had been crouching down in the prairie grass, perhaps 20 yards off the road. As we drove away, the adult quickly strode over to its two downy young. Once again the family was together, and safe from the pair of two-legged interlopers who had so rudely interrupted!

Sunset over the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands, South Dakota

Sunset over the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands, on the edge of the Badlands. This was just an hour and a half after the Curlew encounter, with the intervening time spent looking for agates and other geologic finds. A GORGEOUS end to an absolutely spectacular evening.

Meteors in your Gutter, Pollinating Crops with Drones, and more science news – Week of March 12, 2017

This week, let’s try something novel…science news, sans politics.  It seems that politicians in this country have decided we can live without science, so for one week, I’ll try a “news” post where science avoids politics.

Long-horned Bee - Melissodes

A Long-horned Bee, doing what bees do best…collecting nectar and in the process, distributing pollen. If one Japanese researcher has his way, we could soon be using drones to augment nature’s pollinators. A personal comment…let’s hope this never comes to pass.

Who Needs Honeybees when we have Drones? — A first…TWO drone-related stories in one week! While the story above about using drones to acoustically sample birds may seem practical, I admit I don’t see much of a future for this application!  Eijiro Miyako, a chemist in Tsukuba, Japan, was trying to make an electricity-conducting gel in 2007, an endeavor that wasn’t working. His concoction was stored, until 8 years later when he dropped the jar while cleaning out a drawer. Miyako certainly thinks differently than I do, because upon cleaning up the sticky substance, he wondered, “could this be used to pollinate plants”? The decline of honeybees and other pollinators is well-noted, something of potentially devastating consequences to not only natural ecosystems, but to our very survival, given the need to pollinate crops.  Miyako started working with methodologies to pollinate crops, starting out by coating ants with his sticky gel to see if their movements would attract and distribute pollen. It kind of worked, but didn’t seem practical, so he eventually started working with drones.  The drones have a fuzzy material that collects pollen and can redistribute it when the drone brushes up against another plant.  His eventually plan? Build a fleet of 100 or so drones, use GPS and artificial intelligence, and set them loose in a field to pollinate the crops. Well…I guess we all need dreamers, and given how science works, who knows what practical application may come of Miyako’s work?  But hey, how about instead of developing drone pollinators, we instead focus on preserving the natural pollinators we have now?

Norwegian Gutters Clogged with Meteors!! — Jon Larsen, a Norwegian jazz musician, has an interesting hobby.  He’s devoted much of his free time in recent years to looking through material in gutters, downspouts, and drains, searching for extraterrestrial visitors.  Tons of material from outer space enters Earth’s atmosphere every day, much of it microscopic. Larsen has searched through debris in urban settings in search of these microscopic visitors.  His passion has been published in the journal Geology, with a paper that discusses the identification of over 500 “large micrometeorites” from rooftops and other urban settings. Larsen has learned the typical characteristics of micrometeorites, stating “Once I knew what to look for, I found them everywhere”.  Next time you’re up on the roof, cleaning leaves out of those gutters, do it with a smile and a sense of wonder, because it’s extremely likely that you’re cleaning up cosmic debris along with those leaves.

Normalized Difference Vegetation Index - Great Britain

Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) for Great Britain, showing relative “greenness” of vegetation at the time. Researchers are studying linkages between NDVI, tree ring width, and volcanic activity to see if vegetation is responding to pre-eruption conditions. Potentially, such changes could be used to help predict an eruption.

Predicting Volcano Eruptions from…the greenness of trees? — I believe this is a poorly written article, but the premise behind it is VERY cool for a scientist like myself who works with satellite imagery.  The title of the story is very poor and somewhat misleading, stating “Can tree rings predict volcanic eruptions”? The story focuses on the work of scientists at the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow, and Landscape Research. In 1973, scientists noted an anomaly on satellite images along Mount Etna’s flank, a streak of trees that were greener than normal.  With satellite imagery, we can measure a “Normalized Vegetation Difference Index”, a measure of live green vegetation.  NDVI measurements in 1973 satellite observations were high along a streak on the volcanos flank, and less than a year later, a flank eruption occurred right along that very streak.  These scientists hypothesized that measuring tree rings from 1973 would also show an anomaly, and thus the title of this story that tree rings could “predict volcanic eruptions”.  However, the actual results showed no difference in tree ring width during that time frame. Given the relationship between tree ring width and how “good” a year a tree has had, I can see why continued research is warranted to try to find relationships between increased NDVI greenness, and tree ring width, and see if other areas have experienced changes prior to a volcanic eruption.  As it is, there’s not much in this initial research that proves a strong linkage.

Spying on Birds with Drones — On-site surveys of birds is a time-intensive and potentially expensive endeavor if trying to systematically survey birds across broad regions. Researchers at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania investigated the use of drones for conducting acoustical surveys of birds. They tried flying a drone and extracting acoustical information from a recorder on the drone, and found that the method was able to sample bird presence for about as large a region as a human observer performing a survey.  They have some kinks to work out, primarily related to the noise of the drone masking some of the low-frequency bird noises (think cooing of a Mourning Dove), but they believe technological innovation will soon make drones quieter and more efficient at sampling bird acoustics. I admit I do kind of roll my eyes when I hear people talking about trying to use drones for photography, and for science applications, because in many cases it seems like a stunt more than an actual practical application.  Gettysburg College may be proving me wrong, as this actually does sound like an interesting use of drone technology.

American Chestnut - Wild Survivor

One of the VERY few wild, mature American Chestnut trees left in the wild. Trees such as this may be resistant to blight, and are being used in efforts to develop a blight-resistant stock for eventual transplantation in the wild. Genetic modification is also being done to introduce Chestnut Blight resistant genes in tree stocks.

American Chestnut, Returning to a Forest Near You? — I often wonder what it would be like to travel back in time, to visit locations before they were touched by man. In the United States, the entire eastern half of the country was once dominated by forest land. While forest cutting started in earnest in the 1800s and even earlier in some locations, remaining deciduous forests by 1900 were still populated by 3 to 4 billion American Chestnut trees. It is estimated that one-quarter of trees in the Appalachians were American Chestnuts.  The American Chestnut was a prolific nut producer, with mast from the trees supporting deer, turkeys, bears, and other wildlife, including the now extinct Passenger Pigeon.  In 1904 a fungal blight was discovered, a disease that eventually wiped out nearly every wild American Chestnut. Asiatic Chestnut trees were imported into the country, but with them came an Asian bark fungus that was lethal to American Chestnuts. The disease spread rapidly, killing every American Chestnut tree in its path.  It is now estimated that fewer than 100 trees of any size are left in their former range. Root systems of surviving trees still send up shoots, but the blight infects the trees as they mature, resulting in practically no American Chestnut stems over 10-years old in the wild.  This story is focused on efforts to genetically modify the American Chestnut to include resistance to the blight. 30 years of research has resulted in the introduction of a gene from wheat that makes the trees able to withstand the blight. They hope to gain approval to publicly distribute the trees within 5 years.However, it will still be a long process to repopulate Eastern forests with American Chestnut. The researchers want to cross-pollinate the blight resistant trees with native wild tree stock. Half of the offspring will be blight resistant, and genetic diversity will be much improved over the current research tree stock.  We’re at the start of a VERY long process to restore the tree to the wild, but hopefully our great-great grandchildren will be able to enjoy the same Eastern forest trees that existed prior to 1900.

10 years until “Snowball Earth” — I admit my scientist side geeks out when I read a story like this, as it’s just so cool to think of the physical changes that have, can, and will again happen to our Earth.  Of course the absolutely catastrophic consequences for mankind put a bit of a damper on that excitement!  Harvard scientists have pinpointed the circumstances that led to “Snowball Earth”, a period about 717 million years ago where the Earth was covered in ice from pole-to-pole.  Models suggest that the climate destabilization that plunged the Earth into polar hell could have happened in a blink of an eye in geologic time. Massive volcanic eruptions back then could have ejected enough aerosols into the atmosphere in just a 10-year period to initiate the rapid freeze.  Don’t worry, it’s not a single volcanic eruption that’s capable of such a long-term change, but instead the kind of massive eruptions that mankind hasn’t experienced in our history. 717 million years ago, it was a string of volcanic eruptions across what’s now Canada and Greenland that set off the freeze.  As I said, from a scientific standpoint, fascinating to think what could happen, but it also points out the fragile balance of our climate system.  “Snowball Earth” happened because of runaway cooling and feedbacks that amplified and accelerated the cooling, primarily with increased ice increasing reflectance of solar radiation in a self-reinforcing feedback loop.  Right now we’re playing a game of “chicken” with our climate system, doing the exact opposite, and removing that ice in a self-reinforcing feedback loop that’s amplifying warming.

Snowy Bison

The Bison, invasive species that forever changed North America! Well, if we were around about 150,000 years ago, they would have been considered an invasive species, one that transformed grassland ecosystems of North America.

Bison Contributing to Mammoth Decline?  — OK, my chosen title here doesn’t reflect the purpose of this research, but after reading the story it did make me curious…did Bison contribute to the decline and eventual extinction of the Mammoth? The story used DNA analysis to establish that the ancestors of North American Bison first arrived between 130,000 and 190,000 years ago.  As the story notes, in this case, Bison were the invasive species, rapidly colonizing North America and forever changing the grassland ecosystems of the continent.  It does make me wonder…if not for the establishment of the Bison as a primary grazer in North America, would the Mammoth and other North American megafauna have been better positioned to withstand climate change and the establishment of man? Interesting story, and a story that shows that not all “invasive species” are those that are introduced by mankind.

Managing Diabetes with your Sweat — Especially as a family that deals with the consequences of Juvenile Diabetes, we’re quite familiar with the frequent finger prick to check glucose levels in blood. Researchers in South Korea have developed a prototype glucose sensing and insulin delivery device that looks like an arm cuff.  Instead of measuring blood glucose, it measures glucose in sweat. It’s not just these guys, there are also other researchers who are looking at measuring glucose levels in tears. There certainly have been many technological advances and devices for testing and treating diabetics, innovations that are certainly welcome! I just wish there were some real advances on actually treating the disease, and not just the symptoms.
 

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.

Deep Thoughts – A Shorebird that doesn’t act like a shorebird, acting like a shorebird…

Upland Sandpiper - Bartramia longicauda

Upland Sandpiper, acting decidedly NOT “upland” by foraging in shallow water.

What better way to start a Monday than with some deep thoughts…

Shorebirds are so named because they are, not surprisingly, often found on shores, wading in shallow water, on mudflats, etc.  One of the most common summer birds in grassland parts of South Dakota is the Upland Sandpiper.  Well-named, Upland Sandpipers are usually described in field guides as “shorebirds that don’t act like shorebirds”, as they are, not surprisingly given their name, found in upland environments.  The most common way to see an Upland Sandpiper in the state is to see one sitting on a fence post in a grassland area, and typically there isn’t a wetland or a “shore” in sight.

So, deep thought to start the week…How do you describe it when you see an Upland Sandpiper, wading and foraging in shallow water like a “normal” shorebird?  What do you call a “shorebird” that doesn’t act like a shorebird, but IS acting like a shorebird?

Deep thought…discuss amongst yourself.

Losing habitat on the Plains

Grasslands - South Dakota

A gravel road and vast grasslands…one of my favorite types of areas to not only bird, but just to experience. It’s becoming a rarer and rarer sight with all the recent cropland expansion in eastern and central South Dakota.

I ran across (yet another) story this morning discussing the huge loss of habitat in the northern Great Plains over the last few years.  It’s not exactly “news” to anyone who has lives here and has paid attention.  A bit of background…in 2007, Congress passed the “Energy Independence and Security Act”.  It was a huge energy bill, with many components. One of which actually was a huge boon to my work at USGS EROS, as we became part of a huge project to look at the potential for sequestering carbon through land use practices.

However, another component is a renewable fuels standard (RFS), with hard mandates for increased use of biofuels by 2022.  In recent years the price of corn has gone up substantially, in no small part due to the RFS.  The result? Massive loss of grassland in my part of the world, with the Dakotas being hit especially hard.

It’s obvious everywhere I bird, both in eastern South Dakota (which has traditionally been a stronghold of corn production), and now increasingly in central South Dakota.  In eastern South Dakota where I live, the only remaining grasslands are 1) those that are on hilly or very rocky ground, areas too difficult to farm, or 2) individual fields that are enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP).  CRP provides payments for farmers to keep land in a grassland cover around here, but those payments can’t compete with the profits that can be made by putting arable land into corn production.  I can point to numerous individual fields just on my drive to work that used to be CRP, and had been grassland ever since I moved here over 20 years ago, that have been plowed under and converted to cropland in just the last few years.

The further west you go in the state, the more iffy a proposition it is to grow dryland corn.  The Missouri River dividing the state into “East River” and “West River” used to be a rough dividing line on where corn was grown. Rainfall in South Dakota is a gradient from west to east, with precipitation dropping as you move westward in the state.  One of my favorite birding locations in the winter is around the Presho area. It’s an area with a lot of grasslands and a lot of pheasants (and presumably voles and mice), creatures that attract a lot of winter raptors like Rough-legged Hawks, Ferruginous Hawks, and even the occasional Gyrfalcon or Snowy Owl.  As a drier area than eastern South Dakota, cropland used to be limited to wheat, some sorghum, and sunflowers.  Not any more, as you’re starting to see farmers attempt to grow dryland corn even there.

It’s not just the conversion of complete, large fields from grassland to cropland that you’re seeing, it’s land management practices and micro-scale habitat loss.  From a land management standpoint, the other business that’s booming right now in the Dakotas is the installation of drain tile, underground piping that efficiently drains the land and allows farmers to utilize areas that once tended to collect too much water for cultivation.  One of my favorite little birding spots on my drive to work is now gone, thanks to drain tiling.  It was a low spot along a little drainage way, a moist area that had a grassland and some scattered cattails.  That area was drain tiled and is now a corn field.  From the micro-habitat side, farmers are also ripping out vegetation along fencerows and shelterbelts, trying to squeeze out every acre they can as crop prices are high.

To be frank, it’s damned depressing sometimes to drive around birding, seeing some of your favorite remaining grassland habitats being actively plowed under.  It’s a level of land-use conversion in the northern Great Plains that hasn’t been seen in many decades.

Especially as a father, I can’t help but think “when does it end”?  When do people stop thinking about MONEY, and their short-term well-being, and when do they actually start worrying about their CHILDREN’s future? It’s not just habitat loss, it’s sabotage of the very resources we need to survive.  Increased agricultural land use, drain tiling existing land, and increased fertilizer use as farmers try to bypass crop rotation and plant exclusively corn…all are pumping up nitrate and other pollutant levels in the very water supplies we depend upon to survive.

I tell myself, that just as with the inexorable spread of urban areas across the world, it can’t continue forever, right?  At some point, it has to stop, right?  The only problem is that human beings are too short-sighted to set that “limit” of when we stop degrading and destroying habitat and the resources we depend upon.  What’s going to eventually make it “stop” is ecological disaster…

Difficulty finding grassland birds in (former) grasslands

Blue Grosbeak - Male -  Passerina caerulea

Male Blue Grosbeak. These guys are scattered around in southern South Dakota, but it’s always a bit of a surprise when you run across one. Yesterday west of Lake Thompson I saw three in one small area.

Eastern South Dakota was once >95% grassland and scattered wetlands.  Trees were limited to riparian areas or pockets where the landscape was protected from the tree-killing effects of fire, and of course, there used to be no agriculture or urban land use.  Now of course the story is completely reversed, as pockets of unbroken grassland are rare in many parts of the state, as cropland has become the dominant land use.  In an area where grassland used to be king, it can now be quite difficult to find some of the traditional grassland bird species.

For some species, such as Sharp-tailed Grouse, they’re forever gone from most of eastern South Dakota. For other bird species, they’re found scattered in pockets of remaining suitable habitat.  Right around Sioux Falls, there simply isn’t a lot of grassland.  The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) does provide farmer payments in multi-year contracts in return for keeping the land in a grassland cover, but in recent years, CRP has sharply declined in the Dakotas, with the demand for corn and soy driving extensive expansion of cropland at the expense of what pockets of grassland remain.  For birds like Bobolinks, Grasshopper Sparrows, and Upland Sandpipers, you’ll occasionally find one in a small remaining pocket of grassland, but there’s very little in the way of a “go-to” for place for birds, with extensive grassland, right around Sioux Falls.

Bobolink - Male - Dolichonyx oryzivorus

Male Bobolink. Kind of a scruffy looking dude, but nice to get so close to one as they’re normally shy for me. These guys were numerous where I went birding yesterday.

In South Dakota, the three counties where I bird the most are Minnehaha (where I live), Lincoln (just a few miles south), and…Kingsbury County.  Kingsbury County isn’t even adjacent to Minnehaha or Lincoln county…in fact it’s well over an hour drive to even get to the edge of Kingsbury County.  The attraction of Kingsbury County for me is two-fold. Lake Thompson is the largest natural lake in South Dakota,and the region has extensive open water, shallow water habitats, mudflats, and wetlands.  The other attraction for me is the west side of Lake Thompson.  There are some very large cattle operations in the area, and instead of cropland, much of the land is kept as grassland and pasture.  There are also large areas of alfalfa fields.  Unlike many pastures around here that are overgrazed to the point of erosion becoming a problem, the land in this area seems pretty well managed, with a mix of taller grasslands and (seemingly) responsibly grazed grasslands.

The result is one of the best areas I know in the general vicinity for finding grassland birds.  I drove the area yesterday on a GORGEOUS, sunny, cool day, and was just reveling in the sounds and sights.  There’s one particular road that’s now closed due to fluctuating water levels on Lake Thompson itself. The road gets no traffic and isn’t maintained much anymore, but it’s no problem for my little pickup.  No people, some very nice grassland habitat, and some wonderful birds.  This is one of the few places around here where I can reliably find Upland Sandpipers.  If you go to the central part of the state, Upland Sandpipers are seemingly on every other fence post in the big grassland areas.  You just don’t see them all that often in much of eastern South Dakota, so it’s always a treat to find them here.

Orchard Oriole - Icterus spurius

Orchard Oriole male. Never have I seen such a concentration of Orchard Orioles as I do in this area west of Lake Thompson. Such beautiful little birds, an oriole many folks may not even know are around here.

Singing Bobolinks are another big attraction for me for this area.  I sometimes see (and hear) Bobolinks right around Sioux Falls, but it’s nearly always a single bird, trying to utilize a small remaining piece of pasture or an alfalfa field.  On the west side of Lake Thompson you hear them singing everywhere…one of my favorite sounds in the world, with their long, tinkly songs.  Both Eastern and Western Kingbirds are numerous, seemingly always fighting for fenceline foraging and perching rights.  It’s a place where I see Orchard Orioles in numbers I’ve never seen elsewhere.  The bug-like calls of Grasshopper Sparrows sound out from their hidden perches, as do the buzzy songs of Clay-colored Sparrows.  It’s the same kind of experience you sometimes find in areas of extensive grasslands in the central part of the state, such as on the Fort Pierre National Grasslands, but it’s so much closer to home.

A wonderful day! I just hope the land in that area continues to be managed as it is right now, and that it too doesn’t succumb to the ever expanding cropland in the area.

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