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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.

The Colbert Report – I’ve officially “made it”

Colbert Report - Baird's Sparrow photo

I’ve made the big time! My Baird’s Sparrow photo being shown during an episode of the Colbert Report.

As someone recently made me aware of, before shutting down as Stephen Colbert left the show, the Colbert Report used one of my photos on their show!  OK, it was just in a very tangential sense, with no direct mention of the photographer or anything, but still…cool to see something of yours pop up unexpectedly on a show like the Colbert Report!

The context was typical Colbert satirizing negative impacts of oil production in North Dakota on the habitat and wildlife.  I had done work looking at the impacts of land use change and climate on bird populations in the U.S., and once the paper was published, it got some play in the press, including, evidently, on CBS This Morning.  The Colbert Report used a clip from the CBS This Morning show that included my photo of a Baird’s Sparrow.

I often run across my photos at conferences and the like, as people just grab bird photos from the web when doing scientific presentations.  I also run across them on occasion elsewhere, but it is still cool to see it on a venue like the Colbert Report.

Wind Farms hurt birds in yet another way

Map of Greater Prairie Chicken range, and average wind speeds for the conterminous U.S.

Greater Prairie Chickens live in areas with relatively high wind speeds. Not a good combination when wind farms have a negative impact on breeding.

A new research paper in The Condor: Ornithological Applications highlights yet another negative impact of wind energy on bird populations.  It’s already been estimated that between 140,000 and 380,000 birds die each year due to collisions with wind turbines. The new study, led by authors from multiple universities, found that it’s not just collisions that can harm bird populations.

The authors looked at Greater Prairie Chicken populations near wind farms and found that nest abandonment was significantly higher on leks within 8 kilometers (~5 miles) from a wind turbine.  They also found slightly lower weight birds closer to wind turbines. It’s not just the turbines themselves that are an issue, it’s increased human activity, and energy and transportation corridors connecting wind turbines.

So to summarize, fossil fuel burning results in carbon emissions and global warming and also severely impacts habitat at extraction sites.  Solar energy has been implicated in the direct incineration of birds unlikely enough to encounter a solar farm.  Wind farms now have been implicated not only in direct collision deaths, but negative impacts on successful breeding.  In other words, you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t, regarding any “bird-friendly” choices for energy production.

To me there’s still no question that either solar or wind are much better environmental options than fossil fuels.  Impacts for solar and wind are local, while fossil fuel burning causes both local habitat destruction, and global impacts on climate.  It’s depressing to think that even birds 5 miles from a wind turbine could be negatively impacted, but to me wind farms are the lesser of the various energy evils out there.

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