Wednesday, January 20, 2010

American grasslands lost to corn ethanol

Big Bluestem grass from the Tallgrass Prairie

The Americans did something right by the prairie when they instituted the CRP (Conservation Reserve Program) many years ago. Its roots go back to the 1950s but the program didn’t really get fully underway until the 1980s when it became clear that industrialized agriculture was doing some bad things for the land, waterways, and wildlife. Under the program, farmers are given annual payments to convert cultivated land back to natural cover of some kind. Here is a link to the US Department of Agriculture web page, explaining the CRP and how it “reduces soil erosion, protects the Nation's ability to produce food and fiber, reduces sedimentation in streams and lakes, improves water quality, establishes wildlife habitat, and enhances forest and wetland resources.“

The CRP is not perfect (some research has shown that landowners have abused the program and a small number have actually ploughed native prairie so they could get more land to qualify), but it has helped out some species of grassland birds and serves as a model that could be adapted and improved upon on both sides of the 49th parallel. As of March, 2008, there were still 34.5 million acres of grass, trees and wetlands enrolled in CRP, including millions of acres of reseeded grassland on the Great Plains. Waterfowl and upland birds in particular have benefitted from CRP so there have been significant economic benefits for local businesses in the prairie pothole region where hunters like to spend time and money in the fall.

map showing the extnent of CRP lands in the states

The CRP has been under threat now for at least three years, as the powerful corn and soy lobby has urged government policy in directions that give farmers the incentive to convert their CRP land back to crop. Jumping on the corn-based ethanol bandwagon, with its shell-game approach to reducing greenhouse gas emissions (read this study from University of California, Berkeley), corn growers’ organizations have been pushing for the government to give farmers “flexibility to plant corn without penalty on cropland idled through the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) so there will be enough grain for ethanol producers and livestock feeders.” That wording (love that term, “idling) comes from an article published in Corn and Soybean Digest” back in 2007.

But who is really behind this movement? The list of lobbying organizations who want to plough up CRP land includes the American Meat Institute, the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, the National Grain and Feed Association, the National Pork Producers Council, the National Chicken Council, the National Turkey Federation, the National Oilseed Processors Association and the North American Millers Association.
Again, it comes down to meat industries (not ranchers) who want to mass produce cheap and unhealthy meat and other animal products by feeding animals pharmaceutical-laced corn and soy in intensive livestock operations—instead of letting animals mature on grass the way they did a generation or two ago.

Just last week came the first proof that government incentives are already driving the cultivation of CRP land and in turn spurring declines in some grassland birds. Here is a quote from the top of a press release relating to the study:

“Ann Arbor, MI (Vocus) Jan. 13, 2010 -- A University of Michigan study released today shows how government incentives for corn ethanol are driving farmers to shift land into corn production, resulting in significant decreases in grassland bird populations throughout the fragile Prairie Pothole Region. The study, conducted for the National Wildlife Federation by a team of graduate students from the University of Michigan, School of Natural Resources and the Environment, analyzes the current and potential impacts of increased corn ethanol production on wildlife and habitat in the Prairie Pothole states of Iowa, Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota.”
Here is a posting from the “Environmental Working Group” on this topic with some further analysis.

As Michael Pollan’s books and the documentary film Food Inc. show so clearly, Big Corn and the meat industries that depend on corn are making us unhealthy from land to mouth.

[Note: If you have gotten this far in the post, please take a moment to read the poignant and powerful comment left by "CL," an anonymous member of the clergy who once lived in Kansas, where he saw the good that CRP offered in a place where wheat not corn was ruining the land in a culture spiralling toward despair and violence. The comment includes this chilling line: "I saw more suffering in four years there than in twenty years in other places combined…the land being just one more casualty."]

Friday, January 15, 2010

Coyote data (or Coyotes per party hour)

If the coyote is now our top wild mammalian predator in grassland (I find myself wondering if I am forgetting one, but no, the wolf and grizzly are both gone for now), then according to some studies, it is an important player on the stage of our ever-diminishing grassland biodiversity. Ecologists who speak of the detrimental effects of a “mesopredator release” that occurs once you remove the top or “apex” predator, may point to the coyote as a mesopredator itself, which, after the loss of the plains wolf, has increased and perhaps diminished some of the prey species (bird and small mammal), while others may describe the red fox as the real mesopredator that was released in grassland ecosystems when the coyote was persecuted in the 1960s after the advent of snowmobile hunting. [For a look at the Apex predator/mesopredator story see: BioScience, October 2009, Vol. 59, No. 9, Pages 779–791, here is an abstract; and Finley J.K. 2006. The rise and fall of the Red Fox beneath the apex of Palliser’s Triangle. Blue Jay 64(3): 155 - 159 and Finley, J.K. 2005. The fox that stole the apex of Palliser’s Triangle: a correction. Blue Jay 63(3) : 135-138]

I don’t pretend to know whether the whole apex predator/mesopredator release theory holds any water (though it sounds pretty good) and certainly can’t guess what the net effect has been of wolves disappearing, coyotes thriving, then thinning out for a few decades only to surge again recently in an inverse relationship with the red fox population. Even so, it would seem reasonable to say that grassland ecologists should look into the matter--and our policies on coyote depredation adjusted accordingly.

As it is, we have provincial governments like ours in Saskatchewan establishing bounties without any science to (a) show that coyote populations are “too high,” whatever that means, and (b) determine the local ecological effects of killing large numbers of coyotes. In fact, the provincial government does not seem to know how many coyotes we have in the province; nor have they shown us data demonstrating that coyote numbers are rising.

Nature Saskatchewan, however, does have data on coyote population trends. As the province’s long-standing organization of field naturalists, we have conducted mammal counts in conjunction with the Christmas Bird Counts each winter. The data is gathered by volunteers recording sightings of mammals and mammal sign using standardized methods. “Coyotes per party hour” may sound like something that should be happening at a bar in Maple Creek but it refers to the way the data is analyzed to give it some value in showing trends in populations. Each group of naturalists out there driving, snowshoeing, skiing or walking in their count circle for a day is one “party” and they submit their results along with the number of hours they recorded data—hence coyotes per party hour.

So, what does the Nature Saskatchewan data show? Today, Alan Smith, a Nature Sask volunteer and retired Canadian Wildlife Service biologist who compiles and reports the count data, sent me a spreadsheet with the data on coyotes from 1980 to 2008. It shows that coyote numbers have in fact been declining from 2001 to 2008—from a 28 year high of .25 coyotes per party hour in 2001 down to .10 in 2006 and recovering slightly to .18 in 2008. It also shows that coyotes did increase from 1980 to 2001; however, that may have been a recovery to normal levels in the absence of poison and other forms of persecution in the previous decades. Regardless, there is nothing in the data to show that we are suddenly being over-run by coyotes.

So we do have some data on coyotes, and none of it justifies a bounty. But maybe the coyotes are getting more aggressive and killing more lambs and calves—which is what some producers are saying. In that case--even though there is no data to demonstrate such a trend--perhaps we need to help producers find ways to discourage or eliminate the problem coyotes that are exhibiting this behaviour, not kill every coyote a bored plinker can spot from the cab of his pickup. Then there is the posibility of compensating producers with predation insurance programs. If hail destroys a farmer's crops, his insurance compensates him. Couldn't the same be done for the lambs and calves lost to predators?

Older and wiser ranchers will tell you it’s a bad idea to kill the coyotes you have on your range if they aren’t coming near your livestock, because removing them is an invitation to other coyotes that may be much more aggressive. Most coyotes live on mice, gophers and other small prey, not to mention a fair amount of vegetable material. It doesn't seem fair to paint them all with the same brush--particularly the red brush being used every day this winter in Saskatchewan's Rural Municipality offices to mark their severed paws under this bounty.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Allan Casey and Lakeland

If you don't yet know about prairie writer Allan Casey and his new book, Lakeland, you can get a taste of his thought and fine writing in his new website. Today Allan posted a lovely story about a long walk he recently took north of Saskatoon, where he lives, to Wanuskewin Heritage Park, which has recently re-opened.

Meanwhile take a look at Lakeland if you get a chance. It is a fine book about our love for lakes and the tragedies attending that love. Allan's voice is a powerful and insightful contribution to the conversation we are all having with the gracious and demanding landscapes of these northern plains.

Allan has a keen interest in citizen science, as I do, and we have been talking together about ways of engaging more people in the work of monitoring and restoring the ecological wellbeing of the places we care about.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Christmas Bird Counting on the Erstwhile Prairie

In the past three weeks I have had three opportunities to drive around the snowbound prairie in our trusty Caravan, scanning fields and shelterbelts for birds. As the compiler of the Craven/Lumsden Christmas Bird Count, I put on 125 kilometres or so mostly driving west and north of Lumsden on the roads toward Last Mountain Lake. On Boxing Day I did my duty for the Regina Christmas Bird Count both in the city and then out south and west of town, where I put on an additional 108 kilometres. Last week, a birder friend, Sandy Ayer was in town from Calgary so we took a drive to the north and east of the city to see what we could find. That was another 100 kilometre trip.

Anyone who winters at these latitudes knows how empty the landscape can seem: the wind scouring hard drifts of snow for mile after mile and nothing with a heartbeat in sight. Most grassland birds are migrants and so they are gone south, but there are one or two residents (sharp-tailed grouse) as well as some migrants that come here for the winter from farther north (snowy owls, snow buntings, redpolls). Then there are the chickadees and magpies that now inhabit areas that have sprouted woody growth in aspen bluffs and shelterbelts. I saw my share of these, particularly on the Craven CBC, but most of the birds I found during my 300-plus kilometres of touring the plains were non-native species.

The bleakest trip of all was the stretch south and west of Regina. The Regina Plains are very flat and open—no trees other than planted shelterbelts around the depot-like farmsteads, most of which are abandoned—and these features along with heavy clay soil have made them ideal for modern oil and cereal crop agriculture. Fields are seeded right to the road edge and there is no margin of weeds or grass anywhere. Only the odd slough is tolerated, and not a single acre of native grassland to be found. In fact, the roads seem to be about as attractive for habitat as anything between them. I came upon two coyotes belting down the road at full speed for two kilometres before they pulled into a natural gas pump station, which provided a habitat of sorts. The only native birds I found in three hours of driving those roads were two snow buntings picking grit from the road surface.

The largest flock of birds was more than 300 Rock Pigeons covering a grain pile dumped on a field by a farmer who had run out of bin storage. A smaller flock gathered at the base of a grain depot by a railyard where they were joined by 30 House Sparrows and a half dozen European Starlings. Two hundred metres away along the rail line I found 6 Gray Partridge, rounding out the quartet of non-natives that like our grainivorous approach to land.

What a world we have wrought: the birds that remain for winter on the prairie seem to be the ones that have so far been able to make a living on the leftovers of industrialized agriculture. As I watched the starlings, sparrows and pigeons pecking at the spilled grain in minus-25 Celsius air, it seemed to me that the life of the land itself for miles around had been extracted and gathered up into those bins. No wonder the only birds in the area were the ones we imported along with our unsustainable land ethic, and no wonder that they were all there fighting to get a share of its scant leavings.

Snow Bunting in winter plumage

On the other two trips, however, in much more varied habitat with scraps of pasture and some weeds on field edges and slough margins, I found snow buntings in larger numbers. This bird, for me is a grassland bird from arctic pastures, and its spirit has much in common with the prairie longspurs we have in summer. One flock I found on the Craven CBC was more than 500 birds. I stopped the van, jumped out and ran into the field to hear them better as they shifted from one patch of dock weed to another along a frozen slough. The soft twittering of such a large flock, so confiding and gentle, is one of the great delights of prairie bird-watching. I stood in a field where my boot prints were surrounded by millions of tracks the size of my fingernail--the snow was peppered with their tracks all the way to the horizon--and I thought of next summer and the birds that will be courting and nesting here while the snow buntings light up the tundra with their song.

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