Thursday, May 27, 2010

71,000 coyotes killed--what does this mean for birds?

Here is today's news report on the final tally of from the coyote slaughter:

"Coyote ugly: 71,000 killed in Sask cull

By The Canadian Press
REGINA - A coyote bounty Saskatchewan offered hunters and farmers has resulted in more than 71,000 of the animals being killed.

Agriculture Minister Bob Bjornerud says the number is a surprise, but he's pleased with the results.

Bjornerud says the intention was not to eliminate coyotes, but to control the population because the animals were killing livestock and putting farm families in danger.

Jack Hextall, chairman of the Saskatchewan Cattlemen's Association, says attacks on livestock were costing producers thousands of dollars in losses.

The province paid $20 per coyote under a pilot program which ran from November until the end of March.

Bjornerud says the final cost for the program should be about $1.5 million."

Leaving aside the financial and political stupidity of a government spending $1.5 million to solve a problem that was "costing producers thousands of dollars," I am going to speculate on what losing 71,000 coyotes might do in the short term to grassland ecosystems that are already under a lot of stress from habitat destruction and conversion.

71,000 is a big number when we are talking about a top predator. In a post on January 15, I wrote about the effect of removing a lot of coyotes--particularly how it releases the Red Fox, a non-native predator, from any limits on its numbers. Though the fox is native to the continent it was not found on grasslands before settlement and agriculture. In the last century the Red Fox has had some periods where it has exploded in numbers, usually after a large loss of coyotes, which otherwise keep it in check.
(See 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)

Grassland birds are not adapted to predators such as the Red Fox and Racoon so when these mammals increase bird populations suffer.

Here is an excerpt from a research paper about a declining grassland bird, the Greater Prairie Chicken, explaining how nest success in ground-nesting birds (ducks and the prairie chicken) is greater in areas with higher coyote populations. And wherever coyotes numbers are down and Red Fox numbers up, nest success is cut in half. The full paper is available on the National Prairie Wildlife Research Center's website

"Red foxes and skunks have been the most common mammalian predators of prairie-chicken nests throughout most of the eastern range. Foxes generally have more impact than skunks because they commonly prey on the nesting hen. Over a 10-yr period, Svedarsky (1988) found December fox fur prices to be positively correlated with spring booming-ground counts two springs later. The conclusion was that trapping effort increased with the market incentive and that other potential predators were trapped as well (skunks, feral cats [Felis domesticus]). If trapping (and hunting) did, in fact, reduce mammalian predator numbers, it should have resulted in higher prairie-chicken production the next year and higher booming-ground counts the following year. This appeared to be the case. Further evidence for the high impact of foxes on large ground-nesting birds is that in areas where coyotes tend to displace foxes, nest success often increases. In North Dakota and South Dakota, Sovada et al. (1995) studied comparable areas except that some areas were dominated by red foxes and others by coyotes. Duck nests in coyote-dominated areas experienced nearly twice (32%) the nesting success as those in fox-dominated areas (17%). The authors suggested that managing an area for coyotes rather than for foxes could be an effective method of increasing duck nest success. Svedarsky (1992) observed an increase in apparent nest success of larger ground-nesting birds (ducks and grouse) over a 2-yr period in Minnesota. As coyotes apparently displaced foxes, nest success increased from 8.3% of 12 nests to 61.3% of 31 nests."

The voices of coyotes are part of the twilight and morning song of the prairie--something we take for granted like the creek running in spring. Last weekend my wife Karen and I were remarking that we have heard very few coyotes calling this spring. Most nights now there are none to be heard. To be honest, at first I wasn't thinking it was the coyote slaughter. After all, the estimate was merely 21,000 or so--more or less the same as an average winter. 71,000 is a very different number, different enough to do some short term damage that contributes to the long term decline of prairie ecosystems.

Two weeks ago, I saw my first red fox on the land since we purchased it in 2005. It was in broad daylight. The next weekend I saw two foxes in the same spot, again running in the light of day.

Meanwhile, the surviving coyotes are nursing their litters right now. If you care for the wellbeing of this land, lift a prayer or thought in their direction, that they may prosper this summer and replace that lost 71,000 as soon as possible.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Spring Birds of Indian Head Creek II

On the weekend I had a chance to get out to the pipit fields on and around Strawberry Lake Community Pasture. Two good friends, John and Michelle, came with me to see what grassland birds had arrived for the summer.

After the surprise of finding a pair of Say's Phoebe at an old farmstead (too distant to photograph), we stopped at one of the wetlands that head toward the beginnings of one arm of Indian Head Creek south of Lake Marguerrite. This Wilson's Snipe stood on his fencepost at roadside amid last summer's cattails . . .

Below him a male Northern Pintail stayed just long enough for this shot (click on any image to see a larger version).

As we neared the native grasslands of the area, I started to hear our first grassland sparrows singing, including this Vesper Sparrow . . .

. . .and the Savannah Sparrow featured at the top of this posting.

No Baird's Sparrows yet, but off in the pasture we heard an Upland Sandpiper giving its bubbling wolf whistle. We heard another, then saw two of them flying back and forth across the road. Unfortunately, this was the only photo I could manage.

Turning the corner west at an old cemetery and heading west along a tame hay field, I heard my first Sprague's Pipit of the year. We jumped out of the vehicle and leaned back on it to look up at the sky. We could hear its swishing, sibilant song perfectly, but we stared up into the blue for ten minutes or more and never managed a glimpse. Pipits are hard to see because they stay a couple hundred feet up in the air and sing, but I can almost always find the little bird-dot moving across the sky if I work at it. We moved on down the road and found another pipit and another, eventually counting five of them in that field, but try as we may, we could not find any of them. I wanted to show John and Michelle what they look like when they sing, but we eventually had to give up and move on.

The other grassland birds we saw on and around the pasture were Western Meadowlarks, Horned Larks, and Sharp-tailed Grouse (including a late lek containing at least 8 birds).

On the way back, we passed a set of ponds and sloughs in the community pasture and found a good mix of ducks and waders, including this female Wilson's Phalarope. . .

. . .and an American Avocet.

Back at our place at Cherry Lake, I tried sneaking up on a Lark Sparrow that had arrived to forage in the yardsite where we see them every spring. No dice, but I took a distant shot anyway, close enough to see the striking pattern on the sparrow's face.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Spring Birds of Indian Head Creek

Ring-necked duck

Got up early on Sunday morning at the cabin to see what birds had arrived. It was too windy to go out onto the uplands to look for grassland birds, so I trekked up the valley where I knew I could find a few birds in Aspen woods and beaver ponds.

The recent rain and snow has added a bit of gurgle to Indian Head Creek’s customary trickle so the ponds and lakes that feed this branch of the creek are all brimming.

The first swallow species back in spring, the Tree Swallow, is hardy enough to make the gamble that usually pays off in allowing them to secure good nest sites before other cavity nesters arrive. The risk they take is the weather we’ve been seeing for almost three weeks now: lower than average temperatures and late snowstorms, which make it hard to find insects.

I found this bunch clinging to the branches of a dead poplar overlooking Cherry Lake, waiting for the sun to stir a few bugs to life.

They had little desire to move so I walked in for a closer look.

I followed a small set of moose tracks up the trail to the second pond upstream of the lake. On the near shore, there were fresh scent piles, where a new pair of beavers is staking its claim on the pond. The dam is holding back enough water to attract buffleheads, mallards, and these guys, Ring-necked Ducks, which are the characteristic duck of the valley, and of the Aspen Parkland in general.

Like all diving ducks, they cannot launch straight into the air but run along the water for takeoff.

Farther on up the valley, I looked in vain for the resident pair of pileated woodpeckers, but I flushed a young bald eagle,

which then landed in the woods at the end of a set of terraced beaver ponds.

I heard and saw brief glimpses of a few birds that would not sit still enough for me to photograph, including three Spotted Towhees, two Bellted Kingfishers, some Yellow-rumped Warblers and a couple of Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers (that bird name always makes me think of Miss Hathaway in her birding get-up on The Beverley Hillbillies).

I did manage to get shots of a Vesper Sparrow,

Later that day, near the cabin, my daughter Maia (11) photographed a Lincoln’s sparrow too:

Environmental impact assessments--at the federal level

Last week I used this space to draw attention to the changes to environmental assessment that we are seeing in Saskatchewan. Things are worse on the federal level, where the big projects go for approval, the stuff that can really do a lot of damage: pipeline, mines, and offshore drilling.

Here is an article published in the Globe & Mail on March 31 this year. It appears that the Tories slipped these changes into parliament, as a way of getting around a Supreme court ruling. From the G & M article:

"The decision to rework environmental assessment requirements follows a Supreme Court ruling in January, where the top court decided that the federal government violated the law by conducting only a partial review of the Red Chris copper and gold mine, located in Northern British Columbia, and not an in-depth study of all the possible environmental impacts of the project.

Under the changes in the budget, Mr. Prentice [Environment minister] will have the ability to limit the scope of assessments at his discretion, legal changes that will allow him to sidestep the Supreme Court ruling, which had been sought by the Ecojustice group."

A month later, on April 21, The Green Budget Coalition--a gathering of Canadian environmental groups, including Bird Studies Canada, Canadian Environmental Law Association, Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, Centre for Integral Economics, David Suzuki Foundation, Ducks Unlimited Canada, Ecojustice Canada, Environmental Defence, Équiterre, Friends of the Earth Canada, and many others--denounced the Harper government's efforts to weaken Canada's environmental protection laws. Here is a copy of their news release.

Let your MP know what you think of these changes. It is exactly this kind of pandering to industry that leads to both environmental catastrophe as we are seeing in the Gulf of Mexico and to the slow erosion of biodiversity in wild places.

The environmental assessment process is flawed to be sure, but to weaken it further will just make it that much easier for industry and commercial development to run roughshod over the last remnants of wildness we have in Canada.

Here is what you can do to voice your opposition to this dismantling of Canada's environmental protection laws: go to this web page created by Nature Canada and a coalition of concerned groups. From there you can send an email to the Prime Minister, Opposition leaders, Ministers of Finance and the Environment and their Parliamentary Secretaries, the Environment and Finance critics of all parties, and members of the Finance and Environment committees of the House of Commons.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Environmental impact assessments

While our screens and newspapers bring us the latest news from the Gulf of Mexico showing us the mess that can come from oil extraction, we find ourselves asking about environmental guidelines and impact assessment processes. If the risks with a given development--in this case, offshore oil drilling--are high, how does the project get past the Environmental Impact Assessment? How is it that we allow this kind of oil development or the tar sands in Alberta?

The sad truth is that our official environmental assessment processes are not up to the task and, even as the oil gushes forth from this Deepwater leak, the regulations are under seige from industry and being watered down even further by their allies in government.

A biologist friend who recently found himself participating in a study that was part of the Environmental Impact Assessment for a development in native grassland told me off the record that he was ashamed to say that his report and study was "bad science." The terms and parameters of the study were kept to the minimum that is required under legislation, which meant that the data was not very meaningful as a way of determining the long-term affects of the development on species at risk. Why do it then, if he knew it was a sham? His answer was that if he didn't do the work, someone else would do an even shabbier job.

At the Prairie Conservation and Endangered Species Conference in Winnipeg, I heard Brad Stelfox say from the podium that he thinks the current EIA process is "disgusting." He too called it bad science and said that typically, the studies just look "over the shoulder" to compare the effect of any proposed project to yesterday. Change over such a short time frame increment will always seem minor, but if longer studies were done, the full impact of the development would be revealed.

But if biologists and conservationists don't like the EIA process, the oil and gas industry likes it even less. To a pipeline or oil company, the EIA process is a lot of unneccessary cost and paperwork slowing them down. You can see their logic. Our projects are almost never turned down or stopped and are seldom even re-routed to any significant degree, so why make us go through all of these regulatory hoops and pay for all of these studies? Sure, we have to look like we are considering environmental impacts, but can't we speed up the process of faking it?

In Saskatchewan, the Brad Wall government has been listening. They have promised to "streamline" the existing EIA processes and introduced some legislative changes, claiming to be following a new and better, "results-based regulatory system." This might sound good, but the only place I have seen anyone praise the new regulations was in a copy of "Pipeline News," an industry tabloid put out in Estevan. Check out page 2 of the January edition.

A couple of issues later, on page A5 the paper ran an editorial titled "Some rules are for the birds," written by the editor, Mr. Zinchuk. In it he ridicules the requirements for low noise levels in a bird sanctuary where the MacKenzie Valley Pipeline is slated to run and then reminisces about the good ol' days when you could get a project up and running real fast. Near the end he complains about construction guidelines here on the prairie:

"there is a regulation limiting construction during the summer – the prime time
to be doing this sort of work. This is the regulation I came across, from a source would [sic] prefer not being named, but must work under these guidelines. 'No construction activities will occur within the migratory bird nesting period between May 1 and July 31 until such time as a bird breeding survey by a qualified avian biologist has occurred with recommendations for mitigating strategies that have been approved by Environment Canada.'

That’s ridiculous, but it makes sense when you realize that one of those major pipeline projects I worked on a decade ago, they rerouted the line around an owl’s nest and some protected grass, to a cost that was well into six figures. Now, they don’t even work at all until they figure the nests no longer have chicks in them."

Mr. Zinchuk does his best to make the regulations seem onerous, but the truth is, the pipeline or drilling facilities end up going where they want them to go most of the time, and on rare occasions when they have to move to avoid a nest site, the margins are always minimal and no one really finds out what the long term impacts are on the grassland or species at risk. The oil and gas industry is in general wreaking havoc on grassland and grassland birds by cutting up habitat with hundreds of roads, introducing invasive species that degrade the prairies, installing vertical structures that nesting birds avoid, creating ponds that incubate deadly West Nile virus-bearing mosquitoes, and bringing in noisy machines that mask the sounds of grouse and chase birds from the landscape. And all of this is being done under the current EIA system , with its supposedly stringent guidelines.

In my next posting I will talk about Stephen Harper's assault on the EIA process.

Share this post

Get widget