Wednesday, March 30, 2011

In Defence of Alberta's TRL Land

Some of the grassland in Alberta's TRL land could look like this if the deal goes through

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post about the Alberta government giving 130 square miles of the province's Crown native grassland to two rural counties. These "Tax Recovery Lands" are part of Alberta's natural heritage and for thousands of years have supported rich ecological communities characteristic of the northern Great Plains. Communities that are among the most endangered on the continent.

In the past few weeks, Alberta conservation organizations have been issuing news releases, sending letters and emails, and pressuring the government to come to its senses and stop the giveaway scheme. And a scheme it is, for the motive behind this move is both political and tactical. The Stelmach government in Alberta is turning up some of the worst popularity figures of any Conservative government in that one-party province's history. They are hoping that giving land away to rural counties will win them back some support. But buying votes may not be the primary purpose of the giveaway.

It is not a coincidence that this strategy of giving away TRL came up shortly after their efforts to sell a large piece of native grassland in the region were thwarted by a public outcry. The land was to be converted to irrigated potato crops for a potato chip corporation. "Potatogate" people called it because the Stelmach government came under sharp criticism for proposing the sale. Conservationists now believe that this TRL deal is an attempt to out-manoever opposition by passing the land into the hands of counties who only answer to their local rural ratepayers and will do what they like with the land--sell it to the highest bidder and let them turn it into centre-pivot irrigation farmland.
If this is not what is happening, then why won't the Alberta Government come clean and declare exactly what pieces of land will receive some kind of protection and what pieces will be sold without any restrictions? Why won't they tell their citizens whether any environmental assessment has been done on the TRL lands that are included in the deal? With no disclosure, no transparency, and no consultation, can anyone fault us for suggesting that something nefarious is going on here?

Adding to the breach of public trust, there is the issue of the Alberta's "South Saskatchewan Land Use Framework," which the government says will ensure “a healthy economy supported by our land and natural resources; healthy ecosystems and environment; and people-friendly communities with ample recreational and cultural opportunities”.

Albertans were promised that this would be in place for effective land management. But in the middle of the process the government decides unilaterally to just hand off 130 square miles of grasslands vital to prairie biodiversity. Land use plans full of empty promises and motherhood statements about healthy ecosystems will not do much for the Sprague's Pipits or pronghorns who find the landscape has been turned into irrigated cropland.

The bottom line is that the Alberta Government is putting at risk an enormous piece of prairie habitat and the many plants and animals that depend on it. The stretch of grassland threatened by this deal is roughly the same size as the Columbia Icefields and larger than Elk Island National Park.

Here is a map an Alberta friend sent me showing (in bright green) the sections that are being given over to the counties.

No matter where you live, I encourage you to let the Alberta Government know what you think about this boondoggle:

Write a letter or email to the Premier and to his Minister of Sustainable Resource Development. Here are the addresses:

The Hon. Ed Stelmach
Premier of Alberta
Room 307, Legislature Building
10800 – 97th Avenue
Edmonton, AB T5K 2B6

Honourable Mel Knight
Minister of Sustainable Resource Development
Alberta Legislature Building
10800 – 97 Avenue
Edmonton, AB
T5K 2B6
Phone: 780 415-4815

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Moose on the erstwhile prairie

Bryan Schlosser, Regina Leader-Post

While most of our original prairie ecology is in rapid retreat, woodland creatures have been moving out onto the plains for many decades, taking advantage of habitat they find in farmyards and prairie towns. The white-tailed deer may have been the first to come out onto the prairie and find it hospitable. The raccoon, three species of arboreal squirrels, and the red fox have followed. Strangest of all, over the last five to ten years, moose have joined the mix of forest fauna now living on the erstwhile prairie. The highway from Saskatoon to Regina now has several moose-crossing signs.

You see moose in cropland, in farm shelterbelts, and on the edge of human settlements wherever there is enough cover for them to get by. Oddly enough, though, the moose seem to avoid the natural landscapes on the prairie--whether it is open grassland or wooded coulees. At Cherry Lake, where our land joins onto several thousand acres of poplar and ash-filled ravines, creeks, lakes, and upland prairie, we have seen only one moose in our six years. (It was last spring. As we crossed the creek in the bottomland, my daughter Maia and I heard a loud crashing sound. I looked up in time to get a quick glimpse of a moose's hind end heading east and turning back I could just make out the last of Maia disappearing to the west.)

And so it was not surprising when moose started coming into the city of Regina, attracted to the wooded landscapes in Wascana Park. Every winter several are spotted in Wascana Centre and it has been a treat seeing their spoor when we go for a ski or a walk in the park.

A week ago, Karen and I walked around Wascana lake. We saw a couple of white-tailed jack rabbits (a true prairie species now far more common in the city than in the surrounding land which is cropped so intensively there is not enough cover for a jack to survive).

Then we spotted a red fox crossing the ice to Spruce Island in broad daylight.

At several spots along the shore of the lake we found moose droppings. Most were between the shore and Spruce Island, but the largest pile was directly in front of the Legislative Building, though I doubt the moose was editorializing.

A young man I know who is a waiter at The Willows Restaurant in the park says that they often see two moose crossing the ice toward Spruce Island after dark. Sometimes they make an announcement and the patrons get up from their tables to go to the window and watch the world's largest antlered mammal heading for its bedding site in the city.

These two Wascana moose have been the talk of the town this winter, particularly for those who frequent the park. Neither of them has caused any trouble, though one reportedly does not flee from people. This characteristic made it easy for Conservation Officers who tried to tranquilize it this week and accidentally killed it with perhaps too large a dose (here is the news item in today's paper).

The officers of course were just doing their job. The authorities (from the City or from Wascana Centre?), wanting to avoid blame or litigation, were worried about people getting too close to a habituated moose and perhaps taunting it or causing it to turn on them. That could happen, perhaps, and, yes, moose are known to be unpredictable at times, but usually not in winter when there are no young calves around. People do stupid things in the presence of large wild animals to be sure, as tourists to Canada's mountain parks demonstrate every summer. But couldn't we try to find ways to live with a moose or two in the little scraps of wildness we tolerate in our urban park? Couldn't we just for once take a little chance, if not for the good of the moose then for the rest of us who like having the moose around?

As a prairie conservationist, I wish we could find a way to restore and foster some prairie ecology in Wascana Park, but our European love of woodland has turned it into a funky urban forest and artificial wetland. And as funky urban habitat goes, Wascana is pretty darn good. It brings a lot of wildlife into the city, including a couple hundred species of birds each year, many of which are in decline. If we try, and don't think first of insurance, ass-covering, and lawyers, we can find ways of coexisting with these wild woodland creatures. After all, they arrive here because we have created an island of habitat in a wasteland of industrialized agribusiness. Whether it is a Black-throated Green Warbler looking for landfall during a long migration or a moose needing somewhere to browse and shelter for the winter, all of our wildlife are struggling to survive in a world we are making less habitable all the time. Finding ways to share our urban wildness with them is the least we can do.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Chan Robbins, the oldest Albatross, and a tsunami

photo courtesy of USGS

I know, an albatross is about as far away as you can get from a grassland bird, but this is a bird story I could not resist posting.

A week ago, Stuart Houston sent me an email about a Laysan albatross that banding records prove to be the oldest known wild bird in the world. Stuart has inspired a lot of people to take their passion for nature seriously and it was his suggestion that led me to write Grass, Sky, Song in the first place. As an elder statesman of the ornithological world, he keeps in touch with some of the great bird men and women of his generation all over the planet. The email about the albatross was in fact addressed to Chandler S. Robbins, who is one of the greatest bird conservation biologists of our era. Robbins worked for the US Geological Survey for sixty years at the USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, Maryland.

This is the man who started the continent's most important bird census, the Breeding Bird Survey, back in the '60s. Without the BBS, we would not have the data to show that bird populations and distribution are changing. Writers and bird people like me rely on the BBS to bring the story to the public.

Robbins was also the bird conservationist who saw to it that Rachel Carson's work would not go in vain. In 1972, an effort led by Chandler Robbins succeeded in getting DDT banned in the United States.

He also wrote one of the most important field guides of the modern era, The Golden Guide's Birds of North America. Covering the entire continent in a small book easily kept in the pocket, this guide has been a favourite of birders for fifty years and has never gone out of print.

image of Chan Robbins courtesy of USGS

But back to the albatrosss. What is the connection between the sixty year old albatross and Chan Robbins?

Stuart knew it the moment he saw the article in the New York Times.
In the email to Chan, Stuart says

An Albatross sixty years old has a high chance of having been banded by that indefatigable and almost indestructible Chandler S.Robbins.

He was right of course. The world's most venerable bird was banded by the world's most venerable living bird bander and conservationist. Chan Robbins banded that albatross as a nestling in 1951. The bird is now 60 and still producing young. Chan is 92 years old and still working on behalf of birds.

The albatross, named Wisdom by USGS staff years ago, is nesting on Midway Atoll in the Pacific between Hawaii and Japan. As we all know, the earthquake last week send tsunami waves washing onto islands all over that region of the pacific. Midway Atoll is a very low island and the nests of the albatrosses who depend on it would be most vulnerable to high waves. On March 11, shortly after the quake, a five foot high wave hit the island destroying thousands of nests.

Today, I received this astounding message in my email from none other than the grand old man himself:

Late word from Midway is that "Wisdom" and her chick survived the tsunami, although thousands of other chicks were washed away.


Chandler S. Robbins
USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center

Sure, I was just one of the people in the cc field of the email when he responded to Stuart, but it was a thrill to see the name "Chandler S. Robbins" sitting in my in-basket this morning.

The sixty-year old albatross and her chick live through a tsunami, and the news comes from the ancient one who knew her when she was herself a nestling. Meanwhile the world waits to hear what will happen to the people of Japan, with another earthquake expected and several nuclear reactors out of control.

It all feels like a strange resolution to Coleridge's great Rime:

Farewell, farewell! but this I tell
To thee, thou Wedding-Guest!
He prayeth well, who loveth well
Both man and bird and beast.

He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all."

The Mariner, whose eye is bright,
Whose beard with age is hoar,
Is gone; and now the Wedding-Guest
Turned from the bridegroom's door.

He went like one that hath been stunned,
And is of sense forlorn:
A sadder and a wiser man
He rose the morrow morn.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Mad cows, happy birds, and distant butterflies

Western Meadowlark at Strawberry Lake Community Pasture, T. Herriot

Try a Google search today for the words “mad cow, birds” and you will get a barrage of hits all stemming from a scientific paper published a couple of days ago in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The Canadian researchers responsible for this hubub, J.J. Nocera and H.M. Koslowsky, have either got a very good publicist or their topic has tapped into a zeitgeist the rest of us have underestimated. I think it may be the latter.

Remember the Butterfly Effect? Well, this paper posits a cascade of effects that ties together the outbreak of Mad Cow disease in Europe with an increase in certain grassland birds in North America. Here is the way an article in The Scientist describes the paper’s argument:

After examining data on bird populations, hay production, cattle exports, and European cattle outbreaks extending all the way back to the 1960s, Nocera noted a recurring three-year pattern that starts with an outbreak of mad cow disease in Europe and ends with a jump in North American grassland birds.

The outbreak would result in increased cattle exports from the US and Canada the following year, which in turn reduced the standing herd sizes of cattle in North America, thereby reducing the demand for hay and saving the grassland birds' habitat.

Years of field research to show direct and demonstrable causation (proving, for example, that replacing native grass with crested wheatgrass reduces grassland bird nest success) is ho-hum, but put some numbers in a computer and extrapolate a set of trends caused by remote socio-economic factors and the media will flap their butterfly wings enough to make you a star.

I know, that sounds cynical, and even a little ungracious for someone who has in the past complained that grassland birds get no attention. Heck, this week, even the Regina Leader-Post ran a piece on this story. Here is one that came out in The Vancouver Sun. It is good to see this kind of uptake by the media and blogosphere, but it would be nice if it were based on a stronger piece of science.

On the other hand, there is something fascinating here, not so much about birds as about humanity’s increasing awareness of and passion for anything that shows our lives and ecosystems to be intricately interwoven and interconnected. We are thrilled to live in a world where the flap of a butterfly wing can have far-reaching ripple effects, and we should be. It is a wonderment to be immersed in such a matrix of sunlight and carbon, but we need that wonder and awareness to mature into respect and begin to inform our decisions, both as private citizens and as communities and nations.

This paper has already been criticized in the science community for its lack of rigour, for not really proving anything it presents as correlation. That tearing down is how scientists keep one another heading toward new knowledge that can be defended and upheld. Once research of this kind gets out to the public, though, it contributes to popular awareness, which is always a mixed bag of self-serving distortion and useful education. The teachable moment captured here is the insight that there are important connections between the food we eat and the wild creatures that are hanging on for dear life in the agricultural landscape.

Mad cows and butterflies aside, let us turn our thoughts to our next meal and consider whence it came. If we could cut down our consumption of grain-fed livestock products by 10%, and increase the demand for ecologically-raised, grass-fed beef by the equivalent amount, the birds would do their part.

a much better Western Meadowlark photo, courtesy of Hamilton Greenwood

Thursday, March 3, 2011

The case against Roundup advances


Over the past five years a series of studies have begun to show that Roundup, the farmer's favourite herbicide, is not the free ride it has been made out to be. First there was some damning research on the effects of the surfactanct in Roundup being toxic to some forms of aquatic life, frogs in particular.

A few years after that, researchers found that the active ingredient in Roundup, glyphosate, inhibits the uptake of nutrients in plants. They linked glyphosate to reduced nutrient efficiency and said animals that eat GM soy and corn have exhibited mineral deficiencies, which can lead to problems with everything from the immune system to reproduction.

Following that work, there were more claims that the herbicide is linked with a number of plant diseases. (Here us a link to a paper that argues "Glyphosate tolerant (GT) crops and glyphosate herbicide (commercial formulation, Roundup) poison nitrogen fixing and other beneficial soil bacteria, increase fungal pathogens, undermine plant immunity to diseases, decrease plant micronutrients available in the soil, and more."

Then, in 2010, researchers published data claiming glyphosate contributed to problems with chicken and frog embryos. Their research was inspired by clinical data on birth defects in the children of agricultural workers in Argentina that use Roundup.

All of which sounds bad enough to at least stimulate a re-examination of Roundup by federal agencies in Canada and the U.S. but no one is surprised that has not happened.

Well, as of a few days ago, the ante was raised by a soil scientist who says he suspects that Roundup and its associated Genetically Modified (GM) crops may be responsible for the kind of agricultural armageddon people have often feared from biotech.

Dr. Don Huber, professor emeritus at Purdue University, has sounded the alarm, referring to a pathogen “new to science” discovered by “a team of senior plant and animal scientists”. Huber, said to be one of America's most respected soil scientists, claims that Roundup and the GM Roundup Ready crops may be linked to the appearance of this new pathogen, which is causing plant diseases and reproductive failure in livestock. A couple of weeks ago Huber wrote an open letter to the head of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)saying this should be treated as an “emergency’’, because it could result in “a collapse of US soy and corn export markets and significant disruption of domestic food and feed supplies.”

A copy of the open letter can be seen here where it appeared on the Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance site.

The letter was intended to persuade Tom Vilsack, the Secretary of Agriculture, to halt plans to authorize unrestricted commercial planting of GM alfalfa on 1 February, in the hope of convincing the Secretary of Agriculture to impose a moratorium instead on deregulation of Roundup Ready (RR) crops.

As this TriplePundit blog posting from a few days ago explains, however, the USDA ignored Huber's warnings and went ahead with the deregulation of Roundup Ready alfalfa. Why? Well, here is what the blog posting says about that:

Frank Lucas (R-Oklahoma), the chairman of the House Committee on Agriculture, who led the effort to deregulate Monsanto’s controversial alfalfa, has received some $1.25 million from agribusiness during his political career to date.

Roundup Ready wheat, canola, soy and corn are bad enough, but alfalfa is a mainstay of hay crops that often host birds and of course a variety of insects. If Roundup is as dangerous as Huber and others maintain, spraying it heavily on hay crops will damage already degraded habitat for prairie creatures that are being pushed from the last vestages of their preferred habitat, native grass, and onto tame hay.

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