Friday, November 27, 2009

Coyotes bad; ponies good

More on coyote bounties:

This comment came from an ecologist who read the post on coyote bounties and adds. . . .
“The coyote is, technically speaking, a K-selected species - but the useful point about the r-K selection continuum concept, in speaking of the coyote, is that the coyote is on the r-selected end of the spectrum because it responds to an elevated mortality rate by producing more off spring. A very strongly K-selected species, such as a blue whale or a giant redwood, would respond to elevated mortality by going locally extinct (or maybe globally extinct if the increase in mortality rate was great enough). So the r-K selection idea is useful in talking about whether one species is more r-ish or K-ish compared to another species. It's a nice shorthand but, strictly speaking, most of the big, long-lived species are more K-selected than r-selected (in the classical sense). I think a good website for your readers might be this one.”

While taking a bounty out on a native predator, the Saskatchewan Government yesterday passed legislation to protect one population of a feral introduced species—the horse. (Here is a Youtube clip showing the backbencher who introduced the legislation.)

I love ponies as much as the next person, but horses do a lot of damage to native grassland when they are unmanaged and left to multiply. It is so much easier to get people to love and protect a charismatic creature like a wild pony, than it is to get them interested in the native prairie and the many grassland species in trouble in Saskatchewan. And it is frustrating to think that this kind of na├»ve, misguided gesture is made on behalf of a species that is merely an escaped population of farm animals—and a threat to the ecological wellbeing of our grasslands. Fortunately, this particular group of 40 horses is in a wooded area with perhaps little native grass. But what if another herd becomes established in a vulnerable piece of grassland—e.g. the Great Sand Hills—and the same legislation is applied? Here is what a conservationist friend (who wishes to remain anonymous) had to say about the situation:

“If we can't be bothered to protect our indigenous wildlife then we definitely shouldn't be putting legislation in place to protect some feral livestock. I do not know if Saskatchewan’s wild horses are damaging habitat in the Bronson Forest, but I have done a lot of work in the Alberta foothills where they have wild horses and I can tell you that they are causing a lot of damage there. Like many invasive species, horses have advantages that the indigenous wildlife do not have. Unlike bovids, they have both upper and lower front teeth which allows them to graze very close to the ground. In addition, they are the only ungulate out there without a cloven hoof - as you can imagine, the uncloven hoof makes them much harder on the soil. As unmanaged livestock, they are causing considerable damage. Unlike cattle, the wild horses in Alberta are out grazing fescue grassland just as it greens up in the spring which is the most damaging time of year. The wild horses in Alberta also tend to hang out in the same general location year round - close enough to human development so they don't have trouble with predators and on the most productive grassland. Alberta has a huge wild horse support lobby, as well as legislative protection for their wild horses, so it is difficult for Alberta Sustainable Resource Development to do anything about the ever-expanding wild horse populations. I would hate to see Saskatchewan put in the same position.”

Once again, we seem eager to adopt the worst of Alberta’s mistakes and turning them into law.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Coyote—predator as scapegoat

The Saskatchewan government has placed a bounty on coyotes. It came from the Agriculture minister because sheep and cattle ranchers have been demanding something be done to control coyotes. The provincial Environment department has ecologists who know that this kind of measure does not stop coyotes from eating livestock. Our universities have biologists and ecologists who could explain what happens when bounty hunters start killing a predator like the coyote. As a “k-selected” species, the coyote regulates its population according to food supply and mortality rates.
If there is abundant food but adults are being killed, the survivors, who are also the more successful and wise, immediately increase the brood size and numbers of pregnant females within the pack. Trying to control coyote populations by killing them has been compared to bailing a boat with a sieve.

Food is the main limiting factor for our coyote populations. One way to control their numbers would be to limit some of their food sources, but instead we have spread a banquet for them: road-killed deer are always left to be scavenged, dead farm livestock are dumped into the bush or ravine, pet food is left outside, cats run wild and feral over the countryside, gophers and mice multiply in the absence of the raptors that hunt them.

If there is a lot of food, there will be a lot of coyotes—no matter how many the bounty hunters kill. On the other hand, if people do not take measures to minimize food sources and scare away coyotes from their livestock and yard sites, they will continue to have encounters with “brazen coyotes.” This phenomena of the “brazen coyote” is new, not simply because there are more coyotes, but more importantly because there are more rural people today who inadvertently spread the banquet with their pets and garbage, but do not do anything to discourage the coyotes. Acreage people and often farmers themselves do not have the rifles at the ready and the inclination to use them to scare off or kill problem coyotes. When farmers do their own coyote control, any coyote who doesn’t have the sense to run from a human being or stay away from a yard site is not going to have the chance to pass on its genes.
A random bounty program to kill coyotes may eliminate some of the problem coyotes, but many more will be born to survivors as long as the food supply remains high and rural people encourage coyotes to associate farms and human habitation with food.

An interesting sidelight on the coyote bounty: I have heard via the grapevine that some of the loudest complaints have come from sheep farmers north of the Qu’Appelle in the Cupar/Lipton area, where British farmers have moved in recent decades to set up farming (here is a story of a sheep farmer who came from Scotland and who is now on the Saskatchewan Sheep Breeders Association Board.) They are undoubtedly a welcome addition to the local farm community, but if they come from Scotland or England they arrive with a certain set of expectations and experiences—about wildlife and about the government’s role in making the land safe for farming. Livestock farmers in the Old World got rid of all wild predators centuries ago, in an era when wild canids were thought to be evil and destructive vermin who have no value and should be eliminated.

We are supposed to be past that kind of superstitious scapegoating of predators, but this new coyote bounty seems like a lapse back toward that same old approach to our problems. Livestock producers have their share of real problems these days. With livestock prices low and feed grain prices high, it is a rough time for anyone trying to make a living by grazing animals. The long term solutions—disengaging from the unsustainable grain industry and getting prices for meat that would help producers balance the books while applying more ecologically sound practices—are not easily achieved or even accepted by our policy-makers right now. They hear all kinds of complaints from producers and want to respond but feel powerless in the face of systems controlled by multi-national corporations and global trade realities. The producers feel the same way and look around for something they think they can act upon—and all too often it is nature. When it doesn’t rain, grasshoppers give people something to focus on; when it rains too much, water is the enemy and must be controlled. In between, there are always unwanted grazers (gophers, and, formerly, bison), and if nothing else, unwanted predators.

I buy my chickens and some grass-fed beef from Leonard and Janet Piggot who ranch in that same Cupar/Lipton/Dysart area (here is their website). Last year, Leonard was noticing that some of the chickens were vanishing from his chicken pens. He keeps his chickens in large enclosures that he can wheel over the pasture day by day, spreading their manure and giving the birds fresh grass and bugs to eat. When I was visiting this spring I helped him build one of these enclosures and he told me the story of how he figured out the cause of his disappearing chickens. One night, he sat in his truck with his rifle at the ready and watched his chicken pens. Darkness fell and in the low light he saw a coyote sneak up to one of the enclosures and along one side to a spot where the bottom bar crossed over a small dip in the ground. As Leonard watched the coyote over the bead at the end of his rifle, he saw that the dip allowed enough space for the coyote to reach under the bar and grab a chicken. That’s when most of us would have shot the coyote, but Leonard didn’t. He told me it suddenly occurred to him that the coyote was just being a coyote. “I should’ve made the enclosure better” he said, “The coyote was just doing his job but it’s my job to make sure he doesn’t get a free meal off me.” This year his enclosures had flaps along the bottom bar keeping the chickens alive and the coyotes wild. Wildness is part of the reason Leonard ranches—it’s in his holistic plan for the land and his family and it was on his mind when he decided not to pull the trigger.

Leonard Piggot is an uncommon livestock producer, more focussed on the grass and the health of his land than on the bottom line, but I truly believe his way of being on the prairie is beginning to catch on—coyote bounties notwithstanding.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

An apology and retraction

Rock Creek in East Block of Grasslands National Park

I would like to apologize and retract most of what I said in my last posting here on Grass Notes. After receiving an email from someone who is helping to put together the Balancing the Bottom Line conference to be held next week in Saskatoon, I realized I had been far too harsh and dismissive in my remarks. The fact is, I don’t really know exactly who is going to that conference or what will be done and said there—I was just guessing, and being far too free with my opinions, which I based recklessly on the sponsoring organizations and the language being used in the promotional material.

When I got the email, I looked again at my posting and I could see that my remarks may be easily misinterpreted as blaming our unsustainable agriculture industry on conventional farmers. Right away my mind went to Troy Roush, an Indiana corn farmer who is featured in the documentary Food Inc. At the end of the film, after giving his humble assessment of the bind he and other farmers find themselves in, he makes a kind of pledge and it is the most moving statement in the whole film. “People have got to start demanding good, wholesome food of us and we’ll deliver, I promise you. . . That’s about all I’ve got to say.”

Troy Roush, Indiana corn farmer featured in Food Inc.

That is the real truth—until we begin asking (and paying) for healthy food grown in healthy ways, our farmers cannot be blamed for choices that we make first in the food aisle. If there are villains, it is our own government and the big agribiz corporations who profit most from the system—the rest of us, farmers and consumers alike, are victims of our own choices. All us are morally compromised to the degree that we benefit from a system that is unhealthy for people, rural community, and the land itself.

Most long-lasting social change is incremental and so it is encouraging to hear that farmers will be going to this conference and discussing how they might find ways of growing food that are better for people and for the environment. I am sorry if I in any way discouraged anyone from attending the conference and if someone attends and would like to send me a report of what they saw and heard, I would be happy to publish it here in this space.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Lies about agricultural sustainability; truth about education

rose hip along the North Saskatchewn River

[Update: Since writing the following post, I posted a retraction and apology. See my November 10 posting.]
In a given day, like anyone, I hear my share of lies and then every so often a piece of truth falls into my lap. The lies are plentiful, comforting, and easy to act upon. The truths are rare, disturbing, and, all too often, hard to act upon.

Today I received another notice inviting me to attend a conference about “agricultural sustainability.” They are calling it “Balancing the Bottom Line: practical tools and solutions for successful, sustainable prairie farms.” Over the past few weeks I have received several notices about the conference and while I could not tell right off where they stand on questions of agricultural sustainability, things became clear soon enough. The conference is funded by Viterra (the Wheat Pool updated with a corporate-sounding name concocted by an ad agency). I am sure the people attending this conference will all be fine gentlemen (very few women seem to be involved; contrast that with the food security alternatives conference I attended recently, which was 80% women), but I am also pretty sure they are conventional farmers who run massive, high input, high impact farms as they ride the monster that grain and oil seed farming has become today. Their idea of sustainable farming is using pedigreed GM seeds, high doses of glyphosate and artificial nitrogen to make their beleaguered soils produce maximum yields with minimum interference from weeds and other unwanted organisms. Yes, they are becoming more aware of the environmental issues that farming faces, but they don’t want to be outflanked by environmentalists, or by alternative agriculture and organics so they have caught onto the concept of “ecological goods and services.” In fact they are only too happy to point out that they are providing such services—and therefore they should be receiving payments or else why should they continue to keep that slough or patch of bush when it is clearly a liability?

In the end, there is a deep cynicism running through this kind of agri-business speak that comes from the technocrats and businessmen who run the grain industry. The farmers themselves are either naive or willing to take some comfort whenever it is offered: “You mean I can farm 34 quarter sections, spray it with approved chemicals and fertilizers, get enough yield to take a vacation in the Dominican Republic, and call myself sustainable? Wow, sign me up!”

But life offers the odd piece of truth and wisdom too. My good friend Joe Milligan sent me this short and powerful treatise on education by David Orr this morning and, though it is hard and uncompromising, as truth usually is, reading it felt like an act of absolution for my own participation in a world that is so very fond of its myths. Take a minute and read this, What is Education For, by the great and wise David Orr.

lichens on rock

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