Friday, February 19, 2010

How to justify a coyote bounty

The coyote bounty is back in the news this week, first with an article in the Regina Leader-Post, where the Saskatchewan Agriculture Minister Bob Bjornerud says he can't be sure whether the bounty is working. Last year, before the bounty, 16,000 coyotes were killed by hunters and trappers, and with the bounty this winter there have been 15,000 taken so far. He hopes that the number will increase and according to a government news release that came out today, February 19, stimulating more stories in the media, the latest numbers are 18,000 coyotes killed under the bounty.

Later in the newspaper article and then in the news release, Bjonerud applies the argument that rears its head whenever policy-makers are criticized for using predator-control methods that are ineffective or ecologically irresponsible: i.e. "we have to do something because sooner or later a (insert predator here) is going to attack a human being." Here is what the minister actually said: "I guess my counter to (the criticism) is 'So what should we do?' We should sit back until some little kid out of some family in rural Saskatchewan gets attacked by six or seven coyotes, and the first thing everybody would say is why didn't you do something."

Ok, it is interesting that this started as a way to keep a handful of sheep farmers happy, but now it is to save our children. Do we kill 30,000 or 50,000 coyotes in this province just so the provincial government can cover its ass and say "we tried" if and when a coyote attack comes?

Let's look at the minister's argument. A bounty could theoretically discourage or eliminate some aggressive coyotes if more people shoot at them when a bounty is available. Undoubtedly some aggressive coyotes will be shot, perhaps even disproportionate numbers, since aggressive ones may be less inclined to run away. But will a bounty prevent or significantly reduce the chances of the kind of attack that killed the girl in Nova Scotia last year?

To address this question we have to consider why it is that people, as the minister suggests, are reporting that coyotes are more "brazen" or aggressive than they used to be.

If coyotes seem more aggressive and apt to come into zones of human habitation today, it is partly because rural people are not as inclined as our grandparents once were to discourage (by shooting at) coyotes who come too close to living areas; but it is also because coyotes are losing their natural habitat all over North America's populated areas.

Today, farming practices are removing bush, wetlands, and uncultivated margins from their land at a fierce rate. Also, with urban sprawl we have many more acreage dwellers than we have ever had, many of them moving into the last remnants of uncultivated habitat (valleys and wooded areas). Why does this matter? Not only do these newcomers to the country come into proximity with wild animals by moving into and degrading their habitat; they also roll out the red carpet for any animals that might be a little more hungry or aggressive than usual. Naive about wild animals, and just plain ignorant, acreage-dwellers tend to do things that encourage coyotes: they keep the kind of dogs that cannot defend themselves and some of them feed their pets outdoors, which is a siren song to a hungry coyote. Perhaps worst of all, they do not shoot at or otherwise chase aggressive coyotes away.

These causes of the "brazen coyote" phenomena we are seeing now all over North America are not going to go away merely because a bounty gets a few more varmint hunters off their couches and out plinking at coyotes. And as long as the causes remain, we will continue to hear more people frightened by what they see predators doing. If we don't address causes, governments are going to continue to reach for these ill-formed non-solutions. The result will be more damage to the ecosystem by temporarily giving an advantage to introduced predators such as the red fox, a species that is hard on ground-nesting birds. It will also give ground squirrels some local relief from predation, increasing their numbers until farmers complain and the Agriculture ministry starts a strychnine campaign against them.

After the dust of a bounty settles, the real losers are birds and mammals lower down the food chain and not the coyotes themselves. Any temporary decline in coyote numbers will eventually be filled by survivors who increase reproduction accordingly. Some species decline under hunting pressure, but ecologists will tell you that the coyote simply increases the size and frequency of litters when adults are removed from the ecosystem.

Still, the problem of predator/human and predator/livestock encounters involving coyotes, wolves, and cougars is only going to increase here as it is elsewhere. What do we do?

We need to put our best ecologists on the matter of how do we deal with incidents where aggressive animals are reported as attacking either people or their livestock. Killing as many predators as possible with bounties is not a good answer, but there is much we can do to shape human environments and educate people so that the chances of such incidents are reduced.

Then we need a way to help livestock producers whose animals are being killed--whether it is subsidized insurance or a targeted local predator control programme of some kind. But first we need an independant, non-governmental panel of scientists to look into the matter and then recommend ecologically responsible solutions to the government.

Unfortunately, I don't think we can trust the government to deal honestly with the recommendations they receive from their own biologists. Between the muzzling of government scientists and the despairing self-censorship that science bureaucrats lapse toward after a few years of watching their recommendations either ignored or twisted to fit the economic-growth policy that runs roughshod over any other value, there is little hope of actually hearing what our government scientists think we should do about such an issue.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Good news for burrowing owls

this beautiful Burrowing Owl image courtesy of Alan MacKeigan

There has been nothing but bad news about the burrowing owl for a long time in Saskatchewan. According to Nature Saskatchewan's stewardship program, Operation Burrowing Owl (OBO), the province's owl population dropped 92% from 1988 to 2009. I found this stunning statistic in the December 2009 issue of The Blue Jay, Nature Sask's (NS) quarterly journal of natural history.

The rest of the article ("Are Burrowing Owls Using Enhanced Habitat"), written by OBO's Andrea Kotylak and Margaret Skeel, has some news that may be cause for cautious optimism. Starting in the year 2000, OBO began working with landowners in priority regions who had burrowing owls recently but lost them. The project aimed at enhancing habitat by providing funding assistance to have landowners seed cultivated land to non-invasive tame species of perennial grass. The idea was to try to attract burrowing owls to nest there or in existing adjacent grassland. In the first six years they sponsored 85 projects converting a total of nearly 12,000 acres to perennial grass.

In the summer of 2007, NS sent four staff people out into the field to see what birds were using the habitat. Their method was to look at 28 quarter sections of grassland: 10 were project sites and 18 were adjacent quarters. They found a "total of five pairs (all nests fledged young) and 11 single Burrowing Owls on six of the 28quarter sections that comprised the study." (Blue Jay, 67 (4), December, 2009, p. 233) Best of all, they found owls nesting on three of the ten quarter sections that were part of project sites (two pairs nested in native grass portions of the quarters). A 33% rate is pretty darn good, proving that this kind of habitat enhancement attracts nesting owls. Whether it can hold onto them year over year is another matter, but this is a promising start. Interestingly, it seems that the sites only began to attract owls after the reseeded land had matured at least seven years.

As well, they recorded other grassland birds using the ten project sites: western meadowlark (on eight sites), savannah sparrow (seven, horned lark (five), Baird's sparrow (four), vesper sparrow (three), bobolink (three), clay-coloured sparrow (two) and Sprague's pipit (two). It would take a different kind of study to determine if the habitat actually fosters a healthy population of these species and is not merely an ecological trap that encourages birds to attempt nesting only to fail. However, these results from a simple program that reseeds land to non-native but non-invasive grass show that it is an approach worth more study.

Native grass is better, but remains expensive and difficult to get established. Prairie conservationists have sometimes been unwilling to consider non-native plantings as a valid tool in their arsenal, but it may be a strategy that could be used in certain situations, as this study by OBO staff implies.

After the study, in 2008 and 2009, even more pairs and single owls were reported at several project sites, lending more encouragement to the OBO team.

For more details on OBO and Nature Sask's other "Stewards of Saskatchewan" (SOS) programs protecting habitat for endangered species, take a look at this page on Eco-Index.

Friday, February 5, 2010

More big prairie ideas: Richard Manning and the American Prairie Reserve

Missouri River, near Judith Landing, image courtesy of Ross Barclay

Today I received an email from Murray, a biologist friend, letting me know that Richard Manning is coming to Saskatchewan to speak as guest lecturer at the “Forward Together Lecture,” at the University of Regina on 30 March 2010. The lecture is co-sponsored by Luther College, Campion College, First Nations University of Canada and the University of Regina.

image courtesy of

Manning, a Montana environmentalist and writer, is an important voice for restoration and conservation on the northern Great Plains. His articles and essays have been published in Harper's Magazine, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Audubon, and The Bloomsbury Review.His eight books include Grasslands (1997), Against the Grain: How Agriculture has Hijacked Civilization (2004), and last year (and the subject of this posting), Rewilding the West: Restoration in a Prairie Landscape.

One of the fascinating things about Manning is that he works as research associate for the National Native Children's Trauma Center at the University of Montana. He writes about poverty, trauma, mental illness, and self-care on a blog that is worth reading—not because it relates to grassland restoration and conservation, but because it applies the same cogent, clear-headed approach he applies to the traumatized and impoverished ecosystems and communities of the northern Great Plains—and he is wise enough to recognize that the two subjects share some causes.

So, his new book and the big idea contained therein: I confess I have read only the opening chapter of Rewilding so far (read it here yourself ), but it is too exciting a book to not at least mention the central idea it advances.

image courtesy of University of California Press

People who write about ecological problems are often criticized for not suggesting solutions and when we do, the complaint comes that the solutions we suggest are unrealistic. Big ideas are always said to be unrealistic, but it takes big ideas to address big problems, and those who cling in despair to the status quo will be first to tell you that you can’t defeat corporate power, convert agriculture to sustainable practices, change people’s attitudes to smoking, end segregation, save big pieces of landscape. And yet we have done all of those things to one degree or another. Some are still works in progress, but change is happening and it is happening because there are people who don’t give up on big ideas.

Richard Manning’s big idea is to work with private and public conservation agencies and the people of the northern Great Plains to find a way to draw a border of ecological protection around 3.5 million acres of native prairie centering on the Missouri River passes through the Missouri Breaks National Monument and the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge. They call it “The American Prairie Preserve” and estimate that for $250 million (about ten days of the Iraq war expenditure), enough of the necessary private land could be purchased to create “a Yellowstone of the Plains.”

Missouri River from the rim of the valley, image courtesy of Ross Barclay

Replacing cattle with wild bison and elk would be a key step of course, but the “rewilding” movement follows the ecological theory that top predators are a priority in any ecological restoration. With that in mind, the Northern Plains Conservation Network, the group Manning highlights in the book, is also proposing that ultimately, wolves and grizzlies would have to be encouraged out onto the plains where they once reigned.

Here is a quote from the opening chapter of Rewilding the West: “Three and a half million acres are a big enough area to work as a prairie ecosystem. The size of that area was not arbitrarily chosen but was calculated by biologists Steve Forrest and Curtis Freese, two of the authors of Ocean of Grass, as the minimum landscape they think could support enough bison to support, in turn, a viable population of wolves.”

It is a lot of fun looking at the various maps in the Ocean of Grass document. One shows access lines for the grizzlies and wolves from surrounding areas. Here is a link to Ocean of Grass: a Conservation Assessment for the Northern Great Plains.

I have canoed much of that piece of the Missouri River twice, spending a total of eight days in its unparalleled prairie wildness where the ghosts of Lewis and Clark linger over land that agriculture has yet to destroy. The buffalo, elk, grizzlies, and wolves are about all that is missing and they are not far away in the Rockies. Everything else is there: a full suite of grassland birds, rattlesnakes, black-tailed prairie dogs, cottonwoods, and miles of wild grass. Here are a couple of images taken by my good friend Ross Barclay on that trip:

part of our crew after a long day on the river

and me trying to make it look like we actually paddled(it is a float trip on a 4 mph current)
both images courtesy of Ross Barclay

If you care about the prairie and want to be think about what can be done to bring it back to life, get Manning’s new book and read it, and then try to come to his lecture on March 30. It is at 7:30 p.m. in the Education Auditorium.

All are welcome; free parking is available in lots 4, 14 and 17 (designated "M" areas only); and a book sale and signing will follow the lecture. The lecture is presented by the presidents of Luther College, Campion College, First Nations University of Canada and the University of Regina. For further information contact Jennifer Arends at 306.585.5144 or

Thursday, February 4, 2010

worth a look

Sprague's pipit

Here is a miscellany of some items on bird conservation and grassland that have come to my attention recently:

If you have yet to read Margaret Atwood's article on bird conservation in the Manchester Guardian, you should take a minute and do so. A wonderful and cogent essay worth reading no matter how much you think you know about the issues. Here is a link.

Here is a recent article from The Minot Daily News, quoting local bird people on the state of birds in their part of the plains.

The University of Wisconsin Extension (why is it that much of the most advanced stuff on grassland preservation and restoration comes from Wisonsin--could it be the influence of Leopold?) has a posted an attractive and helpful document that outlines the benefits of rotational grazing for grassland birds.

A study in Kansas shows that the military does a decent job of looking after native grassland as far as bird diversity goes. A recent item in Mother Jones online, entitled, "No More Bison? Try Tanks" explains.

Of course on the Canadian Plains, we've always known that the military has been conserving some of the wildest remnants of native grassland. Canadian Forces Base Suffield is a vital link in our tenuous chain back to the original biodiversity of the northern Great Plains. However, as this paper shows, the recent increase in natural gas infill drilling at Suffield is harming both Sprague's pipit and Baird's sparrow--two northern plains endemics. The number of wells at Suffield doubled and in some spots quadrupled between the 1990s and 2003 and the study, led by Canadian Wildlife Service's Brenda Dale, shows that these two declining species decrease sharply when well density goes up.

Finally, here is a publication from the American agency, Natural Resources Conservation Service, demonstrating that conserving grassland and grazing it sustainably is important not merely for biodiversity but for the health of the entire planet. One of the best ways to capture carbon from the air and lock it into the soil is to maintain what they call "high producing vegetative forages in a grazing system."

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