Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Unintended consequences of a bounty (and good news and a nasty rumour)

Photo by Rick Price

This disturbing image is from a news story about the Saskatchewan coyote bounty spilling over the border into Alberta. Saskatchewan “hunters” were going into wild places like the Cypress Hills in Alberta to shoot coyotes. After cutting off their paws to turn in for the $20 bounty, they dumped the carcasses in front of a farm near Elkwater. Read the story here.

There is some good news on the coyote bounty, though. After hearing from Nature Saskatchewan and other groups, including the Saskatchewan Wildlife Federation, the provincial government has introduced a new initiative to compensate farmers for damage caused by predators. This new program will pay farmers 100 per cent of the market value of livestock killed by coyotes or other predator animals. It will also pay farmers up to 80% of market value for any animal that is injured by a predator enough to require veterinary attention.

At the same time, however, I keep hearing rumours that Saskatchewan Agriculture has approved the use of the infamous 1080 poison to kill livestock predators.
It's bad enough that farmers are being encouraged to use strychnine to kill Richardson’s ground squirrels (RGS, commonly known as “gophers”). The Saskatchewan Government extended the Gopher Control Rebate Program for 2010. It provides a 50% rebate to producers and Rural Municipalities for the cost of gopher control products. The federal Pest Management Regulatory Agency has also approved the provincial government's application to extend the emergency registration of strychnine to July 31, 2010. (source: Nature Saskatchewan). Like the coyote bounty, poisoning gophers has significant unintended consequences.

At the Prairie Conservation and Endangered Species Conference in Winnipeg a few weeks ago, one of the most startling posters presenting recent research came from Alberta's Gilbert Proulx, Director of Science, Alpha Wildlife Research and Management. Here is a quote from the poster's abstract: "Although it is known that the use of indiscriminate poisons poses potential threats to wildlife, since 2008, southwest Saskatchewan farmers have used large quantities of 0.4% strychnine (acute poison available as freshly mixed and ready-to-use baits ) and chlorophacinone (anticoagulant causing fatal hemorrhages) to control ground squirrel populations. In the last 2 years, I have gathered field evidence that both strychnine and chlorophacinone efficiently controlled ground squirrels but also killed a diversity of songbirds, small mammals (mice and voles), and predators including raptors, canids, American badger (Taxidea taxus),and long-tailed weasel (Mustela frenata)."

Among the non-target species found dead around the strychnine bait stations on Proulx's study sites were Horned Lark, Chestnut-collared Longspur (new to the threatened species list), Western Meadowlark, and Vesper Sparrow.

High populations of Richardson's ground squirrels (as the Sask. Agriculture website itself tentatively admits) result from bad grazing practices. Ranchers who find ways to treat their grass well don't have problems with RGS. Don't get me started on the decline of predators--including the threatened Ferruginous Hawk, which feeds its young nothing but ground squirrels, and badgers. Coyotes too, of course, eat a lot of ground squirrels, so the circle of unintended consequences goes round and round chasing its own tail.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

after the burn

The prairie is greening up in the aftermath of the controlled burning we did earlier in April (see "Fire on the Prairie")This prairie crocus (anenome patens/pulsatilla patens)is standing among dozens of its kind all over the black-becoming-green surface of our upper pastures. Here is another image showing several blossoms amid bunches of grass (perhaps stipa?)now emerging.

In a few weeks, and given the right moisture, only the standing skelatons of wolf willow and other woody plants killed by the burn will show where the flames passed.

The native grass on the edge of Saskatoon's Tipperary Creek burned in an unplanned fire earlier this week on the property of Wanuskewin Heritage Park. (See CBC website story here.)No buildings were damaged, but one bridge was scorched in the coulee. However, the fire department says that "the fire caused 'significant damage' to the surrounding grassland." Can't blame the fire department spokesman for expressing what many others in this part of the world would agree with. Non-indigenous people here harbour a deep-seated animosity to the wildness in a prairie fire. That fire is probably the best thing that has happened to that grassland in decades.

The best thing that happened to me as I walked the land looking at the fire was the time to try out a new lens for my camera. All the photos for this post were taken through a Canon 100-400 (f4.5 to 5.6)zoom telephoto lens. I took some very smudgy shots of kestrels and Krider's red-tailed hawks in flight, some poorly lit and distant images of the first eastern phoebes singing by the cabins, bufflehead on the ponds, and the season's first turkey vultures.

Here are some bird photos that worked a little better--first a mourning dove I flushed from trailside:

Then a dark-eyed junco by our cabin:

And, finally, the song sparrow, back for the summer:

Friday, April 16, 2010

Odds and Ends--some things worth a look

this horned lark patiently waiting for climate change was photographed by Val Thomas who watches over things in the Weyburn area

I was interviewed recently by David Regan of the "Animals in Canada" blog. Here is a link to his posting on our discussion.

Here are a few things about birds or about grassland that caught my eye recently:

The 2010 State of the Birds: 2010 Report on Climate Change, released by the American Secretary of the Interior. Click here to go to the news release which has links to the full report. The report, put together by a consortium of bird conservation organizations, concludes that while forest birds show low level of vulnerability to climate change, grassland birds show an intermediate level of vulnerability. Here is the page with scores of vulnerability for grassland birds.

From my good friend Chris Reed, who right now is at Grassland National Park working with Greater Sage Grouse, I heard about this BBC report: "Songbirds in the US are getting smaller, and climate change is suspected as the cause."

And an item from the "Leave it Wild" folks in PEW Environment Group about the move afoot to designate 50,000 acres of public land within South Dakota's Buffalo Gap National Grassland as a wilderness area.

And, finally, here is an online version of a survey of grassland birds in Montana's Bureau of Landa Management lands. People who read my book or the wonderful "Prairie Ice" blog will perhaps recognize one of the authors--biologist and bird photographer, John Carlson. If you haven't peeked at Prairie Ice, now's a good time. John has posted some terrific photos of Sharp-tailed grouse on the lek this spring--not to mention some lovely images of sage grouse on the lek and snow geese slip-sliding in the sky in earlier posts.

Monday, April 12, 2010

American Serengeti: on TV Earth Day

courtesy of National Geographic Society website

"To the west, and as far as the eye can see, tall grass billows in the wind. Two centuries ago, Lewis and Clark were the first European-Americans to discover this land. This is prairie. It once blanketed much of the heartland of North America. Today on Americas Great Plains, few reminders of this pristine landscape survive. Now, things are changing. Through establishing and maintaining a wildlife reserve on Montanas prairies, several organizations work to restore an American Eden. Join us on this exciting journey as we capture the grand rebirth of The American Serengeti."

Ok, we will forgive them the usual misapprehension about Lewis and Clark being the first Europeans to discover the northern plains (17-year old Henry Kelsey was there in 1690 looking over the plains of what is now east-central Saskatchewan, and by 1792 Peter Fidler had wandered all over the prairie in what would become Alberta and Saskatchewan just north of where Lewis and Clark travelled, eventually setting up a fort, Chesterfield House, on the South Saskatchewan River in 1800, years before the two revered captains left Indiana to discover the west), but this should be a terrific show. It tells the story of the American Prairie Foundation's effort to create the largest wildlife reserve in the continental United States.

Should air some time on April 22, Earth Day, on the National Geographic Channel.

Here is a link with more info.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

A Sprague's pipit succumbs to one of the underestimated perils of migration

photo by Tim O'Connell

Habitat loss may be responsible for most bird decline, but for direct and immediate kill, nothing compares to glass windows. This Sprague's pipit was trying to make its way north to some of the last habitat remaining on the northern plains and would have arrived here in the next few weeks to begin the breeding season. Instead, it ran into a window in Oklahoma.

Last week, on March 23, at the Noble Research Center on the campus of Oklahoma State University in Stillwater, Oklahoma, Daniele Benson walked around the building to see if any birds had been killed by the large windows at the Center. She was helping out Dr. Tim O’Connell, on the faculty of the Dept. of Natural Resource Ecology and Management, who has been monitoring the building's bird kills for several months now and writing a blog about it, reporting on the casualties.

His blog posting for March 23 shows the image of the Sprague's pipit shown above and tells the story of Danielle finding it. In the intro to his blog, "Avian Window Kills," O'Connell says “it is estimated that as many as 1 billion birds die from striking windows every year in the United States. (For more information, see this report on Dr. Dan Klem’s work here.) This is more than die by cat predation, oil spills, acid rain, tower collisions, pesticides –you name it. In addition, the victims very often include fit, healthy individuals in the prime of life. These are not young birds, recently out of the nest and foolishly falling prey to a neighborhood cat.

Why the blog? We don’t talk about this issue nearly enough. Migrants face enough hazards without smacking into our windows while in the midst of a 3000-mile passage. Green certifications on new buildings and renovations need to consider bird-safe glass; designers need to understand situations of lighting and sight line that make a particular design especially deadly. We begin by acknowledging the problem.”

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