Solar Farms and Birds

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I recently noted the downside of wind turbines for birds and bats, and now there’s this on solar farms. Perhaps the the integration of smaller solar power grids at residences could help.

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Corn Creep

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Cropland with Eastern Kingbird, Praying Mantis, Western Meadowlark, Northern Leopard Frog, Plains Spadefoot.

Last year, I applied for an internship at Science Friday.  This was one of the clips I sent with my resume.

It’s been quietly happening, here, the change.  Even if you live next to it, you won’t even know it’s happening.

What is this mysterious phenomenon?  It’s the Western Corn Belt, and it’s creeping westward.  Once defined as the row-crop concentrated area that stretched from Minnesota to Missouri, now it’s overtaking the Prairie Pothole Region in the eastern Dakotas.

Why is this region important?  First, we have to understand the Prairie Pothole Region’s natural history.  Formed by glaciers in the Pleistocene, these divots of natural wetlands have been a repository for great productivity in plant life and as natural aquifers.

Now those oases of life have come under a threat.  In the mid-2000s, soy and corn prices doubled as interest in biofuels, like ethanol, surged, as did farmers’ interest in converting their remaining prairies and wetlands to row-crop.  Decades of enrollment in federal programs like the Conservation Reserve Program severely dipped, according to a 2013 paper by Christopher Wright and Michael Wimberly of South Dakota State University.  Now, 10 years later, an area the size of Kansas has been converted from grassland to row crop in the Northern Plains, according to World Wildlife Fund’s annual plowprint report in 2016.

This is not the only Northern Plains biome affected by this wave of alternative fuel production.  Wetlands adjacent to the newly converted grasslands in the Prairie Pothole Region have been affected by the soil erosion that spills over from the neighboring row crop lands.  Often, points out Wright and Wimberly, these lands were marginally arid to begin with, and thus are subject to any change in the soil composition surrounding them.

Loss of grasslands has a host of associated issues, many of which undermine the very productivity of the new row croplands, including declining soil quality and increasing flood risk.  This, according to Wright and Wimberly, is all exacerbated by changing climate trends for the region which include an increase in temperatures and changing precipitation.

What does this mean for wildlife?  Migrating birds have used this vast network of wetlands and prairie for millennia as stopover points in their quest to travel north in the spring and south in the fall.

The change in the wetlands and grasslands might be a quiet revolution.  However, the millions of migrating waterfowl, songbirds, cranes, and shorebirds are anything but quiet.

Imagine, at the height of spring migration, 20,000 snow geese passing overhead every few minutes.  Unless you have been awoken by this every day for a month like the locals have, you’ll never know the sheer force of nature that relies on these oases.  Many of these species stay to breed for the summer.  Many more rely on the wetlands and grasslands for refueling on their great trek.

Some of these migrations draw a crowd.  On a chilly morning in March, a small horde gathers at sunrise to see tens of thousands of Sandhill Cranes lift off from Nebraska’s Platte River.  It happens fast, and if you miss it, you’ll have to wait until sunset for them to come back.  It’s a rare sight, and many of the folks trudging back to their cars in the dim foggy sunrise wouldn’t call themselves bird watchers.  For many people, it’s a chance to see something akin to the great wildebeest migration on the Serengeti Plain.  For the state of Nebraska, it’s a boon to the tourism industry.

It’s not just for the birds.  Participation is growing for Frog Watch, a citizen science initiative that counts amphibians in the vein of the Breeding Bird Survey or the Christmas Bird Count.  An attention to these species means a growing interest in the Prairie Pothole Region’s aquatic ecosystem during this time of change.  Arthropods that are affected by agricultural intensification and its associated pesticide spraying remain an important part of the aquatic ecosystem, and fish, amphibians and other invertebrates are feeling the downstream effects.  This is intensified by the use of tile drainage in agricultural fields in which runoff is sloughed off and accumulated in neighboring wetlands.  How this affects the ecotoxicology and the assemblage of animals in the aquatic food web is currently being investigated by several regional researchers.

What can we do for the dwindling prairies and wetlands?  Biofuel production was high for many years, and now more recently there is an annual surplus of corn and soy produced.  Crop prices have declined in the past few years as a result, and it’s an opportunity for The Nature Conservancy, the National Wildlife Refuge system, and a host of other state and local agencies to buy acquire from farmers under the easement process.  Farmers are looking to unload some of their less productive land around wetlands, and there is now a waitlist, points out National Wildlife Refuge managers.  Fortunately, U.S. Fish and Wildlife, which manages the National Wildlife Refuges, recognized the opportunity and focused Duck Stamp funds toward easement acquisition in the Prairie Pothole Region.  However, with a new presidential administration in 2017, it’s unknown whether this buyback directive will continue.

Even as some of the land returns to grassland and wetland, it’s a lesson for future crop price booms.  As land managers in South Dakota and Minnesota point out in a 2016 episode of Pioneer Public Television, prairie restoration isn’t easy.  Less than two percent of grasslands remain nationwide, and once a prairie is converted to row crop, you can never fully restore it.  Invasive species will always attempt entry back into the system.  Fire, grazing, hay harvest, brush control and re-seeding are all required to maintain a restored prairie.  Invasive plants include red cedar and elm, plants that are remnants of the shelter belts planted in the Great Depression to mitigate the soil-eroding Dust Bowl winds.  Moreover, land managers have to tread lightly.  Pesticides take out not only mosquitoes, but pollinator species, such as the beloved Monarch Butterfly, and as pointed out in a 2014 issue of Nature, neonicotinoid pesticides are associated with the decline of beneficial aerial insectivores, like bats, swallows, swifts and nighthawks.

Added to the decline in natural habitat is the threat of rising temperatures.  Animals that live in open areas like prairies are especially vulnerable to climate change.  A 2016 paper by Jessica Gorzo in The Condor explains this trend.  With rising temperatures and drier conditions comes a loss of production in tall plants that support nesting sites for birds like the threatened Grasshopper and Baird’s Sparrows.  Sudden wild fluctuations in temperatures or rainfall can slow vegetation growth.  It’s like a one-two punch.

There is some good news on the horizon.  University of Nebraska Ph.D. student Maggie Sliwinski spent some time talking to ranchers in Nebraska, as reported by Dana Kobilinsky for The Wildlife Society.  Cattle ranchers are increasingly open to making their land hospitable for wildlife by adopting fire management regimes, leaving the lands as a heterogeneous quilt of ungrazed and grazed patches, and mixing it up year-to-year.  In return, the grass productivity increases in the long term.  Sliwisnki doesn’t know whether ranchers in other areas feel the same way, but she plans to expand her survey to an additional 3,000 ranchers in the Northern Plains.

It’s not all gloom and doom.  Some wildlife have adapted to shorter grasses found in grazed areas, as The Nature Conservancy’s Marissa Ahlering and Chris Merkord reported in a 2016 issue of The Journal of Wildlife Management.  The long history of bison clearing the way for ground-nesting birds has left some thirsting for the voracious grass-guzzling appetite of cattle.  Some grassland birds thrive under the right conditions if land managers instead choose to hold onto their prairies and graze.

Understanding how to make a living with the land while maximizing its ecological potential might be the key to the future.  In 2016, the National Science Foundation awarded a $2 million grant to the University of South Dakota’s Sustainability Program to study the bioenergy industry and its potential contribution to carbon sequestration and habitat loss in the Missouri River Basin, interactions with hydraulic fracking, and effects on water quality.  The goal is to then convene a group of citizens, scientists and governmental agencies to share ideas and evaluate the region’s future in sustainable energy development.  So, the push for bioenergy development in the Prairie Pothole Region might not be a quiet revolution for much longer, and what this region decides to do with its remaining two percent of grasslands is up in the air.

To see a video of the Sandhill Crane migration, go here.

To see a video of the Snow Geese migration, go here.

References

Ahlering, M. A. & C. L. Merkord 2016.  Cattle grazing and grassland birds in the northern tallgrass prairie. The Journal of Wildlife Management 80: 643-654.

Ewald, M. 2016. USD Part of NSF Environmental Research Project. Accessed at: http://www.usd.edu/news/2016/usd-part-of-nsf-environmental-research-project#.V9G4lzeGCRA.facebook

Gage, A.M., Olimb, S.K., Nelson, J. 2016. Plowprint: tracking cumulative cropland expansion to target grassland conservation. Great Plains Research 26: 107-116.

Gorzo, J. M., Pidgeon, A. M., Thogmartin, W. E., Allstadt, A. J., Radeloff, V. C., Heglund, P. J., & Vavrus, S. J.  2016. Using the North American Breeding Bird Survey to assess broad-scale response of the continent’s most imperiled avian community, grassland birds, to weather variability. The Condor, 118: 502-512.

Hallmann, C. A., Foppen, R.P.B, van Turnhout, C.A.M., de Kroon, H., & Jongejans E. 2014. Declines in insectivorous birds are associated with high neonicotinoid concentrations. Nature: July 9.

Kobilinksy. D. 2016. Student poster project: wildlife biologists working with ranchers. The Wildlife Society. Accessed at: http://wildlife.org/student-poster-project-wildlife-biologists-working-with-ranchers/

Prairie Management. 2016. Pioneer Public Television. Accessed at: http://video.pioneer.org/video/2365915066/

Wright, C. K. & M. C Wimberly. 2013. Recent land use change in the Western Corn Belt threatens grasslands and wetlands. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 110: 4134-4139.

(Various interviews with University of South Dakota Biology Department and South Dakota State University researchers and National Wildlife Refuge managers.)

Lead Ammunition and Condors

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California Condor that has been marked

 

This is an article I wrote for a science writing class at Oregon State University a few years ago.  Recently, New York Times published a piece on lead ammunition.

In 1805, as winter descended into the Lewis and Clark camps perched at the mouth of Columbia River, William Clark led a hunting party along the coast and into the spruce forest.  When they returned to camp, among the deer and waterfowl they brought back was one enormous bird carcass.  Sergeant Patrick Gass who spied the carcass among the hunting party’s spoils described it as a “remarkably large buzzard…nine feet across the wings”.  Later the hunting party revealed to their comrades that the unknown bird had been spotted feeding on a whale carcass.

For thousands of years, a condor on the beach was a common sight for Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest.  For the Quileutes in the Olympic Peninsula, the thunderbird was a symbol of relief in a time of famine.  The thunderbird, either directly representing or inspired by the condor, led people to whale carcasses on the beach, a boon to people who at times lived on the edge of starvation.  Spotting these large birds circling a beach meant food on the table.

But, according to David Moen, who studies the condor’s history in the Pacific Northwest, even amongst the various Native American tribes, the thunderbird or condor can mean many things today.  A dirty bird.  A symbol of lightning and destruction.  A connection to a culture.  An enrichment to the ecosystem. Another lost species to reintroduce.  Moen collected quotes from Native American tribes in Oregon, showing these varied attitudes:

“Many of our tribes in the Northwest view the Condor as sacred— it was a wide ranging bird called the Thunderbird here in Oregon. I heard Chief Wallulatum say to a group once that Condors are ‘second to the Eagle’ in importance and carry our messages to the Creator.”

-Elizabeth Woody, Warm Springs member

“We laughed at those old buzzards. They are lowly because they eat dead things and it is undesirable. Their role is important as far as that goes for the environment, but they smell bad because of what they ate and that was a sign for our people ‘steer clear’ of them.”

-Klickitat Chief

 

Clearly, the condor evokes mixed feelings.

For many Oregonians, it’s easy to associate the near-extinct California Condor with the state of California and nowhere else.  But, more and more, the California Condor is becoming a larger figure in Oregon politics, cultural history, and ecology.  For, as the condor starts to take hold in the Southwest, U.S. Fisheries & Wildlife is looking to re-introduce the bird in the Pacific Northwest.

The California Condor is unlike any other bird in North America.  In short, it is the largest.  Its wingspan can reach up to 10 feet, 50 percent larger than the next largest bird, the Bald Eagle, whose wingspan tops out at 7 1/2 feet.  Its head is naked to protect itself from pathogens attaching themselves to its feathers as it feeds on carcasses.  For many people, this bird like no other might look like one large ugly bird.

But what makes it unique can also be an advantage.  According to conservationists Noel and Helen Snyder, its large size makes it perfectly adapted for eating carrion.  Its large size helps it muscle out other species that fight over carcasses.  Being large makes it easier to soar faster and for longer distances to find food.  And being large means it can metabolize slowly and wait longer between the rare feeding sessions – an important adaptation when large carcasses are few and far between.

So, what does the California Condor mean to an ecosystem?  Like all the other decomposers in an ecosystem, the fungi, the scavengers, the bacteria, and others, the condor recycles nutrients that other actors in the ecosystem won’t touch.  Since its numbers have dwindled in the past few centuries, it’s debatable whether its role as a decomposer is important.

And yet, they do the dirty work, consuming the decaying or diseased food in an ecosystem and breaking it down into the nutrients to be sent back into the food cycle.

It’s a big garbage disposal with wings.  And, for some, its homely appearance is a true sign of character.  Condor enthusiasts point to its long glossy black feathers for long soaring flights and its soft ruff of black neck feathers that form a delicate frame for the steely glance from its orange-yellow face as elements of its unique beauty.

So, what happened to the California Condor?  Once spread along both coasts of North America, the condor numbers began to precipitously drop in the 1800s.  Naturalists began to document its decline, and moreover, eulogize it by naming it the California Condor, evoking the romantic and dwindling wilderness of the west.

And yet, the condor was being poisoned and shot down by European settlers , some of which  sought to preserve it.

And by giving it the name of the California Condor, according to Peter Alagona, a historian at UCLA, naturalists gave the bird a new identity to differentiate it from its more common and seemingly dirtier relatives, the Turkey Vulture, and tie it to its closest relative, the Andean Condor.

In Algona’s 2004 article in the Journal of History of Biology, he describes the goal: “The condor’s boosters sought to create a direct link in people’s imaginations between condors – with their tremendous size and archaic appearance – and an ancient, unspoiled North American continent.”

This was the first in many steps in molding the modern cultural identity of the California Condor, accurate or not.

Fast forward a century or so.  As numbers dipped in the 1980s to a mere 27 individuals in the wild, extinction became imminent.  In 1984, a working draft of the California Condor Recovery Plan was signed by the U.S. Fisheries & Wildlife Chief.  And a controversial decision was made.  The last few birds in the wild would be collected to save the species.  A captive breeding program was started in 1988 at the San Diego Zoo.  And in 1990, the California Condor Recovery Program began releasing birds back into the wild.

But as the birds were released, problems surfaced. Were they the same birds after captivity? Captive-bred juvenile birds, the next generation after the original breeding pairs were established, didn’t behave like their parents in the wild.  One anecdote passed around the wildlife biologist water cooler went as follows: Like errant teenagers, a group of young birds broke into a mountainside cabin and ripped the mattress stuffing out of the beds.  And other similar anecdotes followed: The birds were flying into power lines.  The birds were entering human communities and drinking antifreeze.

John Nielsen’s book Condor: To the Brink and Back — The Life and Times of One Giant Bird, details the problem.  Simply put, the birds were not motivated to eat and procreate.  Given carcasses to eat, and being too young to find a cave and settle down, they found trouble instead.

One by one, the biologists found solutions for most of the problems.  The birds were taught to stay away from power lines.  A lead bird, older than the rest, was released with the juveniles to act as a mentor.  Birds were raised with a healthy aversion to humans and, in theory, their toxins.

But one problem wouldn’t go away: lead.  In the late-1990s, fresh off the success of working through the behavioral problems, biologists took a deep breath as the slowly reproducing birds were reaching a relatively large number of 160 individuals in the wild.

But lead, one of the original impetuses to the near-extinction of the California Condor, needed an answer.  Condors often feed on the carcasses left behind by hunters.  Lead is a major component of ammunition.  And it is less costly than other ammunition component options.

So what makes condors so vulnerable to lead?  According to a study by Cade published in 2007 in the Journal of Wildlife Management, lead poses a serious threat to condors.

And according to a study by Finkelstein, et. al., published in 2011 in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, “In wildlife, as with humans, morbidity and mortality from lead poisoning is associated with an individual’s lead exposure history.”

In short, condors tend to eat from carcasses with lead on a more frequent basis.  And they are more likely to die from it.  And the argument was made that humans who eat from kills brought down by lead can suffer the same consequences.

Lead is a toxin that cannot be flushed by the liver.  It kills slowly, attacking the nervous system, affecting the bird’s ability to reproduce and flee predators like eagles and coyotes.  Eventually, the central nervous system shuts down and the bird dies. And in the late-1990s, lead became the one problem that had no solution.

So, lead ammunition was banned in the condor’s range in California in 2008.  And in Arizona and Utah, lead usage was decreased with the states providing hunters with copper bullets using state lottery money and other state funds.

Where does the ban on lead stand now?  In 2011, the Environmental Protection Agency denied a petition to ban lead ammunition nationwide.  On President Barack Obama’s last day in office, a ban on lead on federal lands was proposed.  Department of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke dropped the ban on his first day. So, lead ammunition will continue for now being banned or discouraged on a state-by-state basis*.

So, what does that mean for Oregon?  Jesse D’Elia, U.S. Fisheries & Wildlife Service Endangered Species Recovery Chief in the Pacific Regional Office, says that a unique tactic towards lead will need to be taken in Oregon before the condor can be reintroduced.

Banning lead in Oregon would present “quite a struggle”, D’Elia states, given the vested interest in current beliefs about ammunition usage in Oregon.  Some believe that a ban on lead is a slippery slope toward gun control.

And the cost difference between lead-based ammunition and ammunition with other components, as reported in the Albany Democrat-Herald, mean the difference between $20 and $30 per 50-round pack of ammunition.

But in any case, D’Elia says, the condor’s release in Oregon is a few years away.  A number of projects are in the works in Oregon.  The latest version of the California Condor Recovery Plan addresses the crisis mode that existed in 1994 and needs updating.  Habitats in Oregon need to be scouted as possible sites for the reintroduced birds, a project the Oregon Zoo has taken on.

Moreover, U.S. Fisheries and Wildlife is conducting studies on the genetic history of the bird. Condors that were shot in Oregon in the 19th Century, taxidermied and sent to European museums to sit on display are coming home, in a way.  DNA from birds collected in the 1800s in Oregon is being compared to the DNA of birds from California.  Samples from their feathers are used to determine whether the condor had a unique genetic population in Oregon.   It’s unknown whether the birds that the Native Americans, Lewis and Clark saw were merely stopping by in Oregon on their migratory path, or whether they were here year-round.  If it’s the latter, it’s another feather in the cap for those who would like to see a new population of the California Condor in Oregon.

And archaeological digs are being conducted.  A 7,000 year old condor tarsus, an ankle bone, was found in The Dalles area.  It’s currently being analyzed to determine whether it’s an extinct subspecies of the California Condor or another species of condor altogether.  But, D’Elia says, a cursory glance at the specimen reveals that this is a larger tarsus than a modern day condor’s tarsus.  Either way, it’s evidence that the condor has a place in Oregon history.

Meanwhile, Oregon Zoo’s Clackamas County facility continues on as one of the four captive breeding programs in the U.S.  In 2004, the zoo celebrated its first chick hatched in Oregon.   With its six breeding pairs, the Oregon Zoo provides juveniles to be released into the wild in the Southwest.  And soon, they could be released closer to home.

In 2001, an Oregonian editorial heralded the condor’s return to Oregon, if only as a captured prisoner of the breeding program, and announced its desire to bring back the “nine-foot soaring wonder to the Columbia River Gorge cliffs it once called home.”

 

So, what is the California Condor? A symbol of wilderness lost?  Another dirty buzzard? A waste of taxpayer money?  A rationalization along the slippery slope toward an outright gun ban?  A living fossil?  A mythological beast? A canary in the coal mine of environmental toxins? Or, an animal that has a rightful place in Oregon ecology?

Regardless, re-introducing the California Condor in Oregon will require a reckoning of all those identities, false or otherwise.

The Life of a Biologist

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Coho Salmon, Gyrfalcon, Coyote, Sage Grouse, Black-footed Ferret, Swift Fox, Piping Plover, Black-capped Chickadee, White tailed Deer, Striped Skunk, Yuma Rail, Western Grebe, Island Fox, Cutthroat Trout, Motmot, and Sloth.

Often, biologists work many years as a seasonal worker, moving from assignment to assignment. Above is a piece I made for some friends cataloging the many places they have worked and the organisms with which they have worked.

Snow Leopards

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Snow leopards, Bar-headed geese, Blue Sheep, Himalayan Gentian in the Himalayas.

I recently sold a piece of my art to friends whose family has been active in the Snow Leopard Trust, a conservation organization that works in snow leopard habitat in Asia and works on zoo breeding programs. They sold it at a silent auction, and the proceeds can pay for “two kids to go to eco-camp, or buys a GPS unit for our frontline field staff, or provides training in conservation handicrafts for one woman”, they said.