Changes in Natural Systems

Natural systems (and what I mean by “system” is a collection of parts that interact and affect each other through the exchange of energy or material) are dynamic – they are always changing. On a global scale these systems can be large-scale or small-scale. However, they are almost always very complex and hard to measure.

An ecosystem, for instance is a complex set of living (biotic) and non-living (abiotic) components that occur within a particular place.  Ecosystem characteristics are influenced by the underlying bedrock, regional climate, landforms, surface water, soil types, previous and current vegetation, disturbance patterns, animals present, etc….[1] As any of these factors change, the other factors shift to compensate for those changes. Small ecosystems are part of larger ecosystems, and larger ecosystems are, ultimately, part of a global system that actively uses, exchanges, distributes, and recycles resources that maintain life on the planet.

Humans change the environment more than any other single species. We place pavement and cement, build buildings, grow crops, suppress fires, set fires, bulldoze and plow the soil, cut down trees, mow grass, reroute rivers, add fertilizers, spread pesticides and generate pollution.  Most of these things we do deliberately to make our environment suitable to our desires.

The changes we make are hurtful to some species and beneficial to others. When we set fires to areas, those fires prevent trees from growing and prevents species of animals that prefer trees from inhabiting that area. Consequently, the repeated setting of fires promotes the growth of grasses, which in turn benefits those species that prefer grasses. When we suppress fires, the opposite takes place.

Take for instance the historic red pine (Pinus resinosa) / white pine (Pinus strobus) forest ecosystem of the area which now makes up the Seney National Wildlife Refuge near Seney, Michigan. The best estimates of pre-European settlement indicate that this particular ecosystem comprised between 5% and 6% of the total cover types.[2] In some reports, the prevalence of this particular ecosystem was described as historically dominating the area.[7, 8] These stands of pine were apparently regulated by both abiotic and biotic factors. About every 25-35 years low-intensity fires would remove potential competitor species from establishing themselves, while also providing the conditions needed for pine seedlings to establish themselves.[3] The fires may have been started by either lightning or pre-European humans. However, other biotic conditions may have also affected the amount of fuel available, thus helping to regulate the fire intensity. The occurrence of jack pine budworm (Choristoneura pinus) and spruce budworm (Choristoneura fumiferana) may have induced higher rates of mortality, thus reducing the available fuel for future fires.

Following European settlement of the area, timber cutting initially favored white pine. When the white pine quality was diminished, cutting shifted to the best and largest (a harvest style called “high-grading”) of the red pine.[5] This heavy harvest of the trees in the red pine/white pine ecosystem was combined with the impacts of fires which occurred among the “slash” – the debris which remained after logging. These types of fires occurred repeatedly, preventing suitable regeneration of the timber types.[2]

As a result, the red pine/white pine ecosystem now only exists in about ⅙ to ⅕ of the historic quantities.[2, 3, 4, 6] It appears that it was replaced by second growth Quaking Aspen (Populus tremuloides) and Jack Pine (Pinus banksiana).[2]  Such severe changes in vegetation likely results in just as severe of change in the species that depend on the historic vegetation for survival. In addition to changing the biotic conditions of the region, it is also conceivable that the change in vegetation could, over the long term, also change abiotic conditions (e.g., soil types, moisture regimes, and frequency of fires).

With this particular example, humans altered a natural environment, yet it remains largely vegetated and still supports the dynamic nature of ecosystems. In urban settings, where high human population densities, concrete, and asphalt predominate, the natural ecosystems have been altogether removed and additional consequences (e.g., water, soil, and air pollution) arise.  

[1]Albert, D. 1995. Regional landscape ecosystems of Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin: a working map and classification. United States Forest Service, North Central Forest Experiment Station., St. Paul, MN.

[2]Casselman, T., M.D. Sprenger, N.M. Fuller, C.M Wooley, and T.O. Melius. 2009. Comprehensive Conservation Plan. Seney National Wildlife Refuge. 198pp.

[3]Drobyshev, I., P.C. Goebel, D.M. Hix, R.G. Corace, III and M. Semko-Duncan. 2008. Pre- and post-European settlement fire history of red pine-dominated forest ecosystems of Seney National Wildlife Refuge, Upper Michigan. Can. J. For. Res. 38:2497-2514.

[4]Frehlich, L.E. and P.B. Reich. 1996. Old growth in the Great Lakes region. Pp. 144-160 in M.B. Davis, ed., Eastern old-growth forests: prospects for rediscovery and recovery. Island Press, Washington, D.C.

[5]Karamanski, T.J. 1989. Deep woods frontier: a history of logging in northern Michigan. Wayne State University Press, Detroit, MI. 305p.

[6]Thompson, I.D., Simard, J.H. and R.D. Titman. 2006. Historic changes in white pine (Pinus strobus L.) density in Algonquin Park, Ontario, during the 19th century. Natural Areas Journal 26:61-71.

[7]Vogl, R.J. 1970. Fire and the northern Wisconsin pine barrens. Proceedings Tall Timbers Fire Ecology Conference 10:175-209.

[8]Whitney, G.G. 1986. Relation of Michigan’s pre-settlement forests to substrate and disturbance history. Ecology 67:1548-1559.

Advertisements

World Population Day – 2016

Egad! Being mostly off the grid, I am so disconnected from world events right now. World Population Day was 11 July and I completely missed it.

The total human population is a major factor in the study of environmental science; so, even though this is a topic that is out of sync with my planned posting of information, I need to take a few moments and include a belated commentary for this particular day and its focus on raising awareness of human population growth.

World Population Day was established in 1989 by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).  On 11 July 1987, the global human population reached 5,000,000,000. Because of the interest demonstrated by that milestone, the UNDP decided to observe World Population Day each year on 11 July. The observance is now managed by the United Nations Population Fund (aka: UNFPA).

The program intends to raise awareness of global population issues (e.g., gender equality, human rights, and family planning) and each year a theme is identified to further that purpose.

The 2016 theme for World Population Day is “Investing in Teenage Girls.” The focus of this year’s theme is to raise worldwide awareness about such things as the widespread practice of child marriages, adolescent pregnancy, sexuality education, and how these challenges are typically worsened among girls who are of ethnic minorities, impoverished or, living in remote areas.

Empowering teenage girls by helping them understand their basic human rights and providing them with the means to succeed, leads to their positive affects on their communities by becoming leaders, role models, and spokeswomen for others.

Environmental Science vs Environmental Studies vs Environmentalism

On occasion, either when I’ve approached students about taking environmental science or told people that I teach environmental science, some people think that an environmental science class is teaching students to become environmentalists. This is, without doubt, frustrating for me – for multiple reasons.

First, and foremost, it’s not true. To me, this reinforces why people need to take an environmental science class. These terms that people confuse have clear and different definitions. The terms that most often get confused are environmental science, environmental studies, and environmentalism.

  • Environmental Science is the field that uses the process of observation, hypothesis testing, and field/laboratory research to understand the interactions between natural systems and human systems. Disciplines used in environmental science include: biology and ecology, toxicology, atmospheric sciences, chemistry, earth sciences, and agricultural sciences, and geography.
  • Environmental Studies is a much broader field that includes environmental science but also incorporates such subjects as economics, politics and policy, ethics, literature and writing, and law.
  • Environmentalism, on the other hand, is a social movement which, through political lobbying, information distribution, and political activism, seeks to protect the environment.

Second, it’s not my place to teach social activism. If a person chooses to become an environmentalist, it is usually due to an aspect of their environment that they have become fervent about – whether they have evidence-based information or not. In my humble opinion, an activist armed with well-researched and validated evidence is far more effective, for the greater human population and the environment than an activist with a hair-brained idea and a megaphone (though, the latter type of activist usually seems to get most of the attention).

Third, the term “environmentalist” (when used in the context of people being concerned that I am teaching “how to become an environmentalist”) has been given a very negative connotation. I don’t think this is entirely fair. This attitude toward environmentalism most likely stems back to the 1960s and 1970s, when sweeping United States legislation was enacted to protect things like air quality, water quality, endangered species, etc…. These changes placed restrictions on how private individuals and corporations were able to use natural resources which were to be available to all. However, in some cases, this also introduced added expenses, requirements to alter business practices, and fines for those who violated the restrictions. Those people supporting the enactment of such legislation were easy targets to paint as “bad” by those who were both media-savvy and suffered financial setbacks as a result.

Additionally, some people regard the term “environmentalist” as synonymous with “eco-terrorist.” Eco-terrorists use violent criminal acts to support their environmental causes (e.g., the arson of the Two Elk Lodge, Vail Colorado. 1998).  Any true environmentalist would deplore violent and destructive acts.

I do not “teach” anyone to become an environmentalist. That being said, identifying as an environmentalist is not that bad of an idea. In fact, I think that everyone should be an environmentalist, in some fashion. The efforts of environmentalists have often result in very favorable conditions.

For instance, I grew up in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. I recall weekend trips with my father to our local garbage dump. As a child, I was always hopeful (and sometimes successful) of seeing a black bear (Ursus americanus) foraging around in the waste piles (similar to this). However, the memories of those trips are much more filled with the images of the burning heaps of trash. Piles and piles of household and commercial garbage – batteries, plastic toys, fluorescent light bulbs, parts of cars, grease from the local restaurants, lawn clippings, cardboard boxes, old clothes, glass bottles. You name it, it was probably in there; perpetually smoldering and always billowing a black, acrid smoke. Wherever I went in our region, I encountered trash along the roadsides – cans, bottles, plastic bags.  There were also restrictions on how many fish you could eat from the Great Lakes (the largest body of fresh surface water on the planet) because they were contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and mercury due to paper manufacturers and mining operations dumping their waste directly into the rivers and lakes of the region. Finally, it was a rarity to see a Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) – our national symbol and previously prolific, natural inhabitant of the region.

Environmentalists paved the way for getting these things changed. Our local dump was closed and ecologically stabilized. From that point on, everyone’s garbage was required to be dealt with in a more ecologically sound manner by having it delivered to an engineered landfill. DDT was banned as a pesticide in the USA and now I see at least one, sometimes up to three, bald eagles everyday at my house on a lake in the Upper Peninsula. Proper waste disposal for corporations was also enforced. Combined with money allocated for cleaning up environments contaminated with PCBs and mercury, restrictions on eating fish have largely been lifted for many areas of the Great Lakes. In the 1970s, the State of Michigan also made a strong effort to reduce the amount of trash accumulation along streets and roads in the state.  This was done in a couple of ways 1) the State enacted a $0.10 deposit on all cans and bottles for beer and soda pop and 2) participating in nationwide anti-litter campaigns (e.g., Keep America Beautiful© and Pitch-In) was spread to encourage people to throw trash in designated receptacles, rather than just dropping their waste on the ground. Now you can drive for many miles along roads and streets without seeing trash accumulating along the roadside.

As our human activities continue to affect the environment and as our human population continues to grow, voices of people concerned about environmental conditions and both the consequences of action and inaction, need to be heard. We all, at some level (if you care about your surroundings, the things you eat, the water you drink, and the air you breathe), should be environmentalists.

The importance of understanding environmental science.

I often tell my students that “Environmental Science” will likely be the most important class they ever take.  I admit, this could be a fairly biased view of what is considered “important.” Especially since I’m the teacher for the class and it might be argued that ALL teachers envision THEIR classes as THE most important subjects a student will ever experience. However, I teach (and have taught) other sciences (e.g., chemistry, biology, human anatomy and physiology, and general science) and, although I am highly interested in each of those subjects, I do not consider them to be “critically important” to a wide variety of people. Absolutely, those classes can be critical to students choosing to pursue a career in a science, engineering, or technology field – just as graphic art or jazz band or robotics are critical for students selecting a career directly related to those subjects. No doubt, all courses offer knowledge or skills that can be applied in other ways – or base knowledge/skills which can be built upon. However, none of those other classes hold critical importance for a broad spectrum of students.

Environmental science, though, is a subject which coalesces all of the other subjects (science, math, history, language, government, current events, etc…) students have studied around one, single topic – all of the conditions of this planet that influence life. If you are reading this, or are listening to someone reading it to you, you are very likely alive. If you are alive, then the conditions that support your life are critically important. However, being human (I am presuming you are human, of course) and knowing that you are alive is simply not enough.

It could be debated that all species have an innate sense of self-importance and self-preservation – though, we have no way of fully knowing the level to which other species recognize those characteristics. We do know that other species work at staying alive. As I write this, I am watching a Chipping Sparrow (Spizella passerina) gleaning insects and seeds from the crevices in the bark at the base of a large Silver Maple (Acer saccharinum), I saw an Eastern Chipmunk (Tamias striatus) dash into its den as an American Crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos) flew into the same maple tree, this morning I pointed out the funny appearance of a Canada Goose (Branta canadensis) taking a drink of water while swimming in the lake out in front of our house, and (as we went back inside) the nestling Eastern Phoebes (Sayornis phoebe) who were “squatting” on top of our entry light by our door took their first flight.  Can I say that all of these creatures did these things because they knew they had to in order to stay alive? Of course not. Yet, all living things must find food, drink water, protect themselves against the things that might kill them, and be able to reproduce.

As a species, we humans have differentiated ourselves in a number of ways. For example:

  1. We know that we have an understanding about being alive.
  2. We recognize problems and create solutions for them.
  3. We have designed complex sets of rules for maintaining our species.
  4. We can calculate the impacts we have on our environment and make predictions regarding how those impacts might result over the long term.

In no way am I stating that other species cannot do these things I have mentioned. However, I have not yet seen evidence that any other given species can do all of of them. I am quite confident, though, that the chipping sparrow I have been watching gives little regard to the long-term effects of its diligent and efficient foraging on insect populations, including times of either low numbers of insects or high numbers of chipping sparrows. Instead, I suspect that it eats as many insects as it can catch – no matter what – because finding and eating insects is what a chipping sparrow does.

The eastern chipmunk I saw probably did not concern itself with the impacts of its digging a burrow on the potential to cause soil erosion, nor did the Eastern Phoebe’s seem to concern themselves with the potential contamination possible from the accumulation of their feces below their nest. Instead, self-preservation seemed to be the only thing that was important to each.

Quite frankly, given particular conditions and situations, concern for self-preservation is the base for how all humans behave. We have developed societal systems, though, that minimize times when our individual survival is in danger due to food or water shortages, lack of shelter from predation or our surroundings, or lack of opportunity to produce offspring. This offers us (as a species) the unique chance to consider and mitigate how our behaviors will impact us individually and as a species, in both the near and distant future.

When I see people living in an affluent society (e.g., the USA, the European nations, Japan, and South Korea) behaving in ways that highlight their self-importance with little regard to their impacts I have a hard time believing it’s because they simply don’t care. I have convinced myself that most are simply not aware of a) the impacts they might have and/or b) how easy it can be to recognize and mitigate those conditions.

This brings me back around to my original point of discussion. Stop for a moment. Take a look at your surroundings – your “environment.” Consider your most recent meal, the fresh water you have for drinking and cleaning, the air you breathe, the heating or cooling system that is keeping you at a comfortable temperature, your health care, the natural or artificial light that helps you read this. All of these things are critically important to you. They are critically important to everyone on the planet. They are critically important to everyone who is not yet born. With a burgeoning human population, in order to ensure that our species sustains such resources, we first have to understand our environment and how we alter it – individually and collectively. In order to do that we must also understand how all of the following are interconnected:

  1. The Earth’s systems
  2. Our water resources
  3. Ecology, ecosystems, and biodiversity
  4. Global climates and biomes
  5. Human population dynamics
  6. Our food security
  7. Our sources of energy, how we use them, and the resulting consequences
  8. Our land use practices
  9. Human health conditions and our environmental risks
  10. Human waste generation and how we dispose of it
  11. The pollution of the Earth’s water, air, and soil
  12. Human societies, economics, and policies

These are a wide array of topics, each with their own set of complex factors and each independently important. However, when we learn to view them collectively, they become critically important for every human to understand. In essence, environmental science is the study of the future of human life…without that none of the other topics matter.

Comparing Deer Populations

OK – last post about deer for the time being.

As I did some research on the topic from my previous post, I was intrigued by a statement from one of the panelists on the program Ask the DNR – Deer Season, Bear Season, November 15. He mentioned that he understood the current deer population in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (UP) to be at a level similar to the deer population of the 1980s.

I thought that was a somewhat bold statement because quite a few years ago, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) stopped attempting to estimate the population of Michigan’s deer herd – instead they began focusing on trends in population indices.

So, what in the world does that mean?

Conducting an annual census of such a large population is very costly and very, very time consuming, especially when the DNR is tasked with managing all wildlife species in the state and can easily use a wide range of other indicators to track what trends are likely occurring in the population. Assessment of the deer population trends in Michigan takes many forms: harvest surveys, deer pellet surveys, deer hunting camp surveys, deer tagging, observation reporting, spotlight counts aerial surveys, deer-vehicle collision rates, crop damage intensity, and forest regeneration issues. Biologists combine these indicators with statistical analysis of biological and harvest data to get an idea of what general and significant are happening for the population. It may seem like I have just listed a wide variety of very time consuming tasks. However, conducting direct counts of such a large population of animals would take many, many more person-hours (with an equivalent amount of time added on for just for mathematically) calculating estimates.

The resulting information from the indices is often more beneficial than direct counts because it takes in consideration many related factors, includes opportunities for citizen participation in the science, and frees biologists to work on other tasks.

As I was digging into the data for this post, I noticed that over the past 30+ years, the annual firearm harvest of deer in the UP seemed to track pretty well with the estimated statewide deer population. This held true for whether or not, during particular years, the winter was severe in Upper Michigan. So, for the purpose of investigating the claim made by the DNR representative, I decided to compare the estimated annual firearm deer harvests for the past 44 years  (1970-2014) to see if his claim was accurate.

This data analysis, as it turns out, was much easier to do when I was an actual employee of the DNR. Now that I am not, I needed to comb through countless Wildlife Division Reports which I tracked down in archived DNR webpages. To complicate the search – over the decades, report names have varied, deer management unit boundaries shifted, and (because changes in personnel occurred) reporting style and consistency of data collection fluctuated. So, I needed to piecemeal the data as best I could. That is (of course) not the most desirable way to collect and compare data but it was what I had and I found it a bit fun to be, in a sense, indirectly collaborating with past colleagues.

When I compared my final graph to the graph of historical data in the most recent DNR deer report (which would have been 1000X simpler to use but it didn’t contain numerical information for the data points – and was not specifically delineated just for the UP), my results seemed representative. Given my disconnection from the agency and my level of access to the data, I am fairly confident (anecdotal – not statistical) in my results.

image (1)

Looking at the harvest data, evidence suggests that the current UP deer population is, as stated by the panelist mentioned earlier, reminiscent of the population during the late 1970s – early 1980s. If that is the case, a couple of things are able to be considered:

  1. Deer numbers are not as low as some friends and family of mine have been expressing to me and
  2. now, while deer numbers are at a level other than overabundance, would be a great time to begin habitat improvement measures. This might give the habitat a small amount of time to establish itself before the deer population numbers rise to levels that are, again, unsustainable.

I am sure that many of my colleagues from the DNR have heard quite a bit of complaining on this topic during the past year. My hope is that they use the chance to improve habitat conditions and to promote more sustainable deer population growth in the future, rather than falling into the easy choice of letting the population grow and grow and grow when winter weather conditions allow for it.

References*:

Burgoyne, G.E., H. Hill, and J. Lehmen. 1985. 1984 Deer Season Preliminary Report. Michigan Department of Natural Resources. Wildlife Division Report Number 3013. Obtained from http://ww2.dnr.state.mi.us/publications/pdfs/huntingwildlifehabitat/reports/wld-library/3000-3099/3013.pdf on 22 November 2015.

Frawley, B.J. 1999. Michigan Deer Harvest Survey Report 1998 Seasons. Michigan Department of Natural Resources. Wildlife Report Number 3303. Obtained from http://ww2.dnr.state.mi.us/publications/pdfs/huntingwildlifehabitat/reports/wld-library/3301-3399/3303.pdf on 22 November 2015.

Frawley, B.J. 2000. Michigan Deer Harvest Survey Report 1999 Seasons. Michigan Department of Natural Resources. Wildlife Report Number 3314. Obtained from http://ww2.dnr.state.mi.us/publications/pdfs/huntingwildlifehabitat/reports/wld-library/3301-3399/3314.pdf on 22 November 2015.

Frawley, B.J. 2002. Michigan Deer Harvest Survey Report 2001 Seasons. Michigan Department of Natural Resources. Wildlife Report Number 3371. Obtained from http://ww2.dnr.state.mi.us/publications/pdfs/huntingwildlifehabitat/reports/wld-library/3301-3399/3371.pdf on 22 November 2015.

Frawley, B.J. 2004. Michigan Deer Harvest Survey Report 2003 Seasons. Michigan Department of Natural Resources. Wildlife Report Number 3418. Obtained from http://ww2.dnr.state.mi.us/publications/pdfs/huntingwildlifehabitat/reports/wld-library/3400-3499/3418.pdf on 22 November 2015.

Frawley, B.J. 2006. Michigan Deer Harvest Survey Report 2005 Seasons. Michigan Department of Natural Resources. Wildlife Report Number 3454. Obtained from http://ww2.dnr.state.mi.us/publications/pdfs/huntingwildlifehabitat/reports/wld-library/3400-3499/3454.pdf on 22 November 2015.

Frawley, B.J. 2007. Michigan Deer Harvest Survey Report 2006 Seasons. Michigan Department of Natural Resources. Wildlife Report Number 3485. Obtained from http://ww2.dnr.state.mi.us/publications/pdfs/huntingwildlifehabitat/reports/wld-library/3400-3499/3485.pdf.pdf on 22 November 2015.

Frawley, B.J. 2009. Michigan Deer Harvest Survey Report 2008 Seasons. Michigan Department of Natural Resources. Wildlife Report Number 3499. Obtained from http://ww2.dnr.state.mi.us/publications/pdfs/huntingwildlifehabitat/reports/wld-library/3400-3499/3499.pdf on 22 November 2015.

Frawley, B.J. 2011. Michigan Deer Harvest Survey Report 2010 Seasons. Michigan Department of Natural Resources. Wildlife Report Number 3526. Obtained from http://www.michigan.gov/documents/dnr/report3526_355512_7.pdf on 22 November 2015.

Frawley, B.J. 2013. Michigan Deer Harvest Survey Report 2012 Seasons. Michigan Department of Natural Resources. Wildlife Report Number 3566. Obtained from https://www.michigan.gov/documents/dnr/MI_Deer_Harvest_Survey_Report_2012_426213_7.pdf on 22 November 2015.

Frawley, Brian J. and C.E. Boon. 2015. Michigan Deer Harvest Survey Report. Michigan Department of Natural Resources. Wildlife Report Number 3609. Obtained from https://www.michigan.gov/documents/dnr/mi_deer_harvest_survey_2014_494338_7.pdf on 22 November 2015.

Hill, H.R. 1994. The 1994 Deer Pellet Group Surveys.Michigan Department of Natural Resources. Wildlife Division Report Number 3211. Obtained from http://ww2.dnr.state.mi.us/publications/pdfs/huntingwildlifehabitat/reports/wld-library/3200-3299/3211.pdf on 22 November 2015.

Hill, H.R. 1995. The 1995 Deer Pellet Group Surveys.Michigan Department of Natural Resources. Wildlife Division Report Number 3232. Obtained from http://ww2.dnr.state.mi.us/publications/pdfs/huntingwildlifehabitat/reports/wld-library/3200-3299/3232.pdf on 22 November 2015.

Hill, H.R. 1996. The 1996 Deer Pellet Group Surveys.Michigan Department of Natural Resources. Wildlife Division Report Number 3272. Obtained from http://ww2.dnr.state.mi.us/publications/pdfs/huntingwildlifehabitat/reports/wld-library/3200-3299/3272.pdf on 22 November 2015.

Hill, H.R. 1997. The 1997 Deer Pellet Group Surveys.Michigan Department of Natural Resources. Wildlife Division Report Number 3273. Obtained from http://ww2.dnr.state.mi.us/publications/pdfs/huntingwildlifehabitat/reports/wld-library/3200-3299/3273.pdf on 22 November 2015.

MDNR. 1993. 1992 Preliminary Deer Report. Michigan Department Natural Resources. Wildlife Division Report 3183. Obtained from http://ww2.dnr.state.mi.us/publications/pdfs/huntingwildlifehabitat/reports/wld-library/3100-3199/3183.pdf on 22 November 2015.

Reis, T.F. 1985. The 1982 Deer Seasons. Michigan Department of Natural Resources. Wildlife Report Number 3001. Obtained from http://ww2.dnr.state.mi.us/publications/pdfs/huntingwildlifehabitat/reports/wld-library/3000-3099/3001.pdf on 22 November 2015.

Reis, T.F. 1988. The 1986 Deer Seasons. Michigan Department of Natural Resources. Wildlife Report Number 3098. Obtained from http://ww2.dnr.state.mi.us/publications/pdfs/huntingwildlifehabitat/reports/wld-library/3000-3099/3098.pdf on 22 November 2015.

Reis, T.F. 1991. 1990 Michigan Deer Seasons. Michigan Department of Natural Resources. Wildlife Report Number 3147. Obtained from http://ww2.dnr.state.mi.us/publications/pdfs/huntingwildlifehabitat/reports/wld-library/3100-3199/3147.pdf on 22 November 2015.

*Yeah – I know it is a long list for a single blog post but I needed to take data from every one of the reports to make my graph.

Think like a deer yard

just as a deer herd lives in mortal fear of its wolves, so does a mountain live in mortal fear of its deer.

-Aldo Leopold, Thinking Like a Mountain

 

The topic of deer hunting season in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (UP) is a year-round conversation starter. However, as the season approaches, the discussions are usually about what deer people are seeing, how many deer there are, and what the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has done wrong regarding the local deer population.

That very same conversation happened to come up just the other day with one of my family members. The talk was largely about how low the deer numbers are this year (fewer deer than he ever recalls) and how poor of a job he thinks the DNR is doing. The primary focus of our conversation was about a television program called Ask the DNR (a local PBS production) he had seen, during which the DNR had been asked about the impact of predators on the population. My family member explained to me that the DNR biologists “continued to skirt the question about predator impacts on the population by only talking about habitat improvement.”

My personal experience as a past biologist for the DNR was that we did not sidestep questions about natural resources management issues. However, because I had not seen the program and did not know the specifics of what was mentioned, I decided to not debate the topic until I had watched the interview firsthand. As it turns out, I found the episode online  (Ask the DNR – Deer Season, Bear Season, November 15).

As usual, for “Ask the DNR,” the inquiries about Michigan’s natural resources were wide sweeping. The moderator of the program did not bring up the topics of the deer hunting season, the deer population, their habitat, and predators until well into the second half of the program.

The first question related to these subjects (timestamp 38:25) was focused on what natural resource managers are doing about the availability of winter thermal cover for deer in the UP. Wildlife Biologist Monica Joseph answered by stating that one of the primary tasks for DNR biologists in the UP has been and continues to be the evaluation and maintenance of winter thermal cover for deer (commonly called “deer yards”). She also pointed out that this is a multi-faceted, multi-season effort which not only includes the efforts of DNR personnel but also Federal natural resource managers and private landowners in the region.

The second question (timestamp 40:00) was about the low deer numbers observed this past year in the UP. The caller wanted to know what the DNR was doing to increase the population. DNR Deer Specialist, Ashley Autenrieth, answered by reminding viewers that the UP is near the northernmost limit of the white-tailed deer’s range. As a result, extreme weather events (especially when combined with other population stresses) can have a substantial impact on survivability. She explained that, with the previous three winters – being very cold, with heavy snowfall – having had a negative impact on the population, the DNR was working on helping the population recover by 1) reducing the number of female deer being harvested during the 2015 hunting season and 2) implementing methods for improving deer winter range on both public and private lands.

Finally, the question that I was told the biologists “skirted” arrived (timestamp 41:26). “Do you feel the wolf has had an impact on the deer herd numbers at all?” Biologist Monica Joseph, responded by stating again that winter conditions for deer in this region of the continent are what drives deer survivability.  With that being re-stated, she also added that wolves, coyotes, and bears (all large mammalian predators of deer, for that matter) are opportunistic and can have an impact on populations, especially at local levels. Across the greater landscape, though, that impact fluctuates. This is because localized variations in winter severity affects the deer’s vulnerability to disease and predation in different amounts. The more affected they are by winter conditions, the more predisposed the deer will be to succumb to either disease and/or predators.  Additionally, if a newborn fawn the following spring is born undernourished due to it’s mother’s reaction to severe winter conditions, it is also likely to not survive to adulthood.

After watching the video, it is quite clear to me that no one was “skirting” any questions about predation affecting the deer population. The biologists were reinforcing the fact that habitat quality and weather conditions drive the survivability of the deer in this particular population – and that predation is always a factor on any herbivore’s survivability. However, to place all the blame of low deer numbers solely on the presence of predators would be improper and very short-sighted when considering the complexities of healthy ecosystems.

I am often discouraged by the attitude that some people think proper deer management equates to “eliminate the predators.” Healthy ecosystems need healthy predator/prey relationships. Managing habitat and adjusting harvest limitations (as identified by the biologists on Ask the DNR) are absolutely the key, for both growing desired species, reducing undesirable species, and ensuring ecosystem health.

Whenever people think of deer hunting in Michigan, it is easy to get caught up in the talk of deer numbers and hunter success and consider the wolf as a competitor with humans. However, the danger that lies in the removal of the wolf (even just the significant reduction of the species) is that it changes the interaction between the deer and the landscape as a whole. Overabundant deer ruin the quality of the habitat. Diminished habitat quality reduces winter survivability. Lower winter survivability of deer means people want to help feed the deer to keep them alive – which then keeps the population above the habitat’s carrying capacity, setting it up for the same or worsened situation in the future.

It is far better (far more healthy – far less costly) to, as Aldo Leopold pointed out, think like a mountain…or for the UP, think like a deer yard.

More about the 1st post.

After completing the first UPWell post, yesterday, I realized how appropo the material was in regards to how it related to the purpose of the blog. Here are the things that I have noticed:

1. The influence of Michigan’s deer season on my career path.

I mentioned briefly that the opening of deer season was like a holiday in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and that my family spent much time preparing for it. I will spend more time on this topic in the future. However, suffice it to say – my school had two days off for the opening of deer season and my father built a cabin almost for the sole purpose of using it during these particular two weeks of the year.

2. The direct relationship of a global climate event on local/regional weather patterns.

One of the primary aspects of this blog is in discovering the UP and the greater Great Lakes region in the context of, and as the means to, understanding the study of current environmental science topics at local, regional, and global scales. The connection between El Nino/Southern Oscillation and warm, dry UP weather is an excellent example of that goal.

3. How the global climate event indirectly relates to local cultural issues.

To know the history, environment, and people of the UP a person needs to take the environment of the UP in consideration.  There are many aspects of the geologic, climatic, and ecological history and patterns from the region which link directly and indirectly to the culture of the UP. In this case, deer hunting has been an aspect of life in the UP since humans first entered the region. Ever since game laws were enacted to protect species such as the white-tailed deer, the 15th of November has been linked to the culture of the region. From a historical weather perspective, the middle of November is the definitive end of the growing season, at the cusp of long harsh winters, and normally cold with a fair amount of snow accumulation already on the ground. To have this month warmer and more dry than expected affects how people prepare for the winter months ahead and their likelihood of securing some inexpensive and nutritious meat to use during the winter.

4. The name of the blog

Finally, this article tied-in nicely with the name of the blog “The UPWell.” I spent many weeks trying to come up with a name for the blog that would relate to both the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and to the science of the global environment. I decided upon “The UPWell” based on the importance of upwelling (coincidentally affected by El Nino/Southern Oscillation) to global oceanic environments. An upwell is a cycling of deep water nutrients into shallower ecosystems. This influx of nutrients strengthens the associated ecosystems. in some cases, this has also been documented to take place in Lake Superior, also (again, another topic for another day).

I like to think of this page as bringing knowledge up from some other deep source that supports the growth of the region in a global economy and keeps the region “well.” I know that, for now, my readership is pretty much non-existent. However, I intend for that to change and to help citizens of the UP learn from worldwide environmental science issues and for the world to learn a bit about the small-town sensibility of a tiny secluded area set among the Great Lakes.