Monday Morning Blogging: The Wisconsin River

Here is a picture of the lovely and expansive Wisconsin River, as it runs through Iowa County. It is the second to last county that is touched by the river on its 430 mile course through Wisconsin:  from its source in the far north (where it is a narrow winding stream) to its mouth where it empties into the Mississippi River near Prairie du Chien.

Wisconsin River - photo at Flickr (Used with permission.)

The Wisconsin River, flowing westward through Iowa County – photo at Flickr (Used with permission.)

The Wisconsin River is currently “trending” for many conservationists in Wisconsin thanks to the personal odyssey of Ruth Oppedahl. Between September 27th and October 14th, Ruth is paddling the length of the river, often in the company of other conservationists, and talking to people who have spent whole careers working to protect water in Wisconsin.

Ruth, the leader of the Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin (the NRF), has said she always wanted to paddle the length of the river “someday,” and suddenly, this year, forces aligned to make such a trip seem not just attractive, but compelling.

As explained on the NRF website: Wisconsin parks and all our natural resource programs have received “unprecedented funding reductions this year jeopardizing some of the things Wisconsinites love most about this         state. . .” Included in the state budget cuts: an $84,100 nonprofit capacity grant that NRF has received annually since 2000.”

A Hope to Rejunvenate:  ” . . by living outdoors for 18 days . .”

And as Ruth herself wrote: “Saddened by the reduction in support for conservation and natural resources in our state, I felt like I had to do something . . . people were asking me what could they could do?”

She scrapped plans to vacation in the Boundary Waters of northern Minnesota, planning instead “to vacation in Wisconsin and paddle our namesake river . . . I hope to rejuvenate myself by living outdoors for 18 days. . .” While doing so, Ruth is meeting others along the river “and sharing the many ways we all care for our beautiful state.”

There are a number of ways you can follow Ruth’s adventures, meeting who she meets, learning how she deals with daily challenges from fixing a leaky kayak to portaging around dams; both beaver, and hydroelectric dams.
The quick and interactive method is NRF’s Facebook page where you can leave encouragement and advice, or ask a question.

My personal favorite is at NRF’s Wisconservation blog, where Ruth’s audio diary is transcribed each day. Here’s just one of the many Wisconsin River facts I’m learning along with Ruth: not all that long ago, the river near Hat Rapids (between Rhinelander and Tomahawk) was a polluted mess.

From Ruth’s post: ” . . . this was a place where human waste and paper mill – pulp mill – waste accumulated on top of the river and it was just a foam. Nobody lived on the river, it was disgusting. And then, thanks to the Clean Water Act, thanks to the work of people like Susan, the Wisconsin River is much, much cleaner than it was just 40 years ago.” I’d encourage anyone to get involved with Ruth Oppedahl’s odyssey; check it out.


Monday Morning Blogging: What is The Great Lakes Compact?

Although there are numerous complexities to creating it, what the Great Lakes Compact does is easy to understand. It was signed into law in 2008, calling for regional management of the waters of the Great Lakes. And it bans any diversion of Great Lakes water outside the Great Lakes Basin – although “limited exceptions could be allowed in communities near the Basin when rigorous standards are met.”

On Lake Michigan: south of Egg Harbor, WI, September 7, 2015.

On Lake Michigan: south of Egg Harbor, WI, September 7, 2015.

All the Governors of the eight U.S. Great Lakes states have signed The Great Lakes Compact, so it is state law. It was also approved by the U.S. Congress and signed into federal law by President George W. Bush. In addition to the agreement among the Great Lakes states (and they are New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Minnesota) a parallel agreement was signed into law in Canada by the Premiers of the provinces of Ontario and Quebec.

On Lake Michigan: Near Peninsula State Park, Door County, WI, September 5, 2015.

On Lake Michigan: Near Peninsula State Park, Door County, WI, September 5, 2015.

The Great Lakes Compact has been in the news quite a bit lately – especially in Wisconsin where the city of Waukesha has stepped up to be the first to actually test the Compact. Waukesha, out in the western suburbs of Milwaukee, and just outside the Great Lakes Basin, would like to tap into Great Lakes water and use it for its municipal water system.

Along Lake Michigan: a Door County beach, just north of Sturgeon Bay, November 10, 2013.

Along Lake Michigan: a Door County beach, just north of Sturgeon Bay, November 10, 2013.

Waukesha claims it meets the strict criteria to be considered for an exception to the Compact’s no-diversion rule, and the Wisconsin DNR, in agreement, has given them the preliminary approval they need. Now their request moves on to all those other parties in the Compact.

Clumps of Lake Michigan Ice breaking up on Juddville Bay, in Door County, WI, Spring 2014.

Clumps of Lake Michigan Ice breaking up on Juddville Bay, in Door County, WI, Spring 2014.

But many alarms are being sounded by those who have worked hard to create the Compact and know its history. Editorials, comments, and letters, are being written across the region warning of the implications – many more water diversions to come – if Waukesha’s request is granted. You can see these at The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, The Akron Beacon Journal, The Cleveland Plain Dealer, The Toledo Blade, The Detroit News, The Waukesha Freeman, and Minnesota Public Radio, for example.

On Lake Michigan near Egg Harbor, WI, September 7, 2015.

On Lake Michigan near Egg Harbor, WI, September 7, 2015.

Last week I learned, in person, a bit more about the compact and Waukesha’s request for a diversion. This was provided at the Door County Environmental Council’s summer meeting in Bailey’s Harbor, by one of the featured speakers of the evening, George Meyer, who leads the Wisconsin Wildlife Foundation. Meyer is also a retired WI DNR chief (having led that agency from 1993 to 2001), and he described the pros and cons of granting Waukesha’s request.

Above, Lake Michigan. For readers unfamiliar with the North American Great Lakes, this is one of the five inland seas that make up the fabulous waters of this region.

The “pros,” said Meyer are that the city is very close to the Basin, and, because it has a radium problem with its water, it can show a potential need. Some of the “cons,” included by Meyer include these: Waukesha is ignoring the fact that it can successfully treat its ground water for radium, and do it for a significant savings to its taxpayers, compared to the expensive diversion plan it is requesting. An opinion column in the Detroit News by Meyer includes mo





Conservation Grants and Wisconsin’s Best Places: News from the NRF

This post which began as one of several items for a “roundup” or summer notes, has grown into five separate posts, to be published one at a time these first weeks of August.

Help Fund Your Group’s Conservation Efforts With an NRF Grant

Each year the Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin gives numerous small matching grants to local conservation groups that have a plan and a program for enhancing natural resources within their particular jurisdictions. There is still a bit of time for interested groups to apply for such a grant for 2016: applications are due by September 1st.

The Natural Resources Foundation is a partner to Wisconsin’s DNR. It was created in 1986 and ever since, it has dedicated itself to its stated mission: boosting “private sector investment and involvement in state managed natural resources: our waters, lands, and wildlife.” There are two specific grants that can be applied for now, before the September 1st deadline. The first, the C.D. Besadny Conversation Grant Program, was founded in 1990 as a tribute to the former DNR Secretary “Buzz” Besadny, who had a distinguished 42-year career at the DNR.

Over the years this fund, now 25 years old, has granted $420,000 to more than 500 groups, representing every county in the state. “On average we get about 50 applications for the Besadny Conservation Grant each year,” I was told by Lindsay Mayer, NRF’s communications director. Many of the grants arrive at NRF close to the Sept. 1 deadline, she added. (So, if you are part of a group with a project in need of financial assistance, yes, there’s still time to make an application for funding!)

The second type of grant available is the Teachers Outdoor Environmental Education Fund (for public school, K-12, teachers). This grant was founded in 2010 by Pete Oslind in memory of his wife, Sue Spaeth, a 30-year veteran elementary teacher, who harbored a particular commitment to environmental education. To date this fund has generated nearly $10,000 in giving, to more than a dozen projects.

It’s important to emphasize that all of these funds have been given as small, matching donations – no single grant is more than $1,000. They benefit local conservation groups and projects. You can see, at this link, the full list of grants given for 2015. Here are three examples: the Navarino Nature Center in Shiocton received a grant for boardwalk signage at Glen’s Pond; the Catholic Multicultural Center in Madison received a grant for a community environmental program; and the school district of New Berlin, WI, received a grant for its comprehensive recycling program.

Natural Resource Foundations Members Identify Wisconsin’s “Best Places”

Just announced by the NRF:  the “Best of the Best” in Wisconsin for all your outdoor recreation pursuits.  In July the Foundation surveyed its members for their opinions on the best places for running, hiking, biking, canoeing, kayaking, swimming and canoeing.  Devil’s Lake State Park claimed two of the honors: the best place to swim, and to hike. Visit the NRF blog, for the other results, great photos of  the top choices.

Camping, Kayaking, or Canoeing? Wisconsin's got great places for that, and more. (A Badger & Whooping Crane photo)

Camping, Kayaking, or Canoeing? Wisconsin’s got great places for that, and more. (A Badger & Whooping Crane photo)


An Earth Day Gift for Wisconsin: The Natural Resources Board

The beauty and richness of our natural resources in Wisconsin is one of the things that those of us who live here love about the state. And we like to brag about what we believe is Wisconsin’s long history of citizen input into the management of these resources. We think this sets us apart, and makes us sort of special.

Thus, one of the things that the conservation community in Wisconsin is celebrating today, Earth Day 2015, is the preservation of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Board. It’s a 7-member board of citizens, geographically and professionally diverse, that meets throughout the year, and makes rules and sets policies that help carry out the laws that affect our natural resources. All are volunteers, appointed by the governor and approved by the state senate.

Wisconsin River - photo at Flickr (Used with permission.)

Wisconsin River. (Photo by Jimmy Emerson Used with permission.)

We have a special reason to celebrate it this year. Why? Because since early February the board’s future has been under a cloud – the threat of being rendered powerless by a provision in Governor Scott Walker’s 2015-17 budget proposal. The governor’s proposal called for declaring the board “advisory only” and transferring all the powers exercised by the citizen board to a single person – the governor’s appointed DNR Secretary. The Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters called it “Kneecapping the Department of Natural Resources Board,” and urged its members to press their elected representatives at Conservation Lobby Day (held last week) to reject it.

WLCV members were gratified that many Republicans in the legislature (the governor’s own party) seemed not to like much about the proposal either. In one of its first official acts on the budget the Joint Finance Committee did, in fact, remove that item from the budget bill, calling it a “policy” proposal, not a “fiscal” matter. So the citizen-led board and its citizen-oversight role remains safe for now, and Happy Earth Day!

The Van Hise Rock near Baraboo, WI.  (Photo by Jimmy Emerson, used with permission)

The Van Hise Rock near Baraboo, WI. (Photo by Jimmy Emerson, used with permission)

I wanted to know a little more about how the board works and talked briefly with one of its members, Christine Thomas, who is the Dean of the College of Natural Resources at the University of Wisconsin – Stevens Point. Dean Thomas explained to me that often new “laws are broad, sometimes very general – maybe as general as ‘we must have clean water’ – well in implementing them we have the rule-making authority to say what ‘clean’ is, and to say how this gets done.”

Earlier the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel quoted her extensively on the board’s citizen oversight function. In part, she said the board includes “. . the only people who can stand up for the resource with no tie to money, contributions, gifts, or election. And every decision has to be made in full view of the public.”

Photo by Jimmy Emerson; used with permission.

Photo by Jimmy Emerson; used with permission.

I also wanted to learn more about “Wisconsin’s long history of citizen input” and share that here. Again, I turned to Dean Thomas. She put together a PowerPoint presentation on just this topic and shared it with the other members of the Natural Resources Board in February this year, and you can access it too, at this DNR web page. This is a spirited presentation with some history that goes back to the beginning of the state. It also becomes a discussion of political changes and reorganizations – “as inescapable as death and taxes,” she says – and an explanation of the board at work today. And it’s fun to watch.

You can also read, if you wish for more in-depth history, Dean Thomas’ written narrative, “One Hundred Twenty Years of Citizen Involvement With the Wisconsin Natural Resources Board,” which appeared in the Environmental History Review in the Spring, 1991 issue. She makes a compelling case that citizen involvement has been part of our history – for 150 years, she now contends. She says we are “a state, that more than most, has a long history of environmental interest. . . . The environmental problems have become more complicated and the interest groups more diverse, but the idea of the citizen board has remained intact for most of the state’s history.”


Editorial Note: This is Part 1 of an Earth Day-inspired series which will include a report about the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program, (also a target of dramatic changes proposed in the governor’s budget), and this will be followed by a look at the environmental inheritance that all in Wisconsin have received from Aldo Leopold, our very own 20th century patron saint for natural resources.

Environmental Journalism: This Is What It Looks Like

I’ve written about environmental journalism before – that there are fewer reporters covering it, even as there are more and more issues to cover. I wrote a post about this the end of January, “Needed: More Environmental Journalism (it’s 3 posts down the page).

When I saw this article about “Walker’s Plan to Freeze Land Purchases . . .,” in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel this past week I knew I would share the link and comment on it. I think it’s a very good example of environmental journalism at work, explaining, and providing some context, for complex news. There are a number of controversial changes that are being considered for Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources, proposed in Governor Scott Walker’s newest 2-year budget plan. Over the next few months – these budget proposals will be debated, perhaps amended, and eventually in some form, they’ll be approved.

Governor Walker’s Proposals for Natural Resource Management in Wisconsin

Among these changes is one that removes a powerful oversight role from a citizens natural resources board. This is a board that derives from the Conservation Commission created in 1928, to ensure citizen decision-making authority over natural resource management; this was an entity that Aldo Leopold helped to craft. The budget also calls for sharp cuts in the DNR’s research staff, and it would eliminate state money for the state park system. While the article linked to above mentions all of these things, it’s focus is on the governor’s proposed 13-year freeze of land purchases for the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Fund.

Good, clean, Wisconsin shoreline.

Good, clean, Wisconsin shoreline.

This bi-partisan fund, named for two former governors, one from each major political party, has been very successful statewide in protecting important parcels of land through purchases and conservation easements. You can learn a lot about it, the reasons for the lengthy, proposed freeze, and the push back from many statewide groups in this article by reporter Lee Bergquist.

The Top Environmental Stories from Last Year

I would like to recommend one more link to good examples of environmental journalism. Near the end of 2014, EcoWatch, an online news source for such journalism, published this list of the 10 Most important Environmental Stories of the past year. At the top of the list are Obama’s EPA move to curb greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, and also the agreement between US. and China to cut emissions.

Other top stories highlighted include the drought in California, and a new report from the World Wildlife Fund on a 40-year study which documents a significant decline in wildlife. There are other interesting environmental stories, as well; I hope you’ll have a look at it. Knowing these things can help us all advocate for better decision-making in government, globally as well as locally.

This, That, and a Few More Things: Conservation Stories

This:  Groundwater Issues and Frac Sand Mining in Wisconsin  The Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters, fresh from the ups and downs of the fall election season, is sounding feisty. “The environment played its largest role yet in Wisconsin politics,” the WLCV states in its Winter newsletter. No surprise that The Badger and the Whooping Crane believes that’s a good thing for Wisconsin’s natural resources and all its creatures, critters, and living things.

Both the WLCV, and the national LCV it is a part of, targeted our re-elected Governor Scott Walker for the many “conservation fails” they’ve attributed to him. (See here:  The Dirty Truth About Our Clean Jobs,” and “Walker Blew It On Wind” and “Trashing Recycling” and “Mining for Money,” and . . . have a look, there’s more).

Even though that governor is back in the statehouse and an extremely friendly-to-Walker group of new and returning lawmakers will reconvene at the State Capitol early in January, Wisconsin’s own League of Conservation Voters remains undeterred in its non-partisan mission. In the short-term that seems to be taking shape this way: “for a proactive push to safeguard our precious groundwater resources,” and also to prod the state to rigorously monitor the frac sand mining industry (this is from the newsletter).

Ann Sayers, WLCV’s program director, told the Cap Times, in an article published December 8th, that parts of Wisconsin are nearing “a groundwater crisis.” She explained:  to accommodate a host of different users all looking to the same water sources – cranberry growers, farmers, businesses, and municipalities – there must be “protections in place . . . to properly allocate the supply in years to come.”

In last year’s state legislative session WLCV worked hard to bring about the defeat of what they labeled “The Bad Groundwater Bill” which would have curbed the Department of Natural Resources’ authority to regulate high-capacity wells; this would have allowed frac sand mining companies, factory farms, and other large water users to pull from the same water source.

Worth protecting:  Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters says "Public opinion on the environment hasn't changed."

Something to protect: Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters says “Public opinion on the environment hasn’t changed.”

“We don’t really have time for politics where this issue is concerned,” Sayers told the Cap Times. She also said the last legislative session “was probably the most partisan environment,” that she has ever worked in, but expressed optimism for the 2015-16 for “a new spirit of cooperation” among a bi-partisan group of pro-conservation legislators elected to the State Assembly in November.

Because Wisconsinites value the state’s resources so deeply, conservation issues are on the minds of the state’s voters, Sayers affirmed.              [The above information was Updated, December 15, 2014.]

While we hope for “This” to be true, there’s also –

That:  Legislation to Restrict Local Authority Over Sand Mines

No sooner had I begun to write about the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters, when a new email from Ann Sayers made noise in my In Box. It was alerting all WLCV members that the new Wisconsin legislature may soon reconsider legislation that would change “local authority over frac sand mines.” Last year the WLCV helped defeat “two bills that would have kneecapped local control and prevented you from having a say over what happened in your own back yard. These bills moved fast,” wrote Ann, “but we moved faster.”

A stockpile of Great Northern Sand arises on a Wisconsin prairie along Highway 53. (Photo courtesy Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters)

A stockpile of Great Northern Sand arises on a Wisconsin prairie along Highway 53. (Photo courtesy Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters)

The WLCV must be getting a little weary, but apparently there will be no rest. If you live in Wisconsin and think bills restricting local control sound like a bad idea you might consider joining WLCV. They are fighters and defenders; more members always mean more strength.

And then there’s . . .

That, Too:  Enviro Groups Sue Wisconsin for Poor Air Quality Standards

The Midwest Environmental Defense Center, Inc., and Clean Wisconsin have joined in a lawsuit accusing the state’s Department of Natural Resources of failing to enact higher air quality standards that should have been in place since 2010. These are standards set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for sulfur dioxide and smog-forming nitrogen oxide in 2010, and for fine particulate matter in 2012. The law suit was filed this week in Dane County Circuit Court.

So that’s that. But when it comes to the environment and conservation stories, there will always be . . .

A Few More Things To Share

As I write this, it is nearly the eve of the 115th Christmas Bird Count, organized by the National Audubon Society. The new CBC will take place December 14, 2014 through January 5, 2015.

Described so well as “the longest running Citizen Science survey in the world,” the Christmas Bird Count involves “tens of thousands of participants,” and it will provide critical data on bird population trends. The data from over 2,300 “circles” will be entered after the count and will become available to query under the Audubon website’s Data and Research link.


A blue-winged teal (Photo at Wikimedia Commons, by Alan D. Wilson.)

Each count takes place within an established 15 miles in diameter circle, organized by a count compiler. Anyone – beginner to veteran – is welcome to participate, but there is a specific methodology to the CBC and participants must make advance arrangements with the count compiler to join a local circle. (If YOU are interested, this link to Audubon will help you find a local circle.)

If you are a beginning birder, you will be able to join a group with at least one experienced birdwatcher. Want to count from home? If your home is within the boundaries of a circle, you can stay right there and count the birds that come to your own feeder – as long as you’ve made prior arrangements with your circle’s count compiler.


This would be the time to mention that a recent contest to name America’s Best Birdwatching Destination has been won by Ohio’s Magee Marsh. Although this is not one of the contending spots that are closest to the hearts of the whooping crane’s many fans, it does represent an important win for wetlands – so on that score alone, Ohio’s win is also one for each and every conservationist. The Toledo Blade’s outdoor writer Tom Henry explains here why wetlands and preservation of the natural Great Lakes shoreline are of such importance to all of us.

Wetlands and Great Lakes shoreline were winners, too.

Wetlands and Great Lakes shoreline were winners, too.

By the way, this contest to name America’s Best Birdwatching Destination was co-sponsored by USA Today and – a travel website. Those sites that ended up in the Ten Best that are closest to the hearts of craniacs everywhere? Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the gulf coast of Texas, and the Platte River Valley in Nebraska.


Plastic Bag Bans and restrictions have been spreading across the U.S. by the way of various cities and local government units from Manhattan Beach, CA, to Nantucket Island, MA. But on Sept. 30, 2014, California became the first state to pass a statewide ban on single use plastic bags (although local legislation banning them in Hawaii does add up to a de-facto statewide ban, according to EcoWatch.)

The new California law will take effect in July 2015. Here is a wide-ranging history of the spread plastic bag restrictions from EcoWatch, and it includes an interesting “Short History of the Plastic Bag” in timeline form.

And finally, from The Cornucopia Institute (which promotes economic justice for family scale farming) here is a list of 10 Environmental Non-profit Organizations That Are Changing the World. Is there anyone, anywhere, that doesn’t yearn for ways to change the world? Here are 10 groups to help us all do that!

Report: Some Bad News for Birds Mixed with Conservation Victories

Quite a bit of homage has been paid this year to the passenger pigeon, a bird species which became extinct 100 years ago, as of August 29th. Now, on the heels of that anniversary comes a new report, The State of the Birds, 2014 (from the U.S. Committee of the North American Bird Conservation Initiative).

This is a report that repeatedly invokes the passenger pigeon’s memory with comparisons to current species that may suffer the same fate, and to others that are rebounding from declining population numbers. The press release announcing The State of the Birds 2014 concludes with one powerful idea:

“The strongest finding in The State of the Birds 2014 is simple: conservation works. Ducks fly once again in great numbers up the Mississippi River . . . Bald eagles, brown pelicans, peregrine falcons – all species once headed the way of the passenger pigeon – are now abundant . . .”


Peregrine falcon (Photo at Wikimedia Commons; by Aviceda)

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A brown pelican pair. (Photo at Flickr; taken by Greg McComsey, February 2011).

Still . . . don’t let such good news make you complacent. There’s plenty of data in The State of the Birds that the authors call “unsettling.”

Who are the producers of this report? Who are these folks that make up the U.S. Committee of the North American Bird Conservation Initiative? This is a 23-member partnership of organizations such as The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, The Nature Conservancy, The American Bird Conservancy, Ducks Unlimited, The National Audubon Society, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the Smithsonian Institution – I think you get the picture. You can access specific names and responsible parties here (at the acknowledgements at the end of the report), and learn about the four previous reports issued in 2009, 2010, 2011, and 2013.

Here’s a little more about the 2014 report:

It analyzes population trends for bird species in seven different habitats. They are grasslands, forests, wetlands, arid lands, islands, coasts, and ocean habitats.

It includes a State of the Birds Watch List with 230 bird species that are considered “endangered” or “at risk” of becoming endangered.

Here’s a little more about the findings that the authors have labeled “troubling:”

More than half of all U.S. shorebird species are endangered or at risk.

Birds of the open ocean – for example, the Laysan albatross and the black-footed albatross – are threatened with increasing oil contamination, plastic pollution, and greatly reduced prey fish due to commercial fishing operations.

A Laysan albatross (Photo at WikiMedia Commons; taken by Dick Daniels; in Hawaii; Feb. 2012)

A Laysan albatross (Photo at Wikimedia Commons; taken by Dick Daniels; in Hawaii; Feb. 2012)

There’s much, much more in the report, of course, but here’s one more caution: don’t become overwhelmed by the bad news. Instead, go back to the good, “conservation works” news, and be inspired to learn about, and support, the many conservation projects and organizations that are fighting for a healthier future for birds – and for you too.

Here are two more examples of things improving because of conservation at work:

Although shorebirds are generally “squeezed into shrinking strips of habitat due to development,” there has been a steady, 28% rise, in the population numbers among 49 coastal species that have been tracked since 1968. How could this be? The establishment of 160 national coastal wildlife refuges, as well as nearly 600,000 acres of national seashore in 10 states, gets the credit.


A blue-winged teal (Photo at Wikimedia Commons; by Alan D. Wilson)

Declines in waterfowl populations – such as the mallard and the blue-winged teal – have been reversed – with thanks to the North American Wetland Conservation Act. It has helped protect and restore wetlands through public-private partnerships across the U.S; the result is a collective area of protected wetlands larger than the state of Tennessee.

Anniversaries Observed: The Last Passenger Pigeon

Two big anniversaries important to the conservation community – and of interest to everyone concerned about the natural world we depend upon – have recently been observed: the 50-year anniversary of the signing of the Wilderness Act (September 3rd), and the 100th anniversary, on August 29th, of the death of the last known passenger pigeon in existence.

The Badger & the Whooping Crane wants to share a little bit about each of these events – the extinction of the passenger pigeon today, and the wilderness act signing tomorrow – and also offer links just loaded with additional interesting information; because you just might want more.

The Emblem of Her Species

“Her name was Martha.” And she was “almost certainly born in Wisconsin,” Dr. Stanley Temple begins in his reflection on the extinction of the passenger pigeon, published in the Wisconsin State Journal two weeks ago. Martha died in her cage at the Cincinnati Zoo, a century ago, but would live on in memory – emblematic of the tragedy of over-killing a species to the point of its extinction.

Taxidermied specimen of a passenger pigeon in the Bird Gallery of the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto. (Photo by Keith Schengili-Roberts, available through Wikimedia Commons)

A taxidermist’s specimen of a passenger pigeon in the Bird Gallery of the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto. (Photo by Keith Schengili-Roberts, available through Wikimedia Commons)

The passenger pigeon, which numbered between 3 and 5 billion birds in the mid-nineteenth century, was killed – “ruthlessly over-harvested,” wrote Dr. Temple – to provide cheap meat for the burgeoning U.S. urban population. He continued: “The massive slaughters at the pigeons’ nesting colonies also interfered with their breeding. Killed on an industrial scale and prevented from reproducing, the passenger pigeon’s extinction was just a matter of time.”

Dr. Temple, who has been giving numerous talks about the passenger pigeon during the anniversary year of the species’ extinction, has the perfect resume for this mission. He is the University of Wisconsin Professor Emeritus of Forest and Wildlife Ecology, and he has a list of “areas of expertise,” and other achievements (which can be seen at the UW-Madison Experts Guide for News Media), that is as long as your arm, or likely longer.

This expertise includes (but is not limited to): “ornithology, wildlife ecology and management, endangered species, biodiversity, climate change, Aldo Leopold and his ideas on environmental ethics and environmental health.”

Dr. Temple’s knowledge of Aldo Leopold was almost certainly enhanced on the job; for 31 years he served as the Beers-Bascom Professor in Conservation in the Department of Wildlife Ecology at UW-Madison – the position pioneered by, and originally held, by Leopold himself. Since 1982, Dr. Temple has been the Science Advisor to the Aldo Leopold Foundation in Baraboo, and he has been a Senior Fellow at ALF since retiring from academia in 2007.

Endangered Whooping Cranes Have Avoided a Similar Fate

In his recent Wisconsin State Journal column, Dr. Temple notes that following the extinction of the passenger pigeon, Wisconsin has been part of a movement  to “use the tragic loss as a catalyst for conservation.” Although he does not single out any of the state’s particular contributions to conservation, I’m quite sure he would agree that the state’s recent efforts to help reintroduce the whooping crane here is one very good example.

Whooping Cranes photographed by Dale Bonk in Dane County in November 2013; the species has been close-to, but so far has escaped, the fate of the passenger pigeon.

Whooping Cranes photographed by Dale Bonk in Dane County in November 2013; the species has been close-to, but so far has escaped, the fate of the passenger pigeon.

The species was so very close to following the passenger pigeon into extinction when, at times, in the 1940s and early 50s, no more than 21 individual birds could be counted in the wild, and only 2 in captivity. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service lists habitat loss, hunting, egg collection, and specimen collection as the major causes of the crane species’ near-extinction, and notes that Wisconsin’s “long tradition of environmental commitment and support. . .” increase the whooping crane species’ chances of success.

The Battles Against Extinction Continue

Dr. Temple has been involved in a number of successful battles against extinction beyond Wisconsin, in particular those to save the California condor, the peregrine falcon, and the Mauritius kestrel.

In spite of the successes he has helped to create and those he’s seen, Stanley Temple concludes his newspaper column on a worrisome note, citing the evidence of elephants, rhinos, tigers, codfish and tuna – all still the victims of an illegal or unregulated overkill.      “Sadly, we seem not to have fully learned the lesson of the passenger pigeon: that no matter how abundant a species may be, we have the dreadful ability to wipe it out for our purely selfish reasons.”

Perhaps reflecting on the story of the passenger pigeon, he suggests, will help us do better.

[A Badger & the Whooping Crane recommendation: If you don’t already know about Stanley Temple, I urge you to learn more about his fascinating life – from meeting Rachel Carson at age 10 on a bird hike, to his adult “brushes with controversy and international intrigue . . .”  That and so much more about a conservation career spent, almost literally, walking in Aldo Leopold’s footsteps – can be found in this UW-Madison News feature from 2011. I do recommend it.]