Thursday, October 28, 2010

A comeback for gray wolves in Illinois?

A comeback for gray wolves in Illinois?

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As I drove with a car full of Boy Scouts on the way to a camp out in western Indiana recently, we talked about what parts of the trip we were looking forward to. Most of this discussion was devoted to plans for fishing the next day. But in my turn, I mentioned the hope that we would hear coyotes overnight, since the sound of their yips and howls makes me feel like I’m in a wild place, even when my tent is pitched in a county park.

The prospect of hearing coyotes at night was anticipated with much less pleasure by other members of the party, and before long one scout asked with some urgency in his voice that we not mention the “c” word again.

We obliged. But the scout’s discomfort with the idea of toothy creatures later got me wondering about another, more formidable wild canine that once inhabited the Prairie State, the gray wolf. You may or may not have seen the accounts, but some wolves have begun to show up here again in recent years. [Photo: gray wolf, Gary Kramer/USFWS.]

Gray wolves were extirpated from Illinois before the Civil War, thanks to government sponsored predator control programs and reductions in the prey and habitat available to them. And “extirpated” is still their official status in the state. But since 2002, there have been at least six wolves killed here, five of them by hunters and another one by a vehicle.

In Illinois, it’s illegal to shoot gray wolves, which are protected federally under the Endangered Species Act, but hunters have done so mistaking them for coyotes, which can be killed legally.

If you’re not accustomed to the difficulties of quickly identifying wild animals at a distance, you might wonder how people make such a blunder. At five to six-and-a-half feet long from nose to tail tip, and weighing 70-100 pounds, an average wolf in the Midwest is nearly double the size of an average coyote. But size is notoriously difficult to gauge in the field, and the differences in color and shape that help separate coyotes from wolves are also fairly subtle.

So far, four of the wolves killed in Illinois have been confirmed as wild immigrants from Wisconsin, where the wolf population has risen from zero to nearly 700 over the past thirty years.

The wolves of Wisconsin are part of a larger population that includes nearly 3,000 individuals in Minnesota and another 600 or so in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. In its robust growth, this western Great Lakes wolf population has exceeded the goals established for it under the Recovery Plan developed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service when they were listed as an endangered species. As a result, there has been legal wrangling over whether or not to delist them in the recent years, including a review of evidence for delisting currently under way. (For more on delisting and all kinds of other cool information see

Could wolves become reestablished in Illinois? The ones that have been confirmed here to date are all males, which tend to disperse over far greater distances than females, and they alone can’t accomplish the job. (The current Midwestern record for distance—600 miles—was set by an individual that was trapped in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and subsequently killed in north central Missouri.) But there’s food enough for wolves in our now-overabundant herds of white-tailed deer, and probably sufficient habitat, too. In the long run, the real question may be whether the human population of the state can make the psychic space to accommodate them.


Upcoming presentations on sustainable environment sponsored by Illinois Sustainable Technology Center

November 3, 2010: “Save the Plants; Save the Planet.” Kay Havens, Director, Division of Plant Science and Conservation and Senior Scientist from the Chicago Botanic Garden.

November 17, 2010: “Animal Conservation and Habitat Preservation.” Norah Fletchall, Vice President of Conservation from the Indianapolis Zoo.

Both talks will be from noon - 1 p.m. at the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center, One E. Hazelwood Dr. in Champaign. Further details at

Thursday, October 21, 2010

All welcome at Environmental Change Institute events

All welcome at Environmental Change Institute events

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Are you interested to know how environmental change is being addressed in research and teaching at the University of Illinois? Do you have a stake in the way agriculture confronts climate change in the years to come? If your answer to either question is yes, let me invite you to a couple of events slated to take place early next month. Both will be hosted by the unit that provides a home for Environmental Almanac on campus, the UI Environmental Change Institute.

The Environmental Change Institute, or ECI, was created in 2008, thanks to a generous gift from the Alvin H. Baum Family fund and matching funds from three UI colleges: Business, Law, and Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences. Its mission is to enable society to avoid, mitigate or adapt to the effects of climate change through the support of scholarly research, innovative teaching, and public outreach initiatives.

On the afternoon of Monday, November 8, ECI will host its annual research symposium. At this event, members of the campus and wider communities are invited to hear firsthand accounts of the activities ECI sponsors, in the form of brief presentations by faculty members and graduate assistants.

The range of inquiry enabled by ECI funding is indicated by the diversity of the research questions symposium presenters are addressing, among them: How do land the values of land managers affect response to climate change threats? How much carbon is lost from forests into streams? Do consumers shop more on the Internet when fuel prices increase? How effective are small-scale solutions in enhancing food production, energy, and water management?

The symposium will also offer the opportunity to hear from faculty who are developing new courses that address environmental change. These include a course that explores the two-way relation between environment and democracy; a course that teaches students to think about buildings first in terms of energy use and sustainability; one that seeks to educate citizens and future leaders in the science topics define our world; and even one that will involve students in the very practical business of developing the world’s first solar-powered, cost-efficient bike sharing system.

Presentations at the research symposium will be brief because there many of them, but a reception following will allow for audience members and presenters to mingle.

On the day following the symposium, Tuesday, November 9, the Environmental Change Institute will host its second annual summit, an all-day colloquium on the topic, “Climate Change: Agricultural Solutions, Adaptation and Mitigation.” This event will bring together research scholars, business leaders, and policymakers to discuss the causes, effects and consequences of agricultural practices on earth’s changing climate patterns. Speakers at the summit will address topics that range from chemical management and soil fertility to the potentials of organic and sustainable farming.

In the opening address at the summit, climatologist and meteorologist Mark Seeley of the University of Minnesota will outline the changes climate science anticipates in the next 50 years and discuss some of the implications of those changes for land use, landscape and infrastructure.

Both the summit and the research symposium will take place at the iHotel and Conference Center on South First Street in Champaign. You can find further details and register for the summit at the Website of the Environmental Change Institute at


Next Monday evening, October 25, on the UI campus journalist Jeff Biggers will speak on the subject of his current book, “Reckoning at Eagle Creek: The Secret Legacy of Coal in the Heartland,” which explodes the idea that coal is clean or cheap. Biggers’ talk, which is part of 2010 Illinois Sustainability Week, will take place at 6:30 p.m. in room 100, Gregory Hall, 810 S. Wright St. You can find a full listing of Sustainability Week activities at

Thursday, October 14, 2010

A look ahead at the climate for agriculture in the Midwest

A look ahead at the climate for agriculture in the Midwest

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Coming up in early November, the Environmental Change Institute at the U of I will hosts its annual summit, a one-day colloquium on the topic, “Climate Change: Agricultural Solutions, Adaptation and Mitigation.” Next week I’ll provide a sampling of what attendees at that summit can look forward to. (Of course, if you're reading the electronic version of this segment, you can easily look ahead for yourself: But this week, I want to set the stage for the summit by providing a quick look at the climate picture for agriculture in the Midwest in the century to come.

This picture is drawn from a recent (soon to be published) report co-written by U of I professor of atmospheric sciences Don Wuebbles (who is a sharer in the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize for his work with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), his colleague at Texas Tech, Katharine Hayhoe, and U of I student, Ben Garrett.

The report focuses on impacts from climate change that will require farmers to change how they operate, impacts that will vary according to whether or not people act effectively to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The higher emissions scenario used to make projections in the report assumes a combination of fossil fuel use and population change that results in an atmosphere with greenhouse gases at more than triple pre-industrial levels. The lower emissions scenario assumes a shift away from fossil fuels, with atmospheric greenhouse gas levels at the end of the century only double those of preindustrial times.

Under either scenario, summers in the Midwest are projected to be hotter. Over the next thirty years, somewhere between 50 and 70 percent of summers will be characterized by median temperatures that equal or exceed the hottest summer of the historical reference period of 1961-1990. By midcentury, according to the report, nearly all summers will be hotter than that, even under the lower emissions scenario.

Heat waves, which can negatively affect crop development and stress livestock, are also projected to increase in number and intensity. In this case, the difference between high emissions scenario and low emissions scenario is pronounced. Under the high emissions scenario, for example, even Wisconsin and Minnesota would be expected to experience weeklong stretches of 95-degree days every other year by the end of the century. Under the low emissions scenario, such weeks would more likely occur in only one year out of four.

The report also projects warmer winters for the Midwest, and anticipates how that will affect agriculture in two ways. It projects a decline in “accumulated chilling hours,” which results in the northward migration of corn pests that are limited by periods of pronounced cold. It also projects a decrease in productivity for fruit crops that depend on a prolonged winter chilling period to flower, including things like apples, grapes and blueberries.

The report points out that warmer winters will also mean the continued northward migration of plant hardiness zones, which are defined by the coldest temperatures of the year. Already plants that used to be typical of southern Illinois can be grown in the Chicago area and much of Michigan. By the end of the century, the report projects, conditions once associated with the Southeast are likely to take hold in much of the Midwest.

Warmer conditions in spring and fall are also anticipated to extend the growing season in the Midwest. The degree to which that is a benefit will depend largely on whether precipitation patterns allow farmers to get into the fields earlier in the spring.

Are you interested to know more about the implications of climate change for agriculture? Check back next week for a preview of the Environmental Change Institute’s annual summit.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

UI undergraduates involved in cutting edge global change research

UI undergraduates involved in cutting edge global change research

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Over the past summer, Bartlett, Illinois native Brianna Usdrowski got a taste of what it means to be a twenty-first century plant biologist. She monitored the development of soybean plants grown under varying environmental conditions by carefully counting leaf nodes and tracking pod development. She also collected images of corn roots underground by means a special camera slipped down into a clear plastic tube, and she worked long hours in the lab processing and analyzing those many images. She coped with sun, extreme heat, mosquitoes and biting flies.

At the same time, she learned what it means to work as part of a University of Illinois team that’s addressing one of the great challenges of the century, how to ensure an adequate food supply for a fast-growing human population in the context of a changing climate. [Photo: Usdrowski with post-doctoral associate Jeff Skoneczka sampling soybean leaves in the field at SoyFACE. By Amy Betzelberger.]

Usdrowski was one of five undergraduate students who were selected this year to participate in a program called Student Ambassadors for Global Change Research, which is sponsored by the U of I Environmental Change Institute.

The Student Ambassadors program is a collaborative effort run by Lisa Ainsworth, who is a USDA Agriculture Research Service scientist and assistant professor of plant biology, and four faculty colleagues: Carl Bernacchi, Evan DeLucia, Andrew Leakey and Don Ort. All of them work with a long-running experiment called Soy Free Air Concentration Enrichment, or SoyFACE. In SoyFACE, conditions for crop growth are modified in the field, to allow for research on how agricultural plants will respond to the changes projected for the climate of the Midwest in the years to come--increased levels of carbon dioxide and ozone, higher temperatures and decreased water availability.

While much of the work performed by the student ambassadors is tied to specific investigations, they also participate in the general efforts that keep SoyFACE running. They weed plots, maintain paths and help set up the ingenious devices that experimenters use to alter growing conditions in the field. They also pitch in with efforts that require many hands: for example, dawn-to-dusk measurements of photosynthesis that call for a team of sixteen people.

The students who participate in the Ambassadors program also learn how to communicate with diverse audiences about their research. In part, they do so by collaborating with their professors on scientific papers, and creating posters to explain their work in academic settings. But they also learn to explain what they do and why for the various interest groups that visit SoyFACE, including everyone from touring South American farmers, to 4-H groups, to the Illinois Soybean Association. That’s crucial, according to Ainsworth, given the charged nature of discussions involving climate change.

The first two cohorts of Student Ambassadors for Global Change Research have included five students from the U of I and five students from other colleges and universities in Iowa, Missouri and Pennsylvania. In the years to come, Ainsworth and her colleagues hope to expand the program, perhaps to include cross-disciplinary training in agriculture and climate science.

As you might imagine, undergraduate students who participate directly in scientific work like the SoyFACE experiment are enthusiastic about the opportunity. As Brianna Usdrowski put it to me, “It opened my eyes to things I wouldn’t even have known to look for.”