Thursday, August 25, 2005

Fall 2005 Allerton Deer Reduction

Listen to the commentary
Real Audio : MP3 download

I’m a big fan of the natural areas at Allerton Park near Monticello, and I delight in the sight of white-tailed deer there. Like many other people, however, my pleasure in seeing deer at Allerton has diminished over the years, as I have also seen the damage they can cause to natural areas when their numbers explode. That’s why I was happy to learn that the University of Illinois will continue its efforts to trim the deer population there using hunters this fall.

Because this effort has met with mixed reactions, I think it’s worth revisiting why the University’s plan makes sense from an environmental perspective.

Without cutbacks in the deer population, the ecosystems that University of Illinois environmental scientists are working to preserve and restore at Allerton would suffer drastic decreases in biodiversity.

In numbers such as are present now, deer put extraordinary pressure on native plant life. They eat spring wildflowers before they can grow to maturity and reproduce, and they eat emerging tree saplings, preventing natural regeneration of the forest. Deer are especially hard on oaks, which are a key source of food and habitat for a wide variety of songbirds, insects, and mammals.

Under prior conditions there were a variety of pressures on deer populations. Native Americans and early European settlers hunted deer year round to supply food for villages and towns. Wolves also once had an impact on deer numbers, although they are long gone from central Illinois. The amount of food available may also eventually have limited deer numbers in the past, but the food supply for deer at Allerton now is usually super-abundant. If deer don’t find what they want in the park’s natural areas or ornamental plantings, they need only move into the adjacent agricultural fields to find corn, soybeans, and alfalfa.

In severe winters, however, the deer must turn to heavy use of native trees and shrubs.

A well-planned effort using hunters is a cost-effective way of reducing deer numbers for the long-term health of the Allerton ecosystem. At the same time it also provides participants an important form of recreation and puts the venison to good use.

A key point in the University’s approach is to mandate that a doe be harvested first before an antlered deer is taken. This ensures that the reproductive potential of the deer herd is reduced as much as possible. Another key element that the U of I has built into its approach is the use of sharpshooters to take deer for further study of the condition of the herd.

Nonhunters who normally use the natural areas at Allerton for recreation will be inconvenienced for a short while by this hunt. But in the long-run we’ll all be glad of the results.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Summer Is Not Ending

Listen to the commentary
Real Audio : MP3 download

With almost half of August before us we’ve still got a lot of summer left. But school starts next week, and as my family shifts gears in anticipation of that, there’s time to observe the home environment, so often overlooked amid summer activities that take us elsewhere. The season may not be ending, but it’s beginning to show its age.

At the back of our yard, between the fence and the alley, the progress of the prairie plants we put in this year is mixed. Some, like the rattlesnake master and the prairie blazing star, have devoted their energy to establishing strong roots, developing only enough foliage above ground to forward that purpose. Others, especially the black-eyed susans, flower and spread out, as though they’ve been here forever. Waist high seed stalks have shot up from the clumps of little bluestem, seemingly overnight. And the wisps of prairie dropseed that looked so fragile in May are now sturdy fountains of grass.

The volunteer native plants are also maturing. Pokeberries, so prized by birds that I always let a few grow up, have begun to ripen, and the robins, too heavy for the stems, pluck at the fruit as they ride them down. The giant yellow coneflowers, a river bottom species whose seeds we must have picked up inadvertently a couple of years ago, tower over an untended corner of the yard, some seven feet tall, with flowers just beginning to open.

The season’s age also shows in the behavior of the birds. Sure, the robins still muster a chorus at dawn, but there’s none of June’s gusto in it. And other yardbirds, cardinals and wrens still sing on occasion, but having started back when there was snow on the ground, I think they’re tired. Even the prolific mourning doves, which reared two successive clutches in our hanging flower basket before moving operations to the branch of a hemlock for number three, seem to have had enough. Hummingbirds have begun to buzz the more promising flowers, reminding us to put up the nectar feeder, which slows them down enough for us to watch them.

But this part of summer really belongs to insects. Crickets sing steadily through the night, loud enough to be heard even with the windows closed. Monarchs and other butterflies animate the scene when no breeze is blowing in the heat of the day. Bees and wasps, and flies that look like bees and wasps gather on the prairie flowers, too numerous and varied for us to identify them. And the seldom seen dog day cicadas whirr and whirr and whirr through the day and late into the evening.

At twilight we watch the bats come out to ride their erratic feeding circuits. My wife especially enjoys seeing them for the wildness they represent, even here in town.

Summer may not be ending, but it’s beginning to show its age.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Ethanol and the Environment

Listen to the commentary
Real Audio : MP3 download

It would be difficult to live here in the heart of corn country and not like the idea of ethanol, the corn-based fuel that can substitute for gas in our cars. But as citizens who foot the bill for energy policy and who value a healthy environment for ourselves and our children, we have an obligation to look more closely at what we’re buying when it comes to energy alternatives. As it is currently produced, ethanol delivers far less than the hype surrounding it promises.

Marketers of ethanol term it a “renewable” resource, trading on the idea that it is simply energy captured from the sun made available for use as fuel by distilling grain into alcohol. What most people don’t realize, though, is that large quantities of fossil energy are used to grow corn, and still more is required to power the distilling process. Indeed, whether the system as a whole produces more energy than it consumes is still open to debate. In any case, even under the rosiest scenario, only a fraction of the energy available in a given quantity of ethanol can realistically be labeled “renewable.” The rest is, in effect, repackaged fossil fuel.

Ethanol has also been touted as environmentally friendly, because as an additive to gas it alters the composition of engine exhaust, reducing emissions of certain pollutants. What ethanol does not do is significantly reduce nitrogen oxides, the most important smog-causing tailpipe emission from a late-model car. The best way to reduce smog-producing tailpipe emissions is to reduce the amount of fuel cars burn in the first place.

Beyond that, if we’re going to gauge ethanol’s environmental friendliness, we really need to look past what’s coming out of our tailpipes. The true environmental costs of adopting ethanol as a fuel are in fact much broader. They include the environmental impacts of growing corn, such as habitat alteration, soil erosion, and pollution from pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers, as well as the environmental impacts of the distilling process. Ethanol plants have been very slow to adopt air pollution controls, and they use enormous quantities of water, itself a finite resource.

When we’re asked to buy the idea that ethanol represents a homegrown alternative to gas, we are also asked to buy the implication that using it can help free us from the geopolitical entanglements associated with our dependence on oil. But ethanol replaces only about two percent of the gasoline we currently use, and even greatly expanded production will not reduce our demand for oil significantly.

As in the case of air pollution, if we’re serious about reducing our dependence on oil, we can make greater strides toward that goal by adopting higher standards for fuel efficiency.

A special thanks to Walt Robinson from the Department of Atmospheric Sciences for Assistance with today’s program.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

U of I's Wildlife Medical Clinic

Listen to the commentary
Real Audio : MP3 download

Most of the time, what wild animals need from people is to be left alone. But when an animal is injured by a run-in with a car or a window, or it shows up obviously ill where people can’t get around it, some sort of human intervention is warranted. That’s part of the philosophy behind the Wildlife Medical Clinic located in the University of Illinois’ Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital off of South Lincoln Avenue in Urbana.

The purpose of the clinic is to treat sick, injured, or orphaned animals so that they may be returned to the wild. At the same time, the clinic provides veterinary students and faculty with excellent opportunities to develop their medical skills. The wildlife clinic also seeks to educate the public about Illinois wildlife and veterinary medicine.

When it was established in 1978, the Wildlife Medical Clinic was staffed by just a handful of volunteers, and was able to admit only a limited number of cases. Since that time it has grown steadily, and it now attracts around a hundred volunteers every semester, and admits nearly two thousand cases in a year.

The range of patients admitted to the clinic includes animals as large and formidable as white-tailed deer and coyotes, and as small and delicate as ruby throated hummingbirds. In between, there are hawks, owls, foxes, possums, robins, raccoons, squirrels, and snapping turtles—just about all of the animals common to our region.

Rabbits constitute nearly twenty five percent of all cases at the clinic, the largest proportion of any one kind of animal, although that figure is skewed by the fact that people often bring in entire litters of baby rabbits, mistakenly thinking they have been abandoned. For the record, it is normal for mother rabbits to leave their young untended except to nurse them at dawn and dusk.

After an animal has been admitted to the clinic and provided with initial treatment, it is assigned to a team of eight to ten volunteers—generally veterinary students—who are then responsible for all of the care the animal requires. The clinic has access to the full range services offered in the veterinary teaching hospital, such as x-rays and blood tests, as well as help from specialists in areas such as ophthalmology and neurology.

Although the Wildlife Medical Clinic is staffed by volunteers and operates with space and equipment provided by the College of Veterinary Medicine, it does depend on public support for all supplies, feed, and new equipment.

One week from today, Thursday, August 11th, the U of I’s College of Veterinary Medicine will host a free, public talk to raise awareness about the Wildlife Medical Clinic and other programs sponsored by the College that promote the health of wildlife and human communities globally. Joan Embery, formerly the conservation ambassador for the San Diego Zoo, will talk about highlights of her career and share her insights about how to ensure a healthy planet for both humans and animals.