Wednesday, April 24, 2013

SER AWARE workshop: Is resilience useful in fen restoration and should scientists explain things to idiots?

Between the 21: st and 23: rd of April the Conservation and Restoration research group at the department of Plant Ecology at Warsaw University hosted the Society for Ecological Restorations workshop on fen restoration. Many prominent experts on peatland vegetation and peatland restoration were key-note speakers at the work-shop.
There were many interesting talks, but I am here going to focus on two debates that occurred:
·         Does resilience have any value for peatland restoration?
·         Should scientists actively engage in influencing policy, or just present the facts?

Resilience thinking has had a profound influence on ecology during the last years. For restoration, restoring for resilience would mean that we perform a restoration action that creates a resilient system that does not need any further funding in terms of maintenance. For fen restoration the problem is that the restored system is in most cases not resilient, but in a state that is somewhere between the degraded state and the natural state. Left alone it will often revert back to a more degraded state.
On the contrary a heavily degraded fen is often very resilient (which is the very reason why fen restoration is so hard).

Richard Hobbs has stated that resilience brings ”conceptual muddling”. Personally I am not sure it is so unclear what is referred to, but it´s questionable how useful resilience is in terms of fen restoration. There are definitely natural peatlands that are resilient. Bogs are resilient, whereas a fen can easily switch into a bog once Sphagnum starts to drive the rich fen-poor fen-bog transformation. If a resilient system was the aim, you may very well end up arguing that a species poor bog is better than a rich fen.

The debate about whether or not scientists should use their knowledge to influence policy even if it means compromising surprised me. For me it is very clear that scientists have a moral duty to the tax payers who fund them, and to future generations, to make the scientific knowledge clear to policy makers, and yes we will have to accept that sometimes compromises are necessary. One speaker at the work-shop was however very much against this idea and stated ”Our job as scientist is to tell the truth, not to explain things to idiots”.  There are indeed plenty of stupid politicians, and it is understandable that some scientists would rather do research and teach students than engage in year-long struggles to make the scientific knowledge useful for the society at large.
Where would we be if it wasn´t for scientists who never gave up “explaining things to idiots”?
If it wasn´t for James Hansen´s long work with making the scientific findings of climate-science reach further than the readers of a journal, we would still be at the state were knowledge about global warming would be very limited among the public.
If it wasn´t for peatland scientists in Poland and other Europeans nations who fought for more than 10 years to save the Rospuda valley, many of them spending nights sleeping in the trees to prevent the destruction, the Rospuda valleys fens would not have been saved. Instead of a large fen in a natural state, there would be a highway cutting through the fen, with pillars driven through the several meter thick waterlogged peat, running the risk of severe drainage with subsequent biodiversity loss and massive release of stored carbon.

These two examples illustrate painful struggles that in the end have reached important victories, giving tax payers the best value for the research that they have funded. In the real world, the rule “no pain – no gain” is often a rule we have to accept.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

The predator war in Sweden

Yesterday I attended a half-day seminar with the title "The predator-war, a journey through times" arranged by the Swedish Forest Historical Society. Karin Dirke from Stockholm University started with a presentation about the historical view of the top 4 predators in Sweden (Wolf, Brown-Bear, Bobcat and Wolverine). In the 18th century the view was that predators were greedy thieves that committed murder. At the same time they were seen as righteous executioner that carried out Gods verdicts. There was also a belief that men could transform into wolves, and wolves were regarded as "A living imprint of a human who carries on with that which is evil". The Swedish term for Werewolf came from the word for man and wolf.

In the 18th century media referred to wolves now and then, but they did not dominate the news by any means. The reports consisted of methods for trapping and news about attacks made by rabies infected wolves. These stories were usually from abroad, and all attacks by wolves on humans were regarded as abnormal behavior, usually connected to rabies infection. The risk of rabies spreading was seen as a greater threat than the wolf. One news story describes how a wolf was chasing a dog that decided to run into the house for cover. The wolf could not get in through the door, so it jumped in through the window and bit a woman. Another woman managed to kill the wolf with an axe. They opened up the wolf and found that the intestines were empty, and this is given as the reason why the wolf attacked. Another factors that is used to describe why wolves attack is extreme cold. The message is that this is not a natural behavior.

A conservation perspective starts to slowly appear in the 19th century. It is through a nationalistic touch that praises the diversity of this wide-stretched nation, and the wolf is seen as belonging to the Swedish fauna. Until then the political view had been that the wolf should be exterminated from Sweden or driven to the borders of the nation. The view of Brown-Bears was not at all as negative as that of wolves, probably because that they were not seen as full predators.

After Karin Dirke, Kjell Donell and Roger Bergstam from The Agricultural University in Uppsala described the war against predators that started already as the ice retreated to 1969 when the last one of the big four predators (The wolverine) became protected. In 17th century Sweden historical texts state that predators should be exterminated wherever, whenever, however and by whom ever.

The public was forced to participate in the hunt for predators, and refusal resulted in fines or prison. The mandatory hunts were strongly connected to holidays, and the last day of the holiday was the day of the mandatory hunt. The reward for participating was bag-money, high status, skins and reduced predator populations. An example was Herman Falk, a hunt-master appointed by the king, who alone killed more than 100 bears. He is also regarded as having saved the moose population by recommending the king to install a 10 year ban on moose-hunting at a time when the moose-population was almost extinct.

The way to receive bag-money was far from straight-forward and a skin would have to be presented to 3-4 courts before the bag-money could be paid to the hunter. This resulted in that it could take more than a year to receive the payment. Converted into the monetary value in 2009, the bag money in US$ was $71 for a brown-bear, $53 for a bobcat, $35 for a wolf and $18 for a wolverine. Outside the big four, the bag money was $6 for a fox as well as for eagle and $3 for a European Pine Marten.

The penalty for not participating ranged from fines to time in prison with only bread and water. Those employed by the state to hunt predators could get reduced salary if they failed to fill a certain quota of predators. If a state employed hunter had problems filling a quota of a specific animal due to that the region for example had few wolves, he could compensate this by shooting x numbers of another predator following an exchange rate. The penalty system was constructed so that the cost for the state would be minimal, which meant that reduced salaries from state employed hunters went to finance bag-money.

The methods used to hunt predators included an enclosed area with baits inside. The enclosed area was also surrounded by a ditch. The walls were leaning inwards allowing wolves to jump in, but prevented them from coming out. When a flock of wolves had come into the area, farmers could climb the walls and shoot the wolves. Other methods included a large group of people driving wolves towards a net, wolf pits, use of poisoned baits (Arsenic and Strychnine were often used), slip knots, scissor traps, log or stone traps, self-shooting weapons that fired when a bait was touched. 

Sweden contributed with a very cruel method that in North America became known as the Swedish Method. The method focused on concentrating the effort to the breeding place. At the den all wolves that could be seen were killed except one wolf-pup which was hung upside down in a nearby tree. This lured out any other wolves in the family that might be nearby. After that the young wolf-pup was killed as well. 

Another gruesome method included feeding a dog with Arsenic, and later putting it out for wolves to feed on. The amount of poison was regarded as enough, when the dog started losing its fur. The dog was then strangled and put as bait to wolves. The reason for strangling the dog instead of any other method was to save as much of the mercury loaded blood.

Everybody was supposed to have a wolf-net at home that had a certain length and strength. Regular inspections were done, and if a farmer's wolf-net broke when the strength was tested he could be fined.

The efficiency of many methods were poor. Driving a predator towards a net took 600 man-work-days/predator, were the term man-work-days referred to the amount of work one man could do in one day. For wolves the efficiency was 286 man-work-days /wolf. A wolf-pit had the terrible efficiency of 1 wolf/20 years, whereas a poisoned dog was reported to have an efficiency of 13 wolves and 1 bob-cat.

The result of this war on predators was very successful, with all of the big four predators having their populations severely reduced. Around 1830 the numbers of shot wolves were between 650-700 per year, but 40 years later the number was down to 50 wolves per year.

With the last of the big four predators, the wolverine, being protected from hunting in 1969 the large state supported war on predators could be said to have come to a stop, although it had since long lost in intensity with people no longer being forced to participate in hunts.

Since then all the big four predators have seen increased population-numbers, and new conflicts between humans and predators have emerged. Hopefully we have learned from the past, and will try to solve conflicts where they occur before chasing every man and woman out of the house for mandatory predatory hunts in a forest filled with self-shooting weapons, monstrous traps and a fair amount of Arsenic and Strychnine.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Ecer 2012, Day 4: The Novel Ecosystem Brawl

Day 4 of the ECER 2012 conference was the day for my presentation on the topic of using functional analysis as a tool to detect environmental filters in ecological restoration. It occurred at the same time as a much visited and controversial full afternoon session on Novel Ecosystems took place. I had time to listen to the beginning of this brawl.
Cara Nelson, Vice Chair of SER International, opened the session by making the point that new concepts can cause strong oppositions due to unclear terms. She stated that people are many times closer to each other than they think. “Well, let´s see about that!”-commented one professor.  After Cara, James Aronson explained the scale from undisturbed systems-hybrid systems-novel ecosystems, with novel ecosystems being systems that came into being due to human influence, but that no longer needs human input to stay alive. He commented that people have been using environmental disasters (e.g. oil-spills) as example of novel ecosystems, and stressed that this was never the intention. My comment to this is that such an exception is hard to make, since an oil spill fueling the growth of oil-eating bacteria is indeed a novel ecosystem, that has replaced the system that was previously there. If I understand the novel-ecosystem camp correctly, examples where we should accept novel ecosystems are when restoration is not possible (that is not a choice), or when the restoration comes with an environmental cost, that is higher than what can be gained from the restoration of the ecosystem.
When the debate opened for all listeners to contribute the fight was on. One professor stood up and said that he basically did not think the novel-ecosystem people had contributed with anything new, and that their definition of what´s novel is wrong to start with, since systems are changing.
A Belgian scientist stood up and got a lot of attention when he stated that he thinks that this topic is a dangerous topic, which we should not discuss (blogging about it is probably forbidden to). He stated that those who are keeping this debate alive are playing with fire. The reason for his fear is that the E.U. is investing a lot of money into ecological restoration, and we may find ourselves in a situation where a politician makes the argument that restoration is not necessary since the degraded site is now a novel ecosystem. Although I share the fear that many politicians would do this, and one person in the audience from the U.S. stated that this is already a reality in the U.S., I still object to the notion that something should not be discussed due to fear of it being misused. Especially when the topic has been published repeatedly in leading scientific journals, and gotten media attention. We may not like the terrible destruction that can be caused by fission processes, but the knowledge of nuclear physics will not disappear just by stopping people from talking about it.

We should never accept the novel ecosystem argument as a reason not to restore, when restoration is possible, and can be done without causing more damage than what can be gained. At the same time we have to realize that we have already accepted novel ecosystems. The once wide-stretched European primeval forest has in most places in Europe been replaced by monocultures of grains originating from the Fertile Crescent. Cities protected by floodwalls have replaced flood meadow, and become a good place for those species that have learned to make use of human architecture and lifestyle.

The day after I drove from Ceske Budejovize to Prague Airport and headed home enriched with new input from many great presentations by outstanding scientists.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

ECER 2012: Recap of Day 3, One of those days.

Day 3 was a day for excursions, and I had signed up for going on what was called the peatland-complex route. It was clear already when the bus left from the hotel that this would be a challenging day for my wind-protecting but not very waterproof jacket. As we left the bus to start a 6 km walk along a peatland forest that had been excavated some decades ago, the entire sky opened and my jacket fought the water bravely initially, but eventually gave up. Apart from one site were ditches had been blocked and trees cut, most of the forested peatland had too low water level. It is generally a warning-sign when you have to go down into the bottom of a 3 m ditch to find typical mire species. In one area the ditches had been blocked, and the trees had been cut, and this was the only site that looked like a nicely restored peatland. An odd sight in the middle of the peatland-forest was an old peat-excavator that had been left as a museum of old times. Since the peat excavation was still going on adjacent to the site, it felt as if perhaps it was not correct to refer to it as a period of degradation that now finally was over.

After the Peatland-complex route I did my best to find a place for the jacket to dry before it was time to head off to the guided tour of Budweiser Budvar brewery. My jacket had not dried, but a brewery is after all a building were people work indoors I thought (which says everything of my lack of visits to breweries). For some reason I had managed to get a booklet about restoration of Finnish boreal forests with me to the brewery that I walked around with. At least half of the guided tour was outdoors, and yes, the sky opened again. Realizing that I had the nice booklet about Finnish restoration of boreal forests, I used it as a desperate rain protection. I don´t know exactly how high the odds would be that the person in front of me would happen to be the author off the booklet, but this was one of those days, and when I heard him call out “No, it´s not supposed to be used like that”, I had stopped being surprised. Finns are nice people, and he allowed me to keep ruining his publication. Having only eaten an excursion sandwich at 11, I was quite hungry when it was time for the treat of beer in the cozy 2 degrees “warm” beer cellar. The tour finished with having a look at the bottling process were 40 000 beers were bottled every hour, and it was nice to see the recycling of bottles working first-hand. 

The tour was over, and at 21:00 I was back at the hotel, ready to eat an entire boar If I saw one. Finally, close to 22:00 I eventually got something to eat before it was time to rehearse the presentation I was going to give the day after.

ECER 2012: Recap of day 2

Recap of Day 2

Kozub held a presentation on the different impact of the two common fen restoration methods rewetting and top-soil removal on the release of methane and the concentration of inorganic nitrogen and phosphorous. The rewetted sites had a higher concentrations of inorganic nitrogen and inorganic phosphorous than the top-soil removal sites had. Interestingly the methane release from the top-soil removal sites was not only lower than the rewetted sites, but also lower than the reference site, and comparable to the degraded control site.

Bishoff held a very thought-provoking presentation based on his research on local adaptation of plants. Theory suggests that if local adaptations really exist, than local plants should have higher fitness and perform better on their home field, compared to other plants that are brought in. The fitness of species should also decrease with increasing distance from their source population. Bischoff´s long distance transplant-experiments between different countries in Europe showed however that although local plants performed better in two cases, the third case did not show this at all. There were large differences between the provenances in fitness in the transplant experiment, but there is no general proof that local genotypes are superior. He stressed that the lack of clear evidence for local adaptation is not an argument against using local donor-sites in restoration, since the opposite (superior aliens), can be detrimental to the local populations in the long term as well.

Scott from the organization Lifeland held a presentation on how Lifeland produces seeds for the creation of meadows on abandoned land in the UK, and how the local community is involved in everything from initially wanting the meadow, to helping with the sowing and seed collection. It was a great example on how thinking outside the box, can lead to great education, community involvement and appreciation of nature in urban areas without very high investments.