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March 2012 Archives

Managing Ecosystems in the Face of Change

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lake.jpg
BY KRIS JOHNSON

Minnesota's climate is changing. Not only are we experiencing a strangely warm and early spring, but the evidence from historical climate data is mounting and unmistakable: average annual temperatures are rising, average precipitation is increasing and storms, floods and droughts are becoming more common. The story the data tell is one of a future Minnesota that is hotter, wetter and with more unpredictable and variable weather.

Yet the data can't tell us everything we might want to know about Minnesota 50 or 100 years from now. How will the changing climate affect our state's beloved lakes and rivers? Will pines, spruce and fir fill the forests of the north woods - or will deciduous trees or grasses, better adapted to a warmer world, replace them in the decades or centuries to come? And will Minnesota's species, both common and rare, stay within our borders or flee as their native habitats are subjected to a changing climate, invasive species or other environmental or human pressures?

These questions and more were the focus of a meeting at the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources last month, as the agency works to develop a Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment for Minnesota's native habitat types. The DNR manages 5.5 million acres of land across the state and is charged with ensuring the support of healthy wildlife populations as well. This responsibility is difficult enough in a context of competing interests and shrinking budgets, but the challenge will only increase as the agency tries to prepare Minnesota's natural resources for a changing climate.

To cope with the challenge of managing ecosystems in the face of climate change, the DNR asked for help from the Boreal Forest and Community Resilience Project, a Discovery Grant project at the Institute on the Environment. This project, led by Regents professor Peter Reich, was launched in 2010 to help build social and ecological resilience - to enhance the capacity of human communities and ecosystems to cope with stressors and adapt to change.

One way the Boreal Forest Project helps build resilience is by working with various stakeholders in Minnesota and beyond to incorporate thinking about uncertainty and complexity into decision-making. With the DNR, we are developing "systems mapping" workshops to accomplish rapid vulnerability assessments for key habitats and ecosystems in the state. Systems mapping is used to understand complex systems by revealing critical relationships, highlighting major uncertainties and identifying potential opportunities for action. For the DNR vulnerability assessments, scientists and experts familiar with Minnesota's ecosystems will work together to distinguish among the major factors that influence ecosystems in our state and assess how climate change and other stressors might affect these systems in the future.

Efforts like this are critically useful when scientific and technical analyses alone can't provide us with the answers we need to make good decisions. Although current data and models cannot give concrete guidance about how to manage our state's ecosystems in a changing climate, the DNR stills needs to prepare for a future shaped by climate change. With the help of the Boreal Project and the systems mapping workshops, the DNR will harness the best available scientific expertise to guide public land management and ensure our state's ecosystems are as resilient as possible to climate change.

Photo by smarzinske via Creative Commons

Health and the Environment in Africa

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globalhealth.jpgBY DOMINIC TRAVIS

The Albertine Rift, the most biodiverse region of Africa in terms of vertebrates with 1,762 recorded species, is threatened by human activity and thus is a focus for biodiversity conservation for Uganda and the world. Uganda's economic and social development is highly dependent on its rich biodiversity and natural resources, with more than 90 percent of the population directly depending on natural resources for their livelihood and income. According to the Uganda National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan, the gross economic output attributable to biodiversity use is approximately $546.6 million per year, while indirect benefits from ecosystem services and functions that support and maintain production are estimated to be another $200 million per year.

The Ecosystem Health Initiative of the University of Minnesota's College of Veterinary Medicine and the Institute on the Environment is working with an international consortium of partners to improve understanding of the relationship among the environment, biodiversity, and the health of humans, livestock and wildlife in two demonstration sites in the Albertine Rift region of western Uganda. Entitled "Global Health and the Environment in Africa," the project also involves Makerere University, Conservation and Ecosystem Health Alliance, Ugandan Wildlife Authority, University of New Hampshire, Emory University, Robert Koch Institute and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

One area of focus is Queen Elizabeth National Park, a Biosphere Reserve and Ramsar site in western Uganda. QENP is an incredibly diverse, largely savanna ecosystem plagued by deadly anthrax outbreaks that threaten wildlife, domestic animals and humans. Yet almost zero resources have been dedicated to understanding the ecology, management and control of this important and frightening disease. Margaret Driciru, a veterinarian and Ugandan Wildlife Authority research warden in QENP, is enrolled in a joint PhD program with Makerere University and the University of Minnesota to investigate the ecology and management of anthrax in QENP. A research consortium meeting is being planned for 2012-13 to prioritize further research and outreach needs related to ecosystem health in the area.

The second research site is in Hoima District, just south of Budongo Forest Reserve. Twenty four percent of Uganda's surface area is forested, with 70 percent of that on private or communal land. Uganda has one of the highest annual deforestation rates in Africa (2.2% in 2000-2005, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization, most of it consisting of unsustainable harvesting, conversion to agriculture use and settlement by an increasing population). This loss has increasingly led to wildlife ranging outside their natural home range into agricultural fields and more frequent human-wildlife conflict. Baboons, bush pigs, elephants, monkeys and chimpanzees have all been implicated in crop raiding. This increased conflict has harmed conservation efforts and increased the risk of disease transmission among wildlife, domestic animals and humans.

Of particular concern is the ranging of nonhuman primates because they share many diseases with humans. To date, no research has studied the interactions among habitat use, primate demography and disease risk in this area. Lawrence Mugisha, adjunct professor of ecosystem health in the U of M College of Veterinary Medicine and head of the Conservation and Ecosystem Health Alliance, is working with the district government to address these issues. Primatologists are now mapping the natural resources and censusing the chimpanzee population in the area.

University of Minnesota work on this initiative is led by Meggan Craft, assistant professor and disease ecologist in the College of Veterinary Medicine and resident fellow in IonE; Innocent Rwego, assistant professor of ecosystem health; Mugisha; Dominic Travis, associate professor of epidemiology; and Katey Pelican, assistant professor and lead of the ecosystem health initiative and IonE resident fellow.

Photo of team members from the Ugandan Wildlife Authority, Makerere University, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and University of Minnesota courtesy of Dominic Travis

Beyond the Booth

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Minnesota_State_Capitol.jpgBY JOEY REID

If you are anything like me you may have a dim view of politics. I learned that voting was the core of democracy in my junior high and high school civics classes. I think I was lied to. Voting rarely results in any significant interaction with candidates, and even less opportunity for directly influencing public policies. Even if you do interact with a candidate on the campaign trail, well, we've all seen how campaign promises turn out.

Beyond the relatively limited influence of your vote, democracy seems to be off limits to the common people, while lobbyists and giant corporations guide the policy that politicians sign into law. As scientists, we rarely have the money to lobby our facts to improve public policy. So how is our science ever going to be relevant if we have no voice in policy making? After all, most of us aren't interested in settling for a few hundred citations in an academic journal (if we're lucky). We got into this because we wanted to make a difference in the world, to improve the lives of thousands, millions or even billions of people.

It turns out I was lied to, or at least misled. While voting is an important component of democracy, it's really only a small piece. At the Minnesota State Capitol last week I learned that there are a variety of underutilized ways to have a voice in policymaking. As part of a group of highly motivated graduate students and postdocs in the Institute on the Environment's Boreas Leadership Program, I met with state representatives Kate Knuth (DFL-50B) and Denny McNamara (R-57B). The key to democracy is to be an active participant. That means building a relationship with your representatives, communicating with them on issues that are important to you, and organizing others to support your position. While that sounds like a lot of work, both representatives emphasized that just a few personal boreas@capitol.jpgemails or phone calls from constituents can guide their policy positions. If I feel like my representatives haven't done a good job of representing my needs and values, it could just be that I haven't told them what my needs are.

Your legislators are a great place to start if you want to influence policy, but you are still a single voice in a sea. Luckily, there are many levels of government, many nongovernment organizations and many ways to make a real difference. Get creative. Smaller, local organizations like environmental advisory committees or local watershed districts are often easier to participate in, and work to aggregate the voices of many people to more effectively affect public policy.

I honestly feel empowered after this workshop. And it's not just me: I know I can empower others with this same information. To help empower you, I've made this handy guide to contributing to policy making.

An Idiot's Guide to Contributing to Policy Making
(organized from least to most effort)


    1.    Vote. You can vote for people whose policy positions align well with your own, and let them make all the decisions for you. Also, if you vote in primaries, there's a decent chance your representative will get in touch with you, giving you a more direct voice.

    2.    Call or email your representative. This is really pretty easy. It gets much easier when you use a form provided by some sort of campaign, but form letters don't have as much weight with your legislator. It takes slightly more work, but if you use your own words and describe why you think it's an important issue, you are more likely to influence your representative.

    3.    Organize. Organizing can take a lot of different forms, but the key is that you are increasing the impact of your message by increasing the number of people behind it. You can organize a letter-writing campaign (but see the caveats above), or you can organize a fundraiser for your representative. Nothing talks like money, even if you're just the funnel for it.

    4.    Build a professional relationship with your representative. All representatives have a regular meeting time, and all should be able to schedule a meeting with you if you can't make their standard open houses. As they get to know you, they'll listen more closely, and may even call on you for your particular expertise.

    5.    Testify. As a scientist, you're an expert in something. If it's relevant, you can testify to a legislative committee. Good science is always needed, you can make sure it's available by testifying.

    6.    Serve on a local advisory committee. These committees meet infrequently and can help shape local policies.

    7.    Run for office. Do you like walking door to door, talking to people about what they love and what their concerns are? We need scientists in elected office, so if this fits into the demands of your career, go for it! Unless you're wealthy and want to be less effective, you're probably best off running for a more local office. To paraphrase Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, local government must work, otherwise sewage flows over pot-holed roads; national government rarely has such direct consequences, and therefore can afford the luxury of being ineffective.

Joey Reid is a teaching assistant with IonE's Boreas Leadership Program. Boreas photo by Jillian Stein.

Conserving Tropical Forests From the Ground Up

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tropical dry forest2.jpgTEXT AND PHOTOS BY MOANA MCCLELLAN

Most people have never heard of a "tropical dry forest." Ecologist Jennifer Powers has spent over a decade studying this biome. She gave a great presentation last week at IonE's Frontiers in the Environment seminar series to spread the word.

Tropical dry forests differ from wet forests in that they have a pronounced dry season and many unique fauna and flora that have adapted to deal with the seasonality. Although the tropical dry forest biome used to account for a significant portion of forested lands in the tropics, it is now the most endangered terrestrial ecosystem. Dry forests are less well known dry forest mountains.jpgbecause, during the upsurge in the tropical conservation movement, a big chunk of the forest that remained in tropical regions were wet forest. So conservationists focused in on vast expanses and passed over dry forests because the small, scraggly fragments hardly looked worth saving; why would you want to put effort and money into saving a puddle when you could save a lake?
 
Tropical dry forests have been regenerating, however, and Powers' research has provided a baseline understanding of dry forest succession in two of Costa Rica's national parks - Area de Conservación Guanacaste and Palo Verde. Conservation science is well known for its dismal tones, but what she found might make you smile: Tropical dry forests are regrowing. With fire management, dry forests regenerate within 40 to 50 years, although biodiversity recovery takes longer. 

In addition to basic research, Powers has a palpable commitment to connecting science to communities within the province where these forests grow. The communities have a wealth of biological diversity in their backyard; investigators come from all over the world to conduct research within park boundaries. Powers is converting some of that research into ways to engage with park visitors. For example, she's organized a coloring book project that focuses on connections between communities and the Area de Conservación Guanacaste Park. Powers developed this project in collaboration with the parks educational staff.  Now when elementary school children from local schools visit Area de Conservación Guanacaste, they are given a coloring book filled with ecologicalillustrations and descriptions. In the same vein, but for a different audience, Powers spearheaded a botanical identification pamphlet for visitors who want to learn the plantThumbnail image for flower.jpg species within the park.
   
Jennifer Powers' philosophy with respect to research and outreach is that place-based investigators have an ethical responsibility to engage with the communities surrounding the areas in which they work. She summed it up succinctly as "think locally, act locally."

Moana McClellan is a Ph.D. student in plant biology and an interdisciplinary doctoral fellow with the Institute on the Environment


River Lessons

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mississippi river.jpgImagine a major university campus located within a national park. Sound like a great place to learn about - and contribute to - our nation's natural resource heritage?

It is!

Most of the University of Minnesota's Minneapolis campus is within the borders of a National Park Service unit, the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area. And thanks to the River Life program at the Institute on the Environment, students tap the learning potential of the park's resource base every day - and give back as well in the shape of research projects that boost the park's ability to meet the needs of visitors of all ages and stages of life.

River Life's University Honors Program-National Park Service Research Internship program, established in 2011, is a great example of making the most of the educational opportunities offered by this unique setting. Currently, the nine students who make up the program's first cohort are working on some pretty interesting projects:

    •    Amal Gazey (junior, College of Education and Human Development) is proposing a program to get Muslim women students physically active in the National Park through ranger-led hikes and bike events
    •    Abbie Hanson (junior, College of Biological Sciences) is exploring a collaborative education model offered by the Urban Wilderness Canoe Adventure in Minneapolis
    •    Dan Hnilicka (senior, College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences) is  researching the collaborative habitat restoration efforts on Pool 8 on the Mississippi near LaCrosse
    •    Jack Kelly (junior, College of Liberal Arts) is proposing a student writing contest that would open the park up to more University of Minnesota students
    •    Alicia Nelson (sophomore, College of Liberal Arts) is planning a student photography contest that would strengthen the connections between U of M students and the national park
    •    Jennifer Nicklay (senior, College of Biological Sciences) is examining a habitat restoration project at the Loosahatchie Bar on the Mississippi near Memphis
    •    Simge Okut (first-year student, College of Liberal Arts) is gathering information on national models for university-based student and community engagement programs on rivers
    •    Jon Schroeder (senior, Carlson School of Management) is studying development and lessons learned from collaboration at the Riverlands Center, near St. Louis
    •    Stephanie Schumacher (senior, College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences) is researching faculty resources at the U of M and other area colleges that can be applied to National Park Service knowledge needs.

More information on these projects - including instructions on entering the writing and photography contests -  will be posted on the River Life website, riverlife.umn.edu, in the months ahead. Check it out!

Photo by Joanne Richardson

  The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author(s) and not necessarily
  of the Institute on the Environment/University of Minnesota.

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