What the heck is habitat?

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Adam Janke | Assistant Professor in Natural Resource Ecology and Management and Extension Wildlife Specialist, Iowa State University

I have seen a wide gamut of responses to the question posed in the title of this post. While preparing for my Ph.D. candidacy exams, I was asked a version of this question as it related to ducks and agonized over the response for months (you’ll see elements of my answer below). In another extreme, I recently posed the same question at a meeting and received an enthusiastic, unequivocating answer of, “corn fields.” I’ll spare you the details of why it is that Iowa’s 13.2 million acres of corn are almost certainly not a limiting feature for ducks, but suffice it to say that my mental picture of habitat for ducks (wetlands) was starkly different from this respondent’s own mental image (corn fields). Same word. Same question. Drastically different responses.

The mental image we conjure of “habitat” depends on two factors:

The first factor, is what kind of habitat we’re talking about. Habitat the noun is functionally meaningless without the clarifying help of one or more adjectives like “pileated woodpecker habitat”, “duck nesting habitat” or “winter pheasant habitat”. Asserting, “I’m creating habitat” could simultaneously mean you’re building a flat-roofed building where Common Nighthawks will nest or you’re restoring the Regal Fritillary butterfly and it’s host plants to a native prairie. Same word. Drastically different meanings.

WildlifePhotos

What “habitat” means varies widely between species, like mallards (left) who make use of a diversity of wetlands, ponds, and fields, and pileated woodpeckers (right) who are picky in their selection of large tracts of mature forests. (Photos by Adam Janke and Pixabay )

The second factor, is the one that gave me so much anxiety in anticipation of the question during my candidacy exams. That is, what features of habitat are most limiting for a species of wildlife, and how do we know? Biologists are taught to remember Leibig’s Law of the Minimum. Without information on how limiting any one resource is, we’re left only guessing and often fail to see desired responses to habitat restoration that miss the mark on limiting factors. To uncover limiting factors we must take measurements, which presents its own challenges because wildlife are hard to observe (hence the ‘wild’ part). Volumes in my professional discipline are written on the issue of “imperfect detectability” and overcoming this observational challenge is the source of substantial frustration.

Thus, to answer “what the heck is habitat” in Iowa, or any landscape, we need to make some assumptions. Leading to the chronically unsatisfying assertion — “it depends” — as the prevailing answer to the question.

However, I think it safe to make a few generalizations to answer this question. To do so, I’m going to lean on the collective expert opinion of 74 of my peers that recently responded to a survey I sent to attendees of the annual Iowa Habitat Partners Conference (two of those attendees and conference organizers are featured on this month’s episode of The Conservation Chat). These 74 wildlife biologists from across the state were asked to rank “the ‘quality’ [of each practice] as habitat for pheasants, quail, and other farmland wildlife in Iowa.” I standardized each participant’s response so that each ranking ranged from 0, the lowest habitat quality score, to 100, the highest.

HabitatSurveyResults1-2019

Mean (± standard deviation) ‘habitat quality’ ratings from 74 wildlife biologists in Iowa asked to rank the quality of each habitat type for ‘pheasants, quail, and other farmland wildlife.’

Here’s the generalizations that emerged:

  • Any changes to the status quo are improvements in habitat quality for farmland wildlife. 93% of respondents gave corn-bean rotations or continuously grazed pastures their lowest habitat quality score.
  • Natural, perennial features like wetlands, prairies, and rotational pastures are higher quality.
  • Diversity in plants and vegetation structure matter, as reflected by the negative attitude of the group towards ‘Non-diverse’ CRP fields and continuously grazed pastures.
  • Larger patches of vegetation rate higher than smaller ones, as reflected in the higher ratings of whole-field CRP fields, wildlife areas, and wetlands, over small patches like stream buffers, prairie strips, and ‘odd areas.’

Beyond these generalizations, the wide range in respondent rankings clearly conveyed little consensus on the quality of individual features in the absence of additional clarifying details on the species or places in question. Here we find the final point of consensus.

Immediately after I hit “send” on the survey, a chorus of cries of “it depends” and “this isn’t fair!” came echoing back to my inbox from every corner of the state. Biologists, trained to think critically about limiting factors, plant diversity, patch size and connectivity, and a whole suite of other factors determining the ‘quality’ of any given ‘habitat’, insisted on answers to questions like “What factors are already limiting”, “What species”, “What part of the state” and so on in their emails.

I smiled receiving these emails because this skepticism, intuition, and critical thinking about what the heck is habitat is exactly as it should be.

Adam Janke

Give a Little, Learn a Lot

As the end of the year approaches, please consider a tax-deductible gift to Water Rocks!, investing in the next generation of Iowans, inspiring them to protect our state’s water, land, and wildlife!

Water Rocks! and the Conservation Stations have fanned out across Iowa for years to raise awareness for water quality and conservation issues among growing audiences. We’ve won awards and gotten lots of cheers, but as they say, that won’t put dinner on the table—or clean water in your glass.

While our music video “It’s All About That Bog” delivers a message about wetlands, for today “It’s All About That Green”—the green that we need to keep the programming moving forward. We’ve got a top-notch education program, and we need your help now more than ever before.

Please help us continue to bring Iowans from every walk of life these important messages about the water and natural resources we all share.

What makes Water Rocks! and the Conservation Stations work:

  • Hands-on demonstrations and practical educational sessions
  • Using music and the arts to attract, engage and teach audiences of every age and background
  • Combining science, research and fun to build understanding of land management, biodiversity, watershed dynamics, conservation challenges and solutions
  • Financially attainable by schools with shrinking or nonexistent budgets—enabled by financial support to Water Rocks! from donors across the state

Please “Give a Little”, to help bring high-quality conservation outreach and education programming to schools, outdoor classrooms, fairs and community events so the next generation of Iowans can “Learn a Lot.”

To contribute, visit the Iowa State University Foundation’s Water Rocks! gift portal, www.foundation.iastate.edu/waterrocks.  Thank you so much for your consideration!

Water Rocks! Conservation Education Programs Reach 36,000 Iowan Students

The annual report from Water Rocks! highlights increases in comprehension scores and curriculum adoption of watershed concepts across the state

Water Rocks! recently published its 2017-18 Annual Evaluation Report, detailing the impacts Water Rocks! visits had on students, teachers, and conservation education during the 2017-18 academic year. Reaching a cross section of Iowa’s youth, Water Rocks! delivered classroom presentations, outdoor classroom programs, and school assemblies to audiences comprised of more than 36,000 students. Feedback and evaluation metrics gathered during the year show significant increases in student comprehension as well as more adoption of conservation topics in classroom discussion both before and after program visits.

Water Rocks! delivers lessons about watersheds, wetlands, soil, pollinators and biodiversity to students in kindergarten through eighth grade. Within each 45- to 50-minute program, Water Rocks! strives to achieve its educational goals through a combination of hands-on games, interactive activities, music, plays, discussion and energetic presenters.

“Together with Iowa’s classroom teachers, Water Rocks! is helping students increase environmental literacy on timely natural resources issues, with high-energy programs that make a lasting impact,” said Ann Staudt, Water Rocks! director. “In compiling the annual report, we were also delighted to note that more teachers reported introducing students to watersheds and water quality topics before our visits and indicated desire to promote follow-up discussion and activities with their students.”


Key findings in the report include:

  • Presented in 180 schools and 12 outdoor classrooms, reaching over 36,000 students
  • Watershed identification comprehension increased from 36 percent before, to 95 percent after, the lesson
  • Some 88 percent of teachers planned to hold follow-up discussions with students covering the Water Rocks! materials and information

The report also includes the results of new evaluations conducted with peer helpers, students selected by school principals to assist in Water Rocks! assembly productions. These students were asked a more detailed set of before and after questions. The results reinforced the general trends in comprehension noted in the large groups, but also provide new insights which may help enrich future programming.

“Through Water Rocks! lessons, it is evident that the peer helpers are learning much more than just vocabulary, they are learning about the interconnectedness of natural resources and possible solutions to the environmental challenges in the world around them,” noted Staudt.

To learn read the report or to view comments from students and teachers, please visit https://www.waterrocks.org/201718-water-rocks-evaluation-report.

Lady Liberty’s Vision for Land

Adam Janke | Assistant Professor in Natural Resource Ecology and Management and Extension Wildlife Specialist, Iowa State University

Liberty is at the heart of the American experiment: that fundamental concept that says the will of the majority should not supersede the rights of individuals. Emerging from this pillar however is a fundamental question: to what extent can one actor infringe on the rights of another? This question is central to private land stewardship.

statue of liberty

Photo by Daniel Bendig on Pexels.com

It takes a special view of liberty to work for land. One that acknowledges individual rights while also recognizing the stakes of a whole community of downstream and yet unborn beneficiaries of ‘common pool resources’ like water, air, soil, and wildlife. It takes what Iowa native Aldo Leopold called “The Land Ethic”.

Universal adoption of a land ethic however has not been realized. And incentive structures of land ownership tend to push any obligations for natural resource stewardship to the fringe of the land ownership experience. To fight this centuries-old challenge, I think we need new inspiration and a healthy dose of American optimism.

Now, I should make an admission. For better or worse, it seems that at any given moment my mind is dwelling on two subjects: 1) conservation or 2) current affairs. The former is my job, but also a life-long passion, whereas the latter is admittedly more an indulgence, probably driven by whatever gene I share with those who go to the State Fair only to “People Watch”.

Recently, attention to the questions of liberty and access to our democracy that have consumed headlines precipitated a weird mashup of those two streams of thought, connecting one fundamental American idea with that one fundamental American challenge for land.

That American idea is that diversity makes us stronger; that the parts are greater than the whole when we work together to exploit individual strengths. It’s so central to our democracy that a tribute to it is cast in bronze on the Statue of Liberty:

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

The-New-Colossus-2 - National Park Service photo

National Park Service photo.

In those lines, I read a vision for the land from Lady Liberty.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” is her establishing the right of our democracy to find an American way to steward land while retaining the privileges of private ownership enjoyed by a wide cross-section of society.

This diffuse, private ownership creates a challenge, and the solution is offered in the next few lines. “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddle masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore” is her playbook for conservation; a tool to be applied with precision where land needs to heal. The huddled masses and wretched refuse are just as valued a feature of the land as any other.

Opportunity areas figure

Finding paces where land needs to heal is the key focus of precision conservation.

“Send these, the homeless, tempest tost to me” to improve the system by cleaning water, providing wildlife habitat, reducing inputs and improving the value of acres that remain. Here she insists we’re all made better by embracing the diversity of our lands and working with the system, not against it.

“I lift my lamp beside the golden door” to light the way to a sustainable future of land stewardship, one that creates profits for individual landowners while protecting air, water, soil, and wildlife for today and future Americans.

No democracy would ever survive without its natural resources. I think Lady Liberty’s vision for land is one that acknowledges that reality and is poised to light the way to a long sustainable future for ours.

Liberty for land and all of us that love her: that’s a vision consistent with the ideals of this nation.

Adam Janke

Art and Science create Vision for Future in Conservation Station

The Big Conservation Station trailer is trailblazing to county fairs across the state with a brand new, interactive display presenting a simple question: “What is your hope for Iowa?” Inside the Conservation Station’s learning lab are new mixed media murals showcasing the past, present and future of Iowa’s natural resources. Conservation Station visitors will have the opportunity to engage in discussion and artistic expression of their own – each fairgoer is invited to share their own #HopeForIowa.

“I am hoping to evoke an emotional response to the land, by depicting not a particular place, but ‘every place,’ so each person can relate to it,” explains artist Cecelia Comito of Artworks Studio in Carroll.

Comito collaborated with Ann Staudt, Water Rocks! science director, to create the original mixed media artwork for the Conservation Station trailer, representing an artistic vision that reflects the past, present and the future of our state. The artwork panels illustrate advances in conservation efforts over time, and the potential possibilities as farmers and other Iowans continue to implement effective land management practices to build soil health, improve water quality and increase wildlife habitat.

All the artwork was done on large canvasses at Artworks Studio. Each mixed media panel was built up with extensive layers of torn and cut paper, including such materials as stained and textured papers, pages from recipe books, story books, road maps, plat maps and even sewing patterns. Fine details were added through image transfer, paints, gelatos, watercolor pencils and pastels. Click through the slideshow below for a behind-the-scenes look at how the artwork came together. The finished pieces were imaged on a large scanner and then digitized in order to produce them large enough to place on the walls of the trailer.

“Farming practices have evolved over time, and not always in ways that have been positive for the ecosystem,” explained Staudt. “This new interactive art display will help people envision what’s possible for Iowa’s future and maybe inspire us to see what is possible.”

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In addition to the new artwork, Conservation Station team members employ perennial favorite interactive games and activities including The Watershed Game, The Poo Toss and the Rainfall Simulator to engage fairgoers of all ages.

Upcoming Big Conservation Station Trailer Appearances:
July 17                  Public Radio On Tap, Iowa City
July 18                  Polk Co. Fair
July 19                  Jones Co. Fair
July 20                  Tama Co. Fair
July 21                  Poweshiek Co. Fair
July 25                  Wayne Co. Fair
July 26                  Monroe Co. Fair
July 27                  Fayette Co. Fair
July 28                  Independence Farmers Market
Aug. 4                    Lakes Area Farmers Market, Spirit Lake
Sept. 2                  Glow Wild at Jester Park, Granger

Ann Staudt

Weather Permitting: Outdoor Classrooms Return

Today’s guest blog post is provided by Jack Schilling, part of the Iowa AmeriCorps 4-H Outreach program, serving with Water Rocks! in 2017-2018.

Spring has sprung in Iowa, finally. The state is warming up, and (weather permitting) will continue to do so. The transition from January 107th to spring has certainly been abrupt, but it’s finally time to enjoy the outdoors. I got my first chance to go out and deliver our Water Rocks! program outside with an outdoor classroom just recently, and the experience was a blast! But, what makes an outdoor classroom different than our normal indoor classroom visits?

For starters, the visit is outdoors (hence the name). The differences between being indoors and outdoors offer some unique pros and cons. One of the best pros is just being able to be outside and enjoy the weather, especially now that it’s cooperating. However, this can also be a big con if the wind tries to blow our supplies away! The pros of being outside, including having students in a location directly related to the environmental topics discussed in our lessons, greatly outweighs the cons.

Another key difference is how we present. Typically, an outdoor classroom will be in a rotating format with other activities for students to visit throughout the day. This all usually takes place at a local nature center or county park. The students tend to be with us for less time, but that allows us to rotate through and see more youth in a shorter amount of time than usual, and we are always able to compensate on time.

The last main difference is what we bring. We typically bring one of our Conservation Station trailers with us to outdoor classrooms. The trailers have chairs for us to set up for students to sit in, tables to set up our supplies, and other miscellaneous supplies we may need, depending on what lesson we teach that day.

All in all, outdoor classroom events are a great way for our team to get some new scenery for class visits, and is a great way for students to connect with nature in person while learning about the land in their home county, and it’s always a blast to be a part of it.

Jack Schilling

Deepening the Conversation around Conservation

Here at Water Rocks! we are always looking for new ways to reach the youth in Iowa, striving to deepen the conversation around conservation in new and exciting ways. Summer camp is an experience that provides youth a chance to connect to nature in a new way. When I was a camper and later a camp counselor, I saw first hand how camp changes interactions and respect for nature in a positive way. Water Rocks! day camps provide our team an opportunity to partner with extension youth coordinators, naturalists, and other environmental educators to offer the camp experience with a Water Rocks! twist!

We kicked things off with our first Water Rocks! day camp in March at the beautiful McFarland Park Nature Center. Students from Ames and the surrounding area arrived bright and early on March 8th and kicked off the day getting to know each other and getting acquainted with the concept of a watershed. We had students as young as 8 and as old as 12 join us. From the classroom we moved into nature to experience a watershed in real life. This is just one advantage to a full day camp: a way to turn the 2D into 3D.

Students designing their watershed!

Students did a great job transferring what they had learned to the landscape. They were able to determine where the water would flow at different points on the landscape. We were lucky to be surrounded by a small stream and a pond which gave them a visual of the bodies of water that the runoff could drain or shed to.

Jack and students walking the ridgeline between two small watersheds.

The highlight of the day was seeing the students work together on their service project. The Ames Smart Watersheds program donated a rain barrel for us to paint. It was on display at the Ames Eco-Fair on April 21st. Being able to participate in a real life solution to some of our watershed management concerns, such as flooding, helped to make our conversation about conservation relevant to their impact on the land.

At the end of the day the students had the opportunity to see if they could clean the water after it had been polluted. They got to choose what they polluted the water with and then were challenged with how to clean it up. Students noted how difficult it was to clean the water totally. Many filtered the water through several types of filters. We even set up a sand filter to mimic how nature filters our water as it moves through the soil profiles. The students recognized the importance of keeping our water clean to begin with, given how difficult the cleanup job was after the water had gotten dirty.

Students attempt to filter out the pollutants using coffee filters, panty hose, sand and other tools.

In all, students had a blast getting dirty and learning, too! Here at Water Rocks! we are looking forward to our next day camps coming up this summer, where we will get to partner with awesome county naturalists and educators with local Soil and Water Conservation Districts and Iowa State University Extension and Outreach!

Megan Koppenhafer