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Bald eagle population continues to rise across Wisconsin

Once listed on the state federal endangered species lists, bald eagles continue a strong comeback as the bird’s population numbers in Wisconsin are soaring.

Nesting surveys conducted last year by state Department of Natural Resources staff show a record number of nesting bald eagles, with 1,695 nests occupied by breeding adults. That figure topped the nesting total of the previous year by 105.

The total is significantly higher than in 1974, the first year surveys were conducted. At that time, just 108 nests were documented statewide.

“Bald eagles have made a remarkable comeback in Wisconsin,” said Laura Jaskiewicz, a DNR research scientist who coordinates the statewide survey effort.

The birds’ success is also evident by another measure. For the first time since surveys began, nests were recorded in 71 of Wisconsin’s 72 counties, with Milwaukee County the only place with none.

“It’s exciting to see bald eagles in virtually every part of our state,” Jaskiewicz said.

Vilas and Oneida counties in far north-central Wisconsin are home to the highest number of nests statewide, with 172 and 154, respectively, DNR figures show. Bald eagles prefer to nest in tall trees along waterways, and those counties have among the highest number of freshwater lakes in the world.

In the 12-county west-central region, Buffalo County was home to the greatest number of nests, with 65 recorded last year. The next-highest nest concentration was in Barron County, with 27, followed by Pierce County, 25, and Trempealeau County, 22.

Ten nests were recorded in Eau Claire County, 11 in Chippewa County and 12 in Dunn County.

Buffalo County is especially bald eagle friendly, Jaskiewicz said, because of its many miles of shoreline along the Mississippi River, its ample woods that provide eagle perches and its largely undeveloped, rural nature.

“Bald eagles love the Mississippi,” she said, noting counties along that river tend to have high eagle populations.

The record number of nests documented this year is the result of protections afforded by state and federal endangered species laws, declining levels of DDT in the environment and the efforts of the DNR and others to monitor the birds. Bald eagles were removed from the state endangered species list in 1997 and the federal list in 2007. Eagles and their nests have federal protection via the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

Steve Betchkal, an Eau Claire birding expert, said northern Wisconsin’s plentiful water, large trees and relatively undeveloped territory make it among the best locations in the world to view eagles. Locally, bald eagles have nests in such locations as Putnam Park in Eau Claire, Lake Hallie Golf Course and River Prairie Park in Altoona.

“We’re kind of spoiled now,” he said, noting eagle sightings, once rare, have become more common in the wake of added protections for the birds.

Bald eagles are among people’s favorites to view, he said, because “they are impressively large, striking birds.” Females, typically larger than males, can have 8-foot wingspans.

“They are the most impressive birds to watch in the air,” Betchkal said.

Jaskiewicz and Betchkal said they hope bald eagle numbers continue to climb. But they worry continued development could reduce available habitat for the birds. In addition, Jaskiewicz said, some eagles are struck by vehicles on roadways as they feed on prey.

Betchkal said he is concerned climate change could reduce the number of large trees in Wisconsin, thereby forcing bald eagles from the state.

“I worry their (population) growth is going to hit a wall because of climate change and urban sprawl,” he said.

For now, bald eagles continue to thrive, providing viewing pleasure for many. Eagles have proven to be adaptable, Jaskiewicz said, and have found success in areas where they previously were rare.

“Bald eagles are proving to be adaptable,” she said. “That’s good, because people really love their eagles.”

Just Local Food progressing toward relocation

One year after announcing plans to relocate to Water Street, the list of possible future locations for Just Local Food Cooperative has expanded.

Operators of the small, member owned co-op that features locally produced foods said last January they hoped to move to space in the Aspenson Mogensen Hall building at 222 Water St. Just Local Food has outgrown its cramped quarters at Washington and South Farwell streets and could expand to meet customer needs at a larger location.

Since then, two other possible locations have popped up. Earlier this year, city officials chose Eau Claire developers Pablo Properties to develop Block 7, a large downtown parking lot just east of Phoenix Park, as well as a site east of a nearby parking ramp.

A grocery has been part of previous redevelopment discussions at Block 7, and Just Local Food officials said they would be interested in considering a move there. Julia Johnson, a partner in Pablo Properties, said Pablo plans a grocery at Block 7 and has discussed that idea with Just Local Food.

“We are supportive of any downtown grocery options,” she said.

Last month, another Eau Claire developer, JCap Real Estate, announced plans to build a five-story, 120-unit senior housing complex along the 700 block of South Farwell Street, across from the Leader-Telegram office. That project is proposed to house a grocery store/deli, JCap President Brian Johnson said.

Rachel Hart-Brinson, president of the Just Local Food board of directors, said all three sites are under consideration, although JCap may already have someone lined up for its grocery. The board of directors is committed to a downtown site for a future Just Local Food store, she said.

Last year, the board decided to have a market study conducted to help determine best possible relocation locations, Hart-Brinson said. In October, board members reviewed the study, which did not list any one site as strongly preferable to others.

“There is no clear (location) winner right now,” she said.

Eau Claire resident Kim Schmidt, a frequent Just Local Food customer, said she is happy the store plans to remain downtown. She praised Just Local Foods’ commitment to supporting regional food producers and said an expansion would allow it to grow its customer base.

“I’ll be ecstatic when they are able to expand and offer a greater selection of products and an enhanced deli with just more of what they already do well,” Schmidt said. “A community our size needs, and I believe will support, a full-size, full-service, member-owned co-op.”

Before moving, Hart-Brinson said, Just Local Food needs to raise between $2.5 million and $3 million, an ongoing effort being funded in part by the sale of memberships to the cooperative. The store continues to work toward that goal, she said.

In addition, the relocation of Just Local Food has been delayed by the departure last summer of general manger Maria Bamonti, who took a job at Feed My People Food Bank. Bamonti was spearheading the store’s move, and without a general manager, that effort has stalled, Hart-Brinson said.

“Not having a GM really has delayed this process,” she said. “We are looking for the right fit and haven’t found the right person yet.”

As Just Local Food looks to hire a general manager and continue to raise money, Hart-Brinson and others say they anticipate the day they can expand the successful, small-scale grocery recipe that has grown for the past two decades.

“We don’t have a specific timeline for opening a new store,” she said, “but we are working toward that.”

Elderly, conservatives shared more Facebook fakery in 2016

WASHINGTON — Sharing false information on Facebook is old.

People older than 65 and ultra conservatives shared about seven times more fake information masquerading as news on the social media site than younger adults, moderates and super liberals during the 2016 election season, a new study finds.

The first major study to look at who is sharing links from debunked sites finds that not many people are doing it. On average, only 8.5 percent of those studied — about 1 person out of 12 — shared false information during the 2016 campaign, according to the study in Wednesday’s journal Science Advances. But those doing it tend to be older and more conservative.

“For something to be viral you’ve got to know who shares it,” said study co-author Jonathan Nagler, a politics professor and co-director of the Social Media and Political Participation Lab at New York University. “Wow, old people are much more likely than young people to do this.”

Facebook and other social media companies were caught off guard in 2016 when Russian agents exploited their platforms to meddle with the U.S. presidential election by spreading fake news, impersonating Americans and running targeted advertisements to try to sway votes. Since then, the companies have thrown millions of dollars and thousands of people into fighting false information.

Researchers at Princeton University and NYU in 2016 interviewed 2,711 people who used Facebook. Of those, nearly half agreed to share all their postings with the professors.

The researchers used three different lists of false information sites — one compiled by BuzzFeed and two others from academic research teams — and counted how often people shared from those sites. Then to double check, they looked at 897 specific articles that had been found false by fact checkers and saw how often those were spread.

All those lists showed similar trends.

When other demographic factors and overall posting tendencies are factored in, the average person older than 65 shared seven times more false information than those between 18 and 29. The seniors shared more than twice as many fake stories as people between 45 and 64 and more than three times that of people in the 30- to 44-year-old range, said lead study author Andrew Guess, a politics professor at Princeton.

The simplest theory for why older people share more false information is a lack of “digital literacy,” said study co-author Joshua Tucker, also co-director of the NYU social media political lab. Senior citizens may not tell truth from lies on social networks as easily as others, the researchers said.

Harvard public policy and communication professor Matthew Baum, who was not part of the study but praised it, said he thinks sharing false information is “less about beliefs in the facts of a story than about signaling one’s partisan identity.” That’s why efforts to correct fakery don’t really change attitudes and one reason why few people share false information, he said.

When other demographics and posting practices are factored in, people who called themselves very conservative shared the most false information, a bit more than those who identify themselves as conservative. The very conservatives shared misinformation 6.8 times more often than the very liberals and 6.7 times more than moderates. People who called themselves liberals essentially shared no fake stories, Guess said.

Nagler said he was not surprised that conservatives in 2016 shared more fake information, but he and his colleagues said that does not necessarily mean that conservatives are by nature more gullible when it comes to false stories. It could simply reflect that there was much more pro-Trump and anti-Clinton false information in circulation in 2016 that it drove the numbers for sharing, they said.

However, Baum said in an email that conservatives post more false information because they tend to be more extreme, with less ideological variation than their liberal counterparts and they take their lead from President Trump, who “advocates, supports, shares and produces fake news/misinformation on a regular basis.”

The researchers looked at differences in gender, race and income but could not find any statistically significant differences in sharing of false information.

After much criticism, Facebook made changes to fight false information, including de-emphasizing proven false stories in people’s feeds so others are less likely to see them. It seems to be working, Guess said. Facebook officials declined to comment.

“I think if we were to run this study again, we might not get the same results,” Guess said.

MIT’s Deb Roy, a former Twitter chief media scientist, said the problem is that the American news diet is “full of balkanized narratives” with people seeking information that they agree with and calling true news that they don’t agree with fake.

“What a mess,” Roy said.

Gov. Evers, bipartisan task force both calling for state schools funding hike

MADISON — Gov. Tony Evers campaigned on the promise to increase funding for public schools by $1.4 billion, and now a bipartisan legislative task force that heard from parents, teachers and others across Wisconsin is also calling for significant increases in state spending and local property taxes.

Commission co-chair Sen. Luther Olsen, a Republican from Ripon who also chairs the Senate’s Education Committee, said Wednesday that he hopes the panel’s report released last week provides an opportunity for Republicans and Democrats to work with Evers on school funding.

“I don’t think any of this stuff is going to be easy,” Olsen said. “I would like to say the hard work is done, but the hard work is just beginning. Now the rubber meets the road.”

Evers, when asked about the report after touring a Madison elementary school on Wednesday, called it a “great first start.” The Democrat said he expected there would be areas of overlap with what he will propose, but he didn’t specify what exactly.

Evers, who was state schools superintendent until being elected governor, had proposed a 10 percent funding increase for schools at a cost of $1.4 billion. Evers told the Associated Press last week that he would propose the funding increase in his first state budget, which will be released in February or March.

The group co-chaired by Olsen and Rep. Joel Kitchens, R-Sturgeon Bay, met for more than a year and held eight hearings across Wisconsin in urban, rural and suburban school districts. The 16-member panel included Republican and Democratic lawmakers, along with the Green Bay schools superintendent, the director of the Wisconsin Association of School Boards and representatives of the school choice program.

The group’s more than two-dozen recommendations included allowing per-pupil revenue limits, which keep down how much schools can raise from local property taxes, to increase each year based on inflation. They had been allowed to go up tied to inflation from 1998 until 2009, and since then it’s either gone up by a certain amount or been frozen. They have not gone up since 2015.

Olsen said the goal of allowing increases tied to inflation is to allow schools to gradually get more money and hopefully reduce the need to hold a referendum vote to increase property taxes.

But the idea drew opposition Wednesday from the powerful state chamber of commerce.

Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce vice president Scott Manley called it a “bad idea that will hurt Wisconsin families and businesses.”

“The current system protects taxpayers by requiring government to obtain taxpayer approval before raising taxes,” Manley said. “Lawmakers must continue to ensure this vital taxpayer protection remains in place and reject the proposal for guaranteed annual property tax hikes.”

The report also calls for the state to provide two-thirds of the total cost of education, which would soften the reliance on local property taxes. The state last paid for two-thirds of school costs in the 2002-03 school year. The two-thirds requirement in state law was repealed as part of the 2003 state budget.

After dipping to a low of 61.7 percent during Scott Walker’s first year as governor in 2011, the state share of public school costs has slowly increased to 65.4 percent for the current year, or just shy of $7 billion. It would take about $130 million to get to 66.6 percent.

Evers ran on the promise of restoring two-thirds funding.

Other recommendations from the commission include spending more money on special education, English-language learners, low-income students, rural districts with high costs for transportation, gifted and talented students, and early childhood programs.

There is no total cost for all the recommendations.

“You don’t go out and talk about school funding and come back and say, ‘There’s too much money, let’s save some,’” Olsen said. “It’s going to be, ‘We need more money.’”

Olsen said he hoped some of the recommendations would be included in Evers’ two-year state budget proposal. If not, they could provide a guideline for the Republican-controlled Legislature as it works on revising Evers’ budget, Olsen said.

“If he comes in much richer than the Legislature wants to go, this could be a landing spot,” he said.