⇦ Essays | "Habitat University," land-grant universities and extension service, and the meaning of "wildlife" as a "natural resource"

Last summer, I attended a virtual scientific conference on ecology to present my research. (Was psyched to travel and attend a real conference for the first time in person, but as with so many other things, the pandemic took that opportunity away.) So in an effort to replicate the random social encounters that provide 75% of the goodness of conference attendance anyway, I tried to plug into the Twittersphere by searching the conference hashtag, where people were connecting with colleagues and promoting their research in a more casual way. This ultimately didn't work so well, because Twitter confuses, frightens, and enrages me. But I was able to make a few great connections and, what was more important, understand the state of the field and see just how socially progressive the discipline of ecology is today. It's very easy to get stuck in your own little lane at your workbench or field site, or the toothless DEI committees at your place of employment, and not see that things are changing for the better all over.

Both on Twitter and in the sessions of the actual conference, I was surprised and delighted to find presentations by indigenous scientists and community collaborators on their models of ecological stewardship; researchers deeply connected to their field of study, and not afraid to show how their emotions for place and people motivate their work; faculty cheering and hyping the work of their first-generation students and giving them their deserved credit and shine; and queer and trans scientists being out and proud (one delightful example was a talk by a plant scientist called "Other, Neither, Both" where they discuss how studying the fluid nature of fungal and plant reproduction helped them accept their nonbinary identity). Overall, a really lovely and eye-opening experience, and one that made me proud to be a contributor in my field.

In this same sphere, a podcast was recommended called "Habitat University." The first episode is called "Habitat as a Panchreston Problem." A panchreston is a sort of analytical panacea, a solution or thesis that attempts to simplify a broad and complex topic and provide all the answers to every conceivable circumstance, and which therefore ends up being an unacceptable oversimplification that's of no use to anyone. So for their first episode, it sounded like the podcast creators were going to pin down the correct use of "habitat," explain why it's misused, and explain what effects this misuse has on the scientific literature. The use of the term "panchreston" is itself a nod to "Whither habitat?", a famous paper published in 2018 in the journal Ecology & Evolution, which analyzed the use of the term "habitat" in peer-reviewed journals. The authors found that only 55% of the papers studied used the term in its correct definition, even in the years following a landmark 1997 paper that found similarly paltry rates of correct usage in the literature.

When I came across this podcast, my ears perked up and I subscribed: surely, given the context in which I found it, the hosts would be some nerdy queer punk rock ecologist and their data scientist colleague, maybe breaking down issues within the field of ecology today and explaining the ecological concepts that depend on the concept of habitat in a layperson-friendly format accessible to non-scientists? And the "panchreston" nod shows that they're engaged in the current framework and have the tools and skills to engage on a rigorous level, as well as an outreach/101 level. Coolio.

Sadly, I was naïve. My brief toe-dip into the ecologisphere led me to assume that the public face of most life-science disciplines was queer, conservation-focused, and bent on understanding and communicating ecology from nature's view, not from a human view. As it turns out, "Habitat University" is actually produced and narrated by two wildlife specialists from Purdue and Iowa State University Extension Services, and its primary audience are landowners and managers who need help understanding the scientific concept of habitat in order to improve their management objectives.

To understand the specifics of why the podcast was made, we need to understand extension services and their roots in land-grant university mandates. A land-grant university is any institution designated to receive the benefits of the Morrill Act of 1862 and, later, 1890. (The act was amended one last time in 1994 to newly designate land-grant status for 29 Native American tribal colleges and "to eliminate segregationist language," which should give you an unfortunate preview of where we're headed.)

Before the Morrill Act, higher education in America was targeted at, if not solely the elite classes, then the genteel classes. Starting in the 1600s, schools educated upper-class or upwardly mobile young men in theology (so many ministers! the primary function of most colonial universities!), the liberal arts, and professions like medicine and law. In the case of elite institutions like the Ivy League, schools also did the work of consolidating wealth and power in the upper classes by serving only a narrowing band of offspring from wealthy families. But America was not the same in the 1850s as it had been in the 1650s: the country was rapidly industrializing, increasing in population, and intruding westward into territory not settled by European agriculture. The aim of the Morrill Act was therefore to expand the subject and purpose of higher education from liberal arts to "agriculture and the mechanic arts" and other practical and applied subjects. To make this expanded practical curriculum available to the greater public, rather than only to elites who could afford the cost of tuition, the colleges had to be subsidized by the state.

Matthews Hall at Harvard University, 1879.

To fund these goals without dipping into its purse, already strained by the demands of the Civil War, the U.S. government used its greatest, shiniest resource—western land illegally and violently seized from Native American tribes. Unratified treaties, seizure by executive act or congressional order, or just straight-up seizure with no fig leaf of agreement or treaty whatsoever: Each eligible state received 30,000 acres of this expropriated land per member of Congress. States were free either to use the land for university-related purposes, or (much more common) to sell it outright to raise cash and start new or fund existing universities. (Since the country was in the middle of a civil war, they added a condition that "No State while in a condition of rebellion or insurrection against the government of the United States shall be entitled to the benefit of this act," making Confederate states ineligible. Don't you worry, they got their fair share of land after they lost the war and came back into the fold. Discriminatory admissions practices were still rampant in southern institutions after the war, obviously, so the Morrill Act was amended in 1890 to require that institutions either not use race as an admission criterion or—nice one, guys—"designate a separate land-grant institution for persons of color." Among the land-grant institutions in southern states recognized by this 1890 amendment were nineteen historically Black colleges and universities, all of which are still in operation today.)

The total land seized from tribes and redistributed to land-grant universities adds up to 10.7 million acres, expropriated from 245 tribal nations at the blood cost of 162 acts of seizure.

© landgrabu.org, an investigatory database by High Country News; find your state's land grab here

While all 50 states have land-grant colleges and universities, the University of California looms large in social impact, economic impact, and sheer rolling acreage. The UC is the largest employer in the state. It profited by over $13 million in today's money from the sale of the seized land, and California originally paid nothing. As of June 2020, the University of California's endowment was valued at about $14 billion. And the UC ain't the half of it. According to the HCN investigation, "less than 10% of the 1.7 million acres transferred in California went to support the nascent University of California. Most of it was transferred to other states to support endowments for their university systems." This interactive map explores the seized and transferred parcels in California, which tribe they were taken from and the method of seizure, and what institution ended up benefiting.

And so, the land-grant universities were funded through native land expropriation, and research, education, and practical applications of contemporary agricultural best practices were taught in every state in the nation. (Some states have multiple land-grant institutions today, either due to the second Morrill Act or to the 1994 formation of land-grant tribal colleges.) One important arm of the land-grant system was the agricultural experiment stations, also present in every state in the nation. Ag experiment stations were founded by the Hatch Act of 1887, which designated a broad mandate for land-grant universities to conduct research on all aspects of agriculture in the service of national food production and agribusiness. Research areas include "soil and water conservation and use; plant and animal production, protection, and health; processing, distribution, safety, marketing, and utilization of food and agricultural products; forestry, including range management and range products; multiple use of forest rangelands, and urban forestry; aquaculture; home economics and family life; human nutrition; rural and community development; sustainable agriculture; molecular biology; and biotechnology." So, basically, everything. Ag experiment stations are very much still active and performing peer-reviewed research today: California has nine ag experiment stations, operated as research and extension centers (RECs) by the University of California.

© University of California 2021; from north to south, Intermountain, Sierra Foothill, Hopland, Kearney, Westside, Lindcove, Hansen, South Coast, and Desert RECs

Tying it all together, the concept of extension science was born with the Smith-Lever Act of 1914. This law makes explicit the connection between land-grant universities, the research they perform, and the general public: it establishes a system of cooperative extension services whose job it is to inform the public about advances in agriculture, home economics, and all the other topics that land-grant universities were established to address. So not only is extension science a tool of land-grant universities, it is also their mandate. Publicly funded scientific information that addresses the problems of agricultural production must be distributed and made accessible to the general public.

Remember "Habitat University"? It's produced by the extension services of Indiana and Iowa. The podcast is funded by the Renewable Resources Extension Act Capacity Grant, which is a program originated by a 1978 law and funded by the USDA that "provides funding for extension activities related to forestry and natural resources at land-grant universities." Using this funding, Purdue and Iowa State put together a podcast to perform extension outreach and education to land managers and landowners—serving the interests of land management, forestry, and agricultural production, as its mandate requires.

Now that we've got background, let's get back to habitat, ecology, and the meaning of "wildlife" "management."

Our poor concept of habitat—so abused, so uncared for, even among ecologists and other scientists who should know better. Habitat is defined by Krausman and Morrison (2016) as "the resources and conditions present in an area that produce occupancy, which may include survival and reproduction by a given organism. Habitat is organism-specific and is more than vegetation or vegetation structure. Thus, suitable habitat is redundant and unsuitable habitat is a misnomer; if it was unsuitable, it would not be habitat!" The concept of "habitat management" or "habitat improvement" is utterly meaningless without defining whose habitat and which organism(s) you want to manage or improve.

"Wildlife management," on the other hand, has a much more human-centric definition. Aldo Leopold defined it as "the art of making land produce sustained annual crops of wild game for recreational use." Leopold is best known for his book A Sand County Almanac, an evocative classic that paints a loving portrait of the natural history in his hometown and more or less introduced the concept of biological sustainability and conservation ethos to white people in America; but he also wrote Game Management, which applied biological and ecological principles to the management of wildlife for human use, and made him one of the pioneers of wildlife management as a science.

"aldo's tools": axe, plow, cow, fire, and gun addressed in five individual podcast episodes of habitat university - "The central thesis of game management is this: game can be restored by the creative use of the same tools which have heretofore destroyed it—axe, plow, cow, fire and gun... The conservation movement has sought to restore wild life by the control of guns alone, with little visible success. Management seeks the same end, but by more versatile means." - leopold

wildlife becomes instrumentalized as a "natural resource" to be managed for human betterment in the same way as stocks of timber in national forests (which is itself the foundation of an ecological community) or oil/gas/mineral rights

© Dave Manoucheri/KCRA 2013

Of the several federal and state agencies we think of as being responsible for protecting wildlife, most got their start as natural resource management agencies. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was not founded until 1940, and its main predecessor, the U.S. Fish Commission, focused on studying the "decrease of the food fishes of the seacoasts and to suggest remedial measures"—in other words, fisheries studied out of a wholly economic concern. Its other predecessor was the USDA's Section of Economic Ornithology and Mammalogy, whose "principal effort [...] would be to educate farmers about birds and mammals affecting their interests, so that destruction of useful species might be prevented" (my emphasis).

Controlling animals that cause or are believed to cause damage to agricultural interests continues to this day under the auspices of the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, through the euphemistically named Wildlife Services program. Christopher Ketcham wrote an article criticizing Wildlife Services in 2016 in Harper's Magazine (here). If you are at all sensitive to depictions of animal death, I would not recommend reading it, but if you've got a strongish stomach, it outlines their practices in much greater and bloodier detail than I will address here. Wolf, coyote, bird kills are all a regular part of the job, in service to the ranchers who choose hands-off herd management practices that expose some livestock to predation rather than higher-investment watchful practices that would prevent the deaths. But if Wildlife Services will come out to your land and spend federal money to trap, snare, and cyanide bomb those pesky wolves at no cost to your operation, why bother?

Even today, most states' wildlife management departments are still called "Fish and Game," rather than "Fish and Wildlife" (in the first page of DuckDuckGo results, "Fish and Game": Massachusetts, Alaska, Wyoming, Virginia, Idaho, North Dakota. "Fish and Wildlife": Washington and California, the latter of which underwent the name change in 2013 amidst claims that it was a "waste of taxpayer dollars" and a "push to steer away from hunters' rights").

grazing on blm etc land for very very cheap ($1.35/mo for a calf and cow, or five sheep) or free as a subsidy to ranching interests

Another tip is that whenever somebody calls something a "working landscape," a "working forest," etc., this is a sinister nod that the landscape is "working" in service of a financial interest.

Extension service today is the operational hand of the state, informing how and with what techniques the land is managed.

Are devotion to ecology as a scientific pursuit and the conservation of nature really positioned in opposition to the mechanisms of the state? ... (extension/land-grant unis/funding in service of food production and agribusiness) - but that's an artificial boundary, as ecology and science as the professional field exists today is wholly funded by and more or less in service of these things (NSF, USDA, EPA grants)

"wildlife biologist"/"wildlife management"/"wildlife habitat management" vs. "ecologist" or other terms - "wildlife habitat management" is a defunct, empty term unless you take it literally, as managing habitat for whitetail deer or grouse or a specific taxon that's desirable as game - in which case the role is more a scientifically informed gamekeeper than anything else

"wildlife" as a "resource" to be managed, which thru the definitions of habitat make it possible to target and manage your "wildlife resource" to the benefit of that species, but the actual landscape complexity might be crumbling around your ears

Popular and widely distributed gamebird Northern Bobwhite © Larry Hitchens 2012

even within the discipline of conservation bio are contradictions - "habitat" is by nature a monophyletically rooted concept, but preserving ecological stability requires thinking on regional and ecosystem scales

Conservation biology is a very new science: it was only founded in the 1970s, when ecological crises piled up and when so many of our fiercest environmental laws and agencies were established (EPA, Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, National Environmental Policy Act, NOAA...). As a matter of fact, the term itself originated close to home. Michael Soulé, a professor at UC San Diego, organized a symposium to seek answers to the problem of rapidly disappearing biodiversity. Before this, it was actually rare for scientists to """"get involved politically"""", or for their work to have a """"political agenda"""", since it was seen as a conflict of interest. But the very foundation of the field of conservation biology has an agenda: to prevent further loss of biodiversity. "The challenge of conserving natural diversity cannot be ignored by responsible biologists" - Soulé

"classics of conservation" are always written by white europeans, rachel carson and aldo leopold and edward abbey and wtf walden (previously addressed in letter no. 9 on pisaster ochraceus), and indigenous both scholarship and traditional practices are erased/ignored/not privileged bc they weren't there for the """"foundational concepts of the field""""

The map addressing land seizures in California that I mentioned earlier was produced by my employing institution. information, research, and truly useful tools originate at land grant unis, but also garbage words that obfuscate what is truly owed like "sustainability" and "equity" along with "economic prosperity" why are we still prioritizing that...

private land conservation as funded thru federal and state programs has true benefits to biodiversity, often on agricultural land itself (yeiser et al 2018)

true accountability through native $$ reparations and land repatriation and aggressive divestment and action on climate change has not been approached - having worked within climate agriculture program lays even more bare the relationship between the state and capital, and how the state has a vested interest in farms succeeding... makes me feel like im a tool of the agricultural industry :( as a scientist working for a land grant university im the one writing the blandly approving reports that sabotage ecological diversity :(

relationship between public lands, agriculture, and the mechanisms of the state has a tendency to retain status quo - even in CA, although we have so much damn funding to try to mitigate and become resilient to climate change but the methods of action have been fully eaten by the state bureaucracy machine but they think they’re doing the important work...

everyone has an extremely aggressive agenda that they will push at all financial or ecological costs, except the people with legislative power. they are all about appeasement and gradual change and conserving the systems of capital expenditure and acquisition above all... like what if the people with legislative power DID have an aggressive agenda that they pushed and accomplished. that’s the case in some instances like the SGMA [Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, passed in 2014 and mandates a severe reduction of groundwater extraction over the next 20 yrs, to only levels that can be replenished] but it’s so much more not the case in like... many aspects

So, that's my essay. I was going to write a li'l tidy conclusion that drew all these threads together, but [redacted]. Don't forget to scroll to the end for references, additional reading material, and a extra secret surprise fun fact! See ya next time.


Brooke, Jarred, and Adam Janke. 2020-2021. Habitat University.
Kirk, D.A., A.C. Park, A.C. Smith, B.J. Howes, B.K. Prouse, N.G. Kyssa, E.N. Fairhurst, and K.A. Prior. 2018. "Our use, misuse, and abandonment of a concept: Whither habitat?" Ecology and Evolution 8 (8): 4197-4208.
Krausman, P.R., and M.L. Morrison. 2016. "Another plea for standard terminology." Journal of Wildlife Management 80 (7): 1143-1144.
Morrill Land-Grant Acts, on Wikipedia.
History of higher education in the United States, on Wikipedia.
"Harvard University" entry in The American Cyclopaedia, 1879.
Ramaswamy, Sonny. 2015. "The First Twenty Years of the 1994 Land Grant Institutions." US Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA).
Toldson, Ivory A. 2015. "The White House Initiative on HBCUs Celebrates the 125th Anniversary of Second Morrill Act." White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities.
Lee, Robert, Tristan Ahtone, Margaret Pearce, Kalen Goodluck, Geoff McGhee, Cody Leff, Katherine Lanpher and Taryn Salinas. March 2020. "Land-Grab Universities: Morrill Act of 1862 Indigenous Land Parcels Database." High Country News.
"History of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture." Accessed October 2021. USDA NIFA.
"Land-Grant University FAQ." Accessed October 2021. Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities.
"Morrill Act Land Grants in California" ArcGIS Online webmap. 2021. Informatics and GIS Program at UCANR.
"State Agricultural Experiment Stations." Accessed September 2021. USDA NIFA.
"The Hatch Act of 1887." Accessed October 2021. USDA NIFA.
"ANR Research and Extension Centers: About Us." Accessed October 2021. Regents of the University of California.
Smith-Lever Act of 1914, on Wikipedia.
"Renewable Resources Extension Act Capacity Grant." Accessed October 2021. USDA NIFA.
Leopold, Aldo. 1949. A Sand County Almanac: And Sketches Here and There. Oxford University Press, New York, NY.
Leopold, Aldo. 1933. Game Management. Oxford University Press: New York, NY. .
United States Fish and Wildlife Service, on Wikipedia.
Hawthorne, Donald W. 2004. "The History of Federal and Cooperative Animal Damage Control." Sheep & Goat Research Journal 19 (6): 13-15.
Ketcham, Christopher. 2016. "The Rogue Agency." Harper's Magazine, online.
Manoucheri, Dave. 2013. "Calif. Department of Fish and Game getting new name?" KCRA Channel 3 NBC News. .
"America's Rangelands Deeply Damaged by Overgrazing." 2020. Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. .
"Michael Soulé organized International Conference on Research in Conservation Biology, to be held at Third College [now Thurgood Marshall College]." 1978. Press release from UC San Diego, accessed from University Archives November 2021. .
Yeiser, J.M., J.J. Morgan, D.L. Baxley, R.B. Chandler, and J.A. Martin. 2018. "Private land conservation has landscape-scale benefits for wildlife in agroecosystems." Journal of Applied Ecology 55: 1930-1939. .
"University of California Endowment Update June 2020." Accessed November 2021. UC Investments.
"Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA)." Accessed November 2021. California Department of Water Resources.

Further Reading

Included in this section are a handful of articles and books relevant to American agriculture, state power, the great land grab, conceptions of wilderness and race, the role of public lands and public services, et cetera.

Plus one fun fact I couldn't fit in anywhere: In order to maintain their land-grant status, not only are land-grant universities required to maintain programs in agriculture and engineering, but also in ROTC! You're literally not allowed to not train future military officers in service of the state if you're a land-grant institution!

Ahtone, Tristan, and Robert Lee. 8 May 2020. "Land-grant universities should acknowledge their debt to Indigenous people." High Country News, online. Originally published in the New York Times.
Byrne, Peter. 9 December 2020. "Apocalypse Cow: The Future of Life at Point Reyes National Park." Pacific Sun, online.
Chase, Alston. 1986. Playing God in Yellowstone: The Destruction of America's First National Park. Mariner Books: Boston, MA.
Dutkiewicz, Jan, and Gabriel Rosenberg. 23 September 2021. "The Myth of Regenerative Ranching." The New Republic, online.
Fabiani, Louise. 14 June 2017. "When Wilderness Was Strictly Whites-Only." Pacific Standard, online.
Koerth, Maggie. 17 November 2016. "Big Farms Are Getting Bigger and Most Small Farms Aren't Really Farms at All." FiveThirtyEight, online.
Rosenberg, Nathan, and Bryce Wilson Stucki. 10 May 2021. "Don't Trust the Antitrust Narrative: Farmers Benefit from Industrial Ag, Workers Do Not." The Law & Political Economy Project, online.

November 2021