Anderson: As conservationists we must do more

  • Article by: DENNIS ANDERSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 22, 2013 - 9:55 AM

It's apparent, as habitat diminishes, that we can't let conservation groups do all of our speaking for us.

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The prospect of ending a day's outing with a three-bird limit of rooster pheasants has kept tens of thousands of non-resident hunters returning to South Dakota each fall. But with a conversion of conservation acres and grasslands to row crops, the heyday of the state's ringneck hunting may be past.

Photo: Dennis Anderson, Star Tribune

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At last weekend's Pheasant Fest, conservationist hunters rubbed shoulders with outfitters, vendors and others on the business side of upland hunting, while a smattering of Washington politicians pressed the flesh.

The apparent intent of this last bunch, including USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, an Iowa native, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Rep. Collin Peterson of Minnesota, was to validate the conservationists' gathering, before retreating to the nation's Capitol -- far from the massive conservation problems facing farmland America.

The event itself, Pheasant Fest, was well organized and attended by nearly 30,000 people.

Many who ponied up its $10 admission perhaps have only a few days each fall to tramp public land in search of roosters, while others who made the pilgrimage own fine double guns, kennels full of dogs and hundreds of acres of prime South Dakota ground on which to hunt.

Regardless, the two were bound -- are bound -- by a common lust for wild lands and wilder birds, both preferably enjoyed beneath October skies, with a full moon rising.

Yet regardless an upland hunter's station, he and his favorite bird face uncertain futures.

As evidence, count the endless burning marshes that drifted smoke across North Dakota and South Dakota horizons last fall, also declining pheasant-hunting opportunities throughout the heartland and a federal crop insurance swindle that abets the conversion of Midwest grasslands to corn and soybean fields.

Long obvious to hunters, this conversion was substantiated this week by researchers Christopher Wright and Michael Wimberly of South Dakota State University, in a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.

Between 2006 and 2011, Wright and Wimberly found, farmers in Iowa, Nebraska, Minnesota and the Dakotas converted 1.3 million acres of grasslands to corn and soybean fields, a switcheroo driven primarily by high commodity prices, which in turn were underwritten in part by government-subsidized ethanol production.

"The conversion isn't good for ducks, pheasants or other wildlife, including grassland nesting birds and neo-tropical migrants," Wright said in a phone interview Thursday.

It's also bad for taxpayers (see subsidized crop insurance that minimizes financial risk to farmers who convert grasslands), soil health (erosion) and water quality (surface or subsurface).

Most startling is how quickly the conversion has occurred in the nation's breadbasket -- much of it in a span of a few years.

And unlike in the past, when farmers might have rotated crops and grass on their lands periodically, this conversion appears permanent.

"Minnesota is going the way of Iowa," Wright said, noting that very few grasslands remain in Iowa. "Looking at the satellite data, it was striking in Minnesota to see the amount of conversion occurring on lands that appears historically to have been [periodically] wet."

The conversion is being facilitated in part by subsurface farmland drainage, or pattern tiling, Wright surmised. Such tiling is occurring at an exponentially higher rate now in Minnesota and the Dakotas than even five years ago.

Peterson, the congressman from northwest Minnesota in town for Pheasant Fest, is both a farmer advocate and an outdoorsman.

Contrary to most conservationists' thinking, he's also a big fan of tiling.

"You guys are flat wrong about tiling," Peterson told Ron Schara and me in an interview. "Pattern tiling is a better way of managing [farmland] water than running it out over the top."

That might be true, of course, if the water had someplace to go besides a ditch, then a river, then another river -- such as, in Peterson's district, the Red River, which is subject to horrendous floods.

It might also be true if drained farmland water were retained subsurface for a period before being discharged into ditches and rivers.

Historically, wetlands served this purpose. But most Minnesota wetlands, including those in Peterson's district, have been drained. And novel subsurface drainage systems that provide retention are expensive and relatively little used.

Thus in many ways a conundrum bewitched Pheasant Fest attendees.

Apparent was exuberance for Pheasants Forever and its cause. Yet underlying this was fear for the future of the nation's most fertile wildlife lands.

And fear as well -- Vilsack and Klobuchar offered little comfort here -- that the political system is tilted inextricably in favor of agriculture production, not conservation, and certainly not the average guy.

My thought? Before it's too late, hunters and other conservationists must become more active politically, individually -- not content only to defer their interests to their favorite member group.

This might mean, in the end, a conversion of a different kind: of conservationists nationwide leaving their homes for a rally in Washington.

So far what we're doing, and what groups such as Pheasants Forever and Ducks Unlimited, among others, are doing -- valuable though they are -- isn't working.

And the losses are mounting.

Dennis Anderson danderson@startribune.com

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