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  • May 5th, 2018

ONE MAN’S HABITAT IS ANOTHER MAN’S WEEDPATCH

By Joel M. Vance

I knew a man who loved blackberry cobbler above all else. He cleared out a huge patch of wild blackberries…and then planted nursery-raised canes. The irony never occurred to him.

He was symptomatic of landowners who have been conditioned away from the wild bounty of the land and into a manufactured version of it. Another landowner I know is a staunch supporter of wildlife conservation. But he cleared out a long brushy draw and a fallow field and planted alfalfa from which he cuts hay, usually during the nesting season. He wonders where his quail have gone.

Habitat loss has many names: wetland loss, desertification, deforestation, fragmentation are just a few. The result is whatever lived there has lost its home. Some adapt to new conditions; most don’t. Some migrate to suitable habitat; many don’t.

So-called “clean” farming has become the norm. It flowered fully during the unlamented tenure of Earl Butz as Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of Agriculture. Butz’s mantra was “fencerow to fencerow” farming and he meant it literally—do not ever let a weed, a bush or a tree invade your fencerow, else you be accused of sloppy farming.

Let’s face it, much wildlife habitat is the result of neglect. As much as any factor, it was responsible for the revival of wildlife during and after World War Two. A generation of young farmers went to war and the farms they left behind often were in the draft horse era, small holdings where the concept of megafarms wasn’t even a glimmer.

There were brushy gullies and fencerows, woodlots untouched, fallow fields gone to weeds, no pesticides, no herbicides—in other words a set table for wildlife. Deer, turkeys and other animals thrived under this neglect.

It has been a downhill slide for wildlife habitat since Johnny came marching home. In the 1950s Missouri’s pasture land was more than 90 percent legumes like clover, alfalfa and lespedeza, all beneficial to wildlife. By the end of the century more than 90 percent was fescue, a rank grass that cows don’t even like much but that grows anywhere and is cheap. It’s estimated that five times as much land is in agriculture now compared to when the Pilgrims landed.

Coupled with fescue conversion came the flourish of pesticides and herbicides. Rachel Carson’s landmark 1962 Book Silent Spring waked America to the dangers of hard pesticides and put an end to the worst of them barely in time to arrest the skid of the bald eagle toward extinction (hard pesticide residues in eagle prey caused eggshell thinning and a subsequent decline in baby eagles).

Has 70-plus years of sluicing the land with chemicals affected wildlife, especially ground-nesting birds and small animals? It’s not a rhetorical question—there are indications that chemical poisoning causes genetic disruption, ranging from deformities to sex change in male creatures.

No one to my knowledge is investigating whether quail, an indicator species if ever there was one, have been genetically altered over the years by chemical exposure. For argument let’s say that seven decades of chemically treated quail food (seeds and green matter) have resulted in less potency among male quail or perhaps a one-egg decline in the average clutch size among females.

The result obviously would be fewer quail.

Couple that factor with habitat loss, increased predation, even global warming and possibly some other factors we don’t understand and the result is the most widespread poor quail population in the country’s history.

Hitched to changes in agriculture is the proliferation of people. Not only did Johnny come marching home; he came equipped and supercharged to breed. Since 1945 when the war ended, the U.S. population alone has grown to 320 million. The rate of increase has declined since 1990 when it was about 8 million a year added—but it still is well above zero population growth, nevermind a negative figure.

All those people demand space…not just space to live, but space to work and shop. Yesterday’s mom and pop grocery is today’s Wal-Mart parking lot. The solution is at the same time simple and impossible—quit having so many kids. That elementary conclusion rams head on into religious and other considerations which make it impossible to legislate or often even to talk about.

Yet anything else is a Band Aid on a grievous wound. All the programs for wildlife restoration, for habitat improvement, all the incentive payments to protect and enhance habitat don’t mean a thing if the world population continues to constrict what’s available for critters.

Western states with their hefty proportion of public lands (national forests, grasslands and Bureau of Land Management holdings) are better off than their eastern counterparts—fewer people, more untamed acres. But most of the country lives where wildlife habitat is at a premium. Public programs come and go. In the 1950s the Soil Bank retired many row crop acres to fallow fields and pheasant numbers flourished.

But the Soil Bank contracts ran out and farmers plowed up that habitat to take advantage of high grain prices. Same thing is happening with the Conservation Reserve Program as CRP contracts run out. It is a boom and bust cycle for wildlife that depends on old field and early succession acres.

Some landowners simply don’t like wildlife. It’s competitive with them and a nuisance. Even songbirds eat grain that otherwise would generate cash for the farmer. That group never will accept any idea that encourages critters. Another, larger, group can’t afford to idle acreage or share with wildlife. Farming is a crap shoot, subject to fickle weather and market fluctuations.

The smallest group is those who can afford to subsidize wildlife habitat or who, through a form of genius, have figured out how to make money. I know a man who was about to sink as a crop farmer, but converted his farm to a dog training preserve and righted the economic ship.

The late Eugene Poirot, a southwest Missouri farmer, took a worn out acreage and turned it into a money machine with creative ideas like filling ponds through spring rainfall, raising catfish for market in them, then draining the water for irrigation of crops when drought struck. His long out of print book Our Margin of Life details his many ideas for living with wildlife and making money at the same time, but it takes a person of rare vision, even with Poirot’s blueprint, to make it work.

There really is no way to quantify wildlife habitat loss. We know what constitutes good habitat for some animals, less about what others need. Some species have proved more resilient than we thought. When I began working for the Missouri Conservation Department in 1969, our turkey biologist John Lewis felt that Missouri would have open hunting in about half its 114 counties and he thought he was being optimistic.

Now all counties are open and most have the best overall turkey hunting in the country. White-tailed deer have been a similar success. Both animals have adapted to living cheek by beak with humans.

Not so the prairie chicken, once a common citizen of Missouri’s native tallgrass prairie which spanned a third of the state. Prairie chickens fueled wagon trains heading West in the 1800s. Along with the bison, they were meat for land hungry settlers and gold hungry prospectors.

But habitat loss had the grouse teetering on the brink of extinction long before the first chemical spray hit the land. The plow herded the birds into ever decreasing prairie enclaves (today of what once was 15 million tallgrass acres less than 100,000 remains). Hunting stopped more than100 years ago But the population has stumbled down ever since until now the estimate is less than 500 birds statewide.

You can have a prairie without prairie chickens, but you can’t have prairie chickens without a prairie. It all boils down to habitat and no animal is more dependent on the right habitat than the prairie chicken.

But what constitutes a prairie? There are more questions about Missouri’s prairie chickens and their habitat than there are the birds themselves. Despite repeated efforts to stay the trend, the population of the once-common pinnated grouse has declined to the point that they now are facing extirpation.

“Extirpation” means gone from a given territory. “Extinction” means gone from the world. Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota and a few other states can claim tenuous prairie chicken populations. If there is hope for the rest of the grouse’s historic range, it is that other states have brought the birds back from near-extirpation.

The loss of prairie chicken habitat has been staggering. In Illinois it went from more than 60 percent of the state’s acreage to less than one-one hundredth, hardly enough acreage for a back yard garden. The chicken population, estimated in the early 1960s at 2,000 in two southeastern Illinois counties, Jasper and Marion, fell to 50 birds by the 1990s.

Habitat loss coupled with genetic loss. The birds, confined to fragments of their former range, inbred and hatching success fell from the 90th percentile to under 40 percent. Illinois began restoring habitat and introducing birds from other states, with genetic backgrounds similar to that of the Illinois birds. Starting in 1992 Illinois sweetened its ragtag remnant with 500 prairie chickens from Nebraska, Minnesota and Kansas. After new blood came into the gene pool the hatch rate jumped back to 94 percent.

That is an example of a habitat problem identified by nature writer David Quammen in his book The Song of the Dodo. He calls the concept “island biodiversity” and in essence it means that a given wildlife population in an island of good habitat, surrounded by poor habitat, is doomed to, at best, become what he calls a “museum flock” and probably to longterm extinction.

Is that what’s happening with quail? Certainly where I hunt the habitat is outstanding….but in many cases that’s the only good quail habitat farm in a community of clean farms, fall plowed and devoid of winter cover. Maybe my survivor quail are inbreeding themselves to extinction, even though their home habitat is excellent.

A neighbor is a back-to-the-land advocate—they have a garden, raise about 40 chickens for eggs and meat, have a wood stove. But they live in a house carved as part of a rural housing development from a farm where I used to hunt quail. Six of one, half a dozen of the other…..

I can’t complain about usurping rural land from wildlife. We moved to 40 acres 27 years ago, but I like to think we haven’t disturbed the ecosystem that much. I’ve killed turkeys on the ridge across our small lake, and I photographed a chuck-will’s-widow nest there. We have wood ducks nesting, as well as doves. Two barred owls often chat across the lake and there are numerous box turtles.

But the covey of quail that used to be on the place is gone. Maybe I could blame it on the neighbors but I suspect we all share equally in the guilt.

While trap-and-transplant is essential for the restoration of wildlife species, it is not the most vital element—that remains habitat. “It all comes down to that,” said a member of an eight-person prairie chicken team working for the Missouri Department of Conservation.

Habitat—it is as ephemeral a word as the life of a mayfly. It’s where critters live, obviously, but there are so many intangibles that the concept is like a medieval philosophical question about how many angels there are on the head of a pin.

Can prairie chickens survive and thrive on non-native prairie? I once saw chickens booming on plowed ground, stumbling and recovering like a drunk on the street. It was a sad and illuminating sight. I’m not sure if they were thriving or not—I doubt it, but I can’t judge without insinuating myself into the private and continuing life of that bedeviled flock of chickens. Perhaps these were the rarest of rare chickens, those who had discovered the secret of adaptation, like deer or coyotes.

But I doubt it.

I suspect they were symptomatic of a species hanging on. They roosted and presumably nested in a railroad right-of-way that served as a remnant tallgrass prairie. Everything else was corn and soybeans…and plowed ground. Before Audrain County was settled, it was a sweeping tallgrass prairie and pioneers reported big bluestem taller than a horse’s back. Riders would appear to be a dozen feet tall because the horse they sat upon was invisible.

After the disaster of the Dust Bowl, Midwestern farmers planted windbreaks in profusion, usually Osage orange a lush tree whose branches stooped to the ground and offered shelter to small wildlife. But Osage orange has the unfortunate (from the landowner’s standpoint) habit of sucking moisture from its surroundings, meaning a few rows of corn or beans adjacent to a hedgerow would be puny. That proved unacceptable and, beginning in earnest in the 1960s, farmers started jerking those audacious hedgerows and substituting, if anything, a four-strand barbed wire fence.

Missouri’s Conservation Department has taken heat over the years for its sponsorship and endorsement of two plants of great value to wildlife: multiflora rose and autumn olive. Both offer thick cover and bounteous crops of berries beloved by birds. Therein lies the problem—birds eat the berries and digest the good parts….but defecate the seeds indiscriminately. So, today’s carefully planted cover strip becomes tomorrow’s invasive plant.

It’s well known, but not widely appreciated that enormous destruction of Latin American rain forest is shrinking the populations of many migratory songbirds. It’s easier to mourn the decline of bobwhite quail because we hunt them and they are North American cousins. We don’t see the ravaging of the rain forest but its impact ripples like the effect of a rock tossed in a pond.

At the other end of the world, the shrinking polar ice cap is closing in on polar bears, like the walls in a Poe horror story. On the Great Plains, the rapacious oil and gas industries are squeezing out the sage grouse and other grassland grouse with their drilling sites, all for the benefit of more oil and gas production so consumers can buy SUVs and other gas hogs and so they can ship their oil across the country through pipelines which inevitably will rupture and destroy even more habitat. Windfarms, supposedly beneficial, often are deadly to birds up to and including eagles, killed by the gigantic whirling blades of the turbines. Hydroelectric dams have caused massive fish kills, and the flooding of countless acres of what once was wildlife habitat. The drawbacks to solar energy may well cancel out the benefits of this so-called free energy. Nothing comes without its price— except to wildlife which always seems to be on the debit side of the ledger.

The destruction of pioneer forest land by loggers was horrific enough in its time, but nothing compared to the wholesale rape of the land today . Scottish poet Alexander Smith said, “A man doesn’t plant a tree for himself. He plants it for posterity” I don’t know of any poets who have written odes of praise for those who cut that tree down.

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