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Bulldozers push out wildlife for more corn

by Patrick Durkin 22. June 2012 08:50
Patrick Durkin

If you drive through farm country these days, you’ll often see bulldozers pushing old farmsteads, fencerows and windbreaks into monstrous burn piles to expand high-priced cornfields for feeding cattle and brewing ethanol.
All those miles of former brush, oaks, box elder, tall grass, dark granite and crumbling limestone once served as valuable shelterbelts. Besides protecting farm fields from wind and water erosion, they also provided habitat for deer, rabbits, songbirds, pheasants and other wildlife.

Bulldozers pushed several hundred yards of shelterbelts into numerous burn-piles on this southern Wisconsin farm.

Since the Dust Bowl, agricultural agencies and conservationists encouraged and applauded farmers who built and maintained shelterbelts, viewing them as long-term investments in the land. But conservation apparently can’t compete with corn that’s worth nearly $6 per bushel today and consistently more than $4 per bushel the past five years after averaging $2.50 from 1973 through 2005.

This widespread conversion of year-round habitat to seasonal one-crop monocultures is happening from Ohio and Indiana to eastern Washington. And it’s not just shelterbelts and abandoned farmsteads. In the Dakotas, folks are burning off cattail marshes, and tiling the black muck below to expand corn and soybean fields. How many miles of shelterbelts have been lost? Well, no government agency tracks acreage kept as fencerows, windbreaks or vacant farmsteads. But the federal government’s Conservation Reserve Program provides an indicator. Wisconsin alone will lose 45,170 acres of CRP land this year, presumably to beans and corn.

Fencerows and other shelterbelts that provide year-round habitat for ringneck pheasants and other wildlife are being lost as farmers expand fields to grow more profitable corn and soybeans.

But the Badger State is only 15th in lost CRP acres. North Dakota will lose nearly 650,000 acres of CRP lands this year, worst in the nation. Montana is second with 435,000 lost acres, and then it’s Minnesota, 190,000 and South Dakota with 170,000.
In fact, Pheasants Forever estimates the Northern Plains will lose more than 1 million CRP acres in the program’s 2012 re-enrollment process. CRP is perhaps the most powerful conservation tool in U.S. history. Under CRP the past 25-plus years, the government paid farmers and ranchers to plant trees and grasses instead of crops along waterways and highly erodible areas to protect the land and prevent soils and nutrients from washing into rivers and streams.

Diane Peterson photo, Pheasants Forever: A hunter takes aim at a ringneck pheasant flushed from a brushy ditch.

Although payments for CRP lands were competitive with crop prices from the late 1980s through the mid-2000s, they’ve lagged with recent leaps in grain prices. What’s behind high grain prices? Some blame federal subsidies for ethanol production, while others cite rising global demands for cattle feed, including China, India and South America.
Scott Walter, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources’ upland game ecologist, tracks the state’s CRP acreage for the DNR. He said 51 percent of the country’s 2011 corn crop went to ethanol production, the first time in history that more corn went for fuel than food.

“That demand drives up not only corn prices, but food prices,” Walter said. “That puts more pressure on the land, it destroys more wildlife habitat, and it gives people fewer places to hunt. If your goal is to create more hunting opportunities, the challenge worsens for each acre lost to crop production.”

Dave Nomsen, vice president of governmental affairs for Pheasants Forever, said lost ditches, shelterbelts and old farmsteads have huge impacts on small game, upland birds and other wildlife.
“I’ve lived in Northern Plains states my entire life, and I’ve never seen pressure on the landscape like we have now,” Nomsen said. “It’s one thing to convert old grass into corn, but when you’re pulling out rocks, trees, wetlands and old farmyard foundations, and testing and capping wells on abandoned farmsteads, you’re investing significant time, effort and money into something that might not pay off for very long.”

Roger Hill photo, Pheasants Forever: The more shelterbelts lost to grain production, the fewer places for deer, pheasants, rabbits and other wildlife to live and hide.

Even so, Nomsen said it’s difficult to fault individuals who cash in on today’s high crop prices. “It’s a complex question and decision,” he said. “High land values are part of it, too. It’s tough for a landowner to stand pat with a $75 to $100 break on CRP acres when he can get two to three times that much by renting his fields to someone planting beans and corn.”
Nomsen and Walter also wonder what will happen if grain prices fall to where CRP rates are again competitive.

“Who’s going to put back those long strips of old trees, big rocks and old fencerows?” Walter asked.

For that matter, who’s going to replace the fertile topsoil that blows or drains away the next few years in the absence of shelterbelts?

ATA Show is Business First

by Patrick Durkin 13. January 2011 03:30
Patrick Durkin

INDIANAPOLIS – While attending the 2011 ATA Trade Show last week (Jan. 6-8) at the Indianapolis Convention Center, I couldn’t help but think it should have been my 20th straight archery/bowhunting Trade Show.

Trouble is, I broke that streak in 1999 after returning from a late-season bowhunt with an intestinal parasite. Believe me, I tried my best to attend, but I never made it out of the house. I finally unpacked my suitcase after spending my travel day and the Show’s first day confined to my house. Since then, I’ve been more careful what I eat while away from home.

No matter how many times I’ve attended the ATA Trade Show, I continue to be amazed by its size, the number of manufacturers, the diversity of product lines, and the products’ amazing innovations. Every time I think these guys can’t possibly make a faster bow; a straighter, more durable arrow; or a truer-flying broadhead, I turn the corner at the ATA Trade Show and run into an engineer who just proved me wrong. It only took me about 10 Shows to concede they’ll never accept the status quo; not if they want to stay in business.

Eve so, it’s not always easy finding those innovations on your own while cruising the Show floor, because its size is overwhelming. This year’s ATA Trade Show featured 513 manufacturers and other exhibitors, who combined to rent 167,650 square feet of booth space, including a record 55 shooting lanes along the Show floor’s perimeters. Add in the aisles, and the Show covers about 300,000 square feet of floor space.

Try to picture that: If the ATA Show were laid out in one giant square, each side would measure 1.5 football fields long. Just so we’re clear, that means the length of a football field, including its end zones, plus half of another field from the back of an end zone to slightly past the 50-yard line.

Now, divide that space into 513 squares and rectangles of various sizes, and you realize you’ll never see everything firsthand at the Show. For kicks, I calculated how much time I could spend in each of the 513 booths if I were to visit every exhibitor during the Show’s three nine-hour days. The answer: about three minutes and 9 seconds.

And that’s just from the perspective of a writer gathering information on the latest bows and bowhunting gear at the Show. I don’t have to worry about choosing the best mix of inventory for my shop, predicting what customers will buy, or making sure deals I negotiate keep me in business another year.

In other words, archery/bowhunting retailers might enjoy attending the Show and socializing a bit with old friends, but they must cover miles of carpeted cement and make lots of important decisions during those three days. Talk about pressure!

Sure, they might take time to snag an autograph from a TV show personality, and they might gawk at someone hanging 30 feet above the Show floor to demonstrate a tree-stand safety harness. Time is money, though, and the mood you see on the Show Floor is far different from what you’ll usually see at hunting shows and fishing shows open to the general public.

And that’s why archery-shop owners who sneak a friend or two into the Show have to be careful. The stakes at the ATA Trade Show are high. When exhibitors discover they’ve wasted precious time explaining a product to someone who shouldn’t be there, and watched a legitimate shop owner walk away rather than wait, they might not let the “show crasher” slide. Every year people are escorted off the Show floor for such deceptions.

Believe me, I keep all that in mind when visiting manufacturers’ booths at the ATA Show. When I spot individuals I need to interview, I back off and circle the block if they’re talking with retailers or shop owners. This show is often the manufacturers’ only chance each year to meet their paying customers -- archery dealers -- and I better not get in their way.

That’s just smart business, and it’s nothing personal.

Did you attend the show? What were your thoughts?

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