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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?

Buffalo Point: Land of Enchantment

by Daniel James Hendricks 20. October 2011 13:58
Daniel James Hendricks

   Bears were plentiful with lots of opportunities for both bows and cameras.

If you’ve never experienced the taste of chocolate and someone tries to describe the sensation to you, it’s impossible to grasp the undeniable pleasure that you will experience when the sweet substance finally passes over your tongue.  Such is the case I experienced with an enchanting land called Buffalo Point.

  Wyman Sangster is the outfitter at Buffalo Point and was please I finally made the trip there.

Wyman Sangster and I first met at the Wisconsin Deer and Turkey Expo a few years back; my personal relationship with him has been one of those special affiliations that was rich right from the very start and like fine wine has only gotten better with the passing of time.  From the very onset of our association, he pleaded with me to come to Buffalo Point in the Northwest Angle on Lake of the Woods to see where he lives and the hunting and fishing Nirvana he had just discovered just a few years earlier, himself.  What he neglected to mention was what a wonderful getaway it was for those of us who are addicted to digitally immortalizing our trophies with photographic paraphernalia.

I dilly-dallied on Wyman’s invitation and finally this spring took him up on his offer to hunt bear there.  By the time the week ended, I had been exposed to enough of the natural wonders of Buffalo Point to be hooked on that outdoorsman’s paradise for the rest of my earthly existence.

 The Points 18-hole golf course was a beautiful with wildlife running all over it.

Upon arrival, I quickly tracked Wyman and his wife, Darlene down on the fifth hole of the beautiful Buffalo Point golf course.  It was the first time I had met Darlene so I took some time to get to know her as I followed along while they finished their first nine holes.  This bear hunt, which will be an HBM Hunt Club Annual event, is the only one that I have ever heard of that offers free golf during the week of the hunt.  From dawn to mid-afternoon, it is golfing or fishing and then the evenings are packed with the nail-biting excitement of bear hunting.

At the end of the first nine, Wyman instructed me on how to find my lodging at the Marina.  With that information securely locked in my head, I headed for what would be my home for the next week.  I stopped at the Marina, which serves as the main desk for the dozen or so lakeside cabins as well as being Buffalo Point’s grocery store, bait shop, camping & boat launching headquarters; and the local coffee shop for the seasonal residents that call Buffalo Point home from early spring to late fall.  I picked up my key, got directions and quickly found my luxury cabin.  It was beautiful!  Screened in porch, full kitchen, 2-bedrooms, whirlpool tub in the bath, a deck right on the lakeshore and satellite TV so I could watch Fox News.  It was military clean and exceedingly wonderful. 

Curt Thunder and his wife, Cheryl were gracious hosts and excellent company.

Within an hour, I met the gentleman who was to serve as my guide for the week.  Buffalo Point has its own Gamekeeper, a local by the name of Curt Thunder.  Curt grew up on Buffalo Point and knows its lake, land, swamps and rivers like the back of his hand from 40+ years of traipsing from one end of it to the other.  He has a gentle soul, a sharp wit and we quickly formed a bond that deepened during the many hours we spent together over the next seven days.  I was the only hunter on this trip so I was able to accompany Curt as he made his rounds replenishing the bait stations each day; I also spent a lot of time with him and his wife Cheryl who went out of her way to provide wonderful meals, great company and a heck of a lot of laughs.  The Thunders are a great family and I am pleased to have added them to my special-friends list.

Curt’s job is to oversee the wellbeing of the Buffalo Point wildlife and to serve as host to the bear, deer and duck hunters that come there to fulfill their hunting dreams.  His keen intelligence and seemingly endless wood lore provide a stimulating and entertaining atmosphere enriching the experience of all who come to harvest wild game at The Point. 

Signs warn hikers about the baits close to the settlement.

As the number of permanent homes increased at Buffalo Point, so did the number of nuisance-bear incidents.  Buildings were broken into, there was exterior damage, and garbage cans were destroyed and scattered creating a hazardous problem.  Over fifty bear complaints a year was a serious dilemma; but, when you build a burgeoning community in the middle of bear country, you should expect a certain amount of “incidents” with a sleuth of bears living in the neighborhood.

To remedy the problem, Curt has been put in charge of feeding the bears from the time they exit their dens in the early spring until the bountiful berry season begins on the Point.  Blueberries, wild strawberries, saskatoons, chokecherries, pin cherries and acorns are all prolific on the Point, easily keeping the bears fed, once the natural food comes into season; but for the first few months after thaw, Curt’s daily trips into the thick forests and swamps of the Point, keep the bears exactly where they belong – in the woods.  This system not only nearly eliminates bear complaints, but it also creates an arena of premium bear hunting.  My wildlife photo morgue is plump with bear photos thanks to the six nights on the stands at Buffalo Point and two of those nights I sat in the rain and saw no bears at all.

Cheryl Thunder has a natural way of putting the animals of Buffalo Point at ease. 

The second night of the hunt I blew a chance at one of the biggest spring bears I have ever seen in the bush.  It was in the very last moments of daylight and I had just put away my camera as was sitting there thinking when I should have been picking up my bow.  The big bruin suddenly appeared from out of the thick cover, causing my heart to momentarily stop.  It was truly an incredible specimen!  In the heat of the adrenaline overdose I was experiencing, I reached for my crossbow, which was hanging on the tree.  It was just enough movement to alert the bear and give me a good glimpse of its ample behind disappearing into the bright green undergrowth; proving once again that one is never too old to make stupid mistakes.  I passed on a lot of bears at the Point, but that humongous creature was the big-daddy of the week and I had blown it.

On that very same stand the last night of the hunt, amid desperate prayers for another opportunity at that burly beast, I took a smaller bear as the day was fading into darkness. This particular bear had been stuffing itself for an hour and had shown no signs of alarm or concern indicating to me that the big bear was not in the immediate area.  When the big boys are within spitting range of the bait, the little guys can sense their presence and head for cover so they are not brutally beaten for their lack of respect.

 The very last night of the hunt, this bear fell prey to my crossbow as the daylight fled.

It had been several years since I had taken a bear so decided that this one would be a perfect specimen to break the drought; it definitely would make for a good freezer stuffer.  A lot of good photos of the bear had been taken, so I definitely had my trophy to hang on the wall.  Watching the bear eat had done little to arouse my excitement, even when it started to climb my tree at one point; but once the decision to take it was made, I lost control as the adrenaline surged through my system in anticipation of the kill.

Sitting on the very point one morning I was joined by a pair of curious otters. 

Waiting until I had a perfect broadside, I placed the glowing red circle of the scope on its black rib cage and gently squeezed the trigger of the Kodabow.  The silence of the darkening forest was crushed by the discharge of the arrow as I watched it blaze a brilliant red streak to the target, compliments of the Lumenock tip.  The doomed bear spun on its hind legs, ran to the tree directly behind the middle barrel and climbed high off the ground.  The bruin, I believe, thought that it had been sneak-attacked by the bigger bear and was fleeing up the tree to safety.  Little did it realize that its fate had already been sealed by the Rage broadhead that had ventilated its goodie box.  Eventually the bear came crashing to the ground in a fall that would have killed it were it not already gone.

 There are more Canadian Geese that people on Buffalo Point with goslings galore.

I signaled Curt and his nephew who were sitting offshore doing a bit of fishing and they came to assist in the removal of the bear.  The process brought to a perfect end, what had been a wonderful week.  The next morning after skinning the bear, I packed and headed for home, already looking forward to coming back to play some more in the natural beauty of Buffalo Point.

Buffalo Point 2012

If you are interested in booking a spring bear hunt or a fall bear/whitetail or waterfowl hunt at Buffalo Point give the HBM Main Desk a closer look. The entire Buffalo Point experience is one that will definitely leave you wanting to come back for more.  Curt Thunder, the Buffalo Point Gamekeeper, is also willing to work with disabled hunters for both bear and whitetails in the fall.  If you are physically challenged and want a truly remarkable adventure in an enchanted land of the wild things, you owe it to yourself to check it out.

Eagles were everywhere.  This shot was taken near one of two nest on the golf course.













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