Is the demise of bird hunting on the horizon?

When you walk through Game Fair, take a look around you and
consider what you see. Among the 300 exhibitors you’ll find
businesses large and small, as well as nonprofit groups and other
organizations. Nearly all of them are trying to turn a buck. What
you are looking at is a representative slice of the bird-hunting
economy.

Among all of this, you’ll find politicians and partisans with
smiles and glad hands for everyone. They’ll tell you they’re for
guns and swamps and prattle on about heritage and tradition. After
all they’re here to score a few votes.

Certainly, more than a few hunters base their voting decisions
at least in part on a candidate’s positions on guns and
conservation. But I wonder how many hunters or politicians realize
the fate of bird hunting – for waterfowl, pheasants, and prairie
grouse – is greatly determined by politics. In the Upper Midwest,
habitat for these game birds and a host of wildlife species largely
is found on agricultural land. The fate of that habitat rests with
federal farm policies, which are determined less by what is good
for the land or even farmers, but more on the demands of the
agricultural lobby and short-term bones politicians toss to farmers
to garner their vote.

As for hunters, most politicians occasionally put on a
camouflage coat and announce they are all for guns and swamps and
heritage and tradition. Maybe they mean it. Unfortunately, when it
comes to setting farm policies, inevitably they are more for Big Ag
and farm country votes.

Now, the bird-hunting economy may not compare with the
commodities market, but it is not insignificant. Moreover, dogs,
shotguns, and game birds are part of the culture in the Upper
Midwest. For some of us, bird hunting is the high point of the
year. Is any of this reason enough to strike a better balance
between agricultural economics and habitat? Maybe not, but land
devoted to wildlife habitat provides other societal benefits.

Unplowed ground holds soil in place, combating wind and water
erosion. Wildlife habitat filters and retains water, improving
water quality and reducing floods. And, in a warming world, it
absorbs and holds on to carbon, taking it out of the atmosphere
where it contributes to climate change. Does this make wildlife
habitat as valuable as land where you can grow $7 per bushel corn?
Maybe not for the landowner, but for all Americans, yes, I think it
does.

Unfortunately, politicians don’t have to develop farm policies
that fully incorporate land, water, and wildlife conservation
policies in order to stay in office. Instead they pander to the Big
Ag lobby, doing a disservice to all Americans, including the owners
of the nation’s farmland. They give us temporary solutions like the
Conservation Reserve Program, which has done wonders to improve
habitat and water quality, and reduce erosion.

The only problem with CRP is that it lacks permanence and all of
the benefits accumulated during its two decades of existence can be
lost with the stroke of a pen. This nearly occurred last week when
the Secretary of Agriculture considered allowing landowners to opt
out of their CRP leases without paying a penalty. The grasslands
taken out of the program could have been plowed up and converted to
row crops so landowners could take advantage of high commodity
prices.

In the end, conservation prevailed – the secretary decided not
to allow the early outs – but it appears CRP will dwindle away
because many landowners are unlikely to renew their contracts when
they expire. If this occurs – and unless the federal government
makes taking land out of production more lucrative for landowners,
it will – the good bird hunting we’ve enjoyed for the last 20 years
will be gone.

The birds won’t immediately disappear, but as the grassy places
where they nest and find refuge from winter storms are converted to
row crops, the land will lose its capacity to support game birds in
abundance. Hunters who have grown accustomed to seeing flocks of
pheasants will have to adjust to occasionally putting up a bird or
two. Duck hunters will look into emptier skies. Recall, if you can,
what pheasant hunting was like in the 1980s and the “duck crisis”
that occurred in the latter part of that decade. For hunters, that
era certainly was not “the good old days.”

If poor bird hunting returns, what will this do to the bird
hunting economy? Will it mean fewer shotgun sales? Will fewer
households include a trained hunting dog? Will nonresident license
sales decline in the Dakotas? Will hunting/conservation
organizations have trouble recruiting and retaining members?

Will bird hunting survive? Hunters who are accustomed to easy
shoots may give up if the going gets tough. Minnesota, which is
beginning the transition to a habitat-poor deer and turkey state –
a fate that has already befallen our eastern and southern neighbors
– may be the first bird-hunting bastion to take a tumble. The
worst-case scenario is that bird hunting as an activity will
transition to artificial game farms, something that has already
occurred in Eastern and Southern states that once had strong quail,
ruffed grouse, and pheasant hunting traditions.

If so, other states may suffer, because Minnesota is home to
many bird-hunting businesses and exports thousands of bird hunters
to other states. Simply put, without Minnesota in the game, other
states may not have adequate numbers of hunters to maintain the
bird hunting economy or to agitate for better habitat
conservation.

Is the situation hopeless? It’s hard to say, because we can’t
predict the whims of the agricultural economy. It is fair to assume
politicians won’t rescue farmland habitat or bird hunting unless
something is in it for them. At a time when politicians are touting
the wonders of ethanol and other agricultural biofuels, it is
difficult to believe we will see meaningful advances in farmland
conservation. Protecting wildlife, water and soil just doesn’t
deliver a comparable number of votes.

We are in a campaign season where politicians are promising
change, but are frustratingly silent about land and water
conservation. For bird hunters, the continuation of a viable CRP
would be a start, but what we really need is permanent habitat
protection. Most seasoned wildlife biologists will tell you they’ve
watched temporary conservation programs come and go during their
careers, leading to ups and downs in habitat-dependent wildlife
populations. In addition, they point to the tremendous taxpayer
expense of the subsidies used to pay for these programs.

Permanent habitat protection, such as Minnesota’s wildlife
management areas, provides conservation benefits as well as public
hunting opportunities. The biggest drawback is that landowners and
local governments are reluctant to see large amounts of land in
public ownership and permanently out of production, resulting in a
loss of tax base and future economic opportunity. If politicians
were truly serious about change, they would seek ways to address
these legitimate concerns while expanding the public benefits of
wildlife abundance, natural flood control, and soil stability.

The case easily can be made that losing the land’s ability to
sustain abundant wildlife or retain soil and water comes at
tremendous public costs measured in counterproductive farm
subsidies, public aid for flooding and flood control, and erosion
mitigation. That we can and should do better with land and water
conservation efforts goes without saying. For politicians to say
they care about guns and swamps isn’t enough. We need to hold their
feet to the fire until they deliver conservation programs that
truly make a difference.

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