It was just prior to 1960 when the ringneck pheasant began disappearing from Ohio’s landscape. Many blamed any bird sporting talons or sly fox roaming the shared farmlands while some felt that pellet fertilizers and insecticides were the culprits. The truth was found within the quickly evolving farming practices that were helping to feed a growing world population.
Drainage technology had improved and agricultural equipment became more efficient, resulting in “waste” ground being turned into farmable fields while livestock numbers were deeply downsized in favor of grain crops.
This diminished the diversified patchwork plantings that had included the required timothy, clover, and alfalfa to feed cattle and horses and was accompanied by the removal of pastures and the fence lines that once held them.
This sudden loss stunned hunters and outdoor enthusiasts as well as the farmers sitting atop the tractors. Who could have imagined that Ohio’s most popular game bird – a bird whose population was estimated at five million in 1940 – was vanishing?
We collectively sat back and played that old “shoulda-coulda-woulda” game.
Specialized state-run poultry farms were built to raise pheasants to augment the birds’ numbers. Surely, adding them to the field would help the diminished wild population survive. The program, which is best viewed as a put-and-take proposition, helped ease the perception of loss and continues to provide hunting opportunities, but it does little to add to the pheasant population.
In the awakening conservation movements of the early 1970s, many well educated wildlife biologists began sitting down with their counterparts across the Midwest.
It was clear that the quickly occurring habitat losses were the causative factor of the ringnecked pheasant’s population crash. Evidence also revealed that other upland bird numbers were slipping, including meadowlarks, bobolinks, and bluebirds.
While some portray landowners as the heavy in this story, don’t believe for a moment that they didn’t care about what was happening. While they were eking out a living, they were also attuned to these changes. Most wanted to achieve a sustaining balance for both their farm and the critters with which they shared the land.
The Ohio Division of Wildlife (DOW), whose mission is to conserve and improve fish and wildlife resources and their habitats, began to closely evaluate how to update its wildlife management programs. They recognized that roughly 95% of Ohio’s 26.5 million acres are privately owned and nearly 14 million of the remaining acreage are involved in agriculture. In contrast, the division manages or cooperates in managing about 750,000 acres, making it very clear where wildlife needed habitat help.
The federal government was also looking at shrinking wildlife habitat, loss of wetlands, water quality, and erosion issues. Legislation was formulated to address these concerns through various farm bills administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Farmers were going to need help navigating these new conservation programs.
It was about 1980 when the DOW responded by developing the private lands biologist position who would specialize in assisting landowners in building sustainable wildlife management programs on their own property while maintaining a working farm. Conservation plans were implemented to take advantage of applicable federal funding and before long, Ohio’s wildlife habitat base improved.
National conservation organizations were also using their influence and expertise to help guide how such expenditures were best pressed.
Ducks Unlimited, the National Wild Turkey Federation, and Pheasants Forever became leaders in conservation development and helped coordinate funding and interest in the programs. The new private lands biologists worked closely with these groups and the farm services agencies to successfully implement the renewed interest in conservation practices.
This professional collaboration has achieved much during the last 45 years. Wetlands have been restored, improved, and created, grassland buffers along watersheds planted, erosion protecting windbreaks installed, and marginal farmlands have become filtering safeguards that improve water quality. All of it increasing Ohio’s home’s for wildlife.
Do you need to be a farmer to get help from a Division of Wildlife private lands biologist? Not at all. If you have land that you believe may be able to provide improved wildlife habitat, these folks are there to answer your questions. They can offer personalized information on managing your land, from stream corridors to pastures, prairies, woodlands and urban landscapes.
To contact one of Ohio’s private lands biologists, visit www.wildohio.gov or call 1-800-WILDLIFE.
Don’t forget to support your local conservation club chapters and the other habitat conservation organizations in your community.
Jim Abrams is a retired wildlife officer supervisor for the Division of Wildlife in Findlay.