Canary of the Prairie


(Writer’s Note: Portions of this blog were based on media reports from the St. Paul Pioneer Press, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the Marshall Independent and the New York Times.)

This past Saturday some 300 folks assembled in Marshall, MN, for the Pheasant Summit, where Minnesota’s DNR Commissioner suggested that the ring-necked pheasant is the “canary” of the prairie.  “[Pheasants] represents the health of the landscape,” he said.

Our very own "canary of the prairie" strutting across our prairie.

Our very own “canary of the prairie” strutting across our prairie.

Wise choice, since there is barely enough grasslands left to support the lives of original “canary of the prairie” — the prairie chicken. Translated, grasslands equate habitat, and habitat was the key buzzword for the day long conference.

While it is fine to point to the pheasant as a symbol, the overall situation may be more dire than a sportive and beautiful bird. Rest assured, there is a relation between pheasants and that beautiful black glacial till we call soil. Pheasants, black soil swirls in the snow banks, and corn and other crops planted right to the edges of drainage ditches, are all related, for that soil is a precious, if not appreciated, commodity that the lives of future generations will rely on for its food supply. Just as it was important that the pollinator crisis seemed to be the focus of the winter meetings a year ago, perhaps our vast blackened landscape will garner some attention this time around. If it takes bird hunters and their beloved pheasants to do so, then bully for them. Bully for all of us, and our children’s children, too.

A "rock jockey" digs out glacial rocks in a grassland that, if like adjacent fields, will be converted to row crops.

A “rock jockey” digs out glacial rocks in a grassland that, if like adjacent fields, will be converted to row crops.

Soil mixing with snow, know as “snirt,” should be as much of a “canary” to the hunters and farmers as is the decline of the pheasant. Consider the lack of buffer strips and other grassy habitat, for example. Grasses protect the soil, as does holding off tillage until the spring or the planting of cover crops. In our many trips through the “black desert” of the former prairie pothole biome this fall and winter, we’ve seen two (2) small fields planted to cover crops despite the number of meetings that addressed the issue last winter. Two.

Certainly there are strategies available for holding precious soils in place. The least expensive for farmers is to simply forgo fall tillage, since corn stalks are anchored in the soil. Stalks also capture moisture, and for pheasants there would be more protection and spilled grain on the surface to provide a food source to survive winters. However, until the innovators, followed by the early adopters, give this idea a shot, it’s a practice that will go nowhere. Other strategies might include fall planted cover crops and even the enforcement of buffer strip statutes. In other words, ground cover. Grasses. Strategies that will help preserve the soil and enhance life for pheasants, and people as well.

An example of "no buffer" farming.

An example of “no buffer” farming.

So, you may ask, how did it come to this? For the past 60-some years industralized farming practices have brought continued ditching and tiling, and an end to basic crop rotation practices, grass waterways and buffer strips. Of the 18 million acres of native prairie the Minnesota landscape once had, about one percent remains today, with habitat loss primarily attributed to farming and development. With last year’s $7 corn, Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) acres in the state dwindled from 9 million to 3 million acres. In short, what took natural history 12,000 years to accomplish since the last glacier has basically been destroyed in less than 200 years by mankind.

That said, there appears to be neither much concern nor urgency from the agricultural community, including the major farm organizations, nor in legislative circles as it applies to overall soil conservation issues. This past election cycle saw the passage of a “right to farm” amendment to the Missouri statutes that basically erodes any oversight efforts by government and private citizens from industrialized CAFOs and crop farming, including the use and misuse of agricultural pesticides. Nor did concern reach the Halls of Congress with its recent passage of the emergency budget bill where pro-industrialized big-ag legislation was “hidden”-within which states that the government (meaning the EPA) cannot require farmers to report “greenhouse gas emissions from manure management systems.” Nor can it require ranchers to obtain greenhouse gas permits for “methane emissions” produced by bovine flatulence or belching. The Environmental Protection Agency says on its website that “globally, the agriculture sector is the primary source” of methane emissions.

According to the news report, the spending bill requires the EPA to withdraw a new rule defining how the Clean Water Act applies to certain agricultural conservation practices. It also prevents the Army Corps of Engineers from regulating farm ponds and irrigation ditches under the Clean Water Act. Said Rep Mike Simpson (R-ID), “This is a major victory for farmers and ranchers, who consistently tell many of us that they are concerned about the potential of the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers’ overreach into their operations.” While this involves CAFOs and the EPA, grassland proponents had best not relax their guard.

Crops planted right to the lips of drainage ditches are not legal and rarely enforced, prompting the Ag Commissioner to suggest repealing the law.

Crops planted right to the lips of drainage ditches are not legal and rarely enforced, prompting the Ag Commissioner to suggest repealing the law.

Which brings us back to the Pheasant Summit in Marshall this past weekend as a case-in-point, where state’s largest farming organization, the pro-ag Farm Bureau, came away from the conference reportedly pleased there was no “blame game” involved. That should not come as a surprise. According to news reports, Doug Busselman, director of public policy, serving as Minnesota Farm Bureau’s lobbyist, said, “Most of the discussion here has been about how much habitat has been lost as opposed to focusing on how much habitat we have and how we can make the most of what we’ve got. I think those are some of the concerns that we’ve come here with. I think we’d benefit by recognizing where good is happening and building on that versus always looking at things lost.”

Read between the lines — status quo seems to get the nod from the Farm Bureau.

Rather than grass waterways, tillage equipment is run through fields to enhance a quicker drainage. Too shallow to qualify as an "official" ditch, these ditches won't qualify for buffer regulations.

Rather than grass waterways, tillage equipment is run through fields to enhance a quicker drainage. Too shallow to qualify as an “official” ditch, these ditches won’t qualify for buffer regulations.

Said Doug Peterson, president of the rival Minnesota Farmers Union, “We’re the resource owners. It’s time to stop pointing fingers. If we agree we need a state initiative for habitat for pheasants, wildlife, birds, pollinators and clean water, then it’s time for a policy that allows farmers to be part of the solution.’’ But, he added, landowners can’t be expected to give up income to implement conservation.

Then there was this from Minnesota Ag Commissioner Dave Fredrickson, who suggested in an interview to the St. Paul Pioneer Press that enforcement of existing buffer strip regulations — which requires vegetative strips along drainage ditches, streams and rivers of between 17.5 ft. to 50 ft. — is nearly impossible, and if local government entities aren’t doing the enforcement then perhaps the regulations should be repealed … that it isn’t up to the state to step in with enforcement.

None of which seems very positive for that ring-necked canary of the prairie.

If one looks around the farmed prairie, seeing  "blow outs" are common and seem to grow proportionately larger each growing season.

If one looks around the farmed prairie, seeing “blow outs” are common and seem to grow proportionately larger each growing season.

Here is what one of the attendees, an unnamed public servant and hunter, said following the meeting: “I’m profoundly sad that our state and country can not rise above the greed and lies to fix this very dangerous situation. We are running out of time before we have an ecological and biological collapse. Agriculture has been the demise of other civilizations and it will be ours, too, if we don’t wise up. Uncontrolled drainage policies, irresponsible pesticide use, total reliance and over application of commercial fertilizer, are just a few of the obvious races to the bottom. What scares me most is the absolute total control the agricultural ‘Mafia’ has on nearly all our politicians and agencies. We are being warned of the pending collapse but we are way too greedy and stupid to heed the warning.”

Enforcing existing laws, including buffers, roadsides and easements, actually topped the list among attendees at the conference, followed by efforts to increase bonding funds for Wildlife Management Area acquisition and target funding to specific high-quality habitat area through state, local and federal cost-share programs. Fourth on the list was to increase state and local funding, followed by the creation of competitive compensations for long-term/perpetual conservation practices.

Roadside snirt has already been seen throughout the prairie this winter ... and it's still December.

Roadside snirt has already been seen throughout the prairie this winter … and it’s still December.

One would think, though, that dirt — that common denominator between feeding a “nation” or “world,” depending on who is providing the hyperbole for the “original conservationists” out on the land — would matter most to those who are invested in farming it. Those are the folks who are denuding the grassy protections and whose soils are filling the road ditches with “snirt.”

See? No blame, no gain, apparently. And, thanks to an ignorant public and nicely financed lobbiest-pushed legislation, no accountability.

Then, there is this, from David R. Montgomery’s “Dirt – The Eroision of Civilization” —  “The estimated rate of world soil erosion now exceeds new soil production by as much as 23 billion tons per year, an annual loss of not quite one percent of the world’s agricultural soil inventory. At this pace, the world would literally run out of topsoil in little more than a century. It’s like a bank account from which one spends and spends, but never deposits.”

Which brings us back to the pheasant … our canary in the mining of the land.

This entry was posted in He Said by John G. White. Bookmark the permalink.

About John G. White

Somewhat retired after a long award-winning career in newspapers (Wisconsin State Journal, Dubuque Telegraph-Herald, Denver Post and a country weekly, the Clara City Herald). Free lance photographer and writer with credits in more than 70 magazines. Editor with various Webb Publishing magazines in St. Paul, and a five year stint as editorial director at Miller Meester Advertising.

1 thought on “Canary of the Prairie

  1. In 1995 we put 190 acres into a permanent grassland easement because we thought it would be the best way to take care of the land. That kind of commitment may not be possible for a farmer relying on his land for an income (even though it can be grazed and baled), but the destruction of acres of trees and never-ending installation of drain tiles on neighboring farmland is making our little spot into an oasis. Pheasants and deer? They’re all hiding out at our place.

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