Thinking Beyond Birds

man walking in a field with a shotgun
Upland bird hunter(s) & English Setter(s) by GaryKramer.net, 530-934-3873, gkramer@cwo.com

Who would have ever guessed that the tools most important to the salvation of ducks would be caramel, coffee, and conversation?  

—Michael Furtman, On the Wings of a North Wind

When talking about pheasants, grouse, ducks, grass and dogs to my hunting friends, their eyes light up. When talking to friends who don’t hunt, their eyes often glaze over. How do hunters talk about our passion for birds and show friends and colleagues that our interests are similar to theirs? The answer is simple: habitat. Habitat isn’t just for the birds anymore. Bird habitat provides a number of “ecosystem services” for people also.

Most conservationists are hands-on types. We want to do something to benefit birds and habitat. A sore back at the end of the day isn’t a bad thing—if it’s sore for a good reason.  

Unfortunately, most of us don’t own large parcels of habitat. We don’t have the training to light prescribed fires to rejuvenate uplands or a license to drive a dozer to do the earthwork that wetland restoration often requires. However, each of us does have a voice.

If we can’t do something with our hands, we can have thoughtful, respectful conversations. The conservation community has always talked about habitat in the context of birds and other wildlife. The right habitat in the right place also benefits people and society. And that’s an opportunity for a new conversation with a new and much larger audience. 

When walking across an agricultural field, the soil under your boot will often feel hard and compacted. The soil under prairie is soft and springy, almost spongelike. Sponges soak up water, and that’s exactly what prairie soils do. About 90 percent of prairie plants are underground—the roots. A quarter of those roots die each year, leaving channels through the soil particles. Worms and insects use and enlarge these channels and create their own. When it rains, water immediately percolates into the soil. 

Often the rain doesn’t even get to the soil. When the dog and I walk through pheasant habitat after a rain, we’re both soaked after a few steps. If I kneel and dig into the thatch, the soil surface is often dry. Prairie grasses can hold almost 12,800 gallons of water per acre after a rainstorm.

The wetlands that dot many Northern grasslands, the prairie potholes hold even more water. Once in the wetland, the water percolates downward and recharges the groundwater, evaporates upward and provides habitat for duck broods. The water doesn’t rush into streams, erode riverbanks and flood homes and towns downstream. Studies have shown that watersheds with intact grasslands and wetlands are less prone to flooding. 

A few years ago a severe storm hit our home. The water ran in rivers across the field behind the house, scouring gullies in the soil. The creek that ran through our property rose eight feet in a few hours with water the color of a chocolate milkshake. 

There is a public hunting area a half-mile to the east of the house. With the rain, the wetlands filled up with crystal-clear, clean water. The grasses and soil captured the rest of the water. No water ran off this area.

A lot of Midwestern waters have high nitrate levels, which come from a range of sources. Nitrates in drinking water can lead to a condition called “blue baby syndrome.” Nitrates are also a major contributor to the “dead zone” in coastal areas thousands of miles away and cause eutrophication in local lakes. Both can have major impacts on commercial and recreational fisheries. 

A friend was telling me he took water samples entering and leaving a restored wetland on another public hunting area west of us. Nitrate levels decreased by 98 percent as the water traveled through the wetland. Several studies have found similar results. 

Remember those decaying roots? As long as the soil isn’t tilled, in the future all the carbon that was in those roots stays in the soil. That’s why prairie soils look so black. Want to slow down climate change? Restore grasslands and wetlands. 

What can hunters and conservationists do about all of this? We may not need to do anything. The information is already out there. What hunters need to do is talk about these issues. Hunters can show friends, neighbors, local politicians and local business leaders the benefits of habitat work. A polite conversation over a cup of coffee can do wonders. 

Of course, conversations are two-way streets. Listening is just as important as talking. Only by listening to everyone’s concerns can we address each of those questions before anyone takes action.

Here’s an example of the power of conversation leading to cooperation leading to action. The city of Worthington, in southwest Minnesota, was facing a water crisis. The residents could have invested millions of dollars in infrastructure. What they did instead is identify their wellhead-protection area and areas of high-groundwater-pollution vulnerability. Over many conversations a partnership developed between Pheasants Forever, the Public Utility Commission, the Watershed District, several trusts and corporate partners, agricultural landowners and local residents. Each of these partners had slightly different goals, but conversations showed that they had a common solution.

Working together, they restored almost 1,300 acres of cropland to grassland and wetland habitat. The key is that they focused specifically on the right acres to maximize the water benefits of their efforts and minimize any effects to the local agricultural economy. Those acres were then turned over to state and federal wildlife agencies and managed as public hunting areas. All that happened because people from divergent backgrounds and interests sat down to talk about what they had in common and what they could do about it. 

The Minnesota Drinking Water Annual Report for 2014 includes a photo of a group of individuals, most wearing hunter orange, at one of these public-lands dedications. Water for people and habitat for wildlife can be closely linked goals. 

Here’s the basic problem. Last year in my home state of Minnesota less than 1 percent of the residents hunted pheasants. Most other states probably had similarly low bird hunting numbers. Nearly 100 percent of us want clean drinking water, healthy family members and neighbors, clear lakes and rivers, less flooding and to slow climate change. Grassland and wetland habitats serve the needs of everyone, not just hunters. Hunters can be the ones who carry that message to a larger audience. 

In his book Game Management, Aldo Leopold stated that the tools we can use for habitat management are the “Cow, plow, axe, and fire.” Today, whether around the kitchen table, at a local diner or in a duck blind, a coffee cup and good conversation may be as powerful tools for conservation as those Leopold mentioned. 


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