Doing it for the ducks
Kevin Schnepf, The Forum
Published Sunday, September 14, 2008
Sheldon, N.D. - John DeVries wants more ducks in North Dakota’s Ransom County – an area known more for farming than waterfowl.
“Some people told me I’m crazy trying to breed ducks in this area,” DeVries says, as he surveys the countryside east of Sheldon, N.D.
What he sees is land shared by farmers and waterfowl – described by one outdoors biologist as islands of habitat in a sea of cropland.
Interspersed among the acres of corn, soybeans, wheat and alfalfa are prairie grassland and potholes – ideal breeding grounds for ducks.
It is part of a geographic region known as the drift prairie, which covers the eastern portions of the Dakotas. Its western border overlaps into the Missouri Coteau – an area in central North Dakota known as one of North America’s best nesting grounds for waterfowl.
John DeVries of Enderlin, N.D., stands outside the Sheldon (N.D.) Community Center – also the home of “Save the Hens Foundation” he has organized in the area. Kevin Schnepf / The Forum
“This area is the worst of the best,” DeVries says, watching some mallards float onto a nearby pond. “It seems everyone else has given up on the drift prairie, but not me.”
So on his own – with the help of volunteers, different wildlife agencies and area farmers – the 44-year-old DeVries is on a mission to make Ransom County more duck friendly. Representing the “Save the Hens Foundation” since 2005, DeVries has worked to erect nesting structures, control predators and enhance habitat that has deteriorated.
“Sometimes you wonder what makes him tick … he’s so passionate about what he does,” said Rob Spiekemeier, who farms east of Sheldon.
Jesse Lisburg, private lands biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who oversees Ransom, Richland and Sargent counties, is happy to see someone so passionate.
“It’s not often we have people coming to us asking how they can help,” Lisburg said. “It’s great to have an individual out there beating the ground to improve the habitat.”
Working to get to know the landowners
DeVries, an Illinois native, grew up a duck hunter. When he wasn’t driving nationwide for a moving company, he guided waterfowl hunters from Devils Lake to Louisiana.
He didn’t like what he saw in the prairie pothole region. Nebraska prairie replaced with center-pivot irrigation systems for crops. Waterfowl Production Areas being inundated with Russian Olive trees. Waterfowl nesting sites being disturbed by raccoons and skunks.
When DeVries quit trucking in 1999, he moved to Enderlin, N.D., where he works for MRL Manufacturing, which builds grain-dryer equipment. DeVries, a bachelor, quickly devoted his free time to “Save the Hens Foundation” – a nonprofit, grass-roots organization based in Monroe, La.
He has a “Save the Hens Foundation” sign hanging outside Sheldon’s community center – where DeVries annually holds a landowner appreciation dinner.
“You have to work with the landowners, not dictate to them,” said DeVries, stressing that the majority of the potential waterfowl nesting sites sit on private land. “I didn’t know any of these farmers when I first started … it just takes time.”
Farmers like Rob and Steve Speikemeier, whose land has been in the family for the last 120 years. The brothers have worked with DeVries on a number of duck-restoration projects.
“People around here are slow to accept strangers, but John is pretty plain,” said Rob Speikemeier. “Where he deviates is from the big organizations. He likes to work one-on-one with landowners, get in here and get things done and avoid all that governmental red tape.”
Making it more inviting for ducks
Speikemeier is one of a few farmers who now use flushing bars when cutting alfalfa. Chains that hang in front of the cutter stirs up any birds before the machine can harm them.
“It just makes you feel good when you see someone using that flushing bar,” DeVries said.
The Speikemeiers are one of nearly 40 landowners who have also allowed DeVries to cage trap raccoons and skunks – predators that feast on waterfowl nests.
Steve Eicholtz of Fargo, who owns a hunting farm west of Sheldon, said the 10 raccoons and three skunks trapped on his property will help for the upcoming pheasant season, too.
“It appears there is an upswing in pheasants … we’ll find out Oct. 11,” Eicholtz said, referring to the pheasant hunting opener. “Anytime you help a hen duck out, you’re helping out the pheasant population too.”
In 2005, DeVries estimates they caged 100 raccoons on 2,000 acres – including 38 in one abandoned farm building. Last spring, he figures they trapped 50 skunks and 100 raccoons on more than 22,000 acres in Ransom County.
“Getting those types of critters – which weren’t found on the original prairie – are certainly going to improve nesting areas,” Lisburg said.
In an effort to further improve nesting areas, DeVries started a project to remove Russian Olive trees from two Waterfowl Production Areas that sit east of Sheldon. His “Save the Hens Foundation” was awarded a $3,000 grant by Wildlife Forever – a Minnesota-based organization that funds conservation projects across the country.
With matching funds from North Dakota wildlife clubs, sporting good retailers and private donors, DeVries and volunteers began removing Russian Olives from the Boeder and Warner Waterfowl Production Areas.
Studies have shown that nesting waterfowl prefer a treeless habitat. The trees make the wetland unattractive to breeding ducks and roost hunting birds of prey.
“I’ve been through every county from Nebraska to North Dakota and it’s all like this,” DeVries says, pointing to the Russian Olives scattered on the Warner WPA. “If left unmanaged, this will be completely fried.”
Due to a limited budget, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service does not maintain the Warner and Boeder WPAs as they would like.
“We’re limited in what we can do,” Lisburg said. “John is providing an extra shot in the arm.”
DeVries scans the Warner WPA and envisions the potential of a revived duck habitat.
“We do have something left around here,” he says. “You can’t give up on it and say it is gone.”
Readers can reach Forum reporter Kevin Schnepf at (701) 241-5549