Prairies vital for 'duck factory'
Farm programs destroying precious habitat in South Dakota
By Tony Dean
For the Argus Leader
There are two things South Dakota duck hunters need to know.
First, for every limit of mallards taken by hunters across America, two out of three were raised on our duck factory here in the prairie pothole region.
The second is that as a taxpayer, you are funding the destruction of those native prairies that remain; that according to a Congressional Report released on Tuesday.
That report clearly links farm program payments to the loss of prairie grasslands. And it prompted Ducks Unlimited President Don Young to say, "Unfortunately, taxpayer funded farm programs are fueling this ecological disaster."
How serious is that loss?
Virtually everyone agrees on the importance of CRP to wildlife in South Dakota, but from 1982 through 1997, 1.69 million acres were enrolled in the program. However, during that same time span, 1.82 million acres of grass were converted to cropland.
Imagine that, a program as massive as CRP was almost overshadowed by incentives for landowners to plow prairie.
The GAO study certainly justifies the need to include a strong Sodsaver provision in the Farm Bill. Such a provision would remove all federal financial support on any land that doesn't have a cropping history. Farmers would still be able to put that land into production, but at their own risk.
The GAO report says farm program payments contribute to grassland loss because "they reduce the financial risk to a producer, and in many cases, increase the profits over maintaining that land in grass."
Adding insult to injury is the fact that in South Dakota, farm payments are twice as high in those counties that have high rates of native grassland conversion.
Scott Stephens, DU's Director of Conservation Planning for the Great Plains Regional office in Bismarck, N.D., said these are "drought-prone areas where crop failures are the norm rather than the exception. The grass is much more valuable for ranchers, wildlife and protecting soil and water quality."
DU uses a Farm Bill slogan: "Farm the Best, Conserve the Rest."
Stephens admits price supports and crop insurance are necessary on high quality croplands, but that most of the native grasslands make poor cropland. The GAO report agrees it makes no sense for taxpayers to fund growing crops on these lands.
While DU is obviously concerned with ducks, the loss of grasslands also curbs pheasant and grouse production, as well as that of all ground nesting birds. It's also apparent that present grassland programs simply aren't working. And in spite of the nonsense recently appearing on the pages of the Argus Leader from the Mitchell-based pheasant guide who also serves as President of the South Dakota Corn Utilization Council, cornfields do not raise birds.
Birds might occasionally feed in them, but other than that, they offer little for wildlife. And to suggest, as he did, that high pheasant numbers are directly related to large acres devoted to corn production is ludicrous.
Thankfully, South Dakota Sens. John Thune and Tim Johnson are on board as supporting the Sodsaver provision, but smart hunters will send those letters of support to help solidify those positions.
Meanwhile, DU is actively asking their membership, no matter where they live, to contact their senators on this issue. The Senate will soon be deliberating the Farm Bill.
By the way, there are some area congressmen who deserve a tip of our caps. Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, D-S.D., rescued the Sodsaver provision in the House when a Maryland congressmen tried to kill it. Thune and Johnson came out early with support for Sodsaver. Last, Rep. Collin Peterson of Minnesota, whose stalwart support of conservation in the Farm Bill, deserves the thanks of all sportsmen.
Tony Dean, an outdoor broadcaster, writes a column every Wednesday for the Argus Leader.