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Wednesday, September 7, 2016

And where are the pheasants?

Bob Mercer noted in a recent post that this year's pheasant population in South Dakota is down about 20 percent.  He points out that wildlife biologists attribute the decline to fewer acres in the Conservation Reserve Program.  However, he also points out that over the years, pheasant populations have fluctuated, and he questions whether reduced habitat is the only factor.

I recently noted that this year there is a notable absence of water fowl on my 18-mile drive between Aberdeen and Tacoma Park, where I have a work studio. In the past year or so,  I have also  remarked on the drastically changing landscape on that drive.   It is not only wildlife that is scarce; so is human life and domestic animals.  Wetlands have been filled in and plowed over, and what was once dedicated pasture land has also been planted over.  Industrial agriculture has thrown a blanket of corn and soybeans over the land that seems to have smothered all other forms of life.

But that drive I make many times a week into the South Dakota countryside is not the only place I observe this transformation of the land.  My brother in Illinois died in March, which has necessitated many trips back and forth between Illinois and South Dakota to take care of matters of his estate.  That blanket of soybeans and corn covers the 650 miles along that drive, too.  And as I drive through South Dakota into Iowa,  I find few wheat fields.  For a time, as one would drive south through South Dakota from Aberdeen,  there would be fields lit up this time of year with sunflowers.  Somebody must be growing wheat and sunflowers,  but not in the country I have travelled recently.   

As for pheasants,  they are among  the missing, too, along my drive between Aberdeen and Tacoma Park.  In the late spring and early summer, , it is common during the drive to slow down or stop the car to allow a hen pheasant to cross the road with her brood.  There were always pheasants in the field across the road from my place, and at the edge of Tacoma Park property,  there was a shelter belt where one could hear the squawkings pheasants in what was prime habitat for them.  The trees in that shelter belt are all dead now, after some recent years of successive flooding.  And  although the field is in the Conservation Reserve Program,  I have seen  nor heard no pheasants.  

The county has a  law against knowing the ditches along the right of way until after July 4,  so that the young pheasants can mature somewhat before the habitat is disturbed.  But this year,  I have seen no pheasants in the roadsides or in the fields.  In fact,  bird life of any kind has become somewhat rare.  

Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) are the force that is changing the landscape.  While there is much discussion over GMO labeling of foods and whether they should be of concern for human consumption,  biologists and environmental scientists are concerned about the effects that the industrial farming they  enable has on the biosphere.  The fact is that the rural landscape has changed drastically.  Biological diversity, which contributes to the a stable and sustaining biosphere, is being eliminated.

The changes in agriculture have largely  eliminated rural communities.  And the elimination of those communities, human and natural, have an effect on the ecosystem.  As one drives through South Dakota,  one finds a landscape dotted with abandoned farm buildings and towns with main streets of boarded up windows.  When the last school in a community is closed through consolidation,  the purpose of the community is gone.  The usual last gasp of a community is the establishment of a senior center in one of those empty buildings on main street.  The integration of farms into a  huge industrialized landscape eliminated the need for towns,  has absorbed the grasslands and wetlands,  and has covered over the wildlife communities.  

The media has not done its job in reporting these changes in the landscape or their significance.  If the pheasants, the ducks, and the domestic animals are gone,  that means they have no place to live.  Ducks Unlimited and Pheasants Forever may have to change the focus of their efforts from the natural habitat to confinement operations.  

As I make my 18-mile drive,  I see no pheasants, no ducks,  no horses, sheep, or cattle in pastures.  Because I see  no habitat for them.  

The landscape has changed,  and so few people--aside from scientists--have really noticed. Or understood why.  

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States