A gravel road and vast grasslands…one of my favorite types of areas to not only bird, but just to experience. It’s becoming a rarer and rarer sight with all the recent cropland expansion in eastern and central South Dakota.
I ran across (yet another) story this morning discussing the huge loss of habitat in the northern Great Plains over the last few years. It’s not exactly “news” to anyone who has lives here and has paid attention. A bit of background…in 2007, Congress passed the “Energy Independence and Security Act”. It was a huge energy bill, with many components. One of which actually was a huge boon to my work at USGS EROS, as we became part of a huge project to look at the potential for sequestering carbon through land use practices.
However, another component is a renewable fuels standard (RFS), with hard mandates for increased use of biofuels by 2022. In recent years the price of corn has gone up substantially, in no small part due to the RFS. The result? Massive loss of grassland in my part of the world, with the Dakotas being hit especially hard.
It’s obvious everywhere I bird, both in eastern South Dakota (which has traditionally been a stronghold of corn production), and now increasingly in central South Dakota. In eastern South Dakota where I live, the only remaining grasslands are 1) those that are on hilly or very rocky ground, areas too difficult to farm, or 2) individual fields that are enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). CRP provides payments for farmers to keep land in a grassland cover around here, but those payments can’t compete with the profits that can be made by putting arable land into corn production. I can point to numerous individual fields just on my drive to work that used to be CRP, and had been grassland ever since I moved here over 20 years ago, that have been plowed under and converted to cropland in just the last few years.
The further west you go in the state, the more iffy a proposition it is to grow dryland corn. The Missouri River dividing the state into “East River” and “West River” used to be a rough dividing line on where corn was grown. Rainfall in South Dakota is a gradient from west to east, with precipitation dropping as you move westward in the state. One of my favorite birding locations in the winter is around the Presho area. It’s an area with a lot of grasslands and a lot of pheasants (and presumably voles and mice), creatures that attract a lot of winter raptors like Rough-legged Hawks, Ferruginous Hawks, and even the occasional Gyrfalcon or Snowy Owl. As a drier area than eastern South Dakota, cropland used to be limited to wheat, some sorghum, and sunflowers. Not any more, as you’re starting to see farmers attempt to grow dryland corn even there.
It’s not just the conversion of complete, large fields from grassland to cropland that you’re seeing, it’s land management practices and micro-scale habitat loss. From a land management standpoint, the other business that’s booming right now in the Dakotas is the installation of drain tile, underground piping that efficiently drains the land and allows farmers to utilize areas that once tended to collect too much water for cultivation. One of my favorite little birding spots on my drive to work is now gone, thanks to drain tiling. It was a low spot along a little drainage way, a moist area that had a grassland and some scattered cattails. That area was drain tiled and is now a corn field. From the micro-habitat side, farmers are also ripping out vegetation along fencerows and shelterbelts, trying to squeeze out every acre they can as crop prices are high.
To be frank, it’s damned depressing sometimes to drive around birding, seeing some of your favorite remaining grassland habitats being actively plowed under. It’s a level of land-use conversion in the northern Great Plains that hasn’t been seen in many decades.
Especially as a father, I can’t help but think “when does it end”? When do people stop thinking about MONEY, and their short-term well-being, and when do they actually start worrying about their CHILDREN’s future? It’s not just habitat loss, it’s sabotage of the very resources we need to survive. Increased agricultural land use, drain tiling existing land, and increased fertilizer use as farmers try to bypass crop rotation and plant exclusively corn…all are pumping up nitrate and other pollutant levels in the very water supplies we depend upon to survive.
I tell myself, that just as with the inexorable spread of urban areas across the world, it can’t continue forever, right? At some point, it has to stop, right? The only problem is that human beings are too short-sighted to set that “limit” of when we stop degrading and destroying habitat and the resources we depend upon. What’s going to eventually make it “stop” is ecological disaster…