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Published September 07 2008

Waterfowl talk

Q Goose season already is under way in North Dakota, and the regular waterfowl seasons are right around the corner. What’s the outlook for waterfowl in the Dakotas and other parts of the Prairie Pothole Region this fall?

A Scott Stephens: I would say that, across North Dakota and probably South Dakota as well, we have drier conditions than we saw last year. I know I was out a couple of weeks ago looking at some of the areas where I spent time last year, and several of the wetlands that I had hunted were dry, just bone dry. That’s something I think people will experience as they go afield. And then, with that, comes the fact that we had fewer birds breed here this spring and summer, and production was probably down a bit compared to years past with those drier conditions.

Q Sodsaver – a provision to discourage producers from plowing up marginal land – was watered down greatly in the new farm bill, and it’s now up to governors whether to participate. Where are things at right now, and have the states weighed in on what they’re going to be doing?

A Scott Stephens: The states have not, and we’ve worked with a coalition of conservation partners to try and get going on meetings with folks like the governors to lay out the case for why this is important, but we have not had many of those yet. And really, the time frame will be driven by the risk management agencies which deal with crop insurance, and we have not heard from them when they’ll be asking the governors, “Are you in or are you out?” So we continue to track that and try to make progress on getting with folks and visiting with them and talking about it, but not much has happened to date.

Q What impact does a weakened Sodsaver potentially have on waterfowl and other wildlife habitat?

A Scott Stephens: We think the impacts could be pretty large. With commodity prices the way they are, there’s a lot of pressure to put land in production that probably isn’t the most productive land out there. I think some folks are thinking, “Well, even if just for a year or two I can get a crop, that might make it worth it.”

The other fact that comes into play is that, in this new farm bill, we got funding for permanent disaster, which just takes a little more of the risk out of the whole equation because now, instead of folks having to go to Washington and lobby for disaster money, it’s sitting there at the piggy bank. Our fear is that might further encourage conversion of some of the marginal lands. We understand the need for the disaster relief on high-quality agriculture land, but we really sought Sodsaver as sort of a backstop to make sure we didn’t have some of the abuses that we’ve seen in the past.

And it didn’t happen, so we’re a little scared to see what’s going to transpire.

Q Hundreds of thousands of acres of Conservation Reserve Program land also will be disappearing from the landscape over the next few years.

A Scott Stephens: It seems almost a foregone conclusion that the CRP acres that expire will go back into production, and it’s pretty clear that most of those acres were not the most productive agricultural land, either. So I think what we’ll realize as we put some of those areas back into production is they end up costing a lot of taxpayer money, the disaster payments and crop insurance, those sorts of things, that we had forgotten about when they were out of production.

Q From DU’s perspective, are there things that can be done to minimize this loss?

A Scott Stephens: Yeah, I think so. We’ve already started having conversations with the conservation groups we work with on the policy front to talk about maybe we need to think about having CRP or programs like that involved to where they’re more working-lands kind of programs.

And we recognize that there definitely are benefits to wildlife having that idled cover, but just sort of in the economic environment we have out there, I think we recognize these programs have to work for producers, and if we want to maintain the millions of acres we think have really provided the benefits to wildlife, then we may have to allow more use like grazing and haying on these acres.

We were disappointed with things like the lawsuit that came out recently against allowing some of those uses on CRP. We thought that that was sort of bad timing, and if folks need to use those acres to stay in grass-based ag, then that probably makes sense.

Q I understand there’s been a little confusion, too, among some producer groups and maybe landowners out there as far as who had brought on this lawsuit, and I’ve heard some concerns about it affecting hunter access this fall.

A Scott Stephens: I think almost every hunter that knocks on a door this fall will probably hear about the lawsuit. It was filed by the National Wildlife Federation because they felt some procedural things were not followed (by the U.S. Department of Agriculture) in the way the releases were done. But when we sort of looked at the drought conditions across these areas and the economic environment, our take was, “Well, let the producers use these acres if that makes a difference in how they view re-enrolling in CRP and just maintaining grass in general.”

The last thing we want to see is guys selling off cows and wholesale conversion of not only the CRP acres, but native grassland and hayland, too. We understand that producers have to make a living out there. If allowing more use on those acres is what it takes for them to do that and keep the expansive nature of the program, then we were in support of that.

Q In the context of less CRP and a watered-down Sodsaver provision, are the good old days of waterfowl hunting at risk right now?

A Scott Stephens: I think so. The challenges you pointed out are big ones that we face. The good news in this whole equation is we continue to have demand from producers for perpetual easements on grasslands and wetlands. Right now, we have across the two Dakotas, 650 landowners that are offering up almost 300,000 acres for perpetual protection, and we need about $100 million to get that work done. So, that’s the silver lining – we still have a lot of the folks who control the most critical wildlife habitat out there that are interested in working with conservation groups to protect it. That’s really what we’re focused on from a conservation standpoint these days.

Jeff Essler: When we talk about the good old days, some people still refer to now as the good old days with the burgeoning Canada goose population and the wildly exponential growing snow goose population. Well, those birds are just responding to some things that we have done as humans.

When I first started hunting waterfowl, there were ducks all over the place. I would call these tornadoes or funnels of mallards, and everywhere I looked, if you wanted to go put some decoys in a field, literally, it was just a matter of going a couple more miles and seeing several thousand more mallards funneling down into another field.

I don’t see that anymore. I’m lucky if I see one funnel each year now of mallards pouring into a field, and that concerns me because we know that there are duck populations that are in trouble. I’m not saying the mallards are way off base in the waterfowl management plan numbers, but it’s changed.

Q With high Canada goose and snow goose numbers, is there a danger of relegating these birds to a trash or nuisance status?

A Jeff Essler: It is possible just by the way people talk about them. I jokingly call (snow geese) sky carp. I actually had a license plate one time that had SKY CARP on it, but they are my most revered waterfowl of all, and so I think that there are some negative issues just because they’re so abundant. It’s no different than mud hens that we call our coots and things like that.

It does concern me because I do witness that there is some waste of this wonderful bird, especially in the springtime, it seems, when I’m driving around and I’ll see four-five snow geese just left in a ditch somewhere. Or I’ll be driving down I-94, and I’ll see that people just throw them in the ditch and that concerns me very much. Because what we have is not only illegal, but what you’re referring to is a real negative response to hunters and sportsmen when they do something like this. I don’t like to see that at all. If you have the sense to go out hunting, I expect you to use that resource and consume those birds that you shoot, and so the Canada goose numbers and things like that, we have to keep those numbers in check, as it could develop into a serious management issue. Especially in the Drift Prairie, where the agricultural fields are right next to the wetlands. And Canada geese don’t need grasslands like ducks. They just need a place where they can make a nest and it can be right on the shoreline edge or goose tubs that were so popular 25 years ago. They’re very prolific and they’re not prone to predation because they’re big enough to defend themselves from the larger predators, too.

Q The nationwide trend points to fewer hunters, and that’s even more true with waterfowl hunting. What is DU doing to stem this tide and encourage young people to participate? I know you hosted a pretty big event in Bismarck last weekend.

A Scott Stephens: That’s probably the thing that’s freshest in my mind. We, in cooperation with the North Dakota Game and Fish Department, they offered grants this year to put on youth hunting events. And we took advantage of that and put on a Youth Waterfowl Hunting Clinic on Saturday and we had 40 kids attend the event.

When we had a show of hands at the beginning, about half of those had never hunted ducks or geese before. So they were really engaged. We got rave reviews from the kids and the parents. I think it’s things like that that will be key in the future. We would look to do more of those things and continue to do that every year, but there’s clearly a lot of competition for kids’ time out there with sports and all the activities that are available. And if they don’t have somebody to mentor them along or expose them to these outdoor activities, it’s a lot easier to go to soccer practice than to figure out how to go duck hunting, so I think it’s events like that that are really going to be key in engaging and recruiting that next generation of hunters and conservationists.

Q DU and the Energy and Environment Research Center at UND recently announced a carbon credits program. How did DU become involved in this program, and what’s the potential benefit to waterfowl?

A Scott Stephens: DU got involved in the program because we’ve been focused on doing grasslands conservation for some time now. And with increased interest on climate change, global warming and the impacts that carbon and other gases play in that, there was the realization that these grasslands we’ve been focused on for a long time from a waterfowl and wildlife perspective really play a big role in sequestering carbon and taking it out of the air and storing it in the ground.

We were engaged with the folks at EERC to do some research actually to look at how much carbon has been stored in CRP tracts of various ages and then also in the native grasslands we had out there forever, and then make a comparison to cropland that’s cultivated on an annual basis.

The way things have worked out is there’s a lot of interest from companies and just individual citizens to offset their carbon footprint and look for ways to be green, and one of those ways is to purchase these carbon credits.

We have been working with producers so when they sign the easement that protects the grassland, they have an opportunity at the same time to sell the carbon on it. Producers are able to get a payment of from $25 to $30 per acre on the carbon they’re storing in that land, in addition to the easement payment. And what we’ve seen is, that additional payment in a lot of cases makes enough difference to producers they may say, “Well, with that addition, I am interested in doing this. Before, it didn’t quite pencil out for me, but with the carbon on top of the standard easement payment, it does make more sense for me.” So we’ve been working with folks on getting those carbon rights on their land and bundling those together.

We have a relationship with folks who have experience with marketing carbon credits and selling them on the market, and we’re just about to have the first sale of those credits. It’s a really neat story because it shows the upside of society really valuing these ecological goods and services that areas like the grasslands provide, which we haven’t been able to take advantage of and put a monetary value on before.

Q A look at the calendar shows nearly 20 banquets coming up in North Dakota over the next few weeks, including the Grand Forks banquet Sept. 9. How important are these banquets and other grassroots efforts to DU’s mission?

A Jeff Essler: They are critically important to the mission of Ducks Unlimited. The money that is raised from these grassroots events is very efficiently spent, as well. But not only that, the dollars that are raised, we’re able to have that multiplying factor in. So for a lot of projects, you’re going to be able to leverage that dollar that is raised at the event, three, six or seven times. And so it’s very important, as you can see the sheer value of dollars that is raised where we can leverage those other partners and do some real serious conservation to this critical area.

Scott Stephens: The one other thing I might add is the fact that, because North Dakota is such a high conservation priority, the dollars that are raised at the grassroots banquets here in North Dakota are very significant. But we also import money from the banquets from many other states that go to work here on the ground. So, for folks attending the banquets in North Dakota, boy, they are really getting their money’s worth, because not only is it their dollar that’s going to work within their state, it’s folks from all over the country who are putting dollars to work in their state so they get to see the fruits of those labors right here at home.

Jeff Essler: When you look at the number of dollars that North Dakota has here and the number of dollars DU spends right here in North Dakota, the whole Great Plains budget is over $20 million per year, and that covers eight states. More than $4 million is spent in North Dakota, so we get a pretty good return on our investment here. For the half a million dollars that our volunteers raised at a grassroots level, we get millions back to do our conservation work here.

Q What attracted you to waterfowl hunting, and what keeps you coming back?

A Jeff Essler: I grew up in northwest North Dakota along the Des Lacs National Wildlife Refuge, so it was kind of my own little learning station for waterfowl biology. The countless hours I spent along the lake-road trails up and down sites north and south of Kenmare really got me fired up about waterfowl. That’s what planted the seed of waterfowl that’s a part of my inner core.

I remember just growing up, we were able to hunt at a very young age. I had several other brothers, and we’d just walk out of town with our shotguns, and right near the airport on the east side of town, there’d be a little honey hole where mallards would just come piling in. We’d be walking back with our trusty old (Remington) .870s and mallards flung over our back and that’s how we did it – when we were even 12-13 years old.

Nowadays, I don’t think that police officer would probably see it very entertaining that there’s a group of young boys walking through town with shotguns and ammo.

Scott Stephens: I grew up in southwest Iowa and came to waterfowl hunting later in my life. I was in college, actually, and had always been a big bow hunter for deer. I had a friend who said, “It’s going to rain tomorrow, you should come with me and go to the duck blind.”

So I did, and I can still in my mind’s eye see that first flock of mallards coming out of the sleet and snow to work to the decoys. I was just mesmerized with questions about where do these birds come from? And what were they doing in this spot? And where were they going? And I quickly discovered they do all kinds of interesting things at other times of the year, too, but from that one moment, I was hooked, it was over.

I was trying to learn everything I could about ducks and geese and getting out in the fall and getting in the right spot and laying under a big flock of mallards that’s coming into a spot. Still, it’s hard to describe and just is a real passion that I look forward to all year long.

Q Any closing thoughts?

A Jeff Essler: What I have noticed in the young people, especially in the Red River Valley in regards to Canada goose hunting, is that they hunt them and hunt them hard. They get things done and harvest a ton of them. The Canada geese have provided an opportunity for waterfowlers to cut their teeth on hunting ducks and geese. I feel, if not for the reintroduction of Canada geese to North Dakota, we would have way less waterfowlers today and certainly less hope for future conservationists.

While some feel the Canada geese are becoming a nuisance, I feel they have been very helpful in keeping waterfowlers in the field as the duck numbers and habitat disappears.

While I don’t like to see the tradeoff, there is a silver lining to the majestic big birds. The young hunters of the UND and North Dakota State University chapters of DU hunt Canada geese hard, but they did not see what I saw in numbers of ducks before prairie Canada converted native prairie to cropland. I wished they could have. I hope to be a part of bringing waterfowl to a population where they can fill the skies today, tomorrow and forever.

Brad Dokken is the outdoors writer for the Grand Forks (N.D.) Herald, a Forum Communications newspaper