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Dave Lambeth, Grand Forks, Published July 14 2012

Natural heritage at risk

In his recent column, Lloyd Omdahl was spot on in writing that the state’s top priority right now is to meet the burgeoning demands for services and infrastructure in western North Dakota.

Omdahl also identified three other areas for long-term, strategic attention: education, economic development and tax reform. I would add to the list the need to preserve more of the state’s natural heritage while we still can.

We once were truly a prairie state, with an abundance of grassland and wetland animals and plants that constituted the prairie ecosystem. This ecosystem is now virtually gone from the Red River Valley and increasingly is disappearing across the state because of energy development and the conversion of grassland to cropland. So I pose the question: Are we willing to let the prairie ecosystem disappear entirely?

To provide a cogent example of what is happening: Breeding bird surveys consisting of 50 stops along 25-mile routes have been run across North Dakota since the late 1960s. One route I run in Walsh County extends from near Nash to near Johnstown, and another in Pembina County runs north from near Bowesmont to just west of Pembina.

Both routes now are through extensive cropland in contrast to the mixed farming practices of the earlier years. Although more than 100 meadowlarks were sometimes recorded on the Bowesmont route in the 1970s, neither the Bowesmont nor Nash survey has recorded a Western meadowlark – the North Dakota state bird – for several years.

Other routes within North Dakota document a rapid decline in our state bird along with such marquee grassland species as upland sandpiper, horned lark, chestnut-collared longspur, Baird’s sparrow and Sprague’s pipit.

For 10 years now, it has been my privilege to guide visitors attending the Prairie and Pothole Birding Festival in Carrington, N.D. This year, 70 people from 24 states attended the festival. Such visitors are in awe at the grassland and wetland birds that we still have, at the courtship displays and nesting activities they see. But those of us serving as guides are finding it increasingly difficult to show the species our visitors most want to see.

I do not urge that we turn back the clock, demonize farmers who seek to make a living from the land, or stop the development of energy resources that we all need and enjoy. Rather, I urge that we look at the natural areas we still have and ask two questions: How can we ensure the survival of the best of what is left? And how can we best manage our grassland, wetland and water resources over the long-term? Grasslands, for example, need to be actively managed by grazing, burning or mowing, as they otherwise cease to exist because of invasion by trees and shrubs.

North Dakota is the envy of the nation because of the money coming in from agriculture and energy. We are in a position to make the financial investment needed to conserve a remnant of what American Indians knew and early settlers found upon arrival in North Dakota.

The window of opportunity to act is now. Saving places for Western meadowlarks along with their companions of a living, functioning prairie ecosystem, also will save an environment we humans treasure and find enriching.

Lambeth is a birdwatcher and retired University of North Dakota biochemistry professor.