King Corn and Its Minions: The Iowanization of Dakota

“So completely has the whole State passed beneath the plow, so quickly assumed the appearance of one vast farm, that one who thus studies the Iowa of to-day realizes with difficulty the strange picturesque wildness of fifty or sixty years ago…. The whole flora of the prairie went down to rise no more, to give place to plants of man’s selecting and to weeds…. Hosts of alien species occupied the ground.” – Thomas Macbridge, 1895 [Quote from Cornelia F. Mutel, “The Emerald Horizon: The History of Nature in Iowa,” Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2008, p.75.]

Iowa once held a reputation for being a top pheasant hunting state.  In 1962, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) estimated that bird numbers throughout the state stood at 65.9 pheasants per 30-mile brood survey route.  High pheasant populations resulted from ample habitat.  Birds found nesting sites, cover, and concealment in stands of timber and brush growing along fence rows or next to farm houses, in cattails encircling wetlands, and in the un-mowed ditches straddling public highways and dirt roads.  Good habitat enabled pheasants to survive Iowa’s occasionally brutal winters.

In the 1970s, grain sales to the Soviet Union contributed to a jump in corn prices.  Iowa farmers responded to the rise in prices by converting pheasant habitat to cropland.  Farmers drained wetlands, bulldozed forest stands (especially within the Missouri Valley), and planted corn from fence row to fence.  By the late seventies, King Corn had harmed pheasant numbers in the state.  In 1979, the Iowa DNR estimated that 42.4 pheasants existed along each of the state’s 30-mile brood survey routes.  This represented a population decline of 33% from 1962.

Iowa experienced a rebound in pheasant numbers in the 1980s and early 1990s as lower commodity prices and the Reagan administration’s support of the Conservation Reserve Program re-established wildlife habitat throughout the Hawkeye State.  But the recovery did not last.  By the 2000s, pheasant numbers were in steep decline.  In 2001, an average of 13.9 birds existed on each 30-mile route.  Just this past year, the Iowa DNR acknowledged that the number of pheasants had dropped to the lowest level recorded in the post-World War II era.  A mere 6.8 birds existed on each 30-mile survey route – or two-tenths of a bird per mile.  The reason for the decline of pheasants in Iowa was not difficult to discern.  From 1990 to 2005, Iowa lost 2,496 square miles of pheasant-producing CRP land and pasture.  Another 485 square miles of CRP went under the plow between 2007 and 2010.  The amount of habitat lost to farming equaled a strip of land 9.5 miles wide stretching across Iowa from the Mississippi to the Missouri.  Responsibility for the disappearance of pheasants in Iowa rested squarely on the shoulders of farmers – and the weak-kneed politicians who supported their reckless pursuit of profit.

By 2011, Iowa had become the biggest corn patch in the world.  Corn grew everywhere.  It grew feet from the doors of rural farmhouses.  It grew mere inches from waterways.  It grew up to the edge of country schools and public playgrounds.  King Corn and its minions in the Corn Growers Association and the Farm Bureau dominated Iowa’s land-use policies.  Corn had established an environmental tyranny over the state – with disastrous results for fish, wildlife and people.  But farmers had so ensconced themselves in yeoman mythology and patriotic gibberish, that public criticism of corn and its backers became tantamount to an attack on the very foundations of the American republic, or at least mom, apple pie, and the flag.

South Dakota is presently going the way of Iowa.  Pheasant numbers in the state are in precipitous decline.  Between 2010 and 2011, the statewide pheasant population fell a whopping forty-six percent!  The number of pheasants went from 9,840,000 birds in 2010 to only 5,313,600 birds in 2011.  Although state officials (who are fearful of the political influence of the farm lobby) claim that a series of harsh winters and wet springs are to blame for the drop in the pheasant population, the real reason for the decline has to do with South Dakota farmers.  It is a truism that if the birds have habitat, they can survive weather extremes.  But habitat is vanishing fast across Dakota.  From 2007 to 2010, South Dakota farmers destroyed at least 609 square miles of CRP land.  Another 655 square miles of CRP land in South Dakota may be removed from the program by the end of 2012.

After a recent pheasant-hunting trip to central South Dakota, I witnessed firsthand the environment devastation being wrought across Dakota in the name of corn.  I saw numerous farmers clearing habitat to increase their crop acreage in order to take advantage of high corn prices ($5.83 per bushel on December 6, 2011).  Farmers were felling remnant forests, bulldozing brush, and scraping native grassland areas bare in preparation for next year’s planting season.  On numerous farms, gray, dead trees and brush stood in piles, ready to be set afire.  On the windless days during my visit, I viewed plumes of smoke rising into the clear, deep-blue, plains sky.  The blazes represented the funeral pyres of pheasant habitat.

But the destruction does not end there.  South Dakota farmers have the authority to mow the public right-of-ways adjacent to their land.  This further eliminates sorely needed habitat for pheasants.  They are doing it because of high hay prices, (brought on by the drought in Texas) and because they want to plant their own land in more profitable corn.  Mowing the ditches destroys the few areas open to public hunting across much of South Dakota.  Some farmers purposely denude the ditches to keep pheasants off public land.  The birds will not go into a ditch that lacks cover.  It is not coincidental that some of the most barren ditches lie alongside land owned by pheasant hunting lodges.  The proprietors of the game preserves mow the ditches to prevent “their” birds from leaving their land and thus becoming fair game to the socially-less-acceptable ditch hunters.  But this practice privatizes pheasants, eliminates public hunting opportunities, and makes the sport increasingly the pursuit of the wealthy – who pay hundreds of dollars a day to take half-tame birds on a pheasant factory – oh – I mean on a pheasant farm.

Recently, the South Dakota Corn Growers Association aired a television advertisement that actually asserts that South Dakota farmers are “true environmentalists.”  Such a claim is laughable.  And at the rate these “true environmentalists” are remaking South Dakota’s landscape, it will only be a few year’s before King Corn and its purveyors make Dakota into Iowa, while in the process destroying the last, best pheasant range in the United States.

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