Notes From the Field: No Country for Old Men

Bob Schneiders & Sons Pheasant HuntSouth-Central South Dakota.  Recently, I went hunting near Geddes in south-central South Dakota.  After seven hours of walking ditches (those that still had any vegetation) and scanning edge habitat, I saw seven roosters, or an average of one bird per hour. In actuality, I went five hours without seeing a single rooster, then I saw five in one spot in the span of a few minutes.

Pheasant habitat in South Dakota continues to disappear. Years ago, farmers destroyed bird cover because of high corn prices. Now they’re bulldozing trees and thickets and scraping clean grassland areas because of low corn prices. The birds cannot get a break. I saw places that once held thickets (which preserve pheasants during ice storms and blizzards) bulldozed into darkened, broken piles of kindling. There were road-side ditches that formerly grew chest-high slough grass mowed down to inch-high stubble; this is because South Dakota Governor Daugaard has given farmers the authority to cut hay on public land. That decision may benefit the governor’s political standing, but it’s horrible for pheasants.

While driving over the tan and dun-colored checkerboard that is rural South Dakota in late fall, I viewed rows of soybeans encroaching on a public-right-away. Last year, that right-of-way was probably ten feet wide and cloaked in a heavy batch of grass. That grass held pheasants. This year, the right-of-way is about three feet wide and covered with just a smattering of short grass. The land enclosing the right-of-way is now so exposed to the elements that pheasants will never again use it as a staging area to feed in the nearby field.

In several places, I saw black plastic tubes of tiling being laid beneath rich, dark soil. Areas formerly too wet to farm, but ideal as pheasant habitat, will soon be drained, plowed, and planted in corn or soybeans. Next spring and summer, the new tiles will push petrochemicals into the Missouri and toward Sioux City, my hometown.  Late in the afternoon, I caught a glimpse of a huge machine spraying an unknown chemical (probably a herbicide) in a high wind atop a cut over, gray soybean field.  The device resembled a large, wounded bug trying to go airborne; its long applicator wings extended straight out from each side of its hulking body as it darted across the field, bouncing up and down over the uneven ground. Little of the chemical appeared to be reaching the land’s surface.  A white cloud, sent aloft by the strong northwest wind, trailed behind the contraption, headed directly toward a nearby farmhouse.  That house and its occupants were going to get a de-lousing, whether they wanted it or not.  I wondered if the driver of the sprayer – called a terragator – had ever heard of “drift.”  If he had heard of it, he didn’t care. Why should he – no one in Dakota is going to regulate him.

I came across a Mennonite or Hutterite farm.  I’m not sure which group lived there, because there wasn’t a sign out front proclaiming in big bold letters “We’re Hutterites!”  The farm looked like a factory – with a cluster of shiny steel grain bins standing close to the barracks buildings housing the workers; it was all so austere, so utilitarian, so production-focused. For a square mile around the farm the land was totally controlled – heck- it was absolutely denuded.  Wild things had no place there.  My guess is that wild thoughts don’t either.

I saw more big pickups driving the back roads and highways than I could count, all of them driven by men who look as uniform as the exploited land.

Dakota farmers say they care about the land. They don’t. They only care about the land as a source of monetary wealth. When the choice is between conservation and money, the vast majority will choose money and the new pickup truck that is financed by draining a wetland, planting soybeans in a public right-of-way, or knocking over a thicket to get an extra acre of corn.

Maybe this article reads like a rant and maybe I am becoming an old curmudgeon.  I don’t know.  But when I see what farmers in Dakota are doing to the land and rivers, all with the encouragement of Obama’s Department of Agriculture, the Corn Growers Association, the state university extension services, the Farm Bureau, the banking sector, farm implement manufacturers and dealers, and the region’s religious denominations (who refuse to challenge the established order because those at the top of the order financially support their churches), I get thoroughly upset.  The farming community is destroying the place I once called home, which is why when I visit this region I feel as though I am in “No Country for Old Men.”  I now understand why old men can be so angry – they’ve seen worlds they once loved destroyed in the name of somebody’s else’s skewed version of progress.

As for pheasants, they don’t stand a chance.  Although the South Dakota Game, Fish, and Parks Department claims pheasant numbers rebounded somewhat in 2014 and 2015 because of two back-to-back warm winters, the overall trend looks bleak.  Why?  Because urbanization and industrialization of rural Dakota isn’t slowing, it’s accelerating.  Consequently, habitat is going to continue to fall under the plow, bulldozer, and backhoe. And there is nothing, and no one, who is going to stop it, especially not Governor Daugaard and his lame pheasant recovery task-force.

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