Whither The Meadowlark? A Message For North Dakotans Who Enjoy The Outdoors

Here’s a question for some of you who spend a lot of time in the outdoors in the fall:

How was your pheasant season? “Good enough, I guess,” would be my response. All of us who hunt pheasants in North Dakota are loathe to say anything gloomier than that, because saying “It wasn’t all that great” might mean admitting:

  1. We could have shot better.
  2. We didn’t do our homework, contacting landowners before the season started.
  3. We didn’t get out of the office enough days.
  4. Any number of other things that were our own fault the season wasn’t better.

Well, maybe. Let’s be honest. All in all, we had a pretty good pheasant season. Considering. There were more birds than last year.  But think back 15 years, to 2000, or 10 years, or even 5. Sorry, things just don’t match up.

In spite of a, b, c, or d above, we all know that there are two really good reasons for the demise of the “glory days” of North Dakota pheasant (and deer) hunting: A dramatic loss of CRP habitat, and the oil boom (Bakken Hell, as Bill Mitzel, editor of Dakota Country magazine, where this article first appeared, calls it) .

You don’t lose millions of acres of CRP without losing a lot of the critters that depended on it for food, protection from the elements and predators, and nesting cover. And you can’t escape the invasion of industrialization of the prairie in the western one-third of the state if you’re a whitetail or mule deer, bighorn sheep, mallard or sharptail or sage grouse.

So this year I went about the business of hunting pretty much as I always have, spending every available day in the field. But I didn’t put as many Ziploc bags of game in my freezer. My friends, family and neighbors didn’t get quite as many freezer bags as they used to. But I didn’t whine, because I’ve lowered my expectations.

So let’s talk about the reasons for that: The loss of habitat, and the havoc being wreaked by the oil industry and the state’s lax regulation of it. I’ve talked about lax regulation numerous times, and about the impact that lax regulation has had on our environment—for those of us outdoors enthusiasts, that means the places we hunt and fish—and the impact on the Badlands and the lakes, creeks, rivers and wildlife refuges in northwestern North Dakota.

I’ve also lectured on THIS before, and I’m going to do it again: This is an election year, and it is time for the sportsmen and women of North Dakota to get involved in politics. Because it is the politicians—the men and women we elect to political office—who determine what kind of hunting and fishing we are going to have in the future. And the future is as early as this year. The politicians create or kill the programs which make habitat for our wildlife. And they regulate (or don’t regulate) the industries which destroy the habitat, pollute the creeks and rivers, foul the air, take away the dark night skies with their oil well flares, build roads through  previously undisturbed prairie, and send the thousands of really big trucks boiling down our back-country roads. That any wildlife even remains in western North Dakota is testament to the hardiness of the critters who have chosen the prairie as their home.

But every year now, there are fewer and fewer of those critters. And not just those we hunt. I don’t believe that my inability to hear the meadowlarks calling from fence posts on back roads of the Badlands can be attributed solely to a slippage in my hearing in my old age. There just aren’t as many around as there used to be, and that has wildlife professionals worried. Those meadowlarks are the “canaries in the coal mine” of the prairie, and they are fast disappearing. And that’s a direct result of habitat loss and an industrial invasion.

If you’ve been reading my articles here for a while, you know I’ve been critical of North Dakota’s elected leaders, especially those who make up the North Dakota Industrial Commission—the governor, attorney general and agriculture commissioner. If there was even a more aptly named trio—the Industrial Commissioners—I can’t imagine it. Their modus operandi has been to open the state’s doors wide to any industry that will come here, providing tax incentives and a willingness to overlook violations of any of our state’s environmental regulations in the name of progress and job creation.

The Industrial Commission is chaired by the governor, and he’s also the guy who hires the would-be regulators, and in 2016 our current governor is departing the scene. Good riddance. I hope he doesn’t let the Capitol doors hit him in the ass on the way out.

His administration has turned the attorney general loose on the environment, and he’s suing everyone in sight. The biggest targets of the state’s lawsuits are the two federal government agencies who are most important to those of us who enjoy spending time outdoors in North Dakota—the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The EPA enforces regulations to keep our air and water clean. The Department of Agriculture, in addition to administering what’s left of the CRP program, oversees the U.S. Forest Service, which manages a million acres of mostly open range and Bad Lands in western North Dakota. The work of those agencies is critical to the future of outdoor recreation here.

By the attorney general’s own count, the state has filed at least a dozen lawsuits against those two agencies, seeking to remove the environmental protections they are charged with administering. By my count, they haven’t won any of them—yet.  But the intentions are clear, and one of these days the state might just find a friendly judge, and we’ll pay the price for that. Here’s just one example.

The State of North Dakota has filed a lawsuit against the EPA to stop them from implementing a new rule designed to protect wetlands and streams. The beneficiaries of the rule are ducks and fish. But our state’s leaders apparently have not been listening to hunters and fishermen. Because a couple of months ago, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF), the leading voice for people who hunt and fish in America, announced the results of a nationwide survey that found that 83 per cent of hunters and anglers approve of the new EPA rule that extends Clean Water Act protections to wetlands and streams, also known as the Waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule. Here’s what the NWF reported:

“As every hunter or angler knows, ducks need healthy wetlands and fish need clean water—it’s that simple,” said Collin O’Mara, president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation. “Everyone on Capitol Hill should take note: clean water has the bipartisan support of millions of sportsmen and women across our nation—and these men and women vote.”

The bipartisan research team of Public Opinion Strategies (R) and Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research (D) partnered on the survey of 1000 registered voters who also hunt or fish. The sample leaned conservative—38 percent of those polled were Republicans, while just 28 percent were Democrats. Almost half of those surveyed (49 percent) said they considered themselves a supporter of the Tea Party. Support for this policy was strong across the political spectrum with 77 percent of Republicans, 79 percent of Independents and 97 percent of Democrats in favor.

The NWF’s O’Mara said the rule is not a partisan issue. “The survey’s results show there is ‘an incredible disconnect’ between what groups ‘more interested in politics’ are saying about the rule in Washington, D.C., and what American sportsmen think is acceptable.”

So in North Dakota, which probably has more hunters and fishermen per capita than any other state, the lawsuit to try to prevent the Clean Water Act rules from taking effect is puzzling. But not as puzzling as the lawsuit against the Forest Service, which seeks to open up all of our roadless areas of the Bad Lands to development. I’ve written before about the 50,000 acres of the Bad Lands—out of a total of 1,000,000 acres that the Forest Service administers—that remain closed to roads and oil development, but open to hunters, hikers, photographers, birders and anyone else who will visit them on foot or horseback.

The lawsuit by the state and four county commissions seeks to remove the road-building restrictions on those acres and let the state and the counties put roads through them. They are the last few places of “wilderness” in the state. They are used by hunters, who seek a place where no giant oilfield trucks roar through the draws they are still-hunting, and photographers, who don’t want to disturb the golden eagles feeding their young in nests high on a Badlands butte.

Surprisingly, these roadless areas are the same ones that Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem proposed be listed for protection under the “Extraordinary Places” plan he submitted to the Industrial Commission in 2014. When I asked him about that seeming inconsistency, he said that lawsuit is about “state sovereignty,” which apparently outweighs environmental, cultural and historical preservation. My opinion: It is homage to Big Oil, which wants to drill every acre of North Dakota, and which will finance his 2016 campaign for Governor.

Yes, Stenehjem’s running for Governor, so the hypocrisy in his actions bears pointing out. He could very well be the man hiring the oil industry regulators for the next 8 years. Choosing political leaders is important, and we should make sure our voice is heard. So in 2016, when the candidates for Governor of North Dakota, and other offices, like U.S. Congress and Senate, come to our towns, we need to ask them how they will vote on issues important to us. For example, will our next governor support rules to keep our clean air and water, and protect critical wildlife areas? Will our Congressional Representative and U.S. Senators fight to restore the CRP program? If that’s not possible, can the Governor find money in his budget for a state CRP program?

By my count, there are somewhere around 100,000 North Dakotans who hunt and/or fish. And vote. We need to be heard, and we need to make sure the politicians hear us.

2 thoughts on “Whither The Meadowlark? A Message For North Dakotans Who Enjoy The Outdoors

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