It's August and even with early goose open, I'm still thinking of some numbers I filed away earlier this summer that concern me a little more than how the local football team will break camp.
While perusing a news release from the North Dakota Game and Fish Department regarding the annual spring duck breeding survey, I was struck by this passage involving waterfowl biologist and game management section supervisor Mike Johnson:
"However, nesting cover in North Dakota continues to decline. During the survey, Johnson noted many large tracts of grassland and Conservation Reserve Program land that had been converted to cropland since last year, or were in the process of being plowed.
'North Dakota currently has about 2.6 million acres of CRP, which is down about 22 percent from 2007,' Johnson added. 'Projections are that nearly 400,000 acres will be lost in 2011, and an additional 1 million acres will be lost in 2012-13. The loss of critical nesting cover will be disastrous for breeding ducks and hunting opportunities in the future."
The survey itself established that even though the duck breeding index dipped a bit from last year, it was still the 9th highest on record, and the state still has enough CRP to maintain abundant waterfowl in the short term.
However, as CRP and other grassland nesting habitat continue to shrink, it's a bit unrealistic to expect such high rankings to continue well into the future. Mallards, teal and many other duck species nest in grass, and if the grass isn't there anymore, they will likely look to other areas to meet their needs.
Changes in CRP acreage not only means hunters may find less wildlife in the countryside, it also means fewer places to hunt. That's a factor that many of us will likely encounter again this fall as fewer acres of CRP changes the horizon.
I've seen it firsthand, and have heard from many friends, hunters and even nonhunters who might enjoy a Sunday drive. The landscape has changed, driven not only by less competitive CRP rental rates, but energy development, higher commodity prices and cropland rental rates that make decisions to enroll or renew land in a CRP contract even more of a challenge.
As the habitat base shrinks, hunters will likely experience increased competition on the habitat that remains. Essentially, habitat attracts wildlife, and hunters follow, leading to more frequent congestion.
Think of it like this: Four quarter sections of CRP can provide four groups of hunters with enough space for a few hours of pheasant hunting. Take away one of those four quarters, and one group is faced with either looking elsewhere, or crowding into one of the three quarters, in which case only two of the groups maintain the quality of the hunt they had before.
I realize that even at its peak, there was no guarantee of finding a CRP field all to yourself. But certainly the odds of finding such a situation diminish as acres of grassland come out of the Conservation Reserve Program. At some point, some hunters may even lose patience and wonder if the trip into the countryside is still worth it.
I don't think we've reached that point yet, but as you begin feasting on the fall offering of ducks, deer and pheasants, take a minute and ponder how much of your success comes from land in CRP, either as a place to hunt, or a place that produced the wildlife.
Leier is a biologist with the Game and Fish Department. He can be reached by email: firstname.lastname@example.org