As an avid hunter and fisherman, animals have always held a special place in my heart. Perhaps it was growing up near Quivira NWR seeing millions of ducks and geese each year, and seeing endangered whooping cranes coming overhead in the fall. Perhaps it was learning to hunt pheasants and quail as a kid. Whatever it was, I have learned that most hunters, like myself, care a great deal about protecting the wildlife they hunt. Colorado is a special place for conservation as we have both hunters and environmental activists with the same general mood regarding our wildlife.
In 1933, during the governor’s conference, the states gave special permission to the national government to enact legislation for conservation districts within the states that the Constitution didn’t specifically allow for. They were set up under temporary emergency legislation. We can look at history to see how they have worked, and if it is time to reclaim conservation rights.
In the 1930s farmers had access to large machinery but the technology was new. We hadn’t learned how to farm large swaths of land effectively. With minimal irrigation, the results were devastating. The dust bowl nearly consumed the Great Plains. Fast forward past the advent of irrigation, strip till, no till, and a slew of other management practices and we are no longer in the same league as then. In the midst of the worst drought in U.S. history, our farmers have managed to keep the land in production and it hasn’t blown away.
My family farm is in central Kansas and grows corn, sorghum, wheat, and soybeans. We have several fields still enrolled in the Crop Reserve Program from the 1930s which were utilized for hay last year during the drought. We are a typical farm for the area. We can safely compare our farming practice with the practices of the dust bowl to know whether we need government intervention. When I was a child it was a treat to see deer. It was almost unheard of to see turkeys. Today, when I go back for hunting season, I regularly take 2 to 3 deer to fill my freezer. Wild turkeys are common place at our Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners. We host pheasant and quail hunts that rival the Dakotas.
Was this the result of government programs or farm practices? When I get to run the combine for my father it is rare to make a pass without seeing pheasants, quail, rabbits, deer, coyotes, foxes, raccoons, bobcats, and many other animals running out of the field. They have become a smorgasbord for hungry critters. Efforts to reduce flooding have led to many fields having permanent ponds and drainage ditches in place. These are filled with baby ducks in the springs and the winter migration uses them as stopping points until they freeze. Obviously, best management practices for farms are best management practices for wildlife.
We can also look to federal wildlife programs to see if they have been as effective. The poster-child of the Endangered Species Act, and a personal favorite of mine, is the whooping crane. In 1941 there were only 21 birds left planet wide. After an extensive rehabilitation program the Wood Buffalo-Aransas flock, which stops through my home town on the migration, has gone from 15 birds to nearly 300. This is an amazing recovery led by the government.
There is a separate program that started in 2001 leading cranes from Minnesota to Florida. This program is labeled as a non-critical subset of the species and is free from Endangered Species Act regulations as far as removing people from the land if a bird lands or nests on it and allowing people to interact with the birds. As such, workers are able to raise the chicks in the safety of a pen using special costumes to make them think they are adult whoopers. The workers lead the cranes on their first migration in a glider they have been trained to follow. These birds learn the route quickly and establish themselves as wild the first year. This group has about half of the whoopers that the Wood Buffalo-Aransas flock has. It has been around for 1/7 of the time though. When government regulations are removed, and experts are allowed to be experts, the results are much more encouraging.
Colorado is primed for ending the permission for federal control over our conservation and leading the nation on restoring wildlife to its original glory. We have historic nesting and migration routes of a number of species including whistler swans, whooping cranes, canvasback ducks, wolves, grizzly bears, lynx, and others. If our farmers were recognized for the conservation work they do, rather than hindered from it, and our conservation groups were allowed to do the work they know best, we could see huntable populations of now extirpated species in the near future. Who knows, maybe even the offspring of those original 21 whooping cranes could someday migrate overhead for our children to see?