February 01, 2015

When assessing or analyzing the sides in most arguments, confrontations, or – in the case of close calls in athletic competitions – rules interpretations, my late father-in-law Charles was fond of observing, “It all depends on whose ox is being gored.”

He said the notion comes from Martin Luther who, at the Diet of Worms in 1521 famously opined, “Most human affairs come down to depending upon whose ox is gored.” In other words, people’s self interests determine how they feel about an issue and what action, if any, they will take.

The more one looks into the topics of wildlife and conservation, the more one’s oxen are called to the fore. And the more it becomes apparent that the simple attitude of, “Whatever is best for the resource” can no longer be stretched far enough to cover all the issues the modern day hunter or angler faces.

Take an example from Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership (TRCP).

The TRCP had noticed a steady, long-term decline in conservation funding. So it stepped in and refocused attention on the economic issues of the outdoor industry – how it’s a driver of the economy.

“And it grew five percent during the recession. And those are American jobs that will never be sent to China. Selling it as an economic matter (to politicians) rather than a conservation matter helped,” he states.

Another seeming slam-dunk example is the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline project that is supposed to allow crude oil to flow underground from Alberta to the Gulf of Mexico. The most popular arguments fall roughly along the line of job creation vs. environmental responsibility. Depending on whose ox is being gored – and where – there’s another way of looking at the issue.

During a dinner discussion about the piles and piles – the mountains even – of corn languishing in fields throughout South Dakota, Casey Weismantel of the Aberdeen, South Dakota, Convention and Visitors Bureau, Fosburgh said succinctly, “That’s why people in South Dakota want the Keystone Pipeline to go through.”

The non-South Dakotans at the table didn’t get it, and he explained: The sooner the pipeline goes through, the sooner the trains will come down from North Dakota and resume hauling the corn for area farmers. Apparently, train companies are making so much money transporting oil that they don’t need the corn transporting jobs. And so the kernels sit. It’s about money.”

Dave Nomsen (lt), Vice President of Governmental Affairs for Pheasants Forever, and Eric Johannsen enjoy the day at Johannsen Farms Outfitting near Tolstoy, South Dakota, a working farm managed with both wildlife and healthy land in mind. Tailfeather Communications, LLC photo

A similarly themed story can be relayed about pheasant hunters versus ranchers and farmers in South Dakota.

“If we can’t save South Dakota’s pheasant hunting heritage, we might as well close up shop.”

This tough-worded straight talk came last December in Aberdeen from Dave Nomsen, the Vice President of Governmental Affairs for Pheasant Forever (PF).

Across South Dakota, Nomsen warned, “the landscape is changing – there’s been a substantial loss of native prairie.”

He mentioned that over 28.6 million acres of land have recently been converted to clean farming. There are roughly one half of the acres currently enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) than there used to be.

“Is crop insurance to blame?”

Any non-farmer city slicker is likely to answer “Yes.”

Eric Johannsen of Johannsen Farms Outfitting had said when corn prices soared to $8 a bushel a few years ago, farmers started planting every available piece of their properties. And they didn’t have to worry about any losses because with crop insurance, all they have to do is to make the effort just to plant the seeds and they are guaranteed to make money. So a farmer could literally plant the seed, walk away and do nothing else with it, and still come out in the black.

They plant everywhere because they can get paid more – even for planted but not productive land – than they do for keeping it in the CRP program. So yeah. Anyone who doesn’t know any better is likely to say the farmers are the bad guys when it comes to transforming favorable pheasant habitat to cropland. In fact, one visitor from Colorado said the description given of how some farmers use crop insurance sounded like fraud.

But Johannsen cautions, “We have to be careful not to demonize producers because of choices they make. They’re just trying to run their family farms,” and he characterizes crop insurance as “revenue protection.” Farmers are just using the language of the law to their advantage, he implied.

Nomsen added this word of hope. “Pheasants are edge species – we don’t need full sections of CRP to help the populations. If you give the critters the right conditions, they literally explode on the landscape.”

He mentioned that PF is working with willing farmers to consider the mantra, “Farm the best, conserve the rest.” What that basically means is that there are areas on any farm that are not used to their potential when they are simply tilled to make more space for planting seeds. Odd-shaped areas, small fields, field borders and riparian zones are some examples of such spots. Nomsen said that by managing these areas better a farmer will “produce better habitat for pheasants and better forage for his animals.”

He said the best land management practices would consider pheasants as an additional annual crop the farmers can harvest.

About 700 miles to the south of Aberdeen, Sue Selman of Woodward, Oklahoma, has problems with farmers of another type.

“I hate wind turbines!” she says. “I hate wind farms.”

Wind farms are those enthralling ridges where one can see massive, beautiful, white windmills – wind turbines, actually – in graceful, seemingly perpetual motion, all day long. When a transport truck carrying a 50-foot long propeller passes by on the interstate, the notion of silent power, like that of a small whale cruising effortlessly alongside a tourist boat in a Maine bay, fills the spirit. What could possibly be wrong with wind turbines?

“They’re killing 500,000 birds a year,” says Selman. “In ten years, that’s five million birds. There won’t be any. Nobody would say anything negative about wind energy when it started. But things are starting to change. There’s a big move, finally, to make wind companies allow independent researchers come in and determine how many birds are actually killed by turbines.”

Selman is known as “The Chicken Lady” from her efforts to spare the lesser prairie chickens on her 14,000-acre ranch from having to deal with the threats posed by the wind turbines and wires of wind farms.

In addition to the lethality of their spinning propellers, the turbines pose other problems. “They can’t be placed along the roads because prairie chickens see them as a perches for predators. They won’t go near them or nest near them.” Thus, they’d

tend to keep groups of birds separate from one another. “And this could add to the lack of genetic diversity

of the lesser prairie chicken population.”

In addition to the threat turbines pose to wildlife, Selman mentions that they are ultimately ineffective and expensive.

“They only have a life span of about 15 years. What happens when production credits go away and there are other forms of energy available? Wind can only generate up to three percent of the total needed. In summer, Oklahoma City is using all the air conditioning, and no wind is blowing.”

She turns her palms halfway up as she shrugs her shoulders, silently asking, “So how effective is wind energy?”

Someone who believes in green energy might be appalled to hear Selman’s assessment of wind energy. Moreover, he or she might be additionally surprised to hear Selman tout the benefits of fracking: With that type of energy procurement, all that happens is water is blown down through a pipe to open up an airway to the natural gas. The gas is extrapolated. Any brine that is removed is cleaned and returned to the earth. No muss. Little fuss. She dismisses the notion that fracking has been responsible for earthquakes farther west.

It seems that Fosburgh has

figured out this ox goring and how

it applies to the sportsman who need to fight against the antis and against apathy, which is just as dangerous a foe.

He says, “Until we work on things that don’t affect us, they’ll pick us off one group or issue at a time. What affects the Rocky Mountain elk indeed does affect trout, conservation-wise.

“We need to get out of our individual, little foxholes.”