Thursday, November 14, 2013

Links 'O Gloom and Doom...

Abandon all hope, ye who read here...

First off is this heartwarming story in Time about the continued and mind-boggling - in both scope and naked greed - conversion of grasslands to crops.

Robert Malsam nearly went broke in the 1980s when corn was cheap. So now that prices are high and he can finally make a profit, he’s not about to apologize for ripping up prairieland to plant corn. Across the Dakotas and Nebraska, more than 1 million acres of the Great Plains are giving way to corn fields as farmers transform the wild expanse that once served as the backdrop for American pioneers.
This expansion of the Corn Belt is fueled in part by America’s green energy policy, which requires oil companies to blend billions of gallons of corn ethanol into their gasoline. In 2010, fuel became the No. 1 use for corn in America, a title it held in 2011 and 2012 and narrowly lost this year. That helps keep prices high. “It’s not hard to do the math there as to what’s profitable to have,” Malsam said. “I think an ethanol plant is a farmer’s friend.”

A few nut grafs to chew on...

More than 1.2 million acres of grassland have been lost since the federal government required that gasoline be blended with increasing amounts of ethanol, an Associated Press analysis of satellite data found. Plots that were wild grass or pastureland seven years ago are now corn and soybean fields. That’s in addition to the 5 million acres of farmland that had been aside for conservation — more than Yellowstone, Everglades and Yosemite National Parks combined — that have vanished since Obama took office.

"...In South Dakota, more than 370,000 acres of grassland have been uprooted and farmed from since 2006. In Edmunds County, a rural community about two hours north of the capital, Pierre, at least 42,000 acres of grassland have become cropland — one of the largest turnovers in the region."
"Malsam runs a 13-square-mile family farm there. He grows corn, soybeans and wheat, then rents out his grassland for grazing. Each year, the family converts another 160 acres from grass to cropland.
Chemicals kill the grass. Machines remove the rocks. Then tractors plow it three times to break up the sod and prepare it for planting."

And Mr. Malsam can do that pretty much risk-free, thanks to our federal crop insurance program. Socialize the risk, privatize the profit. It's just that simple. Here's a little story that gives a good synopsis of the problem. Well, it's a problem for taxpayers, hunters, anglers and pretty much everyone else besides farmers, ethanol producers and other members of the agro-industrial complex. For them it's the can't lose lottery...

From Bloomberg

Crop insurance, intended to protect growers from price and weather risk, has become the most expensive U.S. farm-aid program, costing taxpayers $14 billion in subsidies for farmers and payments to companies, including ACE Ltd. (ACE) and a unit of Wells Fargo & Co. (WFC), after last year’s drought pushed payouts to a record, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data. 

...Under the insurance program, the government subsidizes the majority of premiums paid by farmers, covers much of the administrative costs tallied by insurers to run the program, and guarantees that all losses are met. A series of stories by Bloomberg in September examined the debate over the program’s structure and costs.

More than a half-decade into a price boom expected to push farm profits to a record $120.6 billion this year, land in Midwest and Plains states has shifted toward crops, according to the USDA. This year’s corn acreage of 97.4 million acres was the highest since 1936. About 86 percent of U.S. acreage was covered by taxpayer-backed crop insurance last year, the agency said.

It's not gonna stop, folks. It's just not. At least not voluntarily, out of some suddenly-realized collective epiphany that perhaps this isn't a good or even remotely sustainable idea. Hmmm, I wonder what would stop it...

Have you ever held finely-tilled prairie soil in your hands? No? Don't live on the plains, you say? No problem, just give it a few years. And start putting together that Woody Guthrie playlist now...

Moving on, here's another Debbie-Downer piece, this time on NPR, on a study to determine how climate change is effecting native cutthroat populations...

From the story

In the mountain streams of the American West, the trout rules. People don't just catch this fish; they honor it. And spend lots of money pursuing it. But some western trout may be in trouble. Rivers and streams are getting warmer and there's often less water in them. Scientists suspect a changing climate is threatening this iconic fish. I joined two such scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey as they drove up a mountain road in Montana, in the northern Rockies, a place dense with stands of Douglas fir and aspen trees and braided with mountain streams...They're studying the trout's world, which is changing radically as the climate warms. The region has seen record droughts and declining winter snowpack, which means measly stream flow after the spring melt. The water is also warmer these days in the streams.

"...Understanding how this will all work out will take time. But already, changes have cropped up. For example, non-native fish that have been introduced in the West — like rainbow trout — normally live farther downstream where the water is warmer. Now they're moving up into higher streams. When they get there, they breed with the native cutthroat. Clint Muhlfeld says new research he's done suggests that making hybrids may not be a good thing. "What we found is that as you allow hybridization to progress in fish you actually see a rapid decrease in fitness," he says. "That's not a good thing for trout." Also, bass are moving into waters that were once too cold for them, the kind of water the trout prefer. The bass prey on the young trout." 

Well, sheeeit! Good news! Maybe now if I'm forced to move to Montana because of extreme drought and the disappearance of bobwhite quail on the southern plains, I won't have to trade in my bass tackle for fly gear, after all, because the bass will be fleeing there, too! Move over, you dry fly fairy wanders. Meet Mr. Jig 'n Pig!

The story continues...

There are many things that disturb trout, which are picky about how and where they live. But so far the state and the fishing community have been able to reconcile cattle grazing, development and mining with the needs of trout. But climate change raises a big new threat and it's hard to fathom how it might affect trout. Thus the effort now to look for the first signs of trouble, not only for the sake of the creature, but for all those people who regard it as the iconic fish of the American West.

Really? Cattle grazing, development and mining have all been reconciled? Well, sheeeit! Pack it up, TU, who needs you? Everything's been reconciled except, apparently, climate change, which as we all know is a leftist hoax, anyway. So my takeway from this story is, screw the cutthroat. With grazing, development and mining having been reconciled, and with climate change a demonstrable falsehood, that stupid, gullible little fish is golden.*

And finally, we have this story, which I picked up through the National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative's  Facebook page.

From the story in the Houston Chronicle

Conversation among a group of scientists, wildlife managers, land managers, public policy experts, journalists and hunters gathered in a Texas town one evening this past week was animated and passionate and tinged with frustration, desperation and urgency. The topic was how unprecedented, man-caused changes in the natural landscape and a devil's brew of factors poised to accelerate those changes threaten the future of the continent's waterfowl and other avian wildlife that depend on healthy, abundant grassland/wetland habitats for survival.

"Are ducks the next quail?" one of the discussion's participants, a biologist with extensive experience in the field and knowledge of challenges facing waterfowl and other avian wildlife, somberly wondered aloud. Everyone understood the implications of his question.

Uh, yeah, I'd like to take a stab at answering that question, and the short answer would be, hell yes, they are. Anyone not a congenital half-wit or a TV personality can see that. Enjoy those record-setting fall flights, enjoy blasting those endless six-duck limits with all your shiny new branded gear, enjoy emulating a bunch of weird, hairy, proselytizing hillbillies from Louisiana. Because your new fad is over. It's dead. Still flying, but flying dead. Unless things change, and change damn quickly.

Ducks aren't magically produced somewhere off-camera. They're produced in the very same regions that are currently being greedscaped into oblivion. All you mud motor jockeys may not currently give two shits what happens to the quail, or what happens to the pheasants, or to prairie grouse or whatever else lives out there in the wastelands, but guess what? Those wastelands are to the ducks what your doublewide is to you!** That's where they all go to fornicate!

And when the skies are empty and you're forced to go back to something like the point system because of plummeting duck numbers, and you're rediscovering the joys of using your $1,500 plastic duck gun for some Xtreme rat shooting down at the town dump because "it's the dayumdest thing, there just 'aint no ducks no more!" then maybe you'll realize that instead of devoting all your time and energy to rockin' the beard, maybe you shoulda been paying a little more attention to Things That Really Matter.

But I digress, the story was actually about quail...

Bobwhite quail, arguably the most recognized and revered game bird in the nation, has seen its wild population free-fall over the past half-century or so. In some states within the birds' native range, which covers most of the United States from the Atlantic seaboard to the Great Plains, bobwhite numbers have declined by as much as 90 percent or more. That includes states such as Georgia, Mississippi and South Carolina, where wild quail were so abundant they were a part of the region's cultural and social fabric. 

In some states where the birds were relatively abundant as recently as 30 years ago, bobwhites are considered "recreationally extinct," their numbers so low that hunting seasons have been either suspended or, if hunting is allowed, almost no wingshooters pursue the iconic game bird.
No region of the bobwhites' range has escaped the collapse, including Texas. The statewide bobwhite quail population has, by some estimates, declined 70 percent or more over the past 60 years. In parts of Texas, the birds have all but vanished; East Texas and the Post Oak Savanna, which held fairly healthy bobwhite populations into the 1960s, are almost wholly devoid of wild quail, and the Blackland Prairies and Edwards Plateau regions hold only scattered, isolated islands of quail.

The decline in Texas' bobwhite population has been mirrored by an off-a-cliff tumble in the number of Texans hunting quail. As recently as the early 1990s, as many as 225,000 Texans hunted quail each autumn and winter. This past season, according to the Texas wildlife agency's small game harvest survey, only about 20,800 people hunted quail in Texas. And that number includes those who shot pen-raised/released quail on shooting preserves.

Just plug in "Oklahoma" wherever the story says "Texas" and you'll get the idea. But as alluded to in the story, this is a national problem, and a woefully under-reported one, especially in any meaningful way in what passes for outdoor media these days. As an example, last year, in the wake of an excellent New York Times piece  written by James Card, I pitched a quail conservation feature story to the editor of a magazine that shall remain unnamed. It was timely, it was urgent, and it important for a helluva lot of people, including, dare I say, a helluva lot of readers of this particular magazine. I had all the contacts, I had the background, having written about quail quite a bit, I had a good hook, I had the timing, and I truly thought it had a chance to get a greenlight.

The editor's response was that while it sounded like a good story, this magazine had already done a recent quail-related conservation piece, so they'd have to pass. So what did said quail-related conservation piece consist of? Well, it was (and I am not making this up) a five-minute feel-good video highlighting a local Boy Scout project to restore "quail habitat" on a local put-and-take poultry shoot New Jersey. Yes, New Jersey.

Sigh. It's easy to get discouraged and glum about all sorts of things, especially if you read this blog. But believe it or not, I am not nearly so skeptical as I sometimes seem. I'm a hopeful pessimist. The alternative is to be a hopeless pessimist, and truly, what's the point of that? I think there's hope for our grasslands, I think there's hope for the cutthroat, and I think there's hope for the bobwhite. I'm not quite ready to abandon hope just yet. And Ye shouldn't, either. There are a lot of good people out there doing a lot of good work. These stories? They're just reminders, albeit stark ones, of why that work is so important.

* I kid, I kid the cutthroat. In truth, I'm fascinated with the little buggers and I've applied (keep your fingers crossed) for a journalism fellowship with the cutthroat trout as my research subject. 

** Please, no angry comments about my disparaging of redneck duck hunters. I was born and raised in Oklahoma. I've actually lived in a doublewide trailer. I am a redneck duck hunter, and believe me, when I make fun of redneck duck hunters, I know from whence I speak...


  1. Hey now, what's all this disparaging of redneck duck hunters? I'm damned angry... so angry, I may kick down the door of my doublewide and come show your okie ass a thing or two.

    Or you know... not.

    This was definitely not an uplifting post, but it's just pulling together what anyone who's paid attention already knows. Shit's looking bad. And while, right now, some folks are concerned about the critters... as go the critters, so go the people.

    But a ray of sunshine... ephemeral as it may be... I busted a covey (maybe a dozen birds) of quail up on my ridge this past weekend. It's the first quail I've seen around here since I first started coming down here back in 2004. I won't hunt them, and I don't think I have any neighbors to worry about. All we need is for the drought to break...

    1. “Three little words…rule life in the dust bowl of the continent — if it rains.” - The Worst Hard Time.

      Your comment reminded me of this line from the book. (Anybody who has not read that book should.) I'm heading down to SW OK over Thanksgiving to take my 12 year old son quail hunting. I can remember when I knew where over 20-30 covey were in just the few sections that I grew up hunting. In my area the land use hasn't changed much, but several years of drought have destroyed (I was going to say decimated, but it's much worse than that) the quail. But there was decent rain last year, and so far this year, and I've also heard that there are a few covey spotted this year that haven't been seen in while, so I am hopefully optimistic.

      This is the second year in the field for both my son and my new dog, and I hope it is the start of a rebound and years of more birds and better hunting. If it rains...

  2. Fantastic piece on a grim subject.
    I agree there is hope, we just need to discover that being proactive about problems before they occur yields far better results than picking up the pieces after the crash - a concept that is still just barely being grasped. Western expansion is a thing of the past but we are still leaning a greedy shoulder into mother nature's stretch marks to see just how far we can go. It needs to stop on all fronts, not just fish and game management - or lack there of. Once the land is used properly the game will come back with the help of the right custodians.
    A step in the right direction would be the realization that we need to be responsible for our specie's overpopulation, just as we claim to be with other "lesser species", but thats going to be a long shot with all the conservative Christians in politics.