Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Wither Crops, Hopes, Humanity, and Quail...

 The Oklahoma wheat harvest is under way, and it's expected to be one of the worst - if not the worst - on record. This time of year we should be covered up with custom cutter crews and wheat trucks and combines in the fields. Instead, many of those wheat fields have either been hayed, turned out to cattle or turned into patches of cracked, bare earth.

Bread's gonna get dear, so now may be a good time to go on that low-carb diet...except that when I was picking up dog food at the feed store last week the sweet, tough, leathery 'ol gal who runs the place told me that more and more ranchers were being forced to reduce or even sell out their herds for lack of grass and water. It's been that way for a while now, of course, but the pace is apparently picking up. The local livestock auction has been a busy place lately. So instead of low-carb, paleo, vegetarian, or whatever, now may actually be a good time to start transitioning yourself to the hottest new diet soon to be sweeping the world. It's called the climate-change diet. It's very simple: you starve until you achieve your desired weight, then you continue starving until you die, because there's nothing to eat. And when you do find temporary sources of food, you eat whatever the hell you can find, when you can find it, where you can find it, while you can find it. And the great thing is, all that binging is completely guilt-and-consequence free, because soon enough you'll start the starvation phase of the diet all over again. Cheery, huh?

But damn, I'm digressing here at a rate rivaling Antarctic ice melt rates. Back to quail and rain...    

While perusing the festivities at one of the recent PF/QF Pheasant Fests, I got to hear a number of interesting seminar talks about quail conservation, but two in particular that stick out for me were talks given by, respectively, a biologist from the state of Missouri and Dale Rollins at the Rolling Plains Quail Research Ranch. The Missouri biologist talked about the detrimental effects of spring rains on quail populations, then Dr. Rollins talked (briefly, because his seminar was on another topic) about how in contrast to Missouri, there's just no such thing as too much rain in west Texas (and by extension, Western Oklahoma), for quail or people.

And thus is how the bobwhite quail (and us) rises and falls on the dusty, arid plains of Comancheria. Live by the raindrop, die by the raindrop. And there have been damn few raindrops falling on my head lately. The picture above is of the rain gauge in my back yard. That three-quarters of an inch of precious liquid represents the sum total of our May rainfall. We were supposed to get two to three inches this weekend. This is what we got instead. Thankfully for the folks directly south of here, they did get several inches, and if anything, they needed it more desperately than us. I spent last week driving the roads in and around Black Kettle National Grasslands (about an hour or so south of here) and much of that country looks like the surface of Mars, whereas in these parts we merely resemble the interior of Death Valley.

Moreover, last week the entire southern portion of my main quail hunting area burned in a massive wildfire. I drove by there not long after, and just about cried. I live in a sandy region. I know how incredibly fragile is that thin skim of crust atop the ancient dunes that cover this area. I know how easily and quickly that sand can start blowing away if it gets grubbed out by too many cattle, broken by plows, scraped clean for a well pad, or torn up by the wheels of the ATV crowd. But to see that sand exposed on such a massive scale is startling, to say the least. In the space of a single afternoon, thousands of acres of habitat that - despite the drought - was still going to be important nesting habitat this spring and summer, was incinerated and turned into a sea of dunes. So much burned so completely that the state transportation department had to place signs warning motorists of blowing dust conditions.

Yes, fire is a natural and necessary (and too-little used) part of the prairie ecology, and we need much, much more of it, but the difference these days is we're just not getting the rainfall needed to regenerate any growth after those fires. Further complicating things, the composition of the prairie plant biome itself (what little of it remains) has changed drastically over the past hundred or so years. More invasives and weeds, fewer true native prairie grasses with those amazing root systems that anchor the soil. So the soil just sits there, untethered, barren, drying out, and blowing away.

And so, too, are my hopes for this coming fall. After last spring's timely and relatively abundant rains and the subsequent modest increase in quail numbers, I thought this year - weather permitting -  would be one for the books. But weather is damn sure not permitting. At least not yet. It's not too late, I suppose, to turn things around, but I think I can hear too late coming over the horizon if we don't get more rain.

So I dump out the rain gauge, sigh, and with the Reaperish specter of the coming summer hovering over my distant fall hopes, look to the skies and ask the winds for rain while muttering under my breath about ammo, toilet paper or possibly moving to a nice Scandinavian country like Norway...     


  1. It's not all doom and gloom, at least fracking is attempting to anchor the land with deep lush roots.. Oh shit, wait...


    1. Naw, not completely doom and gloom. Just mostly...:)

  2. I love this blog. I found it recently and lost a whole day to it. I really appreciate high-brow thinking about hunting and the environment. Man-o-man. The internet is a better place for having you in it. I'm glad you're writing again.

    1. Aw, thanks, Anon, but I think that's the first time anyone has ever described my writing as "highbrow"...

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