Big Changes on the Prairie

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The majority of South Dakota lies covered in snow these days – welcome precipitation for a state that has been locked in a drought for more than a year.

I count myself among most South Dakotans who enjoy having snow around, as long as it stays in one place. Those moments are fleeting however, as our big prairie sky is almost always producing a big prairie wind. Give us all a day or two of blowing snow, and we soon begin to long for spring.

Invariably, when South Dakota is gripped by a frozen blast of cold and snow, my mind drifts to those pioneers who settled this land in the latter half of the 19th century. How did they make it through the winter on a treeless prairie? And when those first warm southerly breezes arrived in March, what possessed them to stay?

The U.S. Government was probably thinking the same thing when it doled out land to those individuals from around the world who took advantage of the Homestead Act and other land acts. Part of the agreement was that for a 160 acre claim, a person had to work the land, build a house and live on the homestead  for five years.

Many of these homesteaders also planted trees as did their descendants.  In turn, the care that these hearty souls poured in to their trees came full circle, as root systems were established for young ash, elm and box elders. With each ring of growth, those trees began to protect and sustain the farms of those who planted them, and farms and communities began to take root in the prairie sod.

Save for two years at graduate school in Arizona, I’ve lived my entire life in South Dakota, and I take pride in a state that was settled by a hardy brand of folk who have always had a deep connection to the land. As an outdoor writer, I am drawn to explore this relationship between human caregivers and the landscape and wildlife that give so much back in return.

A year or so ago my phone rang with a call from my father. There seemed to be a story, he said, out east of town. He thought I should check it out.

He gave me a name and phone number, and I made plans to call when time allowed. But one thing led to another, and it was weeks before I made good on my intentions to contact this individual.

When I did, he informed me that the window for the story had likely passed.

“If you don’t mind me asking, what was it about?”

“Trees.”

A half-mile of trees, to be exact – a massive stand of hardwoods planted when folks first settled the ground over 100 years ago.

“What happened to them?”

“They’re gone. Bulldozed. Looks like they’re going to plant it this spring.”

I made the trip out to look for myself, and if I didn’t know better, I’d say that the trees were never there in the first place. The wind of change had blown swiftly through this township in eastern South Dakota, and, sadly, it continues to blow today.

If you travel along any one of the grids of gravel roads in South Dakota, it is hard to ignore that this landscape is transforming before your very eyes.

It’s not just trees, either: piles of dirt line freshly trenched waterways to move snow melt and rain more quickly from point A to point B; miles of black, perforated plastic tubing stand coiled along field edges, ready for the tile knife; and acre upon acre of native prairie – ground that has never seen a plow – lies bare.

And then there are the cattails – those thick, stubborn stands of heavy cover that sprout up where moisture gathers. Burned, mowed, plowed, trenched – there is a war on cattails these days, and one battle has hit particularly close to home.

Growing up, I had the fortune of being able to literally walk out my front door, cross the road and begin pheasant hunting. I missed more than I hit in those days, but my odds of bringing a rooster home increased significantly when the weather turned cold.

The first blanket of snow caused every pheasant in the section to congregate in a winding stand of cattails that was visible from my driveway, and I hit the thick cover buoyed with knowledge that there were heart-pounding flushes in my near-future.

This past fall, those cattails were mowed then baled and the ground plowed deep.  An excavator made quick work of the waterway, so water will never collect in that slough bottom again.

Neither will cattails.

Neither will pheasants.

Neither will a hunter.

The landscape of eastern South Dakota is different than the one that ushered me through school and those first years as a hunter. It is different than the one that welcomed me home from Arizona just five years ago.

The evolution of a new South Dakota has its roots in a several factors: a strong commodity market; sky-rocketing land prices and cash rental rates; corn ethanol; subsidized crop insurance; advancements in agricultural technologies; and a Farm Bill that doesn’t provide competitive rates for conservation programs.

Some might say that broad changes are part of an inevitable march of progress in a state that depends heavily on agriculture to survive.

But can we really label this “progress” or “improvement” when the diversity of our landscape is being compromised? When hunters and wildlife have fewer places to go?  When “what’s best for the land” is replaced with “what’s best right now”?

The wind is howling rather wildly as I write this today, and the snow is blowing in circles out my window.

But relief will be here before long. Flocks of migrating waterfowl will begin to arrive on the first warm winds of spring and settle on those temporary and seasonal wetlands that remain; prairie chickens and sharp-tailed grouse will dance where grass still stands; and rooster pheasants will stand and crow where a diverse landscape has survived.

South Dakota is changing, but my hope is that our roots still run deep to a place where conservation means giving a little of ourselves for the greater good of the land. And her people.

Author, John Pollmann is a life-long bird hunter and freelance outdoor writer from South Dakota. A 2012 recipient of the John Madson Fellowship from the Outdoor Writers Association of America, Mr. Pollmann is a regular contributor to the Sioux Falls (SD) Argus Leader; provides a bi-monthly report on South Dakota for the Minnesota Outdoor News; and is the waterfowl columnist for the Aberdeen (SD) American News Outdoor Forum. Other writing credits include the pages of magazines for Ducks Unlimited, Delta Waterfowl and American Waterfowler.

In addition to outdoor writing, Mr. Pollmann holds an advanced degree in music and currently teaches at Pipestone Area School in Pipestone, MN. He is an active member of Ducks Unlimited, Delta Waterfowl, Pheasants Forever, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership and was recently named to the country’s first conservation pro-staff with Vanishing Paradise.

Mr. Pollmann lives in Dell Rapids, SD with his wife Amber, their son Miles and a yellow Labrador named Murphy.

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3 comments on “Big Changes on the Prairie

  1. justinH on said:

    It’s sad and deeply disturbing, but very true. Thank you for being open minded and having a voice

  2. Scott Hed on said:

    Sadly, John’s hit the nail squarely on the head. I’ve lived in eastern SD since 1993 and the pace of change on the landscape in the past few years makes your head spin. It’s all about making the most money right now, the “get while the getting’s good” mentality. I fear for the future of wildlife and hunting – things that make South Dakota a great place to live – not just for future generations, but even in the rest of my lifetime.

  3. J. Stengle on said:

    I’m a native South Dakotan but have been living in Oregon for much of my career. I visit the East River country in South Dakota each year for family reunion (and as many days of pheasant hunting that I can!). Oh, the changes we have seen out on the landscape. Most of the changes are for short-term financial gain. The consequences for wildlife, watershed health, pest control, botanical resources, income generated from us non-resident hunters, and natural beauty are horrendous. Thank you Mr. Pollman for your article and please keep educating our society.

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