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The early golden hour bathed the landscape in a peachy hue as the setters and I stood by the truck. It was somewhere around day number 200 that I had set foot on the grasslands between Waitsburg, WA and Minnesota since 2011. This day, we would embark on the Sheyenne National Grasslands in North Dakota. Sharp-tailed grouse were beginning to stir Somewhere in the expanse before us.
We were north of the Sheyenne River in an area where it was safe to hunt sharp-tails. Endangered Species Act-protected lesser prairie chickens were found south of river, and while I cannot recall if it was even legal to hunt on the south side, the likelihood of discerning a sharp-tail from a prairie chicken on the wing, or even sitting, was a task for which these virgin eyes were unprepared.
Black angus grazed among much of the acreage and the feel of mixed hardwood bottoms and hillsides giving way to grasslands was similar to the patchwork of woodlots I grew up with in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. Only on the Great Plains, the grasslands ecosystem is far more complex, supporting myriad pollinator, plant, bird, and other wildlife species.
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The setters cast in and out of senescing tree lines as dry burr oak and green ash leaves fluttered to the ground in the early November breeze. The terrain undulated softly with small dune-like mounds scattered about, similar to what one would see in eastern Montana. Small forbs dotted the ground, retaining some emerald in their leaves, seemingly fighting off the inevitable burgundy that was overtaking them as the plant withdrew its nutrients before winter.
We departed the grasslands without a single flush – a lone sharp-tail feather with a black spot in the center to show for our efforts. But the hunt is less about taking game and more about the experience, and seeing and learning new and legendary places.
The Northern Great Plains are a gem of North America, spanning five US states and two Canadian provinces across 183,000 square miles of mixed-grass prairie. And, like the lesser prairie chicken, the grasslands themselves are imperiled.
At present, America is experiencing an interesting fortune of strong bipartisan support for conservation legislation in DC. Similarly, conservation organizations like Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever, Backcountry Hunters Association, the National Wildlife Federation, and the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership are at the forefront of new initiatives which are gaining steam to conserve our wild places.
Since 1970, grasslands bird populations have declined by 40 percent with iconic species like bobwhite quail seeing declines greater than 80 percent.
Since 2007, crop production acreage enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program declined from 36.7 million acres to 21.9 million acres nationwide.
In December 2020, an article was published by The Hill presenting a call to action on grasslands conservation. Seventy-three percent of our grasslands have disappeared and less than three percent of historic longleaf pine woodlands remain. A study published in September 2020 supports the losses, showing that up to one million acres of natural land covers – grasslands, wetlands, and forest – are developed in the US, annually.
In response to these declines, In March 2021, Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever rolled out their “Call of the Uplands” initiative, which strives to “…raise $500 million, encompasses habitat conservation, education and outreach, and national advocacy strategies as part of an effort to conserve 9 million acres, engage 1.5 million outdoor participants, and enact landscape-level national policy for wildlife and rural communities.” The initiative was aimed at volunteer chapters of the organization, non-profits, and fish and wildlife agencies, but also within the parent organization in the form of new landscape-level policy.
Also beginning in 2021, ten conservation organizations worked collaboratively with policymakers in DC to develop the North American Grasslands Conservation Act (Act) with Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever standing at the spearhead. Given the variety of conservation legislation and initiatives already on the books, one would think our nations grasslands would be the target of such effort, but the Act is the first to focus on the vast North American prairie ecosystem.
The Act seeks to establish the following:
- A North American Grassland Conservation Strategy for the protection, restoration, and management of grassland ecosystems across North America.
- A flexible Grassland Conservation Grant Program for voluntary, incentive-based conservation of grasslands, including projects to restore degraded grasslands, increase carbon sequestration, improve grassland and rangeland health, mitigate the threats of wildfire and drought, improve biodiversity and support habitat connectivity, and restore watersheds.
- National and Regional Grassland Conservation Councils to recommend and approve grassland conservation projects to be funded under the grant program.
- Research initiatives on native seed crop systems and regenerative grazing practices.
The Act resembles the highly successful North American Wetlands Conservation Act, which utilizes federal grants to fund projects to enhance, expand, and conserve wetland habitats nationwide. Coupled with the Conservation Reserve Program, landowner incentives for restoring native grasses and controlling invasive species provides additional opportunity to regain quality habitats for plant diversity, pollinator species like North America’s iconic monarch butterfly, songbirds like the meadowlark, upland birds, deer, pronghorn, bison, and small mammals like the black-footed ferret.
The Act will soon be introduced to Congress, and, as Aaron Kindle, director of sporting advocacy for the National Wildlife Federation put it, “This is another clarion call for the future of America’s ecosystems and an opportunity for America’s hunters to step up and drive home a key conservation victory again.”