Wildlife Conservation photo

Some sportsmen wonder why they should care about what goes on in Washington. After all, outdoors sports are about recreation, not politics. Why should they care what Congress is debating and doing?

One of the best answers to that question was given in a recent report in the Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States, one of the nation’s most prestigious journals of scholarly research. The title of the report is as jarring to hunters as it is to academicians: “Recent land use change in the Western Corn Belt threatens grasslands and wetlands. “

What South Dakota State University researchers Christopher K. Wright and Michael C. Wimberly discovered is what wildlife advocates have been warning about ever since Congress decided that ramping up production of corn-based ethanol could bring down our fuel prices: Skyrocketing commodity prices have led to the greatest loss of prairie wetland and grasslands since the Dust Bowl, posing a serious threat to a long list of fish and wildlife.

The graphic above, taken from the report, indicates the percentage of grasslands converted into corn or soybean fields between 2006 and 2011.

In the words of these researchers, what is happening in the nation’s corn belt is analogous to the ecological disasters that have overtaken other areas of the planet where less developed nations have given profit margins a higher priority than a healthy environment – or fish, wildlife, hunting and fishing.

“Our results show that rates of grassland conversion to corn/soy (1.0-5.4% annually) across a significant portion of the US Western Corn Belt are comparable to deforestation rates in Brazil, Malaysia, and Indonesia, countries in which tropical forests were the principal sources of new agricultural land, globally, during the 1980s and 1990s.”

What has politics and Capitol Hill have to do with this?

The drive to plant corn for fuel was a creation of Congress and endorsed by then president George W. Bush. In fairness, the program was widely applauded in some circles as a first step in moving the nation away from fossil fuels toward renewable, cleaner energy. Some wildlife advocates, however, were not as happy.

It wasn’t long before biofuels – corn in particular – was were revealed to have their own environmental impacts, such as the conversion of millions of acres of land from wildlife habitat into row crops loaded with fertilizers; the millions of gallons of water required to convert them to fuel, and the carbon footprint required to produce a gallon of fuel.

This couldn’t be happening at a more dangerous time for waterfowl and upland birds, in particular. Drought is returning to much of the Midwest and Prairie states, and as climate scientists have been warning for close to a decade, global warming is making the impacts of this event much deeper and longer-lasting that recent cycles.

And the unfolding wildlife disaster is coinciding with a push in Congress to severely limit or totally dismantle many of the conservation initiatives that provided habitat buffers during previous dry periods – programs such as the Conservation Reserve, Wetlands Reserve and Grasslands Reserve programs.

The politicians we elect have authority to affect land-use policies – and not just on federal lands that we all own jointly. Federal subsidy programs also have an enormous impact on private land use policies. These can be a force for great conservation – such as in the case of CRP – or they can be a force for destruction of fish and wildlife habitat.

As you read this research report, you’ll understand why it’s in every sportsman’s interest to keep abreast of what’s happening in Washington.