Fall is a great reminder that change is a part of life.
Crops are harvested, fields get tilled and that familiar chill comes back to the air.
It got me to thinking about how the outdoors has changed and how it will continue to change as the years go by. If I had written this piece 100 years ago I may have lamented the loss of the elk and buffalo and how prairie chickens seemed headed in that same direction.
Geese and swans no longer nested in the area, and deer were such a rarity that sighting one was newsworthy, but duck hunting was superb, albeit without enough wood ducks to even mention. Bobolinks, meadowlarks and bluebirds would have crowded every hayfield and pasture each summer.
If this article had appeared 70 years ago the prairie chickens had gone. In their place were hordes of pheasants, and every fall brought an army of hunters to the field to chase them. Duck hunting was still king, but ominous signs were on the horizon. Duck numbers have always risen and fallen with drought and the eventual return to rainfall, but improved drainage techniques created permanent drought in thousands of wetlands, big and small, and duck populations were already starting to show the strain. Deer were still a rarity in our area, but numbers were slowly increasing.
Jumping another 20 years ahead not only the ducks but the pheasants were rapidly going the way of horse drawn farming. Improved herbicide, fertilizer, equipment and drainage meant more farm children going to college and a welcome reduction in some of the back breaking work involved with farming, but those same forces also removed many of the sloughs, hayfields, groves and pastures that many kinds of wildlife needed to survive. Even the meadowlarks and other open country songbirds began a slow decline the continues to this day.
The mid 1980s saw the bottom fall out for duck populations. The most severe drought seen since the 1930s knocked a duck population already tattered by intensified farming to the lowest levels ever recorded. Pheasants likewise were but a pale shadow of their former abundance. On the plus side of the ledger, deer were present in numbers that would have shocked those who had been around the during the 1920s. Canada geese were again nesting in the area, and beaver were numerous enough to make a nuisance of themselves.
At the turn of the century we were roughly where we are today. The low populations of wildlife in the 1980s had led to two very important programs aimed at returning some cropland back to grass, forest and wetland. The Reinvest In Minnesota program, or RIM for short, is a state program that returns habitat to the land permanently through conservation easements. The Conservation Reserve Program, or CRP, used federal money restore habitat through 10 to 15 year rental contracts.
Pheasant numbers responded very well to the added grass and wetland cover, and deer and the recently reintroduced wild turkeys did the same in the forest that sprung up in the flood prone river bottoms once cropping ceased. Ducks responded to CRP in the Dakotas, but the benefits here haven’t been nearly as good for all but wood ducks, which are now our most abundant breeding duck.
In the last 20 years we’ve had several more wildlife species return after long absences. River otters are common once again along the Minnesota River and can be found in most of the tributaries as well. Black bears and cougars are seen sporadically in the area as well.
While these so far appear to be only young males passing through as they look for new territories, it isn’t out of the realm of possibility that some day we may have a few that breed in the area, especially black bears. Bobcats are also back, but are so secretive that glimpses on trail cameras are all the proof we have so far. Trumpeter swans have returned as breeding birds, and sandhill cranes won’t be far behind.
Now that we know where we’ve been, where are we going? Those forests that have regrown along the river bottoms will keep maturing, and in the process will make better turkey and wood duck habitat. Deer numbers will largely depend on how many female deer we harvest.
As long as we don’t harvest too many, deer will be a common resident, and if we don’t harvest enough perhaps too common.
Another animal that will soon be here, if it isn’t already, is the fisher. The second largest weasel in North America, it is already commonly caught in traps in northern Kandiyohi county and has been sporadically observed in northern Renville county.
What effect will they have?
Despite their name fishers are land predators, and are particularly adept at hunting in trees. They prey on squirrels, birds, young raccoons, opossums, and perhaps even turkeys. How this will play out in the long term isn’t well understood at this point. Sandhill cranes have nested in Brown, Kandiyohi and Nicollet counties, and will soon do so in Redwood and Renville counties if they haven’t already.
The abundance of wetlands along the Minnesota River is just too good for them to pass up for long. Likewise we have some excellent trumpeter swan habitat that isn’t yet occupied.
Swans have nested in the county in recent years, and I fully expect to see more of them. Bears and cougars, as I mentioned earlier, have been seen in the area from time to time. Their long-term presence on a permanent basis will depend on two things.
The first is whether any females will disperse and stay to have young, which is very doubtful in the case of cougars and unlikely in the case of bears.
The second thing necessary will be human tolerance for any damage they may cause. Both are predators and can take livestock on occasion. Bears are also well known for their willingness to raid trash and beehives.
Wildlife is certainly an interesting thing to have around, but when it threatens livelihoods or safety control removal will be necessary. I wouldn’t place money on either returning full-time, but then again who 100 years ago would have predicted that turkeys, swans, geese or even wood ducks would be breeding here again?
As always, changes in farming practices will have the dominant effect on our wildlife. The recent trend to the use of cover crops, especially when left over winter, bodes well for some species, especially the beleaguered jack rabbit, which has all but disappeared from most of the area.
It could also have a very positive effect on Hungarian partridge. If cover crops get used in conjunction with no-till planting on a large scale it’s conceivable that pheasants, meadowlarks and other grassland birds could stage a major comeback if it allows cover to remain on the ground throughout the nesting season.
The wild card in all this is climate. If our weather changes as much as predicted, might we see such oddities as armadillos and scissor tailed flycatchers show up in the decades ahead? Will changes in climate lead to changes in farming practices and thus major changes in wildlife habitat?
At this point no one knows for sure.
The one thing we can be sure of is that things will continue to change.
If God so blesses me to write the follow up to this article in another 20 years, I can’t even imagine what unexpected things may happen.
– Jeff Zajac is an area wildlife manager for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. His office is in Redwood Falls.