Across the northern plains, native grassland is being turned into farmland at a rate not seen since the 1920s. The environmental consequences could be disastrous.
Article by Jocelyn C. Zuckerman
On a rainy Monday in mid-October, six middle-aged men in denim and camouflage sat bent over coffee mugs at the Java River Café, in Montevideo, Minnesota. With its home-baked muffins and free Wi-Fi, the Main Street establishment serves as communal living room for the town of 5,000, but the mood on that gray morning wasn’t particularly convivial. The state’s pheasant season had opened two days earlier, and the hunters gathered at the café for what should have been a brag fest were mostly shaking their heads. “You didn’t see anybody out there who was over the limit, did you?” a guy in a baseball cap asked with obvious sarcasm, to sad chuckles all around.
The region’s game birds are in serious trouble. Driving across South Dakota the following afternoon with the radio on, I learned that Governor Dennis Daugaard had just announced an emergency pheasant-habitat summit. Last summer, the state’s Department of Game, Fish and Parks recorded a 64 percent decline in the number of pheasant broods from the already record low levels of 2012. Though a rainy nesting season and an early fall blizzard hadn’t helped matters, the region’s problems involve more than inclement weather—and extend far beyond the birds.
While few seem to be aware of it, a massive shift is under way in the northern plains, with ramifications for the quality of our water and food, and, more fundamentally, the long-term viability of our farms. A study published in February 2013 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that between 2006 and 2011, farmers in the Dakotas, Minnesota, Nebraska, and Iowa—the Western Corn Belt—had plowed up 1.3 million acres of native grassland in order to plant corn and soybeans. “People had been talking about the land conversion,” says Chris Wright, an assistant research professor at South Dakota State University and a co-author of the report, “but there weren’t any recent numbers.”
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