The paradox of the farm bill: It is good for farmers and everyone else involved with slicing up the pie.
But I have found that it really depends on which farmers you talk to and when you talk to them.
The Conservation Reserve Program, which pays a farmer to plant native grasses instead of a crop, is part of the farm bill.
Back in the mid 80s and through the 90s, CRP grasses, as they have become known, were at their height. All types of wildlife flourished, and therefore, so did hunting.
Now with the government attaching more and more strings to the farm bill’s CRP program, along with the rising prices of crops that can be grown on land reserved for CRP, farmers are breaking out millions of acres of land that have sat in grasses for decades.
This has led to what I call the “empty vest era.”
Hunters are hanging up their vests this year. If not entirely, for sure after the opening days of walking for hours and seeing only three or four birds fly off in the distance.
In addition to a huge decline in bird numbers, the soaring prices for ammo, gas and lodging have made it more appealing to sit at home and catch a few NFL games on the weekends.
The saying is “grief transcends anything,” and hunters are grieving the loss of all those wonderful acres that we have stalked for a long, bountiful time.
We need to remember that what’s happening now is best for the farmer.
We should be thankful that we have had almost 30 years of a boom.
I have spent much of the last four weeks hunting in Nebraska, Montana and North Dakota. The upland bird populations are down at least 30 percent from last year, and they were down at least that much last season.
Nebraska has been the worst so far. I killed more predators and varmints than pheasants during the opening days of the pheasant season there.
I witnessed a good friend of mine in Montana plowing over his CRP with his Case tractor and huge Sunflower disc. Over the past two years he has cut down at least 2,000 acres of CRP, prime wildlife habitat that I have had the privilege to hunt for a long time.
There is a bright spot.
We call them prairie potholes. They are rocky, swampy chunks full of cattails and weeds. Farmers in Montana and North Dakota simply farm around them.
CRP grasses have surrounded these potholes for 20 to 25 years in some cases. Now that the CRP grasses are gone, hunting the potholes — some are as large as a football field — is like opening a box of Cracker Jacks: You just never know what kind of surprise is waiting for you.
I saw a virtual plethora of game; pheasants, grouse, partridge, ducks, geese, sandhill cranes, coyotes, porcupines, skunks, deer and even a moose up close and very personal. It was a cow with her calf, and I had stumbled to within 30 or 40 yards of them, much too close for safety’s sake.
The wildlife that was spread out over thousands of acres is now concentrated in a small area and much easier for an experienced hunter to get.
There are many experienced hunters besides man that are going to take advantage of the concentrated meals now. Coyotes, wolves and mountain lions will join human predators to enjoy the concentration of game.
A mountain lion was killed on the highway just north of Belfield, N.D., while we were hunting near there.
With the decline of CRP acreage we are going to see more and more encounters with wildlife during the next couple of years.
What we are seeing today is nothing new.
The decline in bird numbers has happened before. It should make you a better hunter.
Encounters like the mountain lion and my encounter with the moose will continue until we get back to the balance that existed before the farm bill’s Conservation Reserve Program. ❖
Jim Vanek is a longtime hunter who lives in Greeley with his family. He can be reached at email@example.com.