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The hope in habitat

When it comes to hunting, where you find habitat, you find your quarry. While fields of corn and soybeans will draw pheasants, deer and waterfowl to their edges to feed, the other 95 percent of their lives are spent loafing, staying warm, remaining hidden and raising their young in places kept away from prying eyes under the cover of thick vegetation and tangled reeds and branches. Sloughs, tree claims, creek hollows, river bottoms and other such stretches of habitat, including those that were once natural and now restored — such as second-generation prairie areas of conservation reserve program grasses and other plantings — all provide the cover that pheasants, ducks and deer need to survive those times when they’re not scraping up the remnants of the harvest.

Even this weekend, in the chilly rain as North Dakota’s pheasant season started, we found our birds on the edges of those places immediately adjacent to the standing corn, which gave the running roosters readily available escape routes, or tucked into the leeward brush lines along a mixed draw of grasses, weeds and cattail clumps. In these marginal stretches which remained after a dry summer could have easily reclaimed them for the plow, we found more than enough action to make the damp morning hike worth it and provide a first-of-the-season workout for my lab. As our cheerful landowner who walked with us and shuttled us from point to point noted, these were dedicated pheasant acres, and he hoped to keep them that way for seasons to come. Because he too knew the importance of having the varied cover that remained to sustain the population of pheasants amidst the towering gold corn fields, producing a first-morning mix of young roosters and an older bird in the bag before we ended our trek at mid-day. It was a promising result — following a dry summer and a noted decline in the number of pheasants showing up in roadside surveys — to see the juvenile birds in our small sampling and a reminder of that basic tenet of conservation.

In these marginal acres we find at least the opportunity for a successful hunt. Those odds may increase or decrease based on time of year, standing crop or harvested fields, snowfall or dampness, presence of predators and the like but those acres always provide more than an area without cover. In those spaces too rests the future for the next season, as they serve as the base for a successful hatch the following spring, even if this year’s recruitment had dipped. Where there is habitat, there is hope for the future of hunting. As long as grass remains on the ground, sloughs stay intact providing cover and shelter, and even man-made plantings such as brush lines and tree belts break the bluster and cold, there will be places for wildlife to propagate, raise their young and rebound from dips caused by weather, be it a harsh winter or a sweltering drought. With that effort comes the opportunity to hunt, and the realization of why these marginal acres are so important to conservation dawns again on every sportsman and woman, like the start of a new season afield.

With each flushing rooster, bounding deer, or flock of ducks that come through, the lesson is repeated over and over again. Habitat is king, habitat is the next year class of wildlife, habitat is the following generation of hunters and habitat is hope for the future. More opportunities exist now than ever before to find ways to make habitat part of the landscape in terms of science, stipends and successful planning for both the individual and societal bottom lines. Beyond the beating wings and thundering hooves, clean running water, soils that stay in place, and a better environment for all species– game and human alike — rests in the roots of those plants that provide the cover, and the hope that comes with each new autumn…in our outdoors.

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