Our Outdoors: A Year of Lessons
By Nick Simonson
The lessons learned coming out of the drought in 2022, where a wet spring spurred regrowth of upland grasses and the thickening of the cattail sloughs which remained on the landscape, are many. Foremost among them came with the pleasant surprise of many upland hunters who found higher numbers of pheasants in their favorite stomping areas where good cover and loafing grasses reestablished over the summer months following the vernal soaking. While in the moment, the teachings of nature may be lost in the excitement of a flush, or the thrill of watching a dog hard at work, in the time after the hunt where memories are journaled, pictures posted, and stories told recapping the day is where two-and-two are put together, and the lesson comes rather easily.
The equation is the same for grouse, and deer, and elk, and pronghorn on the landscape as it is for perch, and walleyes, and pike in the rising waters which expand spawning reaches and swimmable areas. If there are more places to hide, more places to raise young, and more places to browse for food, more animals survive and time outdoors becomes more successful for hunters and anglers. In the warmth of an autumn afternoon, or even a chilly late-season adventure buoyed by time with friends and exciting encounters, what we take from our time outdoors goes hand in hand with pleasant experiences. However, Mother Nature is not always so kind of an instructor, and at times, when we’ve forgotten what’s most important, her ruler slams down to catch our attention and remind us as to what’s going on as temperature numbers drop, precipitation totals rise, and wildlife numbers falter.
With 2022 not going gentle into the good night of the calendar’s final page, the rage of the coming year’s winter has been felt well ahead of time. Copious amounts of snow – records across the upper Midwest for this time of year – have overtaken much of the grassland cover utilized by upland game and deer alike, along with other wildlife species. The borders, if not the entire windward sides of all but the deepest sloughs, have been filled in across much of the region, limiting the thermal cover game and non-game species can use. Followed up by bitter cold touching temperatures as low as minus-30, and the stage has been set for the harshest lesson of all.
It’s one that is typically whispered about in the corner’s of small town cafes, or traded incidentally in conversations between hunters about struggling wildlife, or those favorite species found dead due to exposure. It’s also a lesson with results that often aren’t so observable or confirmable until spring crowing counts are made, or tallies of herd sizes are documented. The equation, however, remains constant: wildlife populations are directly proportionate to the amount of habitat.
The variable of a harsh winter or a mild one matters little, the X-factor of a dry summer or a wet one doesn’t change the relationship, even though these varied influences may impact the final answer generated by the equation. More habitat in ideal years means even more wildlife. Less habitat in bad seasons means fewer pheasants, deer, and other species. Likely now, with the harsh stage set for the next three months and the start of 2023, the lesson will become even clearer about how important habitat is for the near-term and long-term preservation of wildlife populations and, ultimately, hunting. The question is: is the class paying attention?
With vital support for wildlife habitat under the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act frustratingly stalled out in congress at the end of the lame duck period, and new state legislative sessions about to kick off across the upper plains focusing on all sorts of programs, it will be interesting (and perhaps challenging for those who pay attention) to see where society’s focus for wildlife habitat will be in the coming months, with all the other social, economic and world issues at the forefront. Likely, with these competing interests, the responsibility for tutoring those who make the decisions on programs which protect areas vital to wildlife, will fall to those who utilize the resource and know, at least to an armchair extent, how important habitat is. Only through those efforts of sharing the lessons learned through both the enjoyable times of plenty and the challenging times experience and the importance of a tradition which has been a part of societal fabric since the birth of this nation and the settlement of the wilds across its continent, will the hard decisions be made to come up with the correct answer…for our outdoors.