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Mike Jacobs: Meadowlarks appear on state’s agenda

The state has lost 60% of its estimated 5 million acres of wetlands and 70% of its native grassland. This has contributed to the plight of the meadowlark.

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Mike Jacobs, Grand Forks Herald columnist.

Meadowlarks are on the agenda at the North Dakota Game and Fish advisory meetings underway around the state this week. To be sure, meadowlarks are neither fish nor game birds, but the western meadowlark is the state’s avian emblem – the state bird, in other words.

Meadowlark numbers have crashed, and the future of the species has become a matter of grave concern – so grave that the department has launched something called “the meadowlark initiative.”

This is not news. Brad Dokken reported on the initiative in Northland Outdoors on May 1, after the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced a grant to launch the program. The department’s Regional Conservation Program will put up $10 million; the Game and Fish will seek $12 million in “partner contributions.” This means cooperating landowners.

“We need to acknowledge who the owners and managers of our native prairies are,” said Greg Link, the head of the department’s conservation and communication division.

The advisory committee meetings tackle these issues.

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These kinds of efforts are not new, but they have a troubled history in North Dakota. In fact, it’s safe to say that previous programs helped fuel anger at government in general. This was expressed in ways both political and extralegal.

The extralegal ones involve drainage of protected wetlands and, in some cases, wanton disregard of hunting regulations. The political ones involved initiated measures to create conservation programs in the state. The most recent of these, in 2014, was rejected by more than 79% of voters.

The situation for wildlife has become more dire in the meantime. Link told the Associated Press last week that the state has lost 60% of its estimated 5 million acres of wetlands and 70% of its native grassland.

This has contributed to the plight of the meadowlark. In 2015, it was listed as a “species of conservation priority” in the state’s Wildlife Action Plan. The bird’s status in the eastern third of the state was listed as “rare.” There are meadowlarks in eastern North Dakota, but they are very much fewer than they used to be. When I arrived in Grand Forks as a college student in 1965, I had only to walk a short way on a spring morning to hear meadowlarks singing.

When Suezette and I returned to Grand Forks in 1980, it was still possible to find meadowlarks within a short distance of the city. Now that search means a drive to remaining grasslands west of town. Meadowlarks have been relegated to isolated grassy areas in the Red River Valley, and to areas of healthy prairie in the western part of the state.

And it’s not just meadowlarks. Healthy grasslands are essential for all wildlife, not just game species, and for pollinators. Of course, they are also essential for ranching operations and for communities that depend on ranching.

Link told Dokken, the Herald’s outdoors editor, that a coalition is being assembled to launch the initiative “all in the name of beef, birds, bugs, bees and butterflies,” which is almost as poetic as Emily Dickinson’s recipe for prairie.

“To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee, One clover and a bee, And revery. The revery alone will do, if bees are few.” (Spelling and punctuation by Emily Dickinson)

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Dickinson died in 1886, three years before North Dakota became a state. North Dakota was a great swath of grassland. That would have been the ideal time to set some of it aside, but imperatives were different then. Within about 40 years the entire state had become agricultural land.

Nature rebounded, however, and some exceptional tracts of prairie are included in areas designated as national grasslands. These grasslands are themselves the fruit of a Dust Bowl initiative to stabilize the farm and ranch economy. The same is true of the larger national wildlife refuges in the state. Acquiring these lands created resentment that still crops up among descendants of homesteaders displaced from their homes.

Reaching any of these requires a long drive from Grand Forks. In fact, Grand Forks is the city most distant from significant grassland reserves in North Dakota.

Most of the tall grass that once blanketed the Red River Valley is gone. Indeed, perhaps it’s best to concede that there is no true native prairie and there won’t be. The meadowlark initiative itself contemplates reseeding croplands with native plants.

The initiative will make a difference, of course, and it should be welcomed. Land management practices can restore and maintain habitat enough that the meadowlark remains a familiar – and much loved – symbol of the state.

Game and Fish Advisory Committee meetings are scheduled Wednesday, Dec. 1, the Community Center in Leeds, N.D., hosted by the Leeds Wildlife Club, and in the Memorial Student Union on the UND campus in Grand Forks on Thursday, Dec. 2, hosted by the UND Chapter of the Wildlife Society. Both meetings will begin at 7 p.m. Meetings will be held next week in Bismarck and Amidon. Meetings were held last week in Williston and Bottineau, and earlier this week in Casselton and Wishek.

Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher of the Grand Forks Herald.

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