As reported in our June issue, Louisiana farmers are converting acreage once reserved for only cotton and sugar cane into corn fields, and a boom in the state's deer population may very well result.
But that agricultural shift is not reserved only for Louisiana. It's also occurring across the rest of the continent, and although that's great news for deer, it's very, very bad news for ducks.
The reason so many farmers are burying as many corn kernels as they can get their hands on is because the federal government has gone ethanol crazy. In an effort to decrease our reliance on foreign oil and indebtedness to Middle Eastern sheiks, Congress in the 2005 Energy Bill required that the U.S. boost its ethanol production from 4 billion gallons in 2005 all the way up to 7.5 billion gallons by 2012.
To meet that need, there are plans in the works for 80 new corn ethanol plants to add to the 120 the country already has. If all come on line, the plants will have the capacity to process 4.5 billion bushels of corn.
And that means farmers are finding themselves in the midst of a modern-day gold rush.
Which is awful news for ducks.
Farmers and ranchers across the pothole prairie region of the continent have, for decades, left a significant portion of the acreage they own in native grasslands. Wild grasses like big blue stem, little blue stem, Indian grass and switchgrass dominate the landscape, and give the region its distinctive appearance.
And as pretty as these grasses seem to us, they look like home sweet home to the average duck. The native grasses provide seasonal cover for nesting waterfowl, and are absolutely essential for their survival.
"There's a direct correlation between the health of the prairie grasslands and the health of duck populations," said Kurt Forman, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist in South Dakota.
In his home state alone, Forman is watching, almost helplessly, as 50,000 acres per year are being converted from native prairie into some type of croplands. It's a switch that will have severely deleterious effects for many years to come for Bayou State duck hunters, according to Scott Stephens, director of conservation planning for Ducks Unlimited.
"If this trend continues, we're very soon going to be at a point where 30-day seasons are the norm, and we may even be talking about years with entirely closed seasons," he said.
Stephens said concerned hunters should call their senators and express support for the pro-duck provisions that have been added to the 2007 Farm Bill, which the Senate will consider this month.
Also, DU has established a program to pay hunters $150-$200 per acre for a commitment to leave native grasslands in their natural state forever.
"It's the best conservation bargain going today," Stephens said.
So far, the organization has gotten 383,000 acres committed from 827 landowners, but it doesn't have all the money needed to purchase those easements.
Hunters can make tax-deductible donations that are earmarked for the program.