Up in Smoke: North Dakota Burning

North Dakota is Burning.

North Dakota is burning. At first blush, that might not mean much to you. After all, wildfires burned much of the American west in 2012.  It was a long, dry year, with historic droughts throughout much of North America. And, of course, fires are as natural as the air we breathe.

But things are a bit different in the Dakotas. Everywhere you look, smoke is in the air.

The difference between the wildfires in the west, and the columns of smoke currently seen over North Dakota is this: the Dakota fires are not wildfires. They are intentional burns created to clear the land of weedy, once-wet spots which have been deemed uneconomical, inconvenient, even unnecessary.

Many species of birds find small sloughs and marshes ideal for nesting.

The people setting these fires, the people burning and leveling and draining and, ultimately, cultivating these low spots on the prairie, are the farmers who own the land.

Before we go any further, you should know that I do not fault the farmers. They certainly are not monsters. They don’t have horns, and if they own pitchforks, I’m certain there is no sinister intent.

No, they are simply trying to cope with mortgage payments, insurance premiums, and taxes,  just like the rest of us. They are trying to make money–the millstone around all our necks.

To make money, the farmer can only do one thing: Farm the land.

There a many creatures dependent on small North Dakota wetlands

With but a very few weeks for getting the actual farming done each year, the farmers tools change. As farm machines get bigger, the nuisance of those wet depressions in the land become even more troublesome to the farmer. They become a place to get a combine stuck, or at the very least, to have to maneuver around during planting and harvesting. In any case, they don’t pay for themselves by sprouting cash crops.

For species like Sharp-tailed grouse, the dense vegetation found in small wetlands provides shelter during harsh prairie winters.

So, with ethanol mandates still in effect, with fuel prices high, with a failed corn crop in much of the drought-ridden central plains, with the  price per bushel of corn at record levels, what are the prudent farmers to do? They’re going to put as much land into production as possible. They are going to burn, then drain those unnecessary wet spots and plant them in cash crops. I don’t blame them.

What is unnecessary is in the eye of the beholder, however.

Gamebirds aren’t the only beneficiaries of small wetlands. Raptors like this Great Horned owl rely on the abundance of prey species there.

To the wildlife of the prairies those tiny, wet places are pregnant with possibilities. They are critical pieces of habitat, necessary for life itself. To the mallard hen they are places to lay a clutch of eggs in May. To the sharp-tailed grouse and the pheasant they are places ride out the fury of a January blizzard.  To the red-tailed hawk and long-tailed weasel they are fertile hunting grounds year-round. To countless songbirds, invertebrates, and reptiles, they are permanently irreplaceable. They are nature. The natural world cannot function without them.

I don’t have an answer. I’m not that smart. But nature is not some abstract concept for this wildlife photographer and hunter. I don’t want to look back on all the images I have, mental and physical, and wish those places still existed.

With the burning of the vital wetlands seen here, it’s unlikely this farmer will have hunters asking for access.
The author with his dog, Rosie, and Dakota pheasants and grouse.

I thrive in the muck and the mire, just as the plants and animals do. Those little wetlands, those cattail sloughs and weedy draws are a favorite place to spend my time, whether with a camera or a shotgun. I hope I don’t have to live in a world without them.


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