“Here they come!” Randal hissed in my ear. “Get ready to shoot!”
The doves flew in a wild circle past the hay bale where we stood, their silhouettes fast moving against the North Dakota sky. I shouldered the Remington 20-gauge and fired once, twice.
The doves kept flying, heading south. In the distance, shots rang out, and two of the birds dropped. I heard laughter from the next hay bale and looked over in time to see my companions share a high five.
“I think the birds flew closer to them this time around,” Randal said diplomatically.
No matter. While my pride would have liked to down a bird, I was just happy to be afield on a gloriously unfolding September morning, with fine guns, old friends and new, and the wide-open Northern Plains before me.
I was east of Bismarck, N.D., at the TRCP’s Western Media Summit, an annual event that brings together some of the best and brightest in outdoors and natural resources journalism along with policy experts, conservationists and other influential names in the sportsmen’s community. For three days, we’d be talking about the most critical issues currently facing hunters, anglers and others who appreciate and enjoy our nation’s unique outdoor opportunities – and trying to figure out how to make decision-makers in Washington, D.C., heed the growing voice that is sportsmen as they set policy that affects our fish, wildlife and natural resources.
Our partner for the 2013 Western summit was Ducks Unlimited, which hosted our policy sessions at DU’s Great Plains Regional Office. DU staff members also graciously guided summit attendees during our field outings: early season dove hunting near Bismarck and walleye, pike and perch fishing on lakes fed by the Mighty Mo.
With me that morning were DU’s Randal Dell and Matt Shappell; Matt Miller, senior science writer for The Nature Conservancy and freelancer for publications ranging from Sports Afield to National Geographic Online; and Bill Klyn, international business development manager for Patagonia.
We were fortunate to be able to access excellent bird habitat that day. North Dakota, like so many other Great Plains states, has experienced a rapid loss of grassland ecosystems due to economic factors that incentivize the conversion of land to intense row-crop production. Rural landscapes have changed profoundly as a result.
Agricultural practices have changed, too. Converting from grass pasture to row crops has never been so potentially lucrative. Yet it still is possible – and speakers at the TRCP summit confirmed this – to minimize grassland loss and make a living off the intact prairie. In Bismarck, we heard from landowners who practice conscientious management strategies and invest in their land’s health – resulting in an economically sound operation that allows bird populations to thrive.
Our dove hunt that day brought these details into sharp focus. We were hunting on lands managed to sustain wildlife while still being economically viable. The growing pile of doves at our feet testified to the success of these management practices. But we also drove past a seemingly endless cornfield that until a year ago had been native prairie. The difference was palpable.
That’s why the TRCP media summits are important: They expose writers to ideas, places and practices that clearly illustrate the impacts of federal resource policy and the land management practices that result. When groups like DU and the TRCP advocate for stronger conservation programs in the Farm Bill, places like the fields and grasslands near Bismarck, N.D. – and the hunters who frequent them – all stand to gain.