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Author: Brian Koch

Meet Ida

Ida and Wing

I’ve always found the haphazard naming of dogs intriguing. I’ve wondered if a puppy grows into the name, filling the shape of some predetermined vessel? I like original names, probably because I have irrational hopes for my bird dogs to be uniquely exceptional. But then names different for different’s sake grind on me. People names often give me chuckle; I like a good blue collar Sam or Maggie, but find it funny when a dog and person share the same space and name. I say this having a Wyatt dog in a time when Wyatt boys seem to be making a resurgence.

A few puppies ago I decided there must be a better way to name a dog, a set of rules that would prevent the naming pitfalls that I’ve conjured: original but not too original, not based on puppy appearance destined to change over time, not so long as to create a tongue-twister or too short to be harsh on ears. The dog’s name is something that I’ll say and hear tens of thousands of times over the next decade.

It became apparent this season that I needed to start working on a new name. Time is catching my Wyatt dog. If you followed our adventures over the last season you may have seen references to his health, though I’m finding it hard to acknowledge directly. But having to carry a 75-pound hunting partner from the field on multiple occasions makes it tough to ignore. He’s still got some birds left in him which is exactly why now is the time to find his new apprentice. Because we’re not breeders, there’s no chance for our dogs’ traits to be passed down genetically. The best we can do is hope skill and knowledge from thousands of days afield can transfer from old to young.

We now name puppies for their place of origin. That can be anything from a street near their kennel, to a lake or river, or even a historic event that happened in the area. This naming convention negated the irrational stress I felt of selecting arbitrary call signs lacking significance.

Which brings us to Ida.

After making the decision to expand our pack and finding a breeding program that fit our needs, I began researching the area: looking at maps, mountains, historical references, famous residents.

The German origin of the name Ida is from the word id, meaning “labor” or “work.” Also rooted in Norse mythology Iðunn (Idun) is the goddess of youth. Apparently Ida is a popular girls’ name in Nordic countries today, but waned in the U.S. at the turn of the century. It’s a name that has history and I like that. And I’ll hope for lots of work and eternal youth from this bird dog. But of course this new edition hails from the great state of Idaho.

Her education will begin as we make our way back across the country. We’ll be hiking and camping in National Forests and exploring wild places. Hopefully she’ll be soaking up lessons from Wyatt, who I’m sure is just thrilled at the prospect of unrelenting youthful torment.

Socialization of puppies is key to their future intelligence and success. For the next 30 days Ultimate Upland will donate $1 to Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership for every individual Ida meets – people and dogs. Follow our journey as we share the progress, photos and videos of these introductions on our social feeds using the hashtags #meetida and #publiclandpup

Check out all of Ida’s latest friends on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

Picking THE Puppy, or are we just kidding ourselves

Yellow Lab in Pool

Last time I chose a puppy I was fresh out of school, only a dim view of the years ahead and a bank account teetering on empty. At the time it seemed like a great idea, introduce a young dog into chaos and hope for the best.

I knew little about training, obedience, nutrition, genetics, breeding programs……… it’s pretty difficult to recall anything I actually did know. But I knew I wanted a puppy and was able to find a litter within a couple hour’s drive. Off I went with a friend to pick the biggest pup in the bunch.

We shuffled into the breeder’s basement where he released the hounds. Looking back, he had a decent breeding program but these weren’t hunting labs by any standard. No matter, that became a lost notion once those fur balls came rambling across that cement floor.

After tussling and eyeing this group for 15 minutes, my buddy and I narrowed the selection to two of the bigger puppies. Then we watched to see which one showed the least amount of fear and took the least guff from litter mates. That was the entire science behind the pick.

I handed over my last dollars and walked out the door with a male yellow lab pup. After wrestling to exhaustion he curled up in the passenger-side floor and slept for the return trip. That may have been the final peaceful moment I had for the next decade. Of course we picked the alpha male in the litter and I was woefully unprepared for what that meant or how to deal with it.

It was trial by toothy destruction. For the next six years this lab grew, ate the bulk of my furniture, destroyed a couple apartments, challenged any and all authority, and proved to have no interest in hunting. To be fair, he also was a great companion, great with kids, protective of the properties he destroyed and people he knew. And he was one helluva a swimmer and retriever — if only I had the skill set to channel that back then.

None of those challenges were that dog’s fault. That lays squarely on the limited knowledge and resources of the idiot who raised him.

And that was the last puppy I picked.

The opportunity for new bird dogs happens fairly infrequently for us, once or twice every six years. I’d guess that to be pretty standard for most bird hunters without large kennels, breeding programs or infinite space for running and training.

I’ve not had a say in the selection of my last three dogs. All choice has been stripped away for one reason or the other. Finn, the shorthair, was the only female available in the litter.

Wyatt, the lab, had a physical defect and was the last, unchosen puppy in the litter. All of his siblings had already headed to their new homes when we made the decision. We had no intention of breeding him so the fit seemed too good. And the underdog story was too palpable.

Rio, the setter, was again the only available female in the litter. No choice.

There seems a hefty portion of ego involved in picking a puppy from a bird dog litter. One must believe in an ability to predict the future of a puppy’s skill in the field based on their actions when just a few weeks old. That’s a tall order. Just think of going to a daycare, looking at a classroom of toddlers and being able to pick the one who will become the best outdoorsman when they turn 35. Good luck.

But if you have a toddler, take them to the woods with you while they are young. Tell them stories about the mysteries of wild places and wild birds. Teach them to shoot. Take them hunting when they are teens. Let them breathe unfiltered air and feel the rush of flushing birds. There’s a good chance they’ll end up more proficient in the outdoors than many of their peers.

That’s one thing we do know about dogs based on work by psychologist Donald Hebb in the 40’s and expanded by researchers; puppies exposed to stimulating environments change their brain physiology. It can grow larger and develop new neural connections. These brain changes can spark faster learning, better problem solving and less fear in adulthood.

And that’s how I’ve made bird dogs. Take them to the field, expose them to new places and new people. Let them fail. Watch as they adapt and learn to hunt alongside us.

We’ve been really fortunate to pick good breeders, pick good genetics, pick hunting lines…..all things that can certainly hedge bets on aspiring bird dogs. But not having the pick of the litter and then molding the puppy cast upon us by fate has become somewhat defining. It’s made selection seem meaningless.

Until tomorrow. Tomorrow I pick our next bird dog. Let’s hope I can get out of my own way and let providence prevail once again.

End of Season Omens

Final West Virginia Hunt

Rio the setter suddenly hits the brakes, sliding to a stop on a steep grade beside an old logging road being reclaimed by the forest. We’ve spent a couple days wandering the hills of West Virginia searching for late-season Ruffed Grouse with no luck. I can tell by her stance, even on this awkward angle, there is a bird here. There’s no style, no high-head, no raised-foot or flagging tail. She’s just one solid muscle strained against the scent of this grouse, the first bird she’s marked in over 20 miles of running. It must be close to her because she won’t even sneak a look in my direction, afraid that even the shift of an eye might spook this elusive foe.

Wyatt the lab has been at my side for the past few miles bored with the lack of bird density. He’s unable to see Rio but notices a change in my demeanor which spurs him to double-time. I’m curious the tell he has picked up, though I suspect he spies my second hand move to grip the shotgun and thumb the safety. Whatever the clue, it’s rooted in the same assurance I have with Rio’s stance. We’ve seen this thousands of times before. We know what this looks like and it never gets old. I’ve tried for years to coach myself to not tense up. Stay loose and shoot better, right? And yet I’m still holding my breath, I still have butterflies.

We’re new to this area. Whenever we try finding birds in new spots I work down a mental checklist generated from other bird chasing experience. One item always on that checklist is talking to locals. Anyone we come across willing to engage in conversation about upland birds or dogs can help solve the equation of where birds reside. It doesn’t appear that many people chase birds in this area because the words “grouse” and “partridge” are met with blank stares, as if a foreign tongue. Even the outdoorsmen here fishing in unseasonably warm weather seem unaware they encroach on the realm of the King of the Woods.

The winter forest can appear flat and homogenous. Much of the color and highlights associated with other seasons is gone. That mental checklist has us probing different elevations looking for edges. Guessing why birds are lacking in an area, then looking for the solution to that issue in other areas. There’s a method to our late-season upland madness. But for all the thought and strategy, it’s not what has brought us to Rio’s point.

Evenings I pour a couple fingers of wisdom into a cheap plastic motel cup and pour over maps detailing 900,000 acres available to hunt in this National Forest. We can’t cover all that in even a dozen weeks. I look for cuts, different ages of forests where timber has been harvested or burns. The areas we’ve hiked so far have been dry and there’s very little snow on the ground. I decide we’ll try hunting creeks or culverts that should provide a water source.

I notice a name on the map I recognize, not from any intel or hunting journal. There’s a tiny tributary that shares my grammie’s name. She was an opinionated old bird who loved the dogs and stories of wild places. But she hated the hunting. Luckily she wasn’t above bribery and a few tail feathers from a recent trip would keep an uneasy accord. The name of that creek is an omen and I know regardless how the terrain looks, it could be a parking lot, we’re hunting there. How this level of superstition nullifies what I want to believe is some level of skill, I’m unsure. But the maps folds cooperatively and I tuck in for a night’s sleep untormented by indecision.

And now Rio is locked down a few yards above Grammie’s creek. Wyatt homes in on a spot at the base of a large fir as I shift to one side trying to predict a flight path. But late-season birds rarely allow you to guess right. I see a brief flash of a white, more blur than form. Faster than I can fully mount the gun, I shoot as positive reinforcement for the dogs. But there’s no way a single pellet has penetrated the evergreen shield this grouse threw between us.

Grammie would be happy with that outcome. And truthfully I am too. The deeper into the season we get, the more I root for the upland birds. I want to be proficient and deadly, no doubt. I want to be challenged by the conditions and educated birds and be able to overcome that with the dogs. But even more I want the birds to show us how they’ve made it this far and that no checklist or level of supposed proficiency is going to foil survival.

The dogs are reenergized as we turn back the quiet path to the road. Maybe there will be another omen on the map. And hopefully the birds continue to beat us.

Rio in Creek

Wyatt with Shed

Red Phase Grouse

Shooting Holes in Land Transfer

Grand Canyon

At the core of the raging public lands debate are two opposing views of federal lands. Transfer advocates believe the federal government owns the land. Transfer opponents believe the American people own the land which is held in trust by the government, managed by various agencies.

The truth is, regardless which view is taken, long-held principles outlined by the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 (FLPMA) require these lands be managed in the best national interest.

Anti-Federalists claim that the government is not entitled to own land. Even if you subscribe to that interpretation of The Property Clause (Article IV, Section 3, Clause 2), FLPMA still requires any disposal of land to use the best interests of the American people as a guiding principle. So let’s walk that path for a bit.

Residents of a state aren’t sole owners of the public land within its boundaries. That land belongs to all Americans despite which ownership view you believe. The federal government is a representative democracy, it is the people.  And land has value despite any “fuzzy” accounting rules congress tries to enact. One need only look at the free market where land has a monetary value and is bought and sold. It certainly would not be in the people’s best interest to give away, i.e. transfer, a valuable asset without proper compensation.

Anti-Federalists believe the states should manage and own that land. So why do we not see states reaching for their checkbooks? Why isn’t the movement referred to as “Public Land Sale?” If sale was determined to be in the best national interest then fair market value would be the guideline (outlined in FLPMA Sec. 203d).

Since the congressional delegation from Utah seems to be spearheading the land transfer movement (see Sen. Mike Lee, Rep. Rob Bishop, Rep. Jason Chaffetz), let’s quickly assess the value of land in their state:

Per acre values are subjective and should be based on the market, but let’s use a general number of $3,000 per acre for U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management acres. That’s being very generous to prospective buyers since the BLM administers five National Monuments in the state which would likely have a much higher market value. We the people would certainly value National Park land much higher – Arches, Canyonlands, Bryce Canyon, Zion – truly national treasures that most would call priceless. For the sake of this exercise let’s value them at $15,000 per acre, an absolute bargain.

USFS 8.1M acres x $3,000 = $24,300,000,000
BLM 22.8M acres x $3,000 = $68,400,000,000
National Parks 2.1M acres x $15,000 = $31,500,000,000

By this rudimentary calculation our lands in the state of Utah are worth $124.2 billion. This doesn’t account for upgrades to the land, infrastructure, ongoing contracts, etc. But for the purposes of this exercise the basics should be fine.

Luckily Utah has a AAA credit rating. How many acres would the state of Utah, or any other for that matter, like to purchase for the right to manage the resource? The answer is none, at least not at fair market value. But who doesn’t want to add a substantial asset to the balance sheet for free?

Currently Utah has $35.7 billion in outstanding debt. Total annual tax collections are around $6.3 billion and annual federal aid to the general fund accounts for $4 billion. Utah’s last annual budget totaled $15.1 billion. The funds to pay for Americans’ land are going to come from…..

It’s not there. And the funds to manage 31 million acres don’t exist either.

Representative Bishop basically concedes a lack of management funds in his latest budget request of $50 million to give states that receive his planned land transfer to ease their financial burden.

It’s time for an analogy. Let’s break this down into bird hunters’ language:

You own a fine double shotgun, your prized possession. You have a gunsmith who keeps it tuned and functioning. Lately the gunsmith has made a few changes to the trigger that you don’t like. So you find a person with no money and little interest in shooting and give them the shotgun along with $50 to take it off your hands. Wonder what they’ll do with that gun? It doesn’t really matter because you don’t own it anymore.

This is exactly the kind of illogical behavior the public land transfer movement is asking you to support.

The attack on public lands is about profit motive, plain and simple. If it were otherwise – if this were a matter of management or constitutional jurisdiction – then start calling this movement land sale and state governments should be showing the American people how purchase funds will be generated and long-term plans for the land.

There will be those who support the idea of a land sale even when it makes no fiscal sense for their states. But the vast majority of Americans consider our public lands a priceless asset that transcends any monetary value. For them sale or transfer isn’t an option, it’s tantamount to treason. Just like a bird hunter will never sell that fine double gun; it’s to be left to their children and hopefully their children’s children.

Colorado College Public Lands Poll

Join the conversation and sign the petition to #keepitpublic at SportsmensAccess.org – Click Here.


Depths of Cold

Dead Deere
There seems no bottom to the depths of cold. It’s one of the few solace for hunting in frigid condition: could be colder, windier, at least it’s not…more miserable.

I’m assured by medical science that freezing does have a lower limit in terms of the human body. Paradoxical undressing: the point at which humans experiencing lethal hypothermia begin stripping off clothes due to a sensation of burning up, when in fact they are freezing. Seems it’s the mind’s one final, futile attempt to avoid a bitter end.

When you grow up hunting in the Midwest, cold burrows deep into your predacious psyche. The first cool breeze of fall conjures thoughts of wandering afield. And when it’s too warm shouldering shotguns just feels unnatural. But on this day there are doubts of the wisdom of leaving the truck. Mustering the courage to crack the door begins the extraction of feeling from fingertips one frosty needle at a time. It’s quiet, six inches of fresh powder blew in under darkness and hushed the landscape.

The body objects to these conditions and begins firing distress signals to the brain to dissuade progress that will further the frigid encounter. Everything contracts: balled-up shoulders, rigid muscles producing choppy steps, leather chap lips pursed to impede the flow of cold air. It takes a couple long hits of the freeze to clear the mind, erase doubts, fire neurons to memories cached in the soul’s cellar of past frigid hunts.

The dogs have been hunting hard for a number of days now and have the same reaction. Coaxed off the bumper they churn tight circles close to the truck until witnessing shotguns emerge from cases. Tails untuck and begin rotating in a cadence that pairs with lengthening strides.

Our group drops-in the south facing, snow-covered shelter belt to an expanse of blanketed cover. All evidence that this area has ever been explored is hidden. Easy walks with dogs, short sleeves and aimless meandering of the early season is replaced by new gravity. No longer can you spend an entire day in this, or idle under a tree to take a nap.

Winter is the great equalizer testing mettle, knowledge, strength — all others leading up to this season were practice sessions. The struggle for survival is pronounced this time of year. Exposure to frigid conditions wakes you to vulnerability. Bodily objections to cold so engrained must be manifestation of protest to the permanent chill.

We point into the breeze and move silently across this bottom, the language of longtime hunting buddies and dogs who know what lies before us. This is an opportunity to seize a moment and be free of all others. Every sharp inhale finds worry, wandering, irrelevant thoughts and carves them to frosty exhale that settles to the boot prints being filled and forgotten to the wind just yards behind.

After constant pursuit for months, the birds’ senses are finely tuned. The first rooster feels the roil of energy headed his direction and has no interest in close proximity. He jumps wild and cackles, the crack of shells is muted along with any effect. But our intent is announced to this valley, there will be no surprise or happy accidents.

The labor of keeping pace with dogs impervious to drifts and fully engaged in the effort overrules the weather. We shed layers of clothing in our own acts of paradoxical undressing. Hopefully the ensuing lethality will fall to these late season birds.

Outlast. Outsmart. Outrun. This is why we are here, to feel this life, to be a part of struggle to exist.

The Difference Between Shooting and Hunting

Wild Quail


Around the age of 12 I went on my first bird shoot in the state of Ohio. One snowy, winter morning my dad and a few family friends drove to a local shooting preserve. I had just gotten my first shotgun for Christmas, a single-barrel break-action 410. We rode to fields of manicured milo separated in neat strips.

As I recall the guide unleashed a chiseled liver and white pointer into the field. I’d been instructed to not try and pet the dog for it had only a temperament for hunting and no time for the affections of a boy. Within the first 15 yards of walking that demon dog had locked down on a pheasant. It could have been a rooster or hen, I had no concept of any difference at the time. With coaxing from a well-placed foot the bird flushed from the snow and I shot my first game bird.

The rest of the day went much like this, though I’m not sure I cut another feather being new to moving targets and a bit overwhelmed by the intricacies of this pursuit. I know our group shot over 25 birds that day. After a steak dinner at the lodge I recall the guide swapping our shot birds for pristine, plucked and packaged pheasant ready for the freezer.

It was all amazing to me. How did I not know that walking a field with a dog could roust birds to shoot and then eat? The tractor treads in the fresh snow between strips never tipped me that these pen-raised birds had been seeded for the day. That may sound crazy, but at that point in life I’d only hunted varmints.

It’s pretty comical to consider how far the pendulum has now swung the opposite direction. I drive thousands of miles annually to dig up wild birds in the wildest places with dogs that crawl into my sleeping bag on cold nights. Cut my 12-year-old self some slack, maybe I wasn’t the brightest bulb. But it didn’t take too many years of pursuit of wild birds in Kansas in order to recognize the difference between shooting and bird hunting.

When birds are raised and released in an area for the sole purpose of being harvested, that’s not hunting. When the outcome is guaranteed, it’s not hunting. It simply cannot be by definition of the word hunt.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with game preserves and shooting pen-raised birds over dogs. Many state wildlife agencies east of the Mississippi even release birds on state lands to increase opportunities for bird hunters in areas where wild birds no longer thrive. It’s great practice, great for training dogs, great for introducing people to the sport and entertaining. But it’s not hunting.

The danger comes when game preserve outcomes are confused with hunting which downplays the struggles of wild birds. When large numbers of pen-raised birds can be shot just feet from trucks it skews perspectives on the density and prevalence of game birds. When the number of birds shot is limited only by the amount of money paid it can appear wasteful and bloodthirsty. When preserve seasons are longer and don’t coincide with wild bird seasons it can subvert regulations managing pursuit of wild birds. When one must kick a bird in order to prompt flight it distorts the challenge presented by wild birds that often outrun and outsmart dogs and flush wild hundreds of yards away.

When hens and rooster pheasant can be shot alike the skill of bird identification and selective harvest is nullified. And when species such as Chukar can be shot in places that don’t at all resemble their natural habitats – the rockiest, steepest, inhospitable high desert – it skews the difficulty and challenge many game bird species present which takes both training and conditioning to levels few hunters are willing to invest.

If you are shooting and sharing from a game preserve, my only hope is that you recognize the differences and identify your pursuit as such. Call it shooting. Call it training. Call them pen-raised birds. Certainly have fun but don’t feed misconceptions of the ill-informed (or goofy, doe-eyed teenagers). The advent and prevalence of social media can do wonderful things to promote our passion for chasing birds. It can also be a detriment by giving false views of what it means to be an upland hunter. The beauty and honor of this upland pursuit and the struggles of many upland species shouldn’t be undercut by pictures of piles of pen-raised birds.


Covey in Flight

We’ve been coming to this area of the grain belt for over 20 years. It took the locals at least seven of those to warm beyond a passing nod or the requisite finger waive to oncoming trucks. We now know many by name though most likely still recognize us only as familiar faces. Every year the list of those names grows shorter and tables easier to come by at the local breakfast joint where the menu hasn’t changed since the advent of Crisco.

There’s an undercurrent of sorrow in these tiny towns that subsist on the edges of massive seas of grain. The small, family farms are dwindling with the youth who choose lives away from the toil of land. With their exit the hedge rows, culverts and fences that shelter upland birds are put to the plow in memoriam. A constant shadow of loss runs deep in furrowed brows.

Empty streets, empty storefronts breeding empty fields.

It’s a sharp contrast to the joy we feel returning to walk areas named for memories of hunts’ past. An escape from narrow spaces and narrow minds of populous hometowns to these wide, quiet prairies. The same solitude that weighs on residents heals transients. Attempts to transfuse our excitement for the region seem only to produce short lived results. The recession of these towns shows no sign of abating.

Opening week brings hope that the resident game birds will find a way to oppose the trajectory of aging residents. Members of this hunting band are trying to stave-off the march of time as well. My dad and Wyatt, the black lab, are well to the back side of the hill. But the hunt continues, sometimes at a little slower pace, often not tackling quite as big cover. Using decades of local intel we’ve amassed of the area seems to compensate for waning abilities.

The birds never age. They are elusive and spry as always. They are the same birds we’ve chased all this time. They recognize us and treat us as old adversaries. Most still outrun us, outfly our shot string, cackle at the idea of getting to know us any better than fleeting glances over splayed wings cast to the sunset. We’re greeted by more Bobwhite these last couple seasons, though the pheasant and prairie chickens still make a passing appearance, just long enough to acknowledge the dogs and alert the rest of the county to our presence.

The inroads we’ve made with the townsfolk seem impervious on the birds. But occasionally we’re able to break through and shake hands with a few. We share the encounters with our local friends who delight at the news that youthful flights persist.

To the Edge with Friends and Dogs

Public Land Ptarmigan

We all have limits.

But that edge is never static. It’s a river that rages perilously close or meanders docile and aimless in the distance. Most people are perfectly comfortable keeping a healthy distance—there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. But there is something about that torrent that is captivating and revealing.

What we see when we reach those limits, what we do, and how we react can’t be predicted until there.

Very few of us actually know where those are. They are much harder to get to than one might think. Our brains tend to go into safe mode in order to stay a step ahead of catastrophe. That voice in your head does a great job of can’t, don’t, shouldn’t.

I’ve been watching our pack of bird dogs run. They have no voices in their head. They run the edge without hesitation, occasionally splashing through the shallows of limitation. They are free of any thoughts of how far or how much.

There was a point in this last trip where everyone found the shore.

Whether that was a puppy on her first hunt half frozen at high elevation on a march to find open water; or hunters creeping across talus slopes appearing impassable in pursuit of ghost birds; or legs and lungs extended to exhaustion where adrenaline is the only fuel remaining for the next step.

I convinced friends that we should kickoff the upland season hunting White-tailed Ptarmigan in the backcountry of Colorado. These winged demons have a nasty habit of residing at the highest points available. In the Centennial State that generally puts them at elevations above 12,000’ where oxygen levels are 30% lower.

After our fill on the mountain, we moved camp into Wyoming and Montana in pursuit of prairie grouse and partridge. We averaged close to seven miles per day over the duration of 10 days, often carrying packs in excess of 30 pounds. The bird dogs would have doubled or tripled that distance depending on age and experience meaning 200 miles for the longest-legged.

On a particularly warm day the second week after hiking a few hours, I noticed that Wyatt, my black lab, was laboring for deep breaths. I reined him in to cool off but his breathing continued shallow and wheezy. We were three-quarters of a mile from the truck. I handed off my shotgun and carried him out.

He had no inclination to stop hunting and didn’t like being carried. He actually struggled to get free at the sound of one of my hunting partners shooting in the distance.

A trip to an observant vet in a remote Montana town revealed a grape-size mass far back on Wyatt’s tongue. It had likely been covering a portion of his trachea when hunting. Think about that for a second: Past middle-aged, running a marathon with a grape lodged in your throat blocking a portion of your airway—then think about wanting to continue.

I don’t know how to be free of the barriers, where the edges are, or how to silence the voice in my head. I only know I want be more like Wyatt. The satisfaction he gets from fulfilling his calling has him run that edge with reckless abandon. He’ll give it all up to hunt just another step, another field. How it has come to mean so much to him escapes me.

But maybe he knows.

The stretch for the edge keeps that river of doubt bending away from us. And if we can do that while chasing birds then so many possibilities open elsewhere.

I want others to see that. I want them to take a step past their comfort zone. Then take one more past that.

CRP is Not the Savior

The United States Department of Agriculture is celebrating 30 years of the Conservation Reserve Program known to most simply as CRP. The basics of the program, though there are many wrinkles and enhancements, landowners enroll acreage in a 10-year to 15-year CRP lease requiring that land remain out of production, not farmed or developed, during the lease term. The landowner is compensated by the US taxpayer at varying rates depending on area and type of land which can be from $35 to over $200 an acre.

The program has had some successes countering a mass production mentality. In 2007 at its height there were 36.7 million acres enrolled across the country. Today, congress has limited the amount of land permitted within the program to a total of 24.1 million acres at a cost of $1.6 billion annually. That’s the fewest amount of acres since 1988. With increases in commodity prices over time that track with a hungry and growing global population, the lease rates have had difficulty keeping economic pace.

Decrease in CRP Acreage

One cannot deny that CRP acreage can be an asset for upland game and other wildlife.

But here’s the rub: Even at its maximum enrollment in 2007, the trajectory of all upland bird populations was downward. Resident game bird numbers have been documented declining for at least six decades and at the creation of CRP in 1985 through its peak, those declines have not been arrested.

When conservation organizations, politicians and government agencies place CRP on a pedestal, the height should be limited by an acknowledgment that the program alone cannot and will not be the savior of wildlife and wild places. How do we know this? 30 years of history overlaid by persistent declines in upland birds that show no correlation to the amount of acreage enrolled in CRP.

The authorization for the Conservation Reserve Program resides in the 959 pages of the Farm Bill which has become one of the most contentious pieces of legislation in the halls of congress. That’s not going to change. Lawmakers who want expanded subsidies for American farmers are equally countered by those who want the government out of the farming business. Holding out hope for CRP expansion to reign with constantly favorable political tailwinds on the current five-year renewal cycle of legislation seems folly.

According to the North American Bird Conservation Initiative’s annual State of the Birds report, 75% of resident game birds are of conservation concern. Six of those species are at risk of extinction.

This should be a wake-up call. Resident game birds need conservation solutions that rise above commodity competition. This is exactly why the National Wildlife Refuge system has been such a success for migratory birds. While celebrating 30 years of CRP, the best birthday wish we can grant is an honest conversation about the 60 years of documented bird declines that the program can’t fix on its own.

CRP vs Birds

Bird Concern Score