Wildlife and Farmers Can Exist Together
Wyatt Fraas, Center for Rural Affairs
What is the big deal with wildlife and farmland? It has to do
with what we want for our farms, communities and environment.
Some species are disappearing, and agriculture is blamed as the
culprit. That's not really a new situation, as agriculture has
always taken a natural environment and changed it to one managed
by people. Some species flourish in the human-influenced
habitat, while others don't.
That's the first lesson: everything is habitat. Habitat is
where critters live. It provides all the needs of a species:
food, shelter, space, and water. All creatures need certain
ranges of light, heat, water, and protective cover to sustain
themselves. The ranges tolerated by blue jays, for example, are
different than those tolerated by Canada geese. Which do we
want? Both are wildlife. Both are desirable. But we can't have
maximum numbers of each in the same space.
That's lesson two: diversity of wildlife requires diverse
habitats. Agriculture has reduced the diversity of habitats by
creating monocultures - large areas with only one plant species,
such as cornfields. In a monoculture there is only one plant for
insects, birds, or animals to eat. There is only one height of
vegetation to sit on or hide in. The soil's surface has a
uniform moistness, temperature range, and cover. Only wildlife
species that can tolerate those particular conditions will live
there. Some may do very well, such as corn borers, while others
may only visit, such as whitetail deer. The biological diversity
(number of animal or plant species) of a typical monoculture
field is very low.
Dennis Avery, author of Saving the World with Pesticides and
Plastic, claims that agriculture "destroys" land for
wildlife. He believes that we must maximize agricultural
production on some land and save other land exclusively for
wildlife. But farms don't have to provide only one set of living
conditions. Proponents of sustainable agriculture think that
both wildlife and farmers can use the same land.
Ann Robinson, in the 1991 Walton League publication
"Sustainable Agriculture: A Brighter Outlook for Fish and
Wildlife," reports that sustainable farmers often farm
smaller fields and use more crops in their rotations than
conventional farmers. They recognize the benefits of birds,
insects, and even plants sometimes called weeds. Livestock,
which add to diversity, are often included in sustainable
farming systems. Their manure feeds birds and insects. Livestock
necessitate the production or delivery of foods that wouldn't
otherwise be part of the farm. Sustainable farmers often express
considerable concern about soil erosion, and sustainable farming
practices that reduce erosion are good for fish.
So if it's good to stop erosion, then no-till farming must be
great, right? That depends on the chemicals needed to farm
without mechanically killing weeds. "Paraquat, a herbicide
frequently used in no-till farming, is very toxic to some birds
and mammals" says Robinson. "Several herbicides have
been shown to harm fish. The synergistic effects that may happen
when several chemicals are combined can make these products more
Those synergistic (increased and/or changed) effects include
what some scientists call "endocrine disruption."
Trace amounts of pesticides or their residues apparently act
like animal hormones and disrupt normal body functions like
growth and reproduction. Such side effects of pesticide use
could wreak havoc on the health of wild animals, domestic
livestock, and people.
So, what do we want? Holistic Resource Management
practitioners use a planning process that starts with describing
their goal: quality of life, production to support it, and the
environment to allow that production. If we want wildlife, we
need only to plan for it and to put that plan into action.
Many HRM farmers and ranchers have explicit plans to include
wildlife on their land. They can point to the economic gains
they expect from working with natural processes, instead of
against them. Their plans can include simple ideas like
scheduling grazing or haying dates to avoid critical nesting
sites. A more complex plan might include grazing to influence
shrub density and grass regrowth on deer winter range.
University of Missouri agricultural economist John Ikerd
agrees with the HRM approach for including wildlife on farms. He
believes that, "Success...is measured against the goal of
sustainable human progress — balanced economic, ecologic, and
social progress." Each farm family can choose its own
balance point, and can create a farm plan to reach that point.
The resulting mix of farm profits, a healthy farm environment,
and a supportive community can easily include farm wildlife.