Talking with fellow sportsman Don Dillon recently about quail hunting brought back memories of my grandfather, J. George Stewart, an avid hunter like Dillon, who enjoyed shooting upland game birds. 'J. G.' as he was known to close friends and family, was also a member of what Mark Twain called America's only truly criminal class, the Congress of the United States. But that was back in the 30s, long before the Neoliberal assault on America's environmental protection laws. To his credit, J. G. was a passionate conservationist, holding men like Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas and environmentalist Aldo Leopold in high esteem. If he was alive today, J. G. would no doubt lament the widespread degradation of wildlife habitat now underway across the nation.
Throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed where my grandfather hunted in the 30s, unbridled development accompanied by exploding population, is having a devastating impact on wildlife, particularly game birds such as quail. In most places along the Maryland Eastern Shore, quail have virtually disappeared, primarily because the herbicides used in mechanized farming have wiped out the insects quail like to eat. Petrochemical agribusiness in general, and sprawl development in particular, have likewise destroyed most of the open, upland habitat where quail thrive. Over the years, Woodcock, Black Ducks, along with the Ring-neck Pheasant, a popular game bird introduced from China in the 30s, have also declined sharply. According to Bill Harvey, Game Bird Section Leader of Maryland's Department of Natural Resources, the reason is the birds' rapidly disappearing habitat. "Quail and other resident game species depend mainly on early succession grassland and bushy areas for survival," says Harvey. "This type of habitat was abundant during the middle part of the 1900s. However, as agriculture became more efficient, this type of environment began to disappear. Development added to the problem by eliminating habitat altogether."
As a result of these forces, the number of quail taken by hunters has dropped from over 200,000 per year in the mid 70s to less than 15,000 per year today, proving Director of the Rewinding Institute Dave Forman's point that, "The leading cause of extinction is habitat destruction through agriculture, overgrazing, development, mining, logging and other fragmentation of the landscape. If you destroy habitat, you will lose species. A freeway is very difficult for even the wily coyote to get across."
Unfortunately, the much discussed ideal of sustainable development that's supposed to turn things around remains an inchoate vision at best and has yet to come into focus as a mandate for change. "Conservation is getting nowhere," Aldo Leopold presciently said over 85 years ago, "because it is incompatible with our Abrahamic concept of land. We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect. There is no other way for the land to survive the impact of mechanized man."
J. G. for his part as a national legislator, harbored no illusions about the difficulty of putting a new land ethic into action, agreeing with Leopold that, "Conservation is a bird which flies faster than the shot we aim at it."