October 2020: Farm Byline
How wildlife populations have changed
by Al Gustin
In early March, I went to check the cows in the calving pasture near the yard. There, probably cleaning up after a cow had given birth, was a bald eagle. The frequent bald eagle sightings of recent years are another reminder of how the mix of wildlife on our farm has changed.
There have been other reminders. Last summer, as I was checking cattle, I saw four cormorants, wings outstretched, drying themselves in a dead Russian olive tree on the bank of the Little Heart River that runs through our ranch. Cormorants? I thought to myself, “This isn’t Minnesota lakes country. This is Morton County!”
I recall as a boy returning home from town at night and seeing in the light of the car’s headlights, jackrabbits scurrying across the yard from the corncribs, where they had been feeding. In recent years, one rarely saw a jackrabbit, although their numbers now seem to be increasing.
Red fox were common years ago, and the bounty offered by the state provided spending money for farm boys like me. While red fox were plentiful, we saw few coyotes. Now, the reverse is true.
I have spent countless hours along that creek as a youth and an adult. Rarely did you go along the creek and not see a muskrat. But this year, I think I saw one muskrat all summer. Furbearer biologists tell me muskrat populations run in cycles, possibly due to disease.
When I was a youth, fishing in the summer or bringing in the milk cows on my horse, I never saw deer. The only geese I saw were far overhead, migrating in the spring and fall. Last week, I saw a dozen deer in one group in the pasture. Geese nest along the creek every spring.
Neighbors have seen mountain lions. I have not, but they are around. And last fall, we had a moose in the home pasture.
I’m not a biologist. I’ll let others speculate about the effects of climate change or shifts in habitat. But, I do know that the mix of wildlife is one of the things that has changed in my lifetime, in my corner of the world.