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Marijuana is for the Birds

Posted on June 1, 1971

Midwest game has gone to “pot” — for both cover and food. Problem: spraying could devastate game populations.

Steve Kramer

Missouri conservation agent Steve Kramer with wild hemp, found on 5 to 10 million acres in Midwest.

Upland game is going to pot in the Midwest. And if hunters and conservationists are not careful, upland-game hunting could do the same.

The pot that the game is going to is marijuana or wild hemp, often called “pot” by its high-flying advocates. It grows as a weed in many Midwestern States. Marijuana is classified as a dangerous plant by the federal Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, a subagency of the U.S. Department of Justice.

Nine out of 10 hunters probably couldn’t care less whether marijuana lives or dies. However, marijuana is one of the Midwest’s most valuable cover plants for upland game, and some of the proposals for eradicating it could have terribly damaging effect on all other upland-game cover. And cover is the name of the hunting game. No cover means no game and no hunting.

Phil Randall

In first hour of out Missouri hunt, “grass” pdoduced three pheasants, including this one for Phil Randall.

A yearlong study was begun in 1970 to find methods of marijuana control. Most of the early efforts were toward educating landowners to the dangers of the weed and motivating them to voluntarily control it. The study was directed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture with the blessing of the Justice people.

Most farmers don’t care whether marijuana grows on their land or not. The weed is an annual of the edges, easily controlled in fields by cultivation. It doesn’t interfere with agriculture. Heavy-stalked and many branched, it provides great hard-core cover for upland game during the grim days of late winter. Gamebirds also feed on its seed, but the food aspect is less important than its value as cover.

Of all the ideas for control yet proposed, the most frightening is the possibility that a government agency would embark on a massive spray campaign, using herbicides that would wipe out marijuana — along with thousands of acres of other broadleafed cover plants.

Phil Randall

Randall shoulders shotgun as a cock bird bursts out. Spraying could cripple this area’s pheasant boom.

Marijuana growth is no small problem. Dr. Charles Beer, head of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Science and Technology Management Division, estimates that the acreage involved is 5-million to 10-million in 11 Midwestern States, including much of the nation’s finest upland-game-hunting country.

Marijuana occurs mixed in with other edge weeds in field borders, gullies, corners, stream bottoms, fence rows — the traditional cover areas for upland game. If a broadleaf herbicide were applied indiscriminately, perhaps from airplanes, upland game would be hit with a real haymaker.

Let’s envision the worst that could happen: suppose that the Department of Agriculture were given the go-ahead and the money to mount an all-out eradication campaign similar to the fire-ant spraying crusade conducted throughout the Southeast. For best control, marijuana is sprayed early in its life — in spring or early summer. Suppose that after the spraying the following conditions occur:

  1. A hot, dry summer (which, among other effects, inhibits quail production), followed by
  2. a terrible winter of heavy snow and ice (which, at best, will wreak havoc on small game), followed by
  3. a rainy spring (which can be damaging to early nesting and to such small-game animals as rabbits).

Given that set of circumstances, it would be many years before small-game prospects in the Midwest would be anything but bleak.

Marijuana and Man

“Although we reject the old notions that marijuana is physically addictive, that it leads to violent or aggressive behavior, or it is a direct cause of graduation to heroin and other narcotic drugs, we have found substantial evidence that marijuana is a dangerous drug.”

That is the gist of a report, based on the best available medical evidence, of a subcommittee of the New York State Temporary Commission to Evaluate the Drug Laws.

While recommending reduced penalties generally, the commission said, “Sufficiently high doses of marijuana can cause unpredictable, acute-although temporary-psychotic episodes manifesting themselves in the form of illusions, hallucinations, paranoia, depression, and panic. In addition, preliminary research indicates that continued regular use of marijuana or extremely high dosages may cause liver damage, genetic defects, brain damage, and upper-respiratory ailment.”

It may never happen.

I called Dr. Beer last January to check on the status of the Great Marijuana Crusade. Several times during our conversation, he said that the USDA plans no big spray campaign.

“Department of Agriculture has very restrictive directives on mass spray campaigns,” he said, “even on the use of Mirex for fire-ant control, which is one of the most difficult programs.”

The USDA, he told me, prefers educational methods and hopes for voluntary eradication of the weed.

“I don’t visualize any massive spray campaign,” he added. “At present there are no real strong plans for a spray campaign. We’re not going to do anything to harm wildlife. We all want to work together, but sometimes there are differences.”

He said he was amazed at the support that farmers have given spot eradication of the weed.

Not that Dr. Beer isn’t perfectly sincere — but I’m not sure that he or, for that matter, USDA really understands the wildlife aspect of the whole problem. I don’t know of one farmer in Missouri who has gone out and, at his own expense, got rid of one marijuana stalk voluntarily. Most farmers don’t even know what the weed looks like.

Missouri has a law, never enforced, that makes it a punishable offense to knowingly grow marijuana. If USDA’s Extension Service continues to educate Missouri farmers to what marijuana looks like, it is going to systematically make criminals of them — unless they go to the expense of removing the marijuana from their farms.

Dr. Beer said he didn’t think that the U.S. Department of Justice has the authority to order eradication of marijuana. Perhaps not. Sportsmen will remember, however, that the government took upon itself, under the 1968 Gun Control Act, some authority that most sportsmen felt was unjustified.

Dale Blevins

Broadleaf herbicide would kill marijuana and also weeds such as Dale Blevins examines.

In the long run, the situation is that though most individuals in government are people of good will, federal agencies — bureaucracy being what it is — could decide (to) launch a big spray campaign this year or next that would be disastrous to game.

C. Phillip Agee, chief of research for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, gave a report to the Nebraska Weed Control Conference in 1968 that sums up the feelings of professional wildlife managers toward mass spray campaigns. At that time Nebraska was considering a statewide control program, which never got off the ground.

“The application of chemicals,” Agee said, “would result in the control of a broad array of plants. Among these would be ragweed, nettle and fruit-bearing shrubs on streambottom sites, fireweed, pigweed, lamb’s-quarter, partridge pea, and sunflower on upland sites. The net result would be to shift the composition of the plant community from its present grassy-weedy complex toward a grass-only complex.

“To be sure, the proposed hemp (marijuana) control program would not reduce Nebraska’s population of bobwhite quail to zero, but it is equally certain that such ecologic changes in the plant communities would reduce their capacity to support bobwhites and other valuable species.”

And there are plenty of bobwhites in the hemp, as well as pheasants and rabbits. On a few trips through the rustling marijuana stalks, my hunting buddies and I saw enough quail to blow the mind of any bird hunter.

Taft Lane

Missourian Taft Lane and the close-working Vizsla that helped us take these birds from marijuana.

Four of us hunted one Saturday in Adair County, Missouri. We jumped 12 coveys, good even by Missouri standards, which are high. Northern Missouri, southern Iowa, eastern Kansas, southeastern Nebraska — the briskly thumping heart of the midlands bobwhite population — also is the heart of the marijuana population.

I melted through a box of shells that day, working toward my 10-bird limit. It’s no fair asking how close I came to it. Let’s just say that the four of us came in with 18 quail.

Marijuana users have turned to the Midwest to pick wild hemp since the federal government recently put the squeeze on the flow of marijuana from Mexico. According to tests, Midwestern marijuana is pretty inferior stuff, but it’s the only game in town. Conservationists who are against the use of marijuana by people nevertheless find themselves in the weed’s corner because of its use by wildlife.

I’d become concerned about possible damage to wildlife when personnel at the Missouri Department of Conservation, for which I work as a writer, started feeling uneasy about the prospect of an Operation Bigspray by someone. Glen Chambers, our pheasant biologist, says that such a project is the only thing he can think of that would cripple Missouri’s current pheasant boom in the northwest counties. Conservation agents in that area of the state, almost to a man, have expressed uneasiness over a spray campaign.

I talked recently with Dr. L. E. Anderson, weed specialist at the University of Missouri.

“Our initial efforts,” said Dr. Anderson, “have been devoted to educating the public to the seriousness of the drug problem and to enabling people to identify the plant.”

I also talked with an Extension Service man in one of the two pilot counties in Missouri where eradication methods were studied.

“When you consider the total acreage of marijuana in the county,” he said, “it isn’t much — just around the fields and in the gullies and on a few old abandoned farmsteads.”

“Yes,” I said, “But that’s also where the game is.”

Russell Parman

Marijuana means qualis too. Here E.M. Barnes, left, and Russell Parman react to covey rise.

Having taken a firsthand look at several wild-marijuana areas in Kansas and Missouri, I feel that Extension Service recommendations for hand hoeing, pulling, or cutting; spot spraying with 2,4-D; or destroying individual plants by burning seem absolutely unreal. No farmer I’ve ever known would spend the enormous amount of time necessary to eradicate his marijuana by any of those methods unless someone stood over him with a whip and a gun.

The weed is everywhere. It is accessible, inaccessible, and semiaccessible. It is along roads, down in ditches and gullies, along fields, down in gooey creekbottoms. Any voluntary eradication program would be a long, slow one. Any quick-elimination scheme would be a blockbuster to game as well.

There has been one proposal that farmers be paid under the Agricultural Conservation Program to destroy the plant on their lands.

That presents two problems. First, funds for A.C.P. projects were not available in 1970 (and even when they are available, not all farmers qualify for this help). Second, A.C.P. usually pays no more than 50 percent of the cost of a project, and I doubt that any farmer is going to shell out the other 50 percent to get rid of a weed that doesn’t bother him.

Almost certainly, the administering agency of any eradication attempt would be one whose primary concern is not the good health of wildlife. Dr. Anderson, again assuring me that no one has any intention of harming wildlife, said, “I am wondering if there is research evidence to indicate that birds would not survive if hemp seed were removed from their diet.”

The question is not bird food but rather bird cover. Atchison County has more bird food than birds ever could eat. I shot a blue goose that had been in residence there for a few weeks and was just loaded with fat.

Again, the critical factor is cover. Quail and pheasant hunting in northern Missouri, where marijuana is concentrated, have been great for several years.

In 1960 a massive snowfall chopped the legs from upland-game hunting. It was the mid-1960’s before game really recovered. Wipe out the big, woody, strong plants such as wild hemp and ragweed and sunflowers, then impose even a moderately severe winter, and the consequences to wildlife would be terrible.

Northwest Missouri is enjoying the overflow from a southwest-Iowa pheasant boom that has seen populations go from 30 birds per section a few years ago to about 300 now. It has made Iowa the nation’s No. 1 pheasant state. Missouri has been a national leader in quail hunting for several years, and Kansas has had fine quail and pheasant hunting.

Nebraska, another great upland-game state, has an organization of environmentalists called Nebraskans for a Better World. They are runninga campaign tabbed “Swat Pot.” The idea is to replace marijuana with native grasses. The group plans to eradicate marijuana on public lands through its own efforts and to encourage farmers to eradicate the weed on their lands through cost-sharing programs.

It seems a fine idea since many native grasses are tough and springy and good cover for upland game. The danger is in going too far toward a grass-only outlook.

Virtually all Midwest game-and-fish departments would be against any Operation Bigspray; however, none is now excessively worried about the prospect. Marijuana isn’t widespread in Michigan, but Bill Mullendore, chief of information for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, recognizes the danger of widespread herbicide application.

“Our game biologists,” he says, “are convinced that one of the factors in the decline of the Michigan pheasant population has been widespread use of herbicides on cornfields. Weedy cornfields made ideal pheasant cover. Most of our cornfields now are virtually weed-free, and you don’t find many pheasants in them anymore.”

South Dakota, a state that is synonymous with pheasants, also would be concerned about any super-spray program.

“In 47 counties reporting,” says communications specialist Jack Merwin of the Department of Game, Fish and Parks, “there are about 9,000 acres of marijuana mixed with other weeds. Of this total, 7,000 acres are brushy areas, draws, lowlands, and tree areas where it wouldn’t be practical to spray with machinery or airplanes — meaning that any eradication program would involve spraying by hand and would therefore be relatively expensive. Quite obviously, marijuana is found in idle areas of prime game habitat, and for that reason this department would be very concerned about any massive spray program.”

Kansas and Iowa have two things in common — plenty of pheasants and plenty of marijuana. Leroy Lyon, chief of information for the Kansas Forestry, Fish and Game Commission says his state has 50,000 to 75,000 acres of marijuana.

Kansas State University is studying eradication methods under impetus of the state legislature, Lyon told me that the Kansas wildlife agency didn’t see any cause for alarm at the end of 1970 but would be concerned if a spray campaign were launched.

Iowa, top pheasant state in 1969, has marijuana in every county. David Evans, public-information officer for the Iowa Conservation Commission, wrote me in December 1970:

“There are no plans at state level to eliminate hemp from the Iowa countryside. Its benefit to wildlife far outweighs its bad effects. Our department is concerned about the loss of anything that provides habitat for game. We must discourage any and all attempts to cement and paint everything green. We also feel that there is a possibility that what grows in place of hemp might well be less desirable than Iowa native hemp.”

In 1969 Atchison County, Missouri conservation agent Steve Kramer arrested several young “moderns” who were busily engaged in eradicating some marijuana — so that they could cure it and smoke it. Kramer holds no love for pot smokers, but he is more afraid of the loss of game cover.

“The stuff is all over the place,” he told me. “There’s no way you could get rid of it without doing-in a heck of a lot of wildlife cover.”

An old hunting buddy of mine, Foster Sadler, a Raytown schoolteacher and I had been planning a northwest Missouri hunting trip for a long time. But we didn’t get around to it until the marijuana alarm provided a good excuse to go.

We arrived in Rock Port late one night in November 1970 with my car full of shotguns, shells, cameras, and two tired hunters. By 8 a.m. the next day, I saw for myself two things that Kramer had claimed: 1) that marijuana is everywhere, and 2) that so are pheasants and quail.

My highs, freakouts, trips, and the like come from seeing a gamebird pinned to the bead of my shotgun, so I didn’t know marijuana from bird’s-foot trefoil until Kramer pointed it out to me. It was no trick to find it after that. In fact, Foster and I walked through so much of it that day it’s a wonder we didn’t float home just from the close association. But that’s where the birds were.

We went pheasant hunting in the morning, quail hunting in the afternoon. In less than an hour, three of the four hunters in the party had their roosters (pheasant limits in Missouri are modest: one daily, two in possession).

We hunted with Taft Lane and Phil Randall, both farmers in the Rock Port area. Randall’s German Shorthaired Pointer and a Vizsla owned by Charles (Stub) Taylor of Rock Port ranged close in front of us. The close-working dogs were an advantage, for the pheasants seldom froze long before they ran or flew out of the country.

Sandy, the Vizsla, froze on point in a large Soil Bank plot of knee-high weeds, and I moved hurriedly toward her. A rooster flushed, its colors bright in the cold, clear morning, and I shot. The bird tumbled, and Sandy fielded him on the first bounce. It was 7:55 a.m., and my pheasant hunting was over for the day.

Foster and outdoor writer Bill Bennett of St. Joseph each scored on a rooster before the morning was over.

Next came an afternoon of quail hunting with three of the finest quail shots I’ve ever hunted with. Dr. Doug Gallup of Rock Port introduced us to his hunting buddies, Dr. Russell Patman and E. M. (Tuttle) Barnes of Maryville.

We hunted in, around, and through marijuana all afternoon and killed 27 quail and three more pheasants. There was almost no time that we weren’t working birds behind three fine pointers.

Three weeks later Foster and I hunted with Spence Turner and Dale Blevins in Adair County in northeast Missouri. Thanks to Kramer’s quick identification course, I found marijuana once again.

“I’ll be darned,” Blevins said. “I’ve walked through that stuff all my life and didn’t know what it was. My dad’s farm is loaded with it.” Blevins lives in southwest Missouri.

Marijuana at one time was loved by all. It was introduced into North America from Quebec southward and during World War II was grown widely for its fibers, which are used in the manufacture of rope. Hemp farms no longer exist, but the plant spread through the Midwest from the start.

Estimates of the cost to destroy marijuana are about $25 per acre. How many farmers are going to lay out that kind of money to destroy something that does not hinder their farming operation? If they are to be subsidized, who will pick up the tab? Multiply 10-million acres by $25 and add in the cost to wildlife, and it becomes obvious that the cost of an eradication program would be depressingly large.

There is no doubt that the Midwestern States plagued by marijuana also are plagued by users of it. Recently, when a clothes dryer broke down in a Tarkio, Missouri, laundromat, the source of the malfunction was found to be marijuana debris in the works. The pot gatherers had been using the dryer to cure the weed.

I’m not sticking up for pot smokers, and neither is any conservationist or wildlife agency. I think pot users are dumb. But getting rid of wild plants certainly won’t end the use of marijuana. Dedicated potheads would then raise their own or move on to something equally or more mind-bending.

Maybe the ultimate answer lies in what happened in a Kansas case involving some marijuana harvesters, caught on state-owned property. The youngsters were fined for possession of marijuana.

The judge also tacked on a stiff fine for destroying wildlife cover.

Copyright © 1971, Outdoor Life. All rights reserved.