ZEKE WILSON: Cover getting harder to find
January 07, 2014 10:40 AM

The frigid temperatures will make any time spent outdoors today downright miserable.

Health can be at risk, and most wildlife goes into survival mode, leaving little incentive to venture outside. Weather forecasts can allow man to pick and choose when to head afield — unlike their quarry.

Food and cover are critical for animals to survive the harsh winters, and most will avoid traveling far, if at all, between them. The undergrowth, or what many refer to simply as brush, in recent years has decreased significantly. The disappearance of the ringneck pheasant from the landscape and plummeting rabbit numbers emphasize the lack of cover. This low growth is often regeneration from existing edges or reverting farmland and offers small game sanctuary.

Harvested crop fields are barren deserts at this point in the year, and the ethanol push has put more ground than ever under the plow.

Decades of inflated deer numbers have created a browse line that will remain until the current forest is harvested.

Society’s perspective of briars and low-growing shrubs has further resulted in additional habitat being eliminated. Right of ways, property lines, creek bottoms and reverting farmland often are subject to this.

Mechanical cutting, in conjunction with herbicide application, results in a product most humans deem acceptable, yet offers nothing for wildlife. In many municipalities, allowing your own lawn to revert back to nature would result in legal trouble. Watering, fertilizing and mowing a lawn all take a toll on the environment, yet they are widely accepted as standard practice for keeping up with the Joneses.

On Saturday I took a single beagle out to hunt some smaller covers in search of cottontail. Sadly, several spots I had in mind were not as thick as they had appeared in the early fall and only received a drive-by. With snow on the ground it is easy to see if a rabbit could ride out the winter in the available cover. If you do not hunt rabbits, it is easy to overlook the lack of cover, but when one starts seeking out hunt sites, it is easy to be discouraged.

In conjunction with everyone mowing and weed-eating anything in sight, the increasing scrap prices have also resulted in lost cover. I have seen everything from bears to rabbits come out of a junked car when kicked, but the landscape is becoming cleaner. Old dumps and junkyards provide cover and promote low growth because with each year the mower is pushed further back. Once a dump is cleaned up it usually is maintained to society’s standards, which leaves little in the way of cover. While there are still good small game covers to be found, the barren grounds between them often are fatal to those dispersing.

With an unchecked raptor population, outdoor cats at every corner and diminishing cover, the daily limit of four rabbits is more than I care to kill.

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