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Worth a thousand words? Sure, it’s all of that and more in telling the story of a duck hunt, the morning light and waterfowl conservation

In the hazy first light of day, John Cooper steers his jon boat across a federal Waterfowl Production Area in northern South Dakota.
In the hazy first light of day, John Cooper steers his jon boat across a federal Waterfowl Production Area in northern South Dakota.

Back in my years as a newspaper reporter, I’d occasionally be approached by a staff photographer with a great picture to show off.

Especially if it involved the outdoors, I would often say: “I love that shot. Let me see if I can write a story to go with it.”

And usually I did.

When John Cooper texted me a photo the other day, I had that same old newspaper-days thought: “I love that shot. Let me see if I can write a story to go with it.”

I did. And this is it.

By now you’ve seen the picture. It’s at the top of this column. And it’s beautiful. But more than that, it’s a story in a picture, as great pictures tend to be.

It’s an important story about duck hunting and the joys of pre-dawn forays into the mucky world of mallards and redheads and widgeon. It’s a story about good friends sharing what they love outdoors. And it’s also a story about the threats to the environment that sustains waterfowl and allows the managed hunting of an essential natural resource.

Which is a lot to pack into a little picture that was captured with — what else these days? — a smart phone. But Matt Hogan managed to do it.

“It’s amazing how these little iPhones take such beautiful pictures,” said Hogan, the regional director of the Mountain-Prairie Region for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service in Lakewood, Colo. “Usually, I take a picture and it doesn’t capture all I’d been seeing. But this did. It captured it all.”

Right place, right time, right photograph

Hogan was in the right spot at the right time with his little iPhone. That is to say he was standing in the fetching pre-dawn light on an elevated “saddle” of land between two lakes at one of the hundreds of federal Waterfowl Production Areas open for public hunting in the pothole region of eastern South Dakota.

Hogan had been dropped off, along with a bunch of decoys, on the nearby shoreline by John Cooper, a retired federal game warden and former secretary of the South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks Department.

Cooper — or “Coop” as he is widely known by friends and colleagues throughout the wildlife community — was the lead man in a four-person duck-hunting party that also included Kurt Forman and Paul Schmidt. Forman is the South Dakota coordinator of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program. Schmidt is a retired USFWS assistant director, who also worked as Ducks Unlimited’s chief conservation officer.

Matt Hogan waits for ducks to come at the WPA.
Matt Hogan waits for ducks to come at the WPA.
John Cooper during a previous hunt at the WPA.
John Cooper during a previous hunt at the WPA.

So, it was a foursome with decades of experience working on waterfowl conservation and habitat preservation. That recent morning, of course, was about duck hunting, something they all love and Cooper has been enjoying since he was a California teenager trying to bag a bird or two at the landlocked Salton Sea in the far southern part of that state.

Now a Pierre resident, Cooper came to the Dakotas with the Fish and Wildlife Service in the 1970s and has been hunting the Missouri River and other waters for ducks ever since. Lately, he has spent a good share of his autumns operating out of a little duck camp up in northern South Dakota, before moving to the Missouri for the latter parts of the season.

In this case, Cooper and Forman both brought their duck boats and decoys to hunt with Hogan and Schmidt.

“I had my little 12-foot jon boat with its classic 3-horse Johnson motor, which I have rebuilt and is near and dear to me,” Cooper said. “Kurt had his classic AlumaCraft “Ducker” (a traditionally configured duck-hunting boat). We took my truck and Kurt’s truck and got to the parking spot well before dawn. With the wind direction we had to motor across the lake to set up on the other side.”

A first-light scene to touch the heart of any duck hunter

First Cooper dropped off Hogan, who joined Schmidt and Forman in setting out the decoys. Cooper then motored back to the pickups in his jon boat to pick up Millie, his sweet-tempered, highly efficient black Labrador retriever.

Coming back, the boat cut a wide V in the flat, amber-colored surface as the dark shapes of diving ducks spooked by the motor ran across the water before lift-off. It was a sublime scene familiar to any serious duck hunter.

“The fog was starting to lift. Sunup was coming. And we had this beautiful light, a sort of gold hue, on everything,” Cooper said. “And the ducks were starting to move up and down through the WPA. If you’ve ever been out early in the morning at a place like that, you’ve seen it.”

Through it all came the boat, the duck hunter and the dog.

“I’m motoring across through all that with Millie up in the front of the boat, and I have no idea that Matt has taken this photo,” Cooper said.

He wouldn’t find out until about midway through their very productive morning hunt.

“On one point Matt turned and said: ‘Want to see something that describes the whole morning? Take a look at this.’ And he sent that photo to me on my phone. And when I called it up, I thought: ‘Man, this just captures what duck hunting for the four of us is all about.’”

It’s about a lot more than bagging birds, of course.

“That picture had all the elements of why I duck hunt,” Cooper continued. “And it doesn’t have a lot to do with killing a bunch of ducks. It’s about where I am and what I’m doing.”

And it’s about the light. Oh, that transcendent first light just before sunup. And it’s about a good dog and good friends nearby.

A nice mixed bags of ducks, and more

There were some ducks bagged, too, of course. Neither Coop nor Forman shot that day, busy as they were accommodating their two buddies. Between them, Hogan and Schmidt shot two ring-necked ducks, four redheads, two wigeons and one gadwall.

It was a nice mixed bag, even though Hogan didn’t get to shoot a hoped-for canvasback, which is a trophy duck to many hunters. He bagged a beautiful picture, however. And it’s a visual trophy that reminds us of the crucial work necessary to sustain waterfowl populations and assure opportunities for more great hunts and more great pictures.

All four hunters that morning have been directly involved in that habitat work for waterfowl. And much of that work has focused on the Prairie Pothole Region, the glacially shaped expanse of soggy pockmarks across eastern South Dakota, eastern and northwestern North Dakota, western Minnesota, a bit of northern Iowa, parts of northeast Montana and the southern portions of Saskatchewan, Alberta and Manitoba.

Over the years, key habitat protection has come through outright purchase of wetlands from willing landowners for WPAs open to public hunting. But to a much-greater degree, the wetland and grassland preservation work was through the purchase of voluntary perpetual easements from private landowners. Since 1959, the Fish and Wildlife Service has invested more than $900 million with willing landowners to protect more than 3 million acres of priority grasslands and wetlands habitat through voluntary perpetual conservation easements in the Prairie Pothole Region portion of the United States.

Millions of acres lost; millions more imperiled

But Hogan pointed out that the region still has some of the most important and imperiled grasslands in the Great Plains. Estimates indicate that 83 percent of remaining grasslands and 63 percent of wetlands in the Prairie Pothole Region have no permanent protection and are at risk for conversion to crops and other uses.

And over the past decade, Hogan notes, the Prairie Pothole Region has suffered a 17 percent decline — about 7 million acres — in lost grassland habitat. And grasslands are in many areas an integral part of the wetland ecosystem, providing crucial habitat for upland nesting waterfowl and other wildlife.

All of which means these four guys still have some important work to do. And so do the rest of us, if we care about wetlands and grasslands, waterfowl and waterfowl hunting. Or, put more simply, responsible ecosystem management.

You don’t have to travel far to see the importance and benefits of habitat preservation. There are federal Waterfowl Production Areas like the one Cooper and his pals hunted all over South Dakota and the Prairie Pothole Region.

“That’s public land and public water, paid for with conservation funding, most of it from sportsmen,” Coop said.

Hogan, who grew up in a non-hunting family on the East Coast, fell in love with waterfowl hunting along the eastern shore of Maryland after college.

Eventually that growing love and his work in conservation led him to the Prairie Pothole Region, where he experienced a variety of protected wetlands. None of them topped the WPA he hunted recently with Cooper, Forman and Schmidt.

“That WPA was probably the prettiest one I’ve been to,” Hogan said.

As you can imagine, the four pals spoke of more than shooting ducks during and after the hunt.

“Schmidt and I are retired. Kurt and Matt are still working at it,” Cooper said. “All of us have spent a huge amount of time working to protect wetlands and provide suitable habitat for waterfowl. And we’re all worried when we look at all the pressure being put on the remaining wetlands and the impacts when they are converted to other uses.”

Conservation programs struggle to match production incentives

The Fish and Wildlife Service and its conservation partners are doing a lot to protect wetlands. The federal Farm Bill offers important conservation assistance and incentives, too. But the payments and subsidies for conservation work in the Prairie Pothole Region have a tough time matching the pressure to produce agricultural commodities and the subsidies for that production, Cooper said.

“The subsidies for conservation or wetlands and ground water and watersheds never seem to be addressed as they should be because of the political pressure and lobbying on the side of putting that land in production,” he said. “And we’ve just got to find a way to compete with that and protect some of this really critical habitat before we lose it.”

What would we lose? It’s hard to put it all into words.

But the right picture can tell the story pretty well. It’s a story of wild places and good friends sharing the beauty of a sunrise over public water while hunting a public resource protected through the use of public programs and dollars.

And, with a little help from his wife, Vera, John Cooper can now see a striking reflection of all of that whenever he turns on the new, upgraded iPhone he purchased a few days after the hunt.

“I’ve got it saved on my phone,” Cooper said. “Now every time I pick up my phone, it brings up that picture.”

And all the memories that go with it.

Click here to access the archive of Woster's past work for SDPB.