The "balance" boys also assert that predators kill off only the weak animals and birds, the diseased and the aged. By constant expositions of this theory, they made much progress.
In a successful effort to back up their false contentions, the game managers in North Dakota, and especially in New York, had spent immense sums on surveys intended to show, for instance, that the stomachs of foxes did not contain evidence of birds eaten. They employed a system of analyzing the contents of droppings, too. This method of chemical analysis is supposed to prove that the fox lives chiefly on mice, as I have pointed out. In several instances, I found that the tests were of no value because the game biologists had failed to make sure that there were birds to be eaten. Even so, certain tests showed that the diet of foxes contained as much as a 25% bird element. No tests, on foxes and other animals, could show the amount of eggs eaten.
It was the failure of this very principle of stomach analysis that started Commissioner Morgan on the right track when the North Dakota pheasants began to fail. When he came into office there were many game biologists in the state's employ. Among them were Roy Bach, Russell Stuart, Brandt V. Hjelle and Charles Hargrave. These were the men that had charge of the projects carried out jointly by the state and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. On approved projects, such as those I have mentioned, the federal agency contributes 75% of the cost, if the state can afford to pay the balance.
Among the North Dakota enterprises, there had been an analysis of stomach content of predators several years before Morgan became commissioner. It disclosed, as usual in all such tests, that game birds apparently comprised an extremely small part of the diet of predators. Morgan then discovered that most of the tested animals had been trapped in the wintertime when birds are less plentiful because of the shooting season. It seemed to him, as it does to most conservationists, that the tests should have been made in the nesting season or during the hunting season when both the mature birds and the season's hatch are available. He put the stomach tests aside on the ground that they had no value.
DIRECT TO THE NEST
Commissioner Morgan therefore carried his exploration directly to the nest A group of other state biologists, including several newly hired technicians, planned the experiment. At the head of it was a new man, Robert J. Fischer, an upland-game biologist in the management division. A native of North Dakota, Fischer had been trained at the University of Montana. Upon graduation he was employed by the state of Montana, where he worked primarily in pheasant research. After his engagement by the North Dakota department, he was stationed at Bowman, where there is the finest pheasant cover on the continent: prairie grass, road ditches, cornfields, stubble, wood lots, fence rows, and so on. Robert Fischer had become thoroughly familiar with conditions in his territory, which had the essential requirement: a good record of nesting in earlier years.
The preparations for the long-delayed survey caused much interest. Sportsmen and conservationists were convinced that they were about to get an accurate answer to their questions. And, of course, since Morgan's appointment had been a normal political matter?a competent man for an important post?he was criticized as a politician who opposed, for political reasons, the theories of Bach, Stuart, Hjelle and Hargrave. The commissioner and Bach had had more than one lively dispute, especially on federal projects that had to gain the Commissioner's approval before submission to the Fish and Wildlife Service. Bach was the coordinator of such projects. Stuart was the chief biologist. They had joined the department in 1940. In that year Hjelle had taken charge of waterfowl work. Hargrave was the biologist in charge of fur-bearing animals.
While these officials looked on, the project was planned by Fischer, acting directly under orders of the commissioner. A number of sportsmen, farmers and high school children were enlisted for the work. An area of four square miles, northeast of the town of Scranton, was chosen for the observation. It was announced that, at the beginning of the egg-laying season, the nests would be charted and that daily observations of the hens would begin.
AN EXTRAORDINARY ACTION
In March, when much of the paperwork was completed, an extraordinary action took place, one that is not matched in the long record of professional conservationists. Bach and Stuart resigned the posts they had held for 13 years. Bach declared: "I can no longer work under the present situation and under the present commissioner, for whom I have neither personal nor professional respect." Stuart said, "The commissioner is more interested in preserving his own position than he is in the management of North Dakota game resources." The commissioner said: "They refused to accept certain policy changes."