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FARM SCENE: Federal agencies still trying to resolve blackbird dispute

Posted: Wednesday, May 17, 2000

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) -- While two government agencies debate a blackbird poisoning program, farmers in the Dakotas are seeding their sunflower crops and looking at propane-powered cannons, scarecrows or other ways to keep the birds at bay.

''You've got two agencies contradicting each other. Meanwhile, who suffers? The producer,'' said Vance Neuberger, who farms in northeast South Dakota. ''It's disgusting because government agencies are here to help us, not work against us.''

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service refused in March to grant the Agriculture Department a permit to poison about 2 million blackbirds in North Dakota and South Dakota. The Fish and Wildlife Service told USDA more research is needed.

The two agencies are hoping to work together on that research.

The poison, known as DRC-1339, is put in rice bait and kills the birds by damaging their kidneys and hearts.

Workers at a Colorado laboratory will study how the poison will affect some grassland birds. And officials hope to get a graduate student at North Dakota State University to study whether habitat-related factors such as dry weather might influence the results of a spring poisoning program, said George Linz, a project leader for USDA's Wildlife Services office in Bismarck.

''I don't think we have an environmental problem, but if another agency thinks we do, we've got to go out and get the data,'' he said.

''We're really working hard with the Fish and Wildlife Service to try to meet their concerns,'' Linz added. ''They appear to want to work with us, so we don't have what happened this spring.''

Farmers don't see poisoning as the final answer to the blackbird battle, but it could be a major weapon, Neuberger said.

The delay in a large-scale poisoning program ''is very frustrating to a farmer who has to deal with problem ongoing,'' he said. ''We've been told that this is a partial solution ... for between eight and 10 years, and now we have another government agency for the immediate future putting a stop to it.''

North Dakota and South Dakota are the nation's leading sunflower producing states with a total of more than 2 million acres planted each year. Officials estimate damage from blackbirds runs in the millions of dollars.

''The Fish and Wildlife Service -- we're hoping that they're going to play as fair as possible and not throw up other roadblocks down the road,'' said Larry Kleingartner, executive director of the Bismarck-based National Sunflower Association.

''We'll just play the game and see how long they want to lay out the barriers.''

The goal of the poison was to see if killing blackbirds as they fly north to breeding grounds would reduce the number of the birds in the fall, when sunflowers are ripe for attack.

The Fish and Wildlife service denied the permit because officials were worried that other species of birds might be harmed, said Kevin Johnson, an environmental contaminant specialist with the agency's office in Bismarck. They also felt there was not enough scientific evidence that springtime poisoning would reduce sunflower damage in the fall.



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