Remembering 1940

NOVEMBER 11, 1940. This scribe was five years away from being born. So I do not have any firsthand knowledge of the big day the ducks piled into every marsh or wetland they could find. But I know many of the readers of this column were old enough to remember the day. It probably etched a vivid memory for them if they were lucky enough to survive the big blizzard.

It became known as the Armistice Day Storm. And the reason I’m visiting with you about it today is what happened on a miniature scale last Nov. 11, 2013. The day started out kind of warm, then the predicted cold front would make its way south from Minnesota bringing with it wind and snow. We got a bit of rain and then the snowflakes, huge and seemingly endless in their supply, started to fall from the sky. Winds blew the snow sideways. Accumulations began to be noticed. The ground was turning white. It was a not so gentle reminder that this is November in Iowa. If we don’t like the weather, all we have to do is wait five minutes. Like it or not, we’ll have to take what Mother Nature gives us.

Hunters know that ducks and other waterfowl sometimes get caught in a big squeeze, the combination of a normal fall migration and bad weather further north may cause the birds to take to the wing, getting out of harms way before they are forced to sit out the storm on the icy wetlands of Canada. These birds know something about weather forecasting that humans do not. They will move before really bad weather strikes. Hunters wait also for this combination of events to place themselves in duck blinds, wetland cattail marshes or area ponds. If dressed appropriately for the weather, it can be a good time.

In 1940, weather forecasting was not what we have today. Early warnings of an impending blizzard of huge proportions was not given over radio broadcast. Television news was not a reality either. One just looked outside and went with the flow of whatever the day may bring. Normally the weather does not change too fast. So people had time to accommodate the outside environment. November 11, 1940 was different. November 11, 1940 was a killer storm waiting to strike and strike hard. It did.

That day in Iowa started out as a balmy 55 degrees. By noontime, a howling blizzard was showing its strength. Duck hunters were amazed at the flights of thousands upon thousands of mallards and every other species come pouring in. The shooting time was set to close at 4 pm. If they could stay until then, they’d have a full legal limit of ducks to bring home. But it was too late for some hunters when they realized that getting to shore in a small boat was going to be a huge challenge. Those that pulled up their decoys early and left the water were lucky. Many other were not so good fortuned. By 4 p.m., the air temperature was well below freezing. And the air continued to get colder. Men along the Mississippi River along its islands sought shelter under their boats, huddling together to try to stay warm. If they were lucky they built a fire. Matching wits with wind driven 5-foot waves of cold water on the big river was suicide. Staying on an island overnight was not much of a choice either. Many hand no choice. They had to stay. Many froze to death. The wind chill overnight had fallen to 55 F.

The next day after the storm broke, rescuers searched the islands of the big river. At other ponds, marshes and wetlands across Iowa, other rescuers went looking for lost hunters. What they found was not nice. Frozen stiff and 100 percent dead, bodies began to fill makeshift morgues in small towns all across the Midwest. Officials had to wait for the bodies to thaw somewhat in order to search pockets and billfolds for identification. At least 50 Iowans died that day, one of the deadliest storms to ever hit this country.

Those that survived the storm knew how close to death they had ventured. And yet somehow they missed the fate that befell others. If and when you talk to an outdoorsman that is up in his years and who can still vividly recollect that day in 1940, take good notes. Listen carefully to what they say. Listen carefully for the undertones of emotion they cannot hide. Listen closely to the story of how November 11, 1940 almost became their last day on earth.

Hunters today have many luxuries. State-of-the-art clothing that breathes and keeps one warm. Good boots, gloves and hats. Great weather forecasts and instant weather updates via cell phones. But even these modern day conveniences are no match for improper planning or bad decisions of when to stay afield hunting if the weather is slated to turn really bad. A repeat of the weather that descended upon Iowa in 1940 is rare but entirely possible. That is the nature of approaching winter weather systems if the elements of the perfect storm come to pass. In the meantime, remember the history lesson of November 11, 1940.

DEER harvests are looking about the same now as last year at this time. At midweek, over 21,000 deer had been reported to the DNR’s harvest report program. The number of licenses sold for 2013 is almost identical to 2012. Early muzzleloader, youth deer and disabled hunter numbers are very similar to last year. Harvest information is a vital tool for game managers to keep accurate tabs on trend lines for Iowa’s overall deer numbers. Since 2006, deer population trend lines have shown a gradual decline. Many Iowa counties are now at a level termed goal, a level at which most stakeholders are comfortable at. Trend line data and total deer taken by hunters are key elements used by biologists to set seasons for 2014. Iowa’s shotgun deer seasons will take place the first three weeks of December. Shotgun deer hunters take the majority of deer each year. Without hunters to do the job of population control, deer would become pests in ways we do not want to imagine. Hunting is one very important tool for conservation.

How do hunting license fees get used? The investment hunters, fishermen and trappers make each year enables the DNR to manage over 356,000 acres of land. And these lands are ideal for the needs of sportsmen because they encompass wetlands, prairies, river bottom and upland timbers and other scenic landscapes. Data from prior years license sales and actual expenditures by the wildlife bureau makes this point … more than 94 cents of every dollar from license sales are spent of fisheries, wildlife management and fish and game law enforcement. More precise definitions of on-the-ground activities include restoring and managing habitat, planting food plots, water level manipulation in wetlands, operation of fish hatcheries and even boat ramp maintenance. Funds from license sales go to the constitutionally protected Fish and Wildlife Trust Fund. It can’t be raided by politicians for their favorite programs.

If one was to look at a pie chart of revenue to the DNR, it would look approximately like this: 36 percent from hunting license sales; 13 percent from fishing licenses; other licenses at 6 percent; habitat fees total 5 percent; boat and ATV fees add up to 3 percent; federal matching funds are about 24 percent; and the remaining 13 percent is normal carry-over from one year to the next, a strictly cash flow reality.

Expenditures by the DNR shape up like this: 25 percent for wildlife habitat development, fisheries work and boat ramp repair; 27 percent for wildlife management; 19 percent for fisheries management; 5 percent for fish and game law enforcement; and the last 6 percent for administration. These numbers reflect just the fish and wildlife side of DNR operations. Parks, geology bureau and the environmental side of the ledger for water, soil, and air issues are another facet not included in this review.

Part of the key to a successful operation of the Iowa DNR is having the freedom to do what biological data suggests and also stay within social constraints of what is acceptable to all the stakeholders concerning any policies that may be formulated. It is not an easy job. Every state natural resource department struggles with these issues daily. Trying to formulate rules and regulations that please everyone is probably impossible. Doing what is right for natural resources is the over-riding priority to never loose sight of.

Albert Einstein said this about our educational system: “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.

Garry Brandenburg is a graduate of Iowa State University with BS degree in Fish & Wildlife Biology. He is the retired director of the Marshall County Conservation Board. Contact him at PO Box 96, Albion, IA 50005.