Pheasants - High Hopes And Realities

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Western Minnesota was once a destination for hunters each fall as they set out to hunt ring-necked pheasants. Hotel and motel rooms would fill up on the weekends, restaurants were full each early morning as hunters prepared for the day’s hunt, and bars and restaurants saw good business each evening as they returned after a long, rewarding day in the fields.
Many other businesses from gas stations, to hardware stores, to clothing stores also saw good business from the visiting hunters. But those days are long gone as Minnesota’s pheasant population has seen a steady decline as farmland has displaced grasslands on the state’s landscape.
It hasn’t helped that it is getting harder to find a place to hunt. Public land gets hit pretty hard and fewer farmers are just letting hunters just walk into their fields and onto their Conservation Reserve Acres (CRP).
To address the major problems facing Minnesota’s pheasants Gov. Mark Dayton, himself an avid hunter, has called for a summit to consider ways to improve their numbers.  Organizers of the summit say they want to “identify and promote strategies to increase the state’s pheasant population; support actions to improve pheasant habitat; and make sure today’s and future generations of Minnesota hunters have the opportunity to enjoy one of the state’s most popular and iconic game birds.”
When the one-day summit ends late Saturday afternoon, they want to have identified “initiatives and actions that will be used to develop a four-year action plan for accelerating the restoration of pheasant habitat.”
Working with Pheasants Forever, conservation groups, and others the DNR will further refine the ideas and proposed action plan and work toward seeing them implemented.
But StarTribune columnist Doug Smith sums up the potential reality of the summit’s outcome in the headline to a recent column: “First-ever Minnesota Pheasant Summit: Will it result in action or just talk?”
More powerful than good intentions to restore Minnesota’s pheasant population are the economics of farming. When prices were low the Conservation Reserve Program was attractive to farmers, but as soon as prices started to rise rapidly, they couldn’t tear down groves and plow down prairie fast enough.
With corn pushing $7 a bushel and soybeans $15, land prices skyrocketed to hit unheard of heights - $20,000 an acre in Iowa, nearly $15,000 an acre for prime land in southern Minnesota, and $10,000 an acre in Swift County. But those heady prices for both crops and land meant that every acre had to be utilized to the fullest extent – trees cut down, grasslands plowed up, and low lying land prone to being wet drained.

In the 2008 farm bill there was a cap of 32 million acres for CRP; that number dropped to 25 million acres in the farm bill that passed last February. The 2002-2008 farm bill provided for 39 million acres of CRP.
Now that corn prices are projected to be closer to $3.50 a bushel and soybeans at $10 or below, there may be renewed interest in farmland going into CRP. But it’s a slow process building those conservation acres back up and they will again be susceptible being pulled if there is a spike in commodity prices.
A second major challenge will come once goals and objectives are finalized and it’s time for action. Most likely that will mean getting the Legislature to enact programs that will cost the taxpayer money. Getting anything through the Legislature can be a frustrating, infuriating and futile undertaking. It will mean getting a buy-in from not only Democrats and Republicans, but also from metropolitan legislators on either side of the aisle.
Should the Legislature approve the measures the come out of the summit’s work, the next significant hurdle is getting landowners to set aside acres that once were planted to corn and soybeans. Prime farmland will always be planted to crops, as they should be. But it is the marginal lands that produce marginal yields, require more input costs, and on which crops can fail in years that are too wet or too dry, that hold the most promise for returning to habitat.
However, current farm programs could prove a hindrance to the effort considering when farmers plant on marginal land, and the crop fails, insurance steps in to make a payment.
But this effort isn’t just about pheasants. “The pheasant is like the canary in the coal mine,’’ Smith quotes outdoor writer and the host of Minnesota Bound Ron Schara said. It is also about “other wildlife, from deer and ducks to bobolinks and meadowlarks… and it is about reducing soil erosion and improving water quality.”
We wish the organizers and supporters of the pheasant summit luck, but it will take a dedicated and persistent effort to make a difference in the years to come if pheasants are to return to the landscape in numbers to once again draw hunters west.

Photo:  It's a rare moment to capture deer and pheasants in our area together in one shot, but it's a reminder of what many sporting folk dream of.  Photo by Reed Anfinson

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