By Tom Landwehr
Commissioner, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources
In my experience, there are few better ways to spend a day than following a dog, shotgun resting on my shoulder, hunting up the wily ring-necked pheasant. I have hunted pheasants with several friends since our college days, and beginning this Saturday we’ll once again visit our old haunts with our scatterguns and favorite hunting dogs.
Like me, you’ve probably heard some of the discouraging reports about pheasant populations being down this year, and it is true that the recent harsh winter and poor nesting conditions have hurt pheasant populations in much of the state.
This is one of those years when every rooster is a trophy and a limit will be worth remembering.
While weather is a major contributing factor to our pheasant decline, loss of habitat is major concern for us at DNR. Within the pheasant range, about 9,000 acres of Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) acres have been lost since last year; that’s 15 square miles. Statewide, about 128,000 acres of CRP contracts will expire on Sept. 30, while only 33,180 acres were enrolled during the recent spring sign-up period.
The future for pheasants looks grimmer when you consider more than 550,000 acres of CRP are scheduled to expire in the next three years. As you know, CRP remains our No. 1 habitat program for pheasants. With high land rental rates and soaring corn prices, conservation practices are taking a backseat to market demands, and interest in CRP enrollment is likely to suffer. To see what Minnesota’s pheasant future might hold, look no further than Iowa, which is predicted to have its lowest pheasant harvest in history this fall. The Iowa pheasant harvest may be half of the 250,000-bird harvest predicted for Minnesota.
I want to assure you, however, that prairie conservation is a high priority for my administration. Since its passage in 2008, the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment is paying dividends for pheasants. The Outdoor Heritage Fund, which gets about one-third of the Legacy funds for conservation, has accelerated acquisition of wildlife management areas (WMAs) and waterfowl production areas in Minnesota’s farmland areas. Last year, with help from Legacy funds, the DNR added 4,585 acres of new WMAs in the pheasant range. The DNR’s Working Lands Initiative, which focuses on creating habitat on private and public lands, is increasing the number of large grassland and wetland complexes in 12 western Minnesota counties.
Within the pheasant range, protected grasslands account for about 6.4 percent of the landscape, a number I hope we can increase during the next four years.
Among my goals at the DNR is to convince Congress to pass a strong, conservation-oriented Farm Bill that protects and enhances CRP and other conservation programs. The DNR will continue to seek Legacy funds to purchase wetlands and grasslands for WMAs in prairie regions of Minnesota and we will work to forge alliances with landowners and farmers to help find ways to make conservation work in agricultural regions. One way to do this is to allow rotational cattle grazing on public lands at a reasonable rate, a practice that helps renew prairie grass and provide habitat while providing a benefit to local communities. We will continue to support the use of wetland and grassland easements to benefit conservation through such programs as Reinvest in Minnesota (RIM) and the Wetland Reserve Program (WRP).
You can help pheasants in Minnesota by buying pheasant stamps, joining a conservation group like Pheasants Forever or Ducks Unlimited, or by implementing conservation programs on your own land. You can learn about such programs through your county soil and water conservation service or from one of our wildlife managers in your area.
Minnesota’s pheasants have seen tough times before, but their populations can and will recover if we act now. I will be hunting on Saturday, and though I might have to put more miles on my boots than in the past, I know spending that extra time with friends will be worth the extra effort. Best wishes if you get out, and remember – take a buddy with you!