Three Pheasants Forever staff members recently completed a "Rooster Road Trip,'' their third consecutive, during which they hunted ringnecks in five states in five days on public land.
Among the journey's multiple purposes was to "connect the dots'' between habitat work completed by Pheasants Forever and the availability of quality public hunting tracts in the nation's heartland.
This year, Pheasants Forever (PF) and Quail Forever vice-president for marketing Bob St. Pierre took the trip with PF online editor Anthony Hauck and the group's video guru, Andrew Vavra.
The journey is followed closely on Facebook and Twitter by hunters nationwide, and allows PF, St. Pierre said, to connect with younger hunters -- crucial for an organization whose members average 52 years of age.
"When you add in the corporate sponsorships the trip receives, the increased web traffic and memberships and merchandise sales, it's an important opportunity for us,'' St. Pierre said.
This year the odyssey also laid bare the summer drought's severe effects on pheasants and significant habitat losses brought on by high crop prices.
St. Pierre details highlights of the five-day journey below:
Q This year the trip began in Nebraska, rather than in Kansas, as in past years. Why?
A The drought has been very severe in Kansas and has taken a toll on its habitat and birds. We've enjoyed hunting there, and enjoyed the people, but decided to start this year's trip in the southwest corner of Nebraska.
Q Was drought also evident in Nebraska?
A Yes. The only way to describe what we saw is "devastating.'' They just haven't had rain. As a result, they've opened up private lands to haying and grazing that otherwise would have been accessible to hunters. Properly undertaken, these practices can benefit habitat. But not when it occurs all at once. If Nebraska has a tough winter, birds will be vulnerable. The good news: Quail were fairly prevalent.
Q Your next stop was northwest Iowa.
A We hunted about 20 miles south of Worthington, Minn. At each stop, we were joined by some combination of Pheasants Forever chapter volunteers and wildlife professionals. Iowa, as you know, killed more than 1 million pheasants 10 years ago. But a loss of habitat and a series of bad nesting springs have taken a toll: Last year the harvest was only 200,000. Part of the overall challenge in Iowa is that it ranks 49th in terms of public lands. So access can be an issue when so many lands are converted to crops. The drought has taken a toll in Iowa, but not as bad as Nebraska. And Iowa pheasants are up a little this year. We saw a fair number of birds.
Q Next stop: Aberdeen, S.D.
A There's no doubt South Dakota remains our best pheasant state. Even this year, which isn't the best for pheasants, you can find birds. But as we hunted in South Dakota, trouble, we could see, wasn't far over the horizon. Everything is so dry that farmers are burning cattail sloughs to prepare them for planting in spring. At times we could see three to five fires burning in all directions. When you consider we lost 6.5 million acres of Conservation Reserve Program lands nationwide Sept. 30, the challenge to recoup some of these losses is apparent.
Q Is the habitat situation better in North Dakota?
A North Dakota is having a resurgent pheasant year. We hunted PLOTS lands, or private lands enrolled in a state hunter access program. And we found birds. There's no question North Dakota will be second in terms of harvest behind South Dakota this year. But it's also true that much of what's happening in South Dakota regarding burning, and even tiling of low areas, is going on in North Dakota. With so much tiling, if we get a wet spring, water will have no place to go but to the Red River.
Q You hunted farther north in Minnesota than many pheasant hunters do.
A We joined up with volunteers from the Otter Tail County PF Chapter. Surprisingly, on this northern edge of Minnesota's pheasant range, we found good numbers of birds. It's not South Dakota. But in terms of public lands, which Minnesota has a lot of, it was great. The PF chapters up there have done tremendous work building habitat corridors and huge tracts of wildlife lands. We had pretty good hunting.
Q What were hunters' attitudes, with birds and habitat seeing such tough times?
A I'm inspired by Pheasants Forever volunteers. They know the obstacles facing us. But they also know that in 30 years as an organization, they, and we, have made a difference. We've seen these battles before, and right now, the pendulum has swung away from conservation. It will swing back. The myth is that conservation is a game, in which you win or lose. It's not. It's a constant battle. The environment. Weather. Everything is constantly changing. Our job is to evolve and make a difference no matter what the conditions.
Dennis Anderson • firstname.lastname@example.org