Warranted as it may be to be a pheasant pessimist these days, given the bird’s population drop-offs because of bad weather and even worse farm policy, I’m optimistic about the future of these birds, believing their numbers will rise over the long term.
And believing as well that the sport of pheasant hunting will endure, and even thrive.
But more on that in a moment.
Meanwhile, if you insist on being a pheasant pessimist in advance of the Minnesota ringneck season that begins Saturday, you need only scan the horizon to the south, toward Iowa, which until recent years vied with South Dakota as the nation’s top destination for scattergunners in pursuit of the world’s most beautiful game bird.
As recently as 2000, Iowa hunters killed about 1 million roosters, a far cry from the mere 158,000 taken in the state a year ago.
Tough winters and cool, wet springs have played roles in the demise of Iowa pheasants. The years 2006 to 2010 marked the first time since 1962 the state received more than 20 percent above normal levels of snow four years in a row.
But the bigger culprit has been habitat destruction: Between 1990 and 2005, Iowa lost 2,496 square miles of pheasant habitat, according to its Department of Natural Resources — an area equal to an 8-mile-wide swath stretching from west to east across the state.
Add to these problems the fact that only 1 percent of Iowa is in public ownership and can be managed by the DNR for wildlife, and the pheasant hole the state has dug for itself appears deep indeed.
The same trend plagues South Dakota, where recent harsh winters have been followed by drought, contributing to a 64 percent drop in pheasants this year from 2012.
Yet, as in Iowa, the biggest problem in South Dakota is habitat loss. For the first time in two decades, reports Pheasants Forever vice president of governmental affairs Dave Nomsen, South Dakota this year was home to fewer than 1 million Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) acres.
“By not passing a farm bill, by not including the ‘Protect Our Prairies Act’ [also known as “Sodsaver” provisions], by not relinking crop insurance payments to conservation compliance, federal policymakers are all but ensuring this unprecedented habitat loss will continue in South Dakota and across the Midwest,” Nomsen said, noting that South Dakota might need 500,000 additional CRP acres to maintain its status as a world-class wingshooting destination.
Minnesota pheasants have fared no better. Pheasant numbers here are down 29 percent from last year, and 72 percent below the long-term average. Contributing to the falloff: Nearly 64,000 CRP acres were lost in the state’s pheasant range in the past year.
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Given all of this, how can I be optimistic about pheasants?
Let me count the ways:
1) Water: The future will be owned by those who manage water properly, while those who waste this precious and evermore scarce resource will suffer. Put another way, landowners, counties, states and nations that conserve water will enjoy economic and strategic advantages over those that don’t — a lesson we as a society have yet to learn. When we do (and we will), we’ll realize anew what conservationists have argued for more than a century: Clean, abundant water requires healthy landscapes, a commodity too rare here in the heartland. To achieve these, increased crop rotation, development of new crops, establishment of stream buffer strips and the increased planting of grasses and other perennial crops will be required. Over time, these will gain greater prominence, if only to ensure the region’s, and the nation’s, water supply remains abundant and clean.
2) Public lands: Minnesota is the big winner here, thanks to the foresight of wildlife managers in the 1950s who began the state’s “Save the Wetlands’’ program. Later this effort morphed into Minnesota’s wildlife management area plan, which in turn inspired establishment of federal waterfowl production areas. Neither Iowa nor South Dakota, nor North Dakota, has the public land base Minnesota has, and when this state figures out how to properly, and extensively, manage these lands, they will yield significantly more game and nongame species than they presently do.
3) Climate: Occasional aberrations aside, including perhaps periodic extreme weather events, the chance that Minnesota and the Dakotas will become more temperate in coming years is better than even, decreasing the chance that winter kill will be a significant limiting factor affecting pheasants going forward. Assuming this occurs, pheasants will be among the winners.
4) Technology: Twenty years from now, if not sooner, agronomists will view the current period as one of agriculture’s darkest moments. The relentless planting of so many corn and soybean acres, and the massive fertilizing they require, will be replaced, or balanced, by new crops with higher yields that reduce land fertility less. The result will be a more balanced landscape that benefits wildlife.
5) Increased consumer demand for healthier food, locally or regionally sourced: This phenomenon, already growing, will increase, and markedly, and will contribute to more varied forms of agriculture and crops. As a corollary, the value of wild game taken at one’s own hand will rise.
6) Increased appreciation of, and stewardship of, prairies and grasslands: Western Minnesota’s wide-open spaces have long suffered by comparison to the state’s North Woods and boundary waters. This will change as the region’s capacity for flood retention, water purification and wildlife diversity are better understood.
7) A coming renaissance in outdoor recreation: The present electronic gadget era notwithstanding, a revolution in the way people spend their time, fueled by nature’s timeless calling, will result in more people than ever spending more time in traditional outdoors pursuits, especially those that enhance physical fitness. Enter long walks on autumn days behind good dogs, looking for roosters.
8) Advocacy unchained: Short story: Too many people love pheasants and the lands that support them, and are too well organized, to let these birds fall by the wayside.
9) What can you do? Join Pheasants Forever, Ducks Unlimited, the Izaak Walton League, the Minnesota Waterfowl Association, The Nature Conservancy or another group. Change is coming, and for the better. Be a part of it.