NICOLLET, MINN.— With a backdrop of chest-high prairie grass waving in summerlike breezes near one of Minnesota’s most storied waterfowl lakes, Gov. Mark Dayton on Tuesday announced a long-awaited, ambitious and expensive — perhaps more than $100 million — plan to restore Minnesota’s pheasant population and the nearly century-old hunting tradition it supports.

Pheasant scarcity is the second major wildlife crisis Dayton has addressed in recent weeks, including the walleye crash on Lake Mille Lacs. Neither problem will be easily or quickly solved.

“This is a beginning,’’ Dayton told a gathering of about 50 people outside the Nicollet Conservation Club on Swan Lake, a short drive west of Mankato.

Pheasant hunters pump an estimated $100 million yearly into the state’s rural economy, and Dayton is concerned about losing that, as well as the recreational opportunities the bird has provided since being imported here from China early last century.

Importantly, Dayton said, the loss of pheasants and pheasant habitat are indicators of broader environmental problems across southern Minnesota, including declines in monarch butterflies, pollinators such as honeybees and polluted waters from agricultural runoff.

Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Tom Landwehr, who also spoke at the news conference, said the program is as much a “recipe’’ for pheasants as a plan. “We know how to make pheasants,’’ Landwehr said. The goal now, he added, is to add an important mix of habitat ingredients to a landscape dominated by corn and soybeans in the state’s pheasant range.

The 10-point plan, which follows a “pheasant summit’’ held last December in Marshall at Dayton’s request, could cost “hundreds of millions of dollars,’’ Landwehr said, a sum that would include funding for the expansion of large blocks of grasslands that pheasants need for spring nesting cover.

In recent years, the state’s pheasant population, and the number of people who hunt them, have been in tailspins. Last year, about 58,000 hunters pursued pheasants, the fewest in nearly 40 years. And they harvested just 153,000 roosters, the lowest in 30 years and less than half the number killed just four years earlier.

“I’d like the bring the population back to what it was in my youth,’’ Dayton said. “We had 270,000 pheasant hunters in 1961. We have less than one-fourth of that now. We need to make this a priority.’’

Primarily blamed for the falloff is the loss of habitat, especially the undisturbed grasses where pheasants nest in spring. In recent years, as prices paid to farmers for corn and soybean have risen, farmers have removed lands from set-aside plans such as the federal Conservation Reserve Program and planted them in row crops.

Just since 2007, the state has lost 97,000 acres — 151 square miles — of pheasant habitat, including shelterbelts and other cover where the birds seek protection from wind and snow in winter
“The impact of this loss of habitat is huge,’’ said Nicole Davros, DNR pheasant biologist stationed in Madelia. “This loss hasn’t affected just pheasants but other grassland-dependent wildlife, including songbirds, pollinators and other beneficial insects.’’

Some actions outlined in the plan already are underway. At Dayton’s urging, the Legislature last session approved his initiative to require grass and other buffers along rivers, streams and ditches to help keep phosphorus, nitrogen and sediment out of farmland waterways.

And last month, the DNR received a $1.7 million grant for a walk-in access program from the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Matt Holland of Pheasants Forever said Monday his organization has spent millions over three decades in Minnesota to develop upland habitat, and that “more resources will be needed’’ to intensify the effort.

Saying he’s optimistic, Dennis Frederickson, retired farmer, former GOP legislator and DNR regional director in New Ulm, said farmers will buy into Dayton’s plan if it benefits them.

“Local communities will benefit economically if pheasants come back,’’ Frederickson said. “Farmers will see that. Also, farmers like to see wildlife on their lands, and most of them also hunt.’’

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