Tabor Hoek will hunt with his dad at the family farm near Windom when the 2012 pheasant season opens Saturday.
But looming in the back of his mind will be the decline in pheasant habitat that poses long-term problems for Minnesota's 78,000 ringneck hunters.
Across Minnesota and the Midwest, farmers -- prompted by record crop prices -- have taken hundreds of thousands of acres of grasslands out of federal conservation programs and planted them with corn and soybeans. On Oct. 1, Minnesota lost 164,000 acres, mostly grasslands, that had been enrolled in the federal Conservation Reserve Program (CRP).
About 66,000 of those acres -- or 103 square miles -- were in pheasant country.
"There are people who will show up to hunt pheasants on Saturday, and the habitat won't be there," said Hoek, 48, an avid hunter and private lands coordinator for the state Board of Water and Soil Resources.
The lost grasslands are equal to about 17 percent of the state wildlife management area lands in the pheasant region.
"When you're plowing up prairie, it obviously has an impact not only on the landscape and pheasants but on water resources and the environment," said Bob Larson, 68, of Wayzata, longtime board member of Pheasants Forever.
"The Dust Bowl era was a man-made calamity," he said. "The question is are we going to relive our history?"
Under CRP, landowners are paid to retire marginal crop land, which often is subject to erosion and runoff. Lands that have been grasslands for 20 years now are being plowed and planted because crop prices often exceed the per-acre government payments.
"Right now, there's so much money to be made that even conservation-oriented people have a hard time passing on it," said Kurt Haroldson, assistant regional wildlife manager for the Department of Natural Resources in New Ulm.
Contracts on nearly 300,000 acres in Minnesota expired Oct. 1, but 136,000 acres were enrolled, leaving a net loss of 164,000 acres. And contracts on hundreds of thousands of additional acres are due to expire in the next few years. The same thing is happening elsewhere, including North Dakota and South Dakota -- both heavily visited by Minnesota hunters.
North Dakota recently lost 642,000 acres of CRP lands and now has 1.75 million acres enrolled. South Dakota -- the nation's No. 1 pheasant state -- lost 169,000 acres and now has about 931,000 acres of CRP.
The situation is exacerbated by the failure of Congress to pass a new federal Farm Bill. CRP and other conservation programs are part of the bill, and without one officials no longer can replace expiring contracts. The U.S. Senate passed a bill that called for 25 million acres of CRP -- about 5 million less than now -- and cut $6 billion for conservation. But the House failed to pass the legislation, meaning the issue is dead in the water, at least until after the Nov. 6 election.
Dave Nomsen, vice president of governmental affairs for Pheasants Forever, believes Congress eventually will approve a new Farm Bill with a CRP component.
"It's been one of most successful conservation programs in history," he said.
The proof has been found on the dinner table of hunters such as Hoek and Larson. From the mid-1960s to mid-1980s, before CRP, Minnesota hunters bagged about 270,000 ringnecks each fall. Since 1985, when CRP was born, hunters have averaged 400,000 pheasants.
"What happens in Washington definitely matters here," Haroldson said.
Doug Smith • email@example.com. Twitter: @dougsmithstrib.