It’s ambitious — some might say even crazy: Three Minnesotans and their dogs will hunt upland birds for five consecutive days in five states — and all on public land.
But Anthony Hauck, Andrew Vavra and Rehan Nana aren’t driving nearly 2,000 miles just to sample hunting opportunities in North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa and Minnesota.
The three, who all work at Pheasants Forever’s national headquarters in White Bear Lake, are making the group’s fourth Rooster Road Trip to underscore the need for wildlife habitat at a time of unprecedented habitat loss. Hundreds of thousands of acres of grasslands, key habitat for ground-nesting birds such as pheasants and ducks, have been plowed in all five states, and wetlands continue to be drained — ominous trends for pheasants and pheasant hunters.
This fall, ringneck populations are down substantially in all five states.
But the three hunters, who will file blogs, photos and videos of their adventure along the way (www.roosterroadtrip.org), also are trying to show that all is not lost. That citizens who care about wildlife and wildlife habitat still can make a difference. That conservation groups like Pheasants Forever are fighting for wildlife habitat and the benefits that come with restoring or improving grasslands, including cleaner water and less soil erosion.
And that despite the loss of habitat and recent poor spring nesting weather for pheasants, good ringneck hunting still can be found — and found on public lands.
“Last year on our trip, we saw the loss of grass,’’ said Hauck, 31, of Roseville. “We saw sloughs burning [torched so they could be farmed]. We saw the westward expansion of industrial agriculture in the Dakotas. These forces that work against habitat never rest, so we can’t rest either.’’
Said Vavra, 27, of Minneapolis: “We’re trying to show the public not only what’s going on with the devastation of the habitat but also that anyone can go with friends to public land and find birds. With the low bird counts, it’s easy to get frustrated and give up on the season before it starts. But that’s not the attitude to have.
“Last year, we found birds in every state we went to.’’
And they had their best hunting in Iowa, where the pheasant population has been hammered in recent years by weather and loss of habitat. They traveled to the same five states in 2012 but will hunt in different areas this year.
“We had to work for our birds, but it came down to habitat,’’ Vavra said. “Where there’s habitat, there’s birds.’’
Said Hauck: “Public lands become even more valuable during these times of habitat loss, when private honey holes have dried up.’’
Three guys, three dogs
The three will meet up with Pheasants Forever chapter members and hunt habitat that chapters have either restored or helped buy and convert to public land. Since PF was formed in 1982, it has acquired and turned over to resource agencies about 169,000 acres, open to public hunting, and has improved habitat on 9 million acres.
Hauck, Vavra and Nana will drive rented SUVs to hunt first near Bismarck, N.D., then will travel to Pierre, S.D., northern Nebraska and the Des Moines, Iowa, area before finishing near Worthington in Minnesota.
“On average, we’ll hunt at least two or three different places each day,’’ Vavra said.
They’ll attach a small video camera to a dog to give a dog’s-eye view of hunts, and will be shooting other video and filing blogs, in addition to hunting — and driving. So it will be both work and fun, Vavra said.
“It’s the best of both worlds.’’
They’ll have diverse dog power, too.
Vavra, a marketing specialist, will hunt his 3-year-old yellow Lab, Beau. Hauck, PF’s online editor, has a 2-year-old English cocker spaniel, Sprig, and Nana hunts with a 1½-year-old red setter, Annie — the only pointing dog of the bunch.
“North Dakota has a mixed bag of birds, including sharptails, Hungarian partridge and pheasants, and hopefully we run into quail and prairie chickens in Nebraska,’’ said Nana, 28, of Minneapolis, a public relations specialist. “Sometimes it really helps to have a pointing dog because they can range out a bit further.’’
Last year during the five-day trip, the hunters bagged about 15 birds, or three a day.
“We’d be very happy with that,’’ Hauck said. “We all hunt public land on our free time, so we’re accustomed to this type of hunting. We haven’t had any days where we were absolutely skunked.’’
The backdrop to this year’s trip — the habitat loss and lack of a federal farm bill, which usually includes billions of dollars for conservation measures — adds some urgency to the group’s message.
“Now is the time everyone needs to band together and fight,’’ Vavra said.