Founded in St. Paul 30 years ago, Pheasants Forever and its 133,000 members come to the Minneapolis Convention Center this week to celebrate -- and plan for a challenging future in the farmlands.
Doug Lovander is on his ninth hunting dog since 1982, the year Pheasants Forever was founded in St. Paul. He can name them, too: "Boomer. Spanky. Patch. Big Sam. Magnum. Zach. Joe. Buster. Little Sam."
Lovander, 60, of Willmar, was one of many important people involved in the organization's startup, helping the group to transition from an idea to reality.
Lovander founded the group's first chapter outside the Twin Cities and its second overall, in Kandiyohi County.
This weekend, along with some 30,000 other Pheasants Forever members and prospective members from throughout the country, Lovander will be in town to help celebrate the group's 30th anniversary at its National Pheasant Fest and Quail Classic, slated for noon Friday through Sunday at the Minneapolis Convention Center.
A sports show unto itself, with more than 300 exhibitors and seminars on subjects as diverse as game cooking and dog training, Pheasant Fest is emblematic of Pheasants Forever's evolution from state bird club to regional organization to important national conservation player.
High-profile keynote speakers at banquets Friday and Saturday nights make the point. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe will speak at the former, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack the latter.
Statistics also help tell the Pheasants Forever story.
With a $58 million budget and an audited program efficiency of 91 percent, the group completed nearly 300,000 acres of habitat projects last year, while purchasing nearly 8,000 more acres for conservation.
Losing a land battle
Yet Pheasants Forever today faces headwinds as stiff as any since its incorporation on Aug. 5, 1982.
Example: Travel anywhere in rural Minnesota, Iowa, North Dakota or South Dakota, and where once even five years ago there was wildlife habitat, now there likely are corn and soybeans.
Driven by record high commodity prices that in turn are buoyed by government-subsidized ethanol production, farmers have fled the federal Conservation Reserve Program as if it were a plague, placing even marginally tillable acres under the plow.
Were it only pheasants at stake, or quail, prairie chickens, sharp-tailed grouse or ducks, hunters could rightly be accused of wanting taxpayers to fund, through farmland set-aside programs, their bird-shooting interests.
But wildlife's welfare -- like people's welfare -- is correlated to the health of land and water.
Which is why from the outset Pheasants Forever's goal was as much to be a protector of these resources as it was to be a "bird club'' for passionate hunters.
Bruce Hertzke of Forest City, Iowa, knows that passion.
The retired CEO of Winnebago Industries, Hertzke has been around Pheasants Forever since not long after its inception, and is a national board member.
He recalls fondly the time not long ago when Iowa vied with South Dakota as the nation's top pheasant state.
Today Iowa lies almost dormant as a ringneck producer, its birds the victims not only of high corn and soybean prices but a series of wet spring nesting seasons.
"I think a key to Pheasants Forever's success going forward lies with our farm bill biologists,'' said Hertzke, who owns two farms, both set aside for conservation. "We need to show farmers they can maximize their income by farming most of their land, while setting aside marginal acres in conservation programs.''
Charlie McLravy of East Lansing, Mich., is another national board member who knows well the daunting task of producing pheasants against long odds. Michigan's annual pheasant harvest has fallen to fewer than 100,000 birds.
Yet even in Michigan the passion for pheasants -- albeit in many cases, distant ones -- still burns:
The Ingham County (Mich.) Pheasants Forever chapter McLravy helped found has raised $406,000 for habitat and other initiatives in that county and beyond, and has more members -- 508 -- than all but three of the organization's 750 chapters.
How long these achievements can be sustained in an era of aging hunters (average age of a Pheasant Forever member is 54) concerns McLravy.
"It's the same challenge every group like ours has," he said. "Who will be the next generation of conservationists?''
A team for the future
Pheasants Forever CEO Howard Vincent, 56, knows the obstacles that lie ahead for pheasants, yet believes his group is positioned for success.
With 250 employees, among them farm bill biologists, habitat specialists and regional representatives spread across 20 states, Pheasants Forever has the reach, Vincent says, to deliver conservation while introducing increasing numbers of young people to shooting and hunting.
"We need to become more relevant to a larger choir," he said. "Keeping soil and chemicals out of rivers through farmland conservation is important to fish and wildlife, but it's also critically important to people, who depend on clean water. We need to help the general public understand that's what we do.
"Similarly, habitat buffers we place along streams are important to wildlife and people. But they're critically important to pollinators such as bees. Sustaining plants, and life, depends on them, and the habitat we provide benefits pollinators."
CEO since 2000, after serving as Pheasants Forever's chief financial officer, Vincent said flood reduction is another societal benefit of his group's upland habitat work.
"Farmers need the programs -- the tools -- to make the right decisions, and we need to make sure they have them," he said. "Admittedly, that's difficult when the national budget is in such tough shape.
"But at the end of the day, our job is to deliver best conservation practices. We're positioned well to do that. Our membership continues to grow, we have a smart board of directors and our thousands of volunteers are incredibly dedicated.
"Most important among these are our volunteers. That's really what our 30th anniversary is about, celebrating our volunteers."
Dennis Anderson • firstname.lastname@example.org
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