Anderson: If pheasants are to rebound, hunters need a backbone

  • Article by: DENNIS ANDERSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 6, 2014 - 12:49 AM

Pheasant hunters, and all of us, should stand up to the illegal loss of habitat to farming.

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Roosters in the fall in sufficient numbers to satisfy hunters require an abundant spring hatch, the peak of which is in mid-June. Pheasant numbers have been down in Minnesota and throughout the Upper Midwest in recent years due to habitat loss and cool, wet spring nesting conditions.

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The contention that Minnesota hunters and anglers roll over too easily to public policy edicts and other circumstances that diminish the state’s fish and wildlife populations, or their access to them, is not without merit.

The most recent example is the closing of night fishing on Mille Lacs this summer and fall by the Department of Natural Resources so walleye anglers won’t exceed the state’s harvest quota on the lake.

That much seems fair. But also banned from Mille Lacs at night — if only for the convenience of DNR enforcement officers — are other anglers, including bowfishermen and muskie fishermen, two groups that might not kill a walleye between them in a year.

Yet, being the compliant bunch we are, we adhere to the DNR’s overarching ban obediently, with nary a whimper, losing, in this case, nighttime access to one of the state’s best bowfishing and muskie fishing lakes.

Now, soon, comes mid-June and the phenologists among us turn a peeled eye to the state’s few remaining grasslands. These and the relatively few untrammeled ditches that remain in southern Minnesota represent the mother lode of habitat upon which a pheasant rebound in the state depends. Obviously, they can’t offset recent Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) losses in the state, which tallied a net 153,328 set-aside acres between 2012 and 2013 alone. But it’s what we have left.

Or is it?

In fact, many lands in Minnesota that should remain reserved for soil conservation and wildlife habitat also have been lost, thanks to the meek acquiescence of the public at large, and particularly the acquiescence of sportsmen and women, whose responsibility should be to remain alert for such threats.

Example: To fatten their bottom lines, some southern Minnesota farmers are illegally planting crops in roadsides owned by the public, especially along rural township roads. This robs all taxpayers, but perhaps particularly pheasant hunters, because pheasants often nest in undisturbed roadsides.

The loss is no small potatoes.

In Minnesota’s pheasant range, more than 500,000 acres of potential grassland habitat exists along roadsides — a boon to pheasants if protected from encroachment and managed properly.

Consider also that many southern Minnesota streams that are legally supposed to be buffered by grasslands and other protective habitat to reduce soil loss and farmland runoff, while also providing wildlife habitat, are instead planted to their edges with crops.

The problem is so pervasive that by one estimate, four-fifths of cropland that adjoins southern Minnesota streams and rivers are missing at least some legally required grassland buffers.

Politics protect these encroachments. Township and county governments often are loathe to police their own, and the Legislature is and always has been farmer friendly. DNR leaders also tread lightly here, fearing the budgetary or political cost to them or their agency of messing with the status quo.

This apple cart could be upset rather easily if hunters and other conservationists had stiffer backbones. But they don’t. Or they prefer to remain blissfully ignorant; too lazy, or too uncommitted to conservation, to insist on change.

All of which enables the bio-political dysfunction that is the weak link of Minnesota conservation, and explains why as the mid-June hatching peak for pheasants approaches, chances are slim that the birds will rebound significantly.

Last year, the state’s ringneck roadside count declined 29 percent from 2012, and was 64 percent below the 10-year average. Correspondingly, the number of broods observed in 2013 was 40 percent below the 2012 count, and 71 percent below the 10-year average. Hunters’ rooster harvest last fall likely also fell to about 250,000 — less than half the number taken in the 2005-2008 seasons.

Conservationists hoping for an expansion of state or federal conservation plans to jump-start Minnesota pheasants likely will wait a long time. The money’s not there.

Better that they demand that the state optimize use of public lands for public purposes, beginning with conservation, instead of making de facto gifts of these properties to key constituencies, while selling the state’s natural heritage down the river — literally.

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