Minnesota has a tentative verbal agreement with the federal government to fund a massive clean water conservation program that will double as the centerpiece of the state's pheasant plan.

Details won't be released until Gov. Mark Dayton and U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack are ready to sign the deal, but it will be completed before President Obama leaves office, said Angie Becker Kudelka, assistant director of Minnesota's Board of Water and Soil Resources.

"We know it's going to happen," Kudelka said.

Kevin Lines, pheasant plan coordinator for the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR), said even if the package covers only half of the 100,000 acres originally proposed for permanent protection, it would provide enough financial muscle to protect 10 times the amount of pheasant habitat now being permanently set aside under existing state programs.

"We are counting it as one of our biggest actions, both financially and in acreage," Lines said. "It's huge in the pheasant plan."

Called the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP), the state-federal partnership is primarily aimed at addressing water quality concerns mostly caused by farm runoff. The water protections will be achieved in great part by planting grasses, restoring lost wetlands and surrounding streams, rivers and lakes with vegetative buffers.

Eighty percent of the 54-county area eligible for CREP projects overlaps with the pheasant range. The funding will go on for five years, and it could take seven years for all the projects to be implemented.

"Anything you do for water on the land is going to be good for grass-nesting wildlife," Lines said. "It will have a huge impact for pheasants."

The DNR's most recent pheasant plan report card, published in March, said trends were improving for the state's $795 million CREP application, which some hoped would come with a 4-to-1 federal-to-state funding ratio. Kudelka said the state and U.S. Agriculture Department have pledged not to discuss the negotiated outcome until the agreement is written and scrutinized. But she said Minnesotans can expect a federal match of "2-to-1 or better." She gave no hints on the size of funding, but said it would be enough to permanently protect "many thousands of acres.''

The 2016 Legislature didn't pass a bonding bill that could have boosted the state's reserves for CREP, but lawmakers already have committed almost $55 million for the effort, Kudelka said.

"We expect that Clean Water Fund, Outdoor Heritage Fund, bonding, and the Environmental and Natural Resources Trust Fund will be the key sources for the state commitment," Kudelka said.

Addressing deficits

Minnesota's pheasant plan, hatched by the Dayton administration after a statewide summit meeting in 2014, confronts the significant loss of nesting habitat and steadily declining pheasant harvest in Minnesota since the mid-2000s. Hunter participation also has fallen off.

For the 2016 pheasant season that opens Saturday, pheasant population indices are up for the third year in a row, but still 14 percent below the 10-year average and 48 percent below the long-term average. The biggest reason is lost habitat, mostly from reduced farm acres planted in grasses under the Conservation Reserve Program. (CRP).

Lines said CRP acres are continuing to pour out of the program, so much so that the coming CREP set-asides won't come close to offsetting the deficit. But unlike CRP acres, which eventually return to production, CREP project lands will be permanent.

"What we want from new programs is for land to be set aside permanently," Lines said.

By the time the DNR updates its pheasant plan report card in January, it's possible that local soil and water conservation districts already will be signing up landowners to participate in CREP projects. The conservation measures will fall into three categories, including riparian buffer areas squarely located in the pheasant range.

The proposed buffer strips — restored with native plant cover — not only will stabilize stream banks and river banks but also provide "connectivity corridors" needed by pheasants and other upland species. Besides bolstering the pheasant plan, the would-be corridors also would address conservation goals in the state's prairie conservation plan, Kudelka said.

"These are very important pathways," she said. "We took that into consideration."

Timing is everything

Other CREP money will be used to acquire farm land located above underground municipal drinking water supplies. Replanted with native grasses, the change in land use will protect against fertilizer-related nitrate contamination while also providing new pheasant habitat.

Lines said pheasants also will benefit from CREP restoration of prairie pothole wetlands and flood plains. Those marshy areas, restored to their natural state, will provide nesting habitat and winter cover for ringnecks.

Funding for the state-federal partnership will be well-timed, Lines said. That's because corn prices have fallen substantially, making alternative arrangements more attractive.

"Conservation is becoming more cost-effective," Lines said. "Enrollment interest is up."