As thousands of upland hunters pile into the Denny Sanford Premier Center this weekend in Sioux Falls, S.D., site of Pheasants Forever's annual National Pheasant Fest and Quail Classic, the future of the nation's grasslands and the wildlife they support is uncertain.
Which is exactly how the future of the nation's grasslands and the wildlife they support have been since white settlement.
Caught forever between the seemingly opposing interests of agribusiness and conservationists, most of these lands have been drained, plowed and planted for a century or more. Crop yields have never been higher. But across much of the United States, the price paid in lost topsoil, fouled water, depleted wildlife habitat — and depressed commodity prices — has been steep.
Population downturns of pheasants, and before them prairie chickens, meadowlarks and other winged critters, underscore the severity of the losses.
Paradoxically, as threats to grasslands have multiplied, Pheasants Forever (PF) and its companion organization Quail Forever (QF) have only strengthened: PF's membership of 130,000 and its $89 million budget place it among the nation's largest conservation groups.
Additionally, for the sixth consecutive year, PF ranked among the top 5 percent of 501c3 groups nationally in economic efficiency.
The dedication of the group's member volunteers, formed into some 700 chapters nationwide, helps explain why, even in the face of struggling ringneck numbers, PF is thriving.
"As far as morale within our chapter, bird numbers don't really have much impact," said Tony Rondeau, a retired U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service waterfowl biologist who has served in nearly every capacity of the Otter Tail County (Minn.) PF Chapter, including president. "Our habitat work benefits pheasants, of course, but also songbirds, prairie chickens, deer and pollinators."
In the last 10 years, the Otter Tail County chapter has added 4,600 acres of state wildlife management areas in Otter Tail, Clay, Douglas, Grant and Wilkin counties.
"That's just the land we've bought and preserved," Rondeau said. "It doesn't count all of the habitat restoration and enhancement work we've done in our area."
Uniquely among wildlife groups, PF allows most money raised by chapters to stay in the community for habitat and related work. Like other chapters, Otter Tail County PF often matches its funds five, 10 or even 20 times with state, federal or PF national money.
"If there is a grant out there, our chapter goes after it," Rondeau said.
Otter Tail County PF also supports firearms safety classes in and around the Fergus Falls area, and for many years has sponsored youth hunting days and helped fund area high school trap teams.
Chapter members also helped found the Otter Tail County Conservation Committee, membership in which includes a who's-who of area farmers, farm leaders, county officials and various wildlife groups.
"Initially there was some friction," Rondeau said. "But as we grew more comfortable with each other, it's really worked out well. Now when a conservation issue comes up, we have a good dialogue."
In Sioux Falls this weekend, these and many other chapter accomplishments will be celebrated. The gathering is expected to draw as many as 20,000 conservationists, and will be timely: Congress likely will pass a federal farm bill this year, details of which can spell boom or bust for wildlife.
"Work must continue"
Saturday evening, PF chief executive Howard Vincent will be upbeat — with a caveat or two — about the future of the nation's grasslands when he addresses what will be the largest banquet in the group's history, with more than 1,300 members attending.
"Even though pheasant numbers were down last year across the Dakotas, Nebraska and other areas, largely due to drought, our members recognize that our habitat work must continue," Vincent said earlier this week, "because as conditions improve, the birds can respond quickly."
A consortium of about 50 of the nation's largest conservation organizations, including PF and QF, has pushed for more than a year for the next farm bill to include 40 million acres of Conservation Reserve Program lands.
Considering the budget the Trump administration released earlier this week that slashed conservation programs across the board, that goal might be unrealistic. Still, Vincent and others believe a significant CRP acreage uptick is possible, in part because so many farmers are losing money on their at-risk, marginally tillable acres, many of which were put under a plow in recent years, when commodity prices were high.
"There is an incredible demand among farmers for an expanded CRP program," Vincent said. Already, Vincent said, PF employs 130 biologists nationwide whose sole focus is helping farmers maximize conservation benefits of the current farm bill.
PF and other conservation groups also worry about the graying of North American hunters, and the risk it poses to wildlife management funding.
"Right now, we [hunters] generally are white, male and age 60," Vincent said. "Think of this demographic as a wave that is going to crash on shore when these hunters are age 70 to 75. We're doing a lot to introduce kids age 10 to 12 to hunting, and that's great. But to replace hunters that will soon leave our ranks, we need to get more men and women age 20 to 45 among our ranks, some for the first time, others to come back to hunting."
Providing habitat through efforts such as those by the Otter Tail County PF chapter is necessary to retain and recruit hunters, as is expanding CRP and other conservation programs, Vincent said. Expanding access to hunting lands also is important.
"We also must do a better job of informing the general public about the benefits of farmland conservation, including providing wildlife habitat, saving soil, and cleaning our water," Vincent said. "Clean water and pollinators are just as important to people living in downtown Minneapolis as they are to people in Otter Tail County. And that's the business we're in every day."
In or near Sioux Falls this weekend? Stop in at the Pheasant Fest and Quail Classic, which is open to the public. To join PF, or find a chapter near where you live, go online to pheasantsforever.org.
Dennis Anderson • 612-673-4424