If you were the parent of Minnesota’s Pheasant Summit Action Plan, you could understandably be OK with the plan’s first-year report card but still very concerned about the future of pheasant hunting in the state.
Issued Wednesday by the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), the internally produced report card on 10 objectives set in 2015 contains both positive and negative results along with a couple of major question marks and one overarching downward trend.
Of utmost concern is whether Minnesota can counter heavy losses of pheasant habitat in farm country as land set-asides paid for by the federal Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) continue to pour out of that program and back into tillage.
“We are not adding as much as we are losing,” DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr said during the report card’s official unveiling. “Trends are not going well. We have a chance to stem that.”
By far the biggest chance to replace the massive quantities of lost CRP grasslands lies with another set-aside program called the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP). The report card said trends are improving for the state’s $800 million CREP application to permanently protect 100,000 acres. The scope could be downsized in upcoming negotiations with Washington, but costs would be covered on a 4-to-1, federal-to-state ratio.
The report card also gave a thumbs-up to state funding needed to bolster the CREP application. “There are recommendations for over $40 million from state bonding, Clean Water Fund and Outdoor Heritage Fund,”the report card said.
John Jaschke, executive director of the Minnesota Board of Soil and Water Resources, said there’s a chance a CREP agreement could be reached this summer. Meanwhile, the report card cautiously rated the CREP objective as one with a “high amount of variability.”
But even if the CREP application is 100 percent successful, the report card describes a 26 percent decline in overall CRP acres from 2014 to 2015, worse than anticipated. Jascke’s agency estimates the expiration of more than 500,000 Minnesota CRP acres over the next five years.
“The problems are permanent,” said Kevin Lines, DNR pheasant plan coordinator.
Report card a mixed bag
Apart from CREP, the report card noted various plusses and minuses. On the plus side, the DNR and partners are identifying sites at least 9 square miles in size where the state envisions 40 percent permanent habitat protection. Lines said the initial scoping in 21 southwestern counties should be completed by early summer.
According to the report card, the pheasant plan also was boosted last fall by a $1.7 million federal grant to support its Walk-In Access Program for hunters. The money will last three years and the DNR is still seeking a more permanent source of funding to carry it on. The pheasant plan calls for a 25 percent increase in walk-in acres over three years, and the report card said there’s been clear progress toward the goal of 30,000 total acres. Lines said the starting point was 22,000 acres.
After letting its Roadsides for Wildlife Program go dark for five years, the DNR last week made a new hire to revive it. In addition, Rep. Dennis McNamara, R-Hastings, is guiding a bill in the Legislature to strengthen an existing, under-enforced law to prevent farmers from haying and planting crops in roadside rights-of-way to protect nesting efforts. That bill was enriched this week with a provision by McNamara to add more than $2 million for roadside habitat demonstration projects along interstate highways. Pheasants Forever says roadsides represent 500,000 acres of potential habitat in the pheasant range.
Gov. Mark Dayton’s successful 2015 buffer law to require permanent vegetative buffers along waterways in farm country won’t be as sweeping as originally envisioned, but it’s still a keystone of the pheasant plan. The report card gave a thumbs-up to the DNR for mapping the required buffers.
The report card also has a positive score on the important goal of enlarging the buffers. Jaschke’s agency secured $11 million per year to add staff in local conservation offices. Those frontline workers will enroll landowners in complementary habitat programs to piggyback on the buffers.
On the minus side, the report card said the DNR missed its targets in obtaining funding from the Outdoor Heritage Fund for acquiring new public hunting lands and for improving habitat conditions on public and private property. Combined allocations for these elements of the pheasant plan declined from $35 million to $24 million. “We’ll work hard to make that different next year,’’ Lines said.
Worthington Pheasants Forever chapter president Scott Rall, a former decisionmaker on Outdoor Heritage funding requests, said restoration projects and acquisition of public lands are crucial. That’s because a scant 2 to 3 percent of most counties in the state’s pheasant range are in grass cover.
Overall, Lines said he is optimistic about implementation of the pheasant plan.
“We are grass poor, but we have financial means to influence that,” he said.