A triumphant angler wrestling a trophy fish out of one of our northern lakes has long been the iconic image of the good life in Minnesota. But as pheasant hunters know, a golden autumn day spent on the state’s rolling prairies with family, friends and happy hunting dogs in pursuit of these colorful game birds rivals a glorious day on the water.
Sadly, this beloved tradition is endangered in Minnesota due to the state’s declining ring-necked pheasant population, which lost much of its grassland habitat to cropland. It’s a stunning development in a state that places high priority on outdoor recreation, world-class natural resources and the vitality of its rural areas, which benefit from hunting tourism.
More than a game bird, the pheasant is a natural barometer of environmental and economic health. All Minnesotans — not just hunters — should be concerned about its decline. That’s why the farsighted pheasant restoration plan released Monday by Gov. Mark Dayton merits support from the public and lawmakers, who will decide whether to fund the plan in coming years. The estimated price tag: $300 million, which would likely include federal funds, state appropriations and Legacy Amendment sales tax dollars.
Dayton, who convened the state’s first pheasant summit last year, followed up on that meeting with a 10-point plan to turn ideas into reality. The plan also follows Dayton’s controversial but successful push this year for buffer zones along farm fields to reduce agricultural runoff and improve water quality.
A governor who has announced he will not seek a third term is clearly thinking about his legacy. Historic conservation measures, such as buffers and the pheasant plan, will ensure that future generations can enjoy Minnesota’s legendary quality of life.
The pheasant plan is also a targeted, sensible choice given the overlap between the birds’ range and Minnesota’s heavily farmed southern and western prairies. A recent state report found that the majority of waterways in the state’s southern half are unsafe to swim or fish in. Restoring pheasant habitat would likely help reduce agricultural pollution, which is not regulated by the federal Clean Water Act.
The decline in both pheasant numbers and hunters is shocking. Bird numbers are down 39 percent from the 10-year average and 59 percent below a longer-term average, according to a state report. The annual number of hunters stands around 58,000 a year, the lowest in four decades.
The plan to restore bird populations, and by extension hunter numbers, relies on pragmatic rather than innovative strategies — among them, better managing habitat on public and private lands and creating more habitat on private land through enrollment of farmland in conservation programs or through permanent easements. Two strategies that should be prioritized to deliver broad benefits quickly: better managing roadside areas, which can provide pheasant nesting areas when left unmown, and pushing to create a third Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program in Minnesota to leverage federal dollars to protect grassland. Adding urgency: The enrollment of about half a million Minnesota acres in a different program, the Conservation Reserve Program, is set to expire in the next four years.
It is perhaps too much to wish that Dayton would also lead the charge in addressing the vexing policy disconnect at the heart of this issue. The federal government provides economic incentives, particularly through ethanol policies, to farmers to maximize row crops. At the same time, federal dollars and increasingly state dollars are flowing to mitigate the environmental damage stemming from this. How does this make sense?