Minnesota pheasant hunters stand to lose access to 10,000 acres of private land this year because of a funding shortfall in a popular program that the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is trying to bolster as it rewrites the state's Pheasant Summit Action Plan.

Now four years old, the plan was close to meeting one of its goals to establish 35,000 acres of "Walk-in Access" grassland. In 2018, the program enthusiastically featured 30,000 acres of high-quality pheasant habitat, much of it in western and southwestern Minnesota.

But Greg Hoch, the DNR's prairie habitat team supervisor, said a third of those grasslands can't be renewed for 2019 unless a funding gap is bridged.

The walk-in program started with a $1.6 million federal grant issued under the previous Farm Bill. The Minnesota program was rolled out at a pace of 10,000 acres a year under contracts that were three years long. The first batch of contracts expired at the end of the hunting season before new grant money was available to renew them, Hoch said. The new Farm Bill, adopted late last year, has funding for walk-in programs, but the application process will likely take too long to re-enroll eligible lands in time for the upcoming season, Hoch said.

"We would need money in place by June to have something in place for fall of 2019," he said. "As soon as the grant cycle opens up we absolutely are going to apply.''

Sustaining the program at its desired size ultimately will require some matching money from the state, Hoch said.

Eran Sandquist, Pheasants Forever state coordinator, said the roughly $500,000-a-year program could be rebuilt if it goes backward this year, but he views it as too valuable to let slide.

"We're trying to do everything we can to maintain the acres enrolled," he said. "Walk-in Access is a tremendously strong program."

Minnesota's Pheasant Summit Action Plan as a whole has experienced ups and downs since it was first announced in December 2014 by then-Gov. Mark Dayton. Its mission is to restore ring-necked pheasant populations in farm country, and the DNR recommitted to the plan on Friday by signing a memorandum of understanding with Pheasants Forever and five other conservation partners.

Hitting reset

The agreement is nonbinding and requires no financial commitments, but new DNR Commissioner Sarah Strommen said it unites stakeholders in an effort to refresh the plan.

"It's an opportunity to re-engage local partners," Strommen said. "We're going to look where we are at and where we can best put our energy."

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Ducks Unlimited, Minnesota Deer Hunters Association, Minnesota Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts and the Minnesota Board of Soil and Water Resources will help to redraft the Pheasant Plan. Hoch said he doesn't foresee any radical changes.

"The idea of rewriting the plan is to keep it fresh," he said.

Said Sandquist: "It means taking the best parts of the four-year plan and doubling down on them."

Mixed grades

To kick-start the renewal, DNR on Friday published a Pheasant Plan report card. It marks progress in 15 of 33 categories. In seven categories, progress is slower than anticipated or the DNR is not meeting the plan's targets, the report card said. It's too early to assess the other measures, or the results are too variable to receive a grade.

Hoch and Sandquist both said the Pheasant Plan has been nicely boosted by the Board of Soil and Water Resources' enrollment of 12,000 private acres in perpetual conservation easements. The environmentally sensitive land is good for pheasants and open to hunters. The Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program could enroll tens of thousands of additional acres over the next five years, the report card says.

The easements are critical because private lands account for more than 95 percent of the land base in Minnesota's pheasant range. "Private land habitat is always going to be the biggest base," Sandquist said.

Four years ago, Pheasant Plan stakeholders envisioned $14 million in Outdoor Heritage Fund appropriations for public grassland enhancements. Progress toward that goal has been another highlight, Hoch said. The report card said that Outdoor Heritage Fund allocations increased to $11.9 million in 2018, up from $8.2 million in 2017.

Sandquist said the gains are designed to "put more grass on the landscape and better quality of grass on the landscape."

But last year alone, wild roosters and hens lost 203,000 acres of grasslands that had been temporarily set aside by farmers under the federal Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). The new Farm Bill, adopted late last year, will provide measurable yearly increases in CRP acres, but the enrollments will remain a far cry from the heyday of the program in 2007, when 120,000 Minnesota hunters went afield to harvest 684,000 roosters.

The Pheasant Plan aspires to return hunting participation to those levels, but last year's turnout of pheasant hunters was in the range of 45,000 — the same as 2017 — despite a surprising abundance of birds. The long-term analysis shows a very close correlation between pheasant abundance and CRP enrollments.