A long-awaited and ambitious plan to restore Minnesota’s pheasant population calls for 10 actions, including boosting the number and quality of large blocks of grasslands.

One proposal — adding grass buffers to waterways and ditches — will become reality because a state law mandating buffers recently passed the Legislature.

But it will take collaboration among conservation groups and federal, state and local agencies to accomplish most of the goals. Besides increasing and enhancing pheasant habitat, objectives also include providing more public hunting land to help retain the state’s pheasant hunting tradition.

Though influencing pheasant populations on a large scale historically has proved difficult, state officials believe the plan is doable.

“Absolutely,’’ said Kevin Lines, pheasant plan coordinator for the Department of Natural Resources. “We believe these are 10 actions that, in the next four years, can have the biggest impact on Minnesota’s pheasant and grassland habitat.’’

Implementation of the plan will span Gov. Mark Dayton’s last four years as governor, with Lines directing the effort. The plan’s total cost is unknown, though millions of dollars will be required to accomplish many of the goals.

The plan springs from the state’s first-ever pheasant summit held last December in Marshall, attended by about 300 people. Dayton called the gathering in response to declining pheasant habitat, a plunging ringneck population and a precipitous drop in the number of pheasant hunters.

A draft of the plan was made available to the Star Tribune last week, with its completion and formal release expected later this summer.

Here are the 10 recommendations:

1. Identify 9-square-mile habitat complexes where the landscape will be boosted to 40 percent permanent nesting cover because large blocks of habitat increase reproductive success. Officials want to identify the best places for pheasant production and focus management efforts there. “It’s strategically targeting those areas, to add the most value for pheasants, vs. a shotgun approach of taking conservation wherever we can get it,’’ Lines said. “This will give us the biggest bang for our dollars.’’

2. Increase enrollment of permanent conservation easements and nonpermanent conservation programs by private landowners. Ninety-five percent of the pheasant range is privately owned, so boosting pheasant populations will depend on maximizing habitat on private land. Officials will work with landowners to retain contracts on 332,000 acres enrolled in the federal Conservation Reserve Program that are scheduled to expire over the next four years. The state also is proposing a new Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) — an $800 million federal-state partnership that would permanently protect 100,000 acres of habitat and improve water quality.

3. Increase education and marketing of state and federal conservation programs to landowners through the Farm Bill Assistance Partnership. Currently 35 people do that in 49 counties; the plan would add 10 more people. “Our ability to deliver conservation to private landowners is absolutely critical,’’ Lines said.

4. Accelerate acquisition of public hunting lands in the pheasant region. That will both increase habitat and create more hunting opportunities. Accelerated acquisition of public lands has been funded the past seven years by the Outdoor Heritage Fund, but Lines said the DNR will seek an additional $40 million in bonding dollars to buy 5,000 to 7,500 additional acres to build the larger habitat complexes.

5. Improve existing wildlife habitat on private and public lands with prescribed burns, tree removal, conservation grazing and haying. Some of that has been occurring with Outdoor Heritage Fund dollars, and Lines said the DNR would seek additional Heritage Fund and federal dollars to expand the effort.

6. Launch a comprehensive buffer program along waterways — which will happen under a law pushed for and signed by Dayton. Fifty-foot buffers must be installed on public waters by late 2017 and 16 ½-foot buffers on public ditches by late 2018. The buffers should help water quality but also boost wildlife habitat. Other conservation programs, including the proposed new CREP program, could boost the width of those buffers.

7. Optimize pheasant habitat on roadsides. The DNR plans to revitalize the Roadsides for Wildlife Program and has hired a program manager. It also plans to get other agencies involved, including the Department of Transportation. “Roadsides are important, and we’ve never been able to get them to the level they should be,’’ Lines said.

8. Secure federal funding to sustain or expand the state’s fledgling walk-in access (WIA) program in the pheasant region, which pays landowners to allow public access. The DNR has applied to the U.S. Department of Agriculture for a grant. Without federal funding, the program’s future is questionable. Last year, hunters could access 21,000 acres across 35 counties.

9. Expand public education about grassland and pheasant conservation issues, and support hunter recruitment and retention efforts. With the help of conservation groups, a strategy will be developed to educate and inform the public, hunters and legislators on issues affecting pheasant habitat. And the DNR will develop a “scorecard” to assess progress on the pheasant action plan. “We’re going to develop a report card on our efforts, so people can see what we accomplish under the plan,’’ Lines said. “We’re not just going to put it out and walk away.’’

10. Expand monitoring and research of pheasants and pheasant habitat to ensure long-term sustainability. “No one wants to pay for research, but we don’t know everything we need to know about managing pheasants and grasslands,’’ Lines said. The plan will identify a research and monitoring priority list.

The pheasant summit action plan was supposed to be presented at the annual DNR stakeholder meetings in January. But officials said they lacked staff to quickly turn the summit recommendations, and comments from 700 citizens who completed an online survey, into a plan.

In February, they hired Lines, a retired DNR and Board of Soil and Water Resources (BWSR) employee, to work on the plan part-time. DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr appointed an eight-member steering committee to offer input. It includes the Minnesota Farmers Union, the Minnesota Farm Bureau, the Minnesota Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts, Pheasants Forever, Hunting Works for Minnesota, the state Department of Agriculture, BWSR and the DNR.

Biologists and ecologists from state, federal and local agencies and conservation groups refined details of the plan.

 

Twitter: @dougsmithstrib