The National Pheasant Fest and Quail Classic, the outsized conservation convention and exhibition held annually in different cities around the nation, returns to the Twin Cities for three days beginning Friday, headquartered at the Minneapolis Convention Center.

The celebration is preceded by a film festival Thursday evening at the Pourhouse Downtown in Minneapolis, followed Friday by the event's signature opening-door event, the Bird Dog Parade (look for a Star Tribune story next Sunday by staff writer Bob Timmons featuring parade dogs and their owners).

Sponsored by Pheasants Forever (PF) and its companion organization, Quail Forever (QF), the Pheasant Fest and Quail Classic is a wintertime extravaganza that each year attracts more than 30,000 of the groups' members, along with other habitat, hunting, sporting-dog and conservation enthusiasts.

This year's gathering marks PF's 40th anniversary.

Founded in 1982 in St. Paul, PF is one of the world's largest conservation organizations, employing along with QF nearly 450 staff, about 350 of whom are wildlife professionals — more than any group or government agency in the nation, except the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

At the Pheasant Fest and Quail Classic, PF and QF, which call themselves "the Habitat Organizations,'' will hail the end of a six-year fundraising and habitat protection effort they labeled the Call of the Uplands Campaign.

Ambitiously, the crusade hoped to raise $500 million while protecting, enhancing or restoring nine million wildlife habitat acres nationwide.

Those goals were exceeded, said Jared Wiklund, PF and QF media relations manager at the groups' White Bear Lake headquarters.

"Another big part of the campaign was introduction in Washington of the North American Grasslands Conservation Act," Wiklund said. "This was also achieved during the campaign thanks to the more than 50,000 calls and emails our members, partners and supporters made to congressional members in favor of the legislation."

This year a new leader will take the reins of PF and QF when Pheasant Fest concludes. The groups announced last month that Marilyn Vetter of New Richmond, Wis., will be their new chief executive, replacing Howard Vincent, who said a year ago he would retire this spring.

Vetter, 55, a North Dakota native and avid upland bird hunter who had served on the PF board, is the third CEO to lead the groups; Vincent held the top position for 23 years.

"My job is not to have all the right answers," Vetter said in an interview last week. "Rather it's to find common ground among our members, our partners and the public at large to fulfill our habitat development and protection missions and everything they entail, including healthy bird populations, particularly pheasants and quail, as well as soil quality, water quality and climate resistance."

Pheasants Forever lost about 20,000 members during COVID-19's worst days, dropping from 134,581 in 2019 to 112,172 in 2021. Since then, the group's rolls have recovered and as of June 2022 were at an all-time high, 135,431. Revenue also has grown, from about $78 million in 2019 to $103 million recently.

Founded as a pheasant hunter's advocacy and habitat group, PF held its first banquet April 15, 1983, drawing 800 people to the old Prom Ballroom in St. Paul. Gov. Rudy Perpich was the keynote speaker, Stoney Lonesome provided the music and the late St. Paul Pioneer Press humor columnist, Bill Farmer, appeared in drag for reasons no one can remember, exactly.

The group's early achievements include establishment in 1983 of the Minnesota Pheasant Stamp and rallying congressional support for the initial federal Conservation Reserve Program in 1985.

Today, PF and QF are facing the same long-term challenges confronting similar organizations and state and federal wildlife agencies. Generations following graying baby boomers count fewer among their ranks who hunt or in some cases are even aware of land and water conservation.

The issue is so important that many of PF's more than 700 chapters work diligently to attract newcomers to outdoor activities, in addition to the chapters' habitat work. Efforts also have intensified to welcome "adult onset hunters" to the conservation fold, meaning older individuals who have not previously chased ringnecks or other wild game.

PF and QF are also attracting increasing numbers of women and traditionally underrepresented communities to conservation. The groups' Women on the Wing initiative will hold a brunch Feb. 19 to give women attending Pheasant Fest a chance to sample wild game and meet other women conservationists. Attorney Ashley Smith, CEO of the Minority Outdoor Alliance, will speak.

Lauren Stamm, 35, of Las Vegas, the mother of a 5-year-old son and a board member of the Southern Nevada Quail Forever chapter, is looking forward to attending the Pheasant Fest and Quail Classic with her husband and hunting partner, Logan.

"Our chapter is small and I'm the only woman on the board, but we have quite a few quail habitat projects started," she said. "Until this year I had not met any other women hunters, so I'm looking forward to coming to Minneapolis to meet other women who are PF and QF members. I also hope to get new ideas for our chapter from other chapter leaders."

PF's diversifying membership will be further displayed Thursday evening at the film festival, one entry to which will feature Hmong upland bird hunter Keng Yang of St. Paul. (Look for a Star Tribune story coming Friday by staff writer Tony Kennedy.)

Single-day admission to the National Pheasant Fest and Quail Classic is $15. In addition to 400 vendors that will exhibit at the show, whose presenting sponsor is Federal Ammunition, highlights include landowner workshops, bird dog trauma training, a youth village, pollinator education, habitat and public lands seminars, and nearly continual gundog training workshops.