Since its founding in St. Paul in 1982, Pheasants Forever (PF) has been at the forefront of upland habitat conservation in Minnesota and nationally. Today the group’s 149,000 members — including 17,000 who belong to its sister organization, Quail Forever — have conserved about 16 million acres of wildlife habitat. The groups will host their national Pheasant Fest and Quail Classic from Friday through Sunday at the Minneapolis Convention Center, expecting some 30,000 attendees. Here’s a look through the years at PF, at the federal government’s fluctuating Conservation Reserve Program and Minnesota’s correspondingly fluctuating pheasant population:
1982: Meetings of what will become PF’s first board of directors are held with then-DNR wildlife chief Roger Holmes to gather support for a Minnesota pheasant stamp to be required of hunters. Holmes urges a portion of sales, if the stamp is approved by the Legislature, to be sent to a wildlife lobbying group in Washington to push for a multiyear federal farmland set-aside program. Meanwhile, PF incorporates on Aug. 5, 1982. In addition to myself, the first directors include Russ Anderson of Clinton, Minn. (no relation); and Cecil Bell, Norb Berg, Bud Berger, Ted Berger, Walt Bruning, Chuck and Loral I Delaney, Jeff Finden, Bob Naegele, Dave Vesall and Bob Larson, all of the Twin Cities.
1983: PF holds its first banquet at the old Prom Ballroom on University Ave. in St. Paul. Some 800 people attend, including Gov. Rudy Perpich, who signs the pheasant stamp bill into law. About $25,000 is netted at the banquet, with proceeds used to hire PF’s first executive director, Jeff Finden.
1985: PF grows to 12 chapters and 1,000 members, including its first Iowa chapter. The group’s fast growth is fueled by a unique funding arrangement that allows chapters to keep most money they raise for local habitat work. Meanwhile, Congress includes the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), a five-year cropland set-aside plan, in its 1985 farm bill. CRP results from a marriage of conservation interests, spearheaded by PF and others, and the government’s desire to pump cash into a struggling farm economy.
1990: In its habitat efforts, PF attempts to leverage a long and glorious Minnesota pheasant-hunting tradition. In 1958, about 1.5 million pheasants were harvested in Minnesota. And in 1961, the state had 270,000 ringneck hunters — a number that by 1972 had plunged to 47,000, due to declining bird numbers. In 1982, when PF was formed, only 265,000 pheasants were killed by hunters. But with the advent of CRP — about 1.7 million acres are enrolled in 1990 — pheasant numbers rise. The pheasant harvest climbs to 483,000.
2000: PF’s membership continues to increase nationally, rising to about 90,000. The group’s leadership changes, with Howard Vincent, formerly PF’s chief financial officer, replacing Finden, who retired. CRP acres decline slightly, to 1.46 million, as does Minnesota’s ringneck harvest, to 375,000. Hunter numbers remain relatively healthy at 100,000.
2005: Mild winters and expanding PF habitat work contribute to an upswing in state ringnecks. The DNR August roadside survey yields some of the highest counts in 20 years: 101 birds spotted per 100 miles in 2005; 115 in 2006; and 106 in 2007. State CRP acres top 1.7 million. Hunters respond, with almost 119,000 strolling the state’s uplands in 2006. Meanwhile, PF has collectively tallied more than 5 million acres of habitat work nationally, and in 2008, the national Pheasant Fest in St. Paul attracts nearly 30,000.
2010: Minnesota’s pheasant population — and harvest — show signs of weakening. In 2006-08, about 600,000 roosters are taken by hunters in each season. But by 2010, the August survey reveals just 63 birds per 100 miles, down from the 115-per-100-mile peak in 2006. Hunter numbers also fall, to around 90,000. Tough winters are to blame in part. But CRP acres decline to about 1.4 million in 2010. The reasons: Rules for the program tighten, and the USDA allows fewer acres to be included. Commodity prices also are about to swing upward — a combination that will undercut Minnesota pheasants. Yet PF remains resilient, with membership rising to 118,000 and an additional 7,000 joining Quail Forever, the group PF founded in 2005.
2017: As PF prepares for its national Pheasant Fest and Quail Classic this weekend at the Minneapolis Convention Center, it reports record membership of more than 140,000 in 740 chapters in the U.S. and Canada. For the fifth consecutive year, it has been given top marks by charity overseers. Also, with other conservation groups, PF is preparing to help mold the next federal farm bill. The effort is important: Fewer than 1 million Minnesota acres remain in CRP, with many due to exit the program in coming years. Encouragingly from a conservation perspective, more farmers are looking to place more of their marginal acres in CRP because of declining commodity prices. Still, money is tight in Washington, and it’s unclear how CRP will be treated by the Trump administration. The good news: The annual Minnesota ringneck roadside count has risen from 23 per 100 miles in 2011 to 52 in 2016, with the harvest also rising, to 243,000 last year, from 198,000 in 2011.