By Tom Conroy
Birdy is a word to describe the excited behavior of a hunting dog hot on the trail of a game bird. Late on this cold November afternoon, Charlie the Labrador was just that as we probed the midst of a southwestern Minnesota grassland, rich with native prairie plants.
Charlie's tail was straight up and whirling rapidly. When he abruptly froze in place, eyes riveted on the ground a few feet ahead, muscles quivering, I moved into shooting position. Seconds later, he pounced and a brilliantly colored, cackling-mad rooster burst into the air. Charlie was soon back at my side, panting and proud of the prize he had brought me.
Pheasants love prairies and grasslands. So do butterflies, greater prairie chickens, meadowlarks, upland sandpipers, waterfowl, meadow voles, and other species of birds, mammals, and insects. They are attracted by the food and cover provided by the multitude of prairie grasses and wildflowers, including big bluestem, blazing star, prairie-dropseed, purple prairie-clover, leadplant, and numerous others.
One organization that understands the love affair that pheasants have with prairie grasslands is Pheasants Forever, a national non-profit conservation organization founded in Minnesota in 1982. The organization was formed with one primary target in its sights: reverse the perilous downward spiral in which the ring-necked pheasant was caught.
The struggle to maintain a vigorous pheasant population in Minnesota has been a lengthy and difficult one that will continue as long as the ringneck captures the imagination of people who appreciate wild things and wild places. It is a saga of victories and defeats, high times and low, and dedicated conservationists who have refused to hang up their boots. At the forefront of many of these endeavors have been the members of PF Minnesota.
Breaking the Prairie
This afternoon, Charlie and I are alone on this parcel of grassland, once a native prairie. Like virtually all native prairie in Minnesota, it long ago succumbed to the plow. But now this land again supports native forbs and grasses because PF and the Department of Natural Resources purchased and reseeded the private farmland. The DNR and PF often work hand in glove to acquire, restore, and manage wildlife habitat.
Dark gray clouds hang low over the land, and occasionally the wind gets bucky. Patches of snow, some etched with pheasant tracks, are scattered across the ground. The forbs and grasses we are wandering through are now drab and brittle.
Such is the prairie in early winter -- forlorn, cold, even forbidding. As I follow Charlie through a tangle of bluestem, I wonder what it might have been like for those who first chose to call the prairie home.
Written accounts of early European settlers in southern and western Minnesota confirm that they were understandably awestruck by what they saw. Multihued flowers and grasses swaying in the wind, as far as the eye could see, sprinkled liberally with glimmering shallow lakes and wetlands. From an elevated vantage point, it's been said with perhaps only slight exaggeration, you could watch a thunderstorm approach for two days before it finally arrived. The tallgrass prairie was once that vast.
Originally, the tallgrass prairie covered an estimated 142 million acres stretching up and down the heartland of the nation. It included a swath through southwestern Minnesota dubbed the prairie pothole region, for its abundance of wetlands. Visions of this once immense and glorious prairie now exist only in one's imagination -- today, less than 1 percent of the original tallgrass prairie remains.
But the prairie did not vanish overnight. It happened a chip and a chunk at a time, and few people seemed to notice or care. After all, the rich, fertile prairie soil was perfect for growing food for a hungry nation. Not until generations later did the disturbing disappearance of prairie begin to raise eyebrows. By then, increased soil runoff laced with artificial fertilizers and pesticides was degrading water quality, and certain wildlife populations were plummeting.
When the Chinese ring-necked pheasant was introduced to Minnesota in the early 1900s, much of the original prairie had already vanished. However, enough safe nesting habitat still existed in grasslands and small-grain acreages to sustain robust populations of the large game bird.
By 1940, 3.1 million acres of government land had been retired from crop production through the Federal Agricultural Conservation Program and seeded to grasses and legumes, making Minnesota a nesting paradise for pheasants. In 1941 hunters bagged almost 1.8 million pheasants, the highest number ever recorded in the state.
That changed dramatically with World War II and the agricultural revolution. The pressure on farmers to grow more crops intensified during the war, and the size and efficiency of farm machinery increased spectacularly. Farmers in Minnesota's pheasant region -- primarily the southern half of the state -- converted much of the remaining native prairies, grasslands, and wetlands, as well as fields of small grains, to row crops which provided little or no nesting habitat or winter cover. Additionally, acres previously enrolled in government land retirement programs were put back into production of row crops.
By the 1950s, American farmers were producing a food surplus -- more food was grown than consumed. With the war ended, the heightened demand for food production to support the war effort was gone. In 1956 President Dwight Eisenhower pushed through the Soil Bank Program, under which the government would pay farmers a fixed amount per acre for removing cotton, corn, wheat, peanut, rice, and tobacco lands from production for 10 years. Pheasant and other wildlife populations quickly exploded as land was taken out of production and planted with legumes and grasses.
But by 1980, the set-aside programs had all ended as U.S. agricultural policy urged all-out production for an expanding world market. Over the next few years, farmers again plowed and planted the land, and the state's pheasant population plunged from an estimated 2 million birds to just 500,000 in 1984.
This second major agricultural expansion of the century was somewhat countered by a burgeoning conservation movement, though. The DNR had already been working for decades to acquire, restore, and manage lands for public wildlife management areas to benefit wildlife. Local sportsmen's clubs and conservation organizations were doing what they could to improve habitat in their own rural neighborhoods. Significantly more habitat would be needed, however, if pheasants and other grassland-dependent wildlife were to have a chance of thriving into the next century.
The first successful introduction of the ring-necked pheasant in the United States occurred in 1881 when Judge Owen Nickerson Denny, U.S. consul to China, arranged for a shipment of 30 Chinese ringnecks to be released at his home in the Willamette Valley of Oregon. Minnesota's first attempt at releasing ringnecks into the wild was in 1905 when the Department of Game and Fish obtained 70 pairs from Wisconsin and Illinois. None of those birds survived. But by 1922, pheasants had been re-released in 78 of the state's 87 counties.
In 1924 Minnesota held its first pheasant season, a four-day hunt in Hennepin and Carver counties. Only 300 roosters were taken. Just seven years later, however, hunters bagged more than 1 million roosters during a 10-day-season in 49 counties.
Minnesota's pheasant population has swung wildly up and down over the years, from 1 million in 1947 to 6 million birds in 1958, then from 2 million in 1981 to only 500,000 in 1984. Today, Minnesota's pheasant population is back to around 2 million, thanks largely to protected grasslands that account for about 6 percent of the landscape, the highest percentage since the mid 1990s.
In 1982 Dennis Anderson, then the outdoor editor of the St. Paul Pioneer Press, expressed alarm at the decline in grassland birds. He wrote an article urging the formation of an "upland bird restoration program." That article struck a chord with many, as did a subsequent column advocating the institution of a state pheasant stamp to help fund habitat work on private lands. Later that year, Anderson and others announced the start-up of a new group called Pheasants Forever.
PF's first goal was to create the Minnesota pheasant stamp to help fund habitat restoration. Gov. Rudy Perpich signed the legislation establishing the stamp at the first PF banquet in 1983. Today, PF has grown into a national lobbying force on behalf of conservation, particularly the federal Conservation Reserve Program -- the premier conservation program for private landowners.
Over the past decade, the stars have aligned in favor of the ringneck in Minnesota. Friendly farm programs such as CRP and CREP (Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program); comparatively mild winters and warm, dry springs; and the habitat restoration work of organizations such as PF, Ducks Unlimited, Minnesota Waterfowl Association, the DNR, and others have resulted in some of the highest pheasant populations since 1964.
The harvest of 588,000 roosters during the 2006-2007 season was well above the 10-year average of 401,000 birds. The 2007-2008 season is expected to produce similar results. Yet the pheasant's future remains uncertain as the U.S. Congress debates the next version of the federal farm bill -- the main driver of farm policy in the United States. Already in 2007, about 100,000 acres of CRP contracts expired because conservation payments couldn't keep pace with the money farmers could make by planting crops. (Corn prices have been driven higher by rising demand for corn-based ethanol, as well as food for farm animals and people.) By 2009 more CRP contracts -- setting aside hundreds of thousands of acres -- are due to expire. Depending on what Congress does, those lands could remain grassy with continued support for conservation incentives for farmers -- or they could revert back into crop production.
Thousands of ring-necked pheasant boosters are expected to attend the National Pheasant Fest 2008 at the St. Paul RiverCentre, Jan. 18-20, and help Pheasants Forever celebrate its 25th anniversary.
Today Pheasants Forever has chapters in 28 states, including 73 local chapters and more than 23,000 members in Minnesota. Those Minnesota chapters raise funds for work in their own counties, which have totaled some $23.8 million for more than 20,000 habitat projects on 170,000 acres since 1982.
The annual Pheasant Fest includes family activities, habitat seminars, wildlife art, and hunting gear and equipment displays. For information call 877-773-2070. Or go to www.NationalPheasantFest.org.
As Charlie and I reached the backside of the grassland, I prepared myself for the flush of a rooster we might have pushed to the edge. Back when I was a young boy, still too young to carry a gun, I served as another "dog" for my dad and his pheasant hunting companions, as we stumbled and lurched through grassy cornfields and tangled brush patches that hadn't been systematically sterilized by today's herbicides. At the edge of those fields, it was common for a dozen or more pheasants to burst skyward in a matter of seconds.
On this day, however, no pheasants were apparently lurking in the edge grass, and so we made a U-turn and angled slowly toward a small cattail slough to the west. The sun was slipping closer to the horizon behind darkening clouds. A feeling of melancholy suddenly overtook me as I recalled those youthful, pheasant-filled days of the late 1950s.
When we reached the stand of cattails, Charlie once again got birdy. Soon, a second rooster added weight to the game pouch of my jacket. Dusk descended over the land. We made our way back to the truck. It was a good day.