Bird hunters may see more pheasants in the field in the near future, due to the resurrection of a DNR program that will add more nesting cover acreage in Minnesota.
By Jason Abraham
From behind a car windshield, Minnesota's roadsides might look like little more than long ribbons of unremarkable grass. But left undisturbed, these grasslands amount to critical habitat for pheasants, meadowlarks, and other ground-nesting birds. And the importance of roadside habitat is on the rise as permanent grasslands disappear or become fragmented by development and agriculture.
That's why the Department of Natural Resources, through new funding from the state Legislature, has revived the Roadsides for Wildlife program. Today the DNR is again collaborating with the Department of Transportation to promote the benefits of roadsides.
Prime Nesting Cover
In the pheasant range, which extends from southern to northwestern Minnesota, roadside grasslands add up to more than 500,000 acres—all of which can be considered important pheasant habitat, said Matt Holland, Minnesota director of conservation for Pheasants Forever.
"Wherever we can get good quality nesting cover that is undisturbed, we can improve the landscape for pheasants," said Holland.
Holland said Pheasants Forever has partnered with the DNR and DOT to identify those roadsides where preservation can have the greatest benefit to local pheasant populations. Many of these roadsides are near wildlife management areas.
"Roadside grasslands can act as important satellite habitats near WMAs," said Holland. "Many WMAs in the pheasant range serve as core wintering areas for pheasants. The potential is there to increase local pheasant production if roadsides adjacent to these WMAs are managed as nesting cover."
In other words, stopping the mowing of roadsides from April through August—when pheasants nest—could result in more pheasants for hunters on nearby WMAs in the fall.
Reaching Out To Landowners
Most roadside acreage belongs to the adjacent landowner, who grants an easement to state, county, or township road authorities to build and maintain a road and right of way.
Helping these landowners improve roadside habitat is the job of Tom Keefe, a longtime DNR employee who was named Roadsides for Wildlife program coordinator this past October.
"We intend to use a variety of tools to improve habitat," said Keefe. "They include cost-sharing grants for landowners, training for roadside managers, and simply reaching out to those who have an interest in conservation and reducing the costs of annual roadside maintenance."
Mowing ditches before the end of nesting season is one of the most preventable detriments to ground-nesting birds and mammals, Keefe said. State law restricts public road authorities from mowing roadsides until after Aug. 1, except to address safety concerns or to control noxious weeds. But private landowners may mow their roadsides anytime. That's why public education and outreach is so important.
"It's safe to say that thousands of bird nests are destroyed each year because landowners mow ditches while birds are nesting," Keefe said. "That loss could be minimized if landowners would delay or forgo mowing their ditches."
Landowners sometimes mow to create a manicured, lawnlike look in their ditches or to make hay. Delaying any mowing until after Aug. 1 gives most bird and mammal species time to nest successfully. And leaving 10 to 12 inches of standing grasses when mowing after Sept. 1 will provide vital cover for the following year's early nesting birds.
In addition to pheasant habitat, roadside grasslands also benefit mourning doves, bobolinks, meadowlarks, and dozens of other wildlife species. Researchers in the Midwest have found more than 40 kinds of birds and mammals nesting on the ground or in low vegetation on roadsides.
Roadside grasslands can also provide a summer showcase in bloom—and effectively retain and filter runoff water from rain—when they are planted with native grasses and wildflowers. The Roadsides for Wildlife program is encouraging road authorities to use native grasses and plants in roadside seeding projects. With their extensive root systems, native plant species improve water filtration, reduce the need for long-term weed control, and anchor soil more effectively than non-native grass species.
"While the DNR's 1,382 wildlife management areas are first priority for wildlife funding, it is encouraging to see renewed interest in capturing the potential of roadside habitats for small game birds and other wildlife," Keefe said. "This is an area where we can have significant progress."
According to Holland of Pheasants Forever, the renewed roadsides habitat program could spur much greater momentum for overall conservation.
"The Roadsides for Wildlife program will help us take advantage of the good opportunities we're currently missing for grasslands wildlife," he said. "In the farmland region, there's a great need for more undisturbed, quality habitat for grasslands wildlife. This program isn't the entire answer, but it certainly has the potential to be a big step towards where we need to go."
For more information and to apply for a Roadsides for Wildlife grant, visit www.dnr.state.mn.us/roadsidesforwildlife or call 651-259-5014. Private-land owners participating in the program are eligible for a free Roadsides for Wildlife sign on their property to identify roadsides being managed as wildlife cover.
Jason Abraham is a DNR staff writer.