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Pheasants: Forever or not? Changed landscape is a concern
Doug Smith, Star Tribune
May 3, 2004PHEA0503

Bob Dalager could have been a big-city lawyer. Instead, his passion keeps him in Morris, Minn., where he can sneak out after work in autumn, his Brittany spaniel in tow, to chase pheasants before dinner.

The time Dalager, 55, spends hunting in the grasslands and along slough edges in west-central Minnesota is more than recreation: It's a tradition he's been part of since childhood.

That tradition is at risk, Dalager believes. And so, for the past 22 years he has contributed untold time and money to Pheasants Forever. The nonprofit conservation group holds the promise of saving not only pheasants but a favored pastime and, indeed, a lifestyle for him and 100,000 other Minnesotans.

But Dalager is uncertain whether Minnesota is a better place for pheasants today -- even after Pheasants Forever, other conservation groups and state and federal agencies have spent millions of dollars to improve wildlife habitat.

Bob DalagerJeff WheelerStar Tribune"I don't know if it's better," he said. "It's maybe held its own."

The reason: the enormity, complexity and power of the foe Pheasants Forever is fighting. Intensive farming and wetland drainage in the past half-century have wiped out broad swaths of wildlife habitat -- grasslands and wetlands.

The impact on pheasants has been dramatic.

As recently as the 1960s, more than 220,000 Minnesota hunters routinely shot 1 million pheasants each fall. Small-town motels and restaurants brimmed with hunters. The pheasant opener was a treasured tradition that brought families and friends together in an outdoor celebration.

But as habitat disappeared, so, too, did pheasants and pheasant hunters. For the past 40 years, about 100,000 Minnesota hunters a year have harvested about one-third as many pheasants as in the '60s.

Pheasants Forever was hatched in St. Paul in 1982 with the ambitious goal of trying to restore the luster to Minnesota's pheasant season.

The only national conservation group based in Minnesota -- and the only one that spends its dollars and determination solely to boost pheasant numbers -- has grown steadily to 105,000 members, including 20,000 in Minnesota.

There is little question that Pheasants Forever has helped improve and increase wildlife habitat in Minnesota during its 22 years. The group has restored grasslands and wetlands, planted shrubs and trees for winter cover, and paid for food plots. It also has purchased land and turned it over to the state for pheasant habitat and public hunting. Critics and supporters alike say it has been influential in promoting conservation measures in federal farm policy and has provided a unified voice for pheasant hunters.

But statistics indicate the group has had a minimal direct impact on the state's pheasant population. Twice in the past seven years Minnesota's roughly 100,000 pheasant hunters harvested fewer roosters than in 1982.

Progress is difficult because the problem is large and complex.

Since it began, Pheasants Forever says, the organization has spent about $14 million to affect pheasant habitat directly on about 152,000 acres in Minnesota. About 46,000 of those acres were sown in nesting cover, which is critical to pheasant production. Another 38,000 of the acres were purchased or otherwise represent permanent habitat improvements.

Of the remaining acres, many, such as those covered by food plots, are seasonal: They are here one year but gone the next.

But there are about 26 million acres in Minnesota's pheasant range, the southern two-thirds of the state.

Pheasants Forever has directly affected less than 1 percent of that area.

At that rate, it would take the organization hundreds of years to nearly double the state's average annual pheasant harvest, a goal outlined in a new Minnesota Department of Natural Resources long-range plan.

That plan says 1.56 million acres of undisturbed grassland would have to be added to the state's pheasant habitat, at a cost of $1.6 billion, for hunters to kill 750,000 ringnecks annually, up from a recent average harvest of 360,000. Pheasants Forever is adding nesting habitat at a rate of about 2,100 acres a year.

To be sure, no one expects Pheasants Forever alone to bear the burden of improving the state's pheasant habitat. The DNR, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other conservation groups also are in the fight to restore and improve wildlife habitat.

Still, the numbers underscore the huge challenge. And they show why Minnesota's pheasant population has been affected only incrementally over the past 22 years, despite the millions of dollars raised and spent by Pheasants Forever.

Habitat losses continue

Even state wildlife officials who work closely with the group and support it acknowledge that the direct statewide impact of Pheasants Forever probably has been minimal.

"In terms of impacting enough acres to significantly change the statewide pheasant population, no, they haven't done that," said John Guidice, DNR pheasant specialist and a PF member.

"I believe in Pheasants Forever and Ducks Unlimited and believe their heart is in right place. They have had a positive impact at the grass-roots level and in Washington. On the local scale, they do some good stuff. But we have so far to go on a large scale. We're continuing to lose habitat."

In fact, each day, month and year that Pheasants Forever continues to grow, increasing the money it devotes to wildlife habitat development and preservation, Minnesota is a net loser of such lands -- despite the presence of the federal Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), which pays farmers to idle marginal farmlands.

Today, including Pheasants Forever's contributions, about 1.6 million acres of undisturbed grassland habitat exists in the state's pheasant range -- about 6 percent of the region's total acreage.

"Pheasants do best with a landscape of 30 to 50 percent grasslands," Guidice said. "We're winning some battles, but we're still losing the war. That doesn't mean we throw up our hands and say, 'Why do any of this?' But when you step back and look at the big picture, what we've done is a drop in the bucket."

In the end, wildlife officials say, weather and the federal farm program have far more influence on pheasant populations than the habitat improvement and acquisition projects of Pheasants Forever and the DNR combined.

"If we're ever going to change the landscape at the scale where you would see significant changes to the pheasant population -- not to the levels we had in the 1950s and 1960s, but something much better than we have today -- it will take major changes in the landscape," Guidice said. "And that's not going to happen unless there's major changes in economic and agricultural philosophy."

What can pheasant advocates expect on the current path?

"The status quo, really," Guidice said.

But Howard Vincent, Pheasants Forever's chief executive officer, said the group has made a difference in Minnesota and elsewhere.

"I think we are making a dent. ... We are having an impact," he said. "And I think this [last] year is the proof."

Consecutive mild winters and dry springs resulted in an excellent pheasant hatch last spring -- and one of the best pheasant hunting seasons in years last fall.

"There are chapters in Minnesota and some other regions of the country that had the best pheasant hunting they've ever had," Vincent said. "In those areas, this is the good ol' days."

He added: "What would the landscape look like without us? I think pheasant hunting would be one-tenth of what it is today."

Chapters keep money

Pheasants Forever is unusual among national conservation groups in that all money raised by its chapters -- except the $25 membership fee -- stays with the chapters. Chapter members decide how to spend the dollars they raise, and most is spent locally on habitat projects.

The national office in White Bear Lake is largely funded by the membership fees and money it raises through the sale of Pheasants Forever merchandise.

As its membership has grown from fewer than 5,000 in 1985, the group has added employees (its work force totals about 57), including about 20 wildlife biologists scattered around the nation. An unpaid board of directors oversees the group.

Pheasants Forever officials often point to what they say is their group's unmatched efficiency in converting members' contributions into wildlife habitat. Fully 90 cents of every dollar is earmarked for conservation, the group says.

Indeed, the group's records show that in 2003 it spent $28.7 million nationally, of which about $26.2 million, or 91 percent, went for program services, the primary mission.

But fewer dollars actually ended up "in the ground" -- directly affecting habitat.

Example: Included in the group's program expenses in 2003 were $1.9 million for public awareness and education, $1.5 million for field operations and $1.9 million in "other program expenses," membership services and chapter services.

Other expenses included $2.7 million in salaries -- including about $168,000 in salary and benefits to Vincent -- $1.9 million for fundraising, $944,000 for chapter advertising and promotion, $587,000 for the group's glossy color magazine, $600,000 for youth programs, $560,000 for administration and $426,000 in travel expenses.

Bottom line: Of the $28.7 million spent in 2003, $19.3 million -- or about 67 percent -- went directly to habitat projects.

The public-awareness and education money is well spent, Vincent believes.

"It doesn't add a single pheasant to the landscape today, but we think it absolutely will add to the landscape in the future," he said.

The magazine, too, pays dividends, he said.

"They love the magazine," Vincent said, referring to members. "It allows us to retain members. And there's strength in numbers. It reminds them of all the work being done."

Food plots questioned

Among Pheasants Forever's habitat spending in 2003 was $8.5 million for food plots, twice what it spent to plant native grass on public and private lands -- essential nesting cover that can boost pheasant numbers. Food plots usually are small patches of corn or other crops that are left unharvested for pheasants and other wildlife to eat. They can be especially helpful in providing food during winter months.

Since its inception, Pheasants Forever has spent $49 million nationally on food plots and $25 million on nesting cover. In Minnesota, it has spent $1.9 million on 66,000 acres of food plots; it planted about 1,800 acres of food plots last year.

It's unlikely those food plots produce many pheasants, and wildlife biologists say that pheasants rarely die of starvation. Most are killed by predators or bad weather: rains, ice storms, heavy snow.

"There's almost no science out there that says food plots do anything for pheasants," said Terry Riley, director of conservation for the Wildlife Management Institute in Washington, D.C. "Pheasants will go there, but that doesn't mean their survival is enhanced."

If those food plots aren't close to good winter cover, they can be death traps for pheasants, he said.

"Pheasants Forever should be out there trying to convince their members that food plots are a good start but they are only a minor part of making habitat better for pheasants so that the population grows," Riley said.

He said it's reasonable to question why Pheasants Forever is putting so much emphasis on food plots, rather than on such pheasant habitat as grasslands, which provide key nesting cover.

Vincent doesn't disagree that food plots are less desirable than grasslands.

"Food plots are important, but even here in Minnesota they're typically not the most important component," Vincent said.

But Pheasants Forever gets free seed from seed companies and gives it to farmers for planting food plots. And farmers often are more receptive to planting a temporary food plot than a more-permanent grassland, Vincent said. Also, planting grasslands takes special equipment.

The chapters decide how to spend the money they raise, not the staff at the national office.

"Yes, we would love nesting cover over food plots," Vincent said. "But food plots are highly visible and easy to do. If a farmer isn't willing to put in 10 acres of nesting cover, do you walk away and do nothing, or do you do a 10-acre food plot?

"In a perfect world, biology and science would drive the decision, but in reality you're dealing with a volunteer work force and landowners who have the ability to accept or reject what they want to happen on that ground."

The national organization might do things differently if it controlled all of the dollars, Vincent said.

"The old saying is, 'The best thing about Pheasants Forever is that the money stays local, and the worst thing about Pheasants Forever is that the money stays local,' " Vincent said.

"But if we had the money here, we wouldn't be the most efficient wildlife organization in the country --we'd have to hire people to spend that money."

Tasting success

One day late last fall, Troy Engelbretson and Jason Kirwin, president and vice president of their Stevens County Pheasants Forever chapter, saw the results of their efforts.

As the sun slipped toward the horizon, the pair and their hunting dogs poked into a piece of public hunting land near Morris that their chapter had purchased. They walked through the grasslands toward a small food plot.

Then the shooting started.

A half-hour later, each had a two-bird limit of pheasants. Even they were surprised to find such success on public land so close to home. The 400-member chapter recently had shifted its focus and helped purchase three parcels totaling 470 acres, all of which was turned over to the DNR and designated as Wildlife Management Areas open to the public.

"We can see by these pieces that we're doing good," Engelbretson said. "It just takes a lot of money and time.

Said Kirwin: "This is permanent pheasant habitat that will never go away, and it's open to public hunting."

He believes the chapter's efforts -- including food plots, woody cover and education -- have helped pheasants and pheasant hunting in Stevens County.

"Without a doubt," he said.

Dalager, the Pheasants Forever member who has been there from the beginning, said he's encouraged that his local chapter is having an effect. He's unsure of the group's overall impact, but he said he thinks the local efforts are helping, piece by piece.

"I'd hate to think where we'd be without the organization," he said.

Doug Smith is at

[email protected].


Group's voice is heard nationally
Doug Smith, Star Tribune
May 3, 2004VINC0503

In addition to the habitat projects it undertakes, Pheasants Forever has played a key role in more broadly influencing the wildlife landscape in Minnesota and nationally.

That's because the group has become a powerful voice for conservation interests in federal farm policy. Along with other national conservation groups, it has lobbied successfully in Washington for the national Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), which pays farmers to idle marginal farmland. Those lands often are planted with grasses, making them ideal for pheasants and other wildlife.

There are 1.8 million acres of CRP in Minnesota, including 967,000 acres in the state's pheasant range. That compares to 152,000 acres that Pheasants Forever says it has directly affected in Minnesota over the past 22 years through its habitat work. And 66,000 of those acres were food plots, which are seasonal habitat improvements.

Howard Vincent, chief executive officer of Pheasants Forever, acknowledged that the amount of habitat added in Minnesota has been incremental but said those additions are important and shouldn't be dismissed. The organization has purchased 19,442 acres that have been turned over to the state and are open to public hunting.

"Yes, adding a 400-acre parcel is minuscule," Vincent said. "But go out to one of our chapters and ask them if that 100-acre parcel that they bought down the road is meaningful. They can see pheasants on it.

"We're picking away at it [the problem], little by little."

Still, Vincent said, the effects of federal farm policy far outweigh the local impacts that Pheasants Forever and other groups and agencies can have. Pheasants Forever, along with other conservation groups, successfully lobbied for CRP provisions in the farm bills in 1985, 1990, 1996 and 2002.

"With a stroke of the pen we can get more done than we could with 50 years of banquet dollars," he said. "That's 36 million acres [of CRP nationally]."

Said Terry Riley, director of conservation for the Wildlife Management Institute in Washington, D.C.: "They have a powerful voice in Washington. I'd give them a lot of credit for CRP."

Pheasants Forever also gets much of the credit for legislation passed in 1983 that created Minnesota's pheasant stamp. Hunters must buy the $5 stamp, and the DNR uses the proceeds -- about $500,000 annually -- for pheasant habitat.


Roots of the issue: A history lesson
May 3, 2004HIST0503

The conservation "war" that Pheasants Forever has joined has been fought in Minnesota since the late 1800s, when the state gained control of more than 5 million acres of swampland from the federal government.

By 1930, most of those marshes, fens, bogs and shallow lakes had been drained, setting the stage for a landscape transformation like few others.

Likewise, native prairie grasslands, which once covered 25 million acres, all but disappeared under the plow. Less than 1 percent remains.

The land transformation continues today, despite wetlands protection laws, with ever more Minnesota land converted to fields for growing corn and soybeans.

One benefit has been cheap and plentiful food. But Minnesota has become a much less friendly place for fish and wildlife -- including ring-necked pheasants, a nonnative game bird introduced to the state in the early 1900s.

To fight that, Pheasants Forever has raised $17.7 million in Minnesota since 1982, much of it collected at fundraising banquets throughout the state. The group has spent about $16 million over those 22 years.

Doug Smith
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