St. Paul — While a final version of a pheasant plan is probably a few weeks away, some of the details of how the DNR and others hope to improve pheasant habitat, numbers, and hunting are beginning to emerge.
A draft of the plan rooted in a December “pheasant summit” called by Gov. Mark Dayton and hosted by the city of Marshall in southern Minnesota focuses on 10 key points, ranging from increasing private lands easements to improving ditch habitat.
Plan developers, however, say key officials, including DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr and Dayton himself, are yet to give the plan their respective seals of approval.
But, according to Kevin Lines, the DNR’s pheasant action plan coordinator, it’s the stretch run for the plan.
“There’s no final document yet, but we’ll try to have it in about six weeks,” Lines said Monday. “This is just a draft,” he said. “Commissioner Landwehr hasn’t even gotten it in front of the governor yet.”
The plan draws primarily from the summit, which drew upwards of 300 pheasant hunters, along with agency and elected officials. At day’s end, a number of groups had developed potential ways in which to improve and increase pheasant habitat, and to improve pheasant hunting in Minnesota.
One of those ideas – enforcing existing protective buffer rules along state waterways – got a boost during the past legislative session, when a variation of Dayton’s buffer initiative – announced in January – became law.
Coincidentally, “developing and implementing a comprehensive riparian buffer program” is No. 6 on a list of 10 “action” items in the pheasant plan.
In development of the plan, Lines said a couple keys – besides the summit attendees’ recommendations – guided its development, which included various agencies of government, conservation groups, agricultural groups, tourism, and others.
One, it contains ways to measure short-term success, along with long-term goals. Further, it takes into account that 95 percent of the land in the state’s pheasant belt is privately owned. Thus, the “landscape approach” identifies “both optimal acreages as well as optimal locations,” something that’s integral to the “Minnesota Prairie Conservation Plan.”
Finally, it will be pointed out that habitat improvements will not only aid pheasants, but also things like songbirds, waterfowl, pollinators, and more.
Here are the 10 action items in the draft.
1) “Identify in the pheasant range 9-square-mile habitat complexes where the landscape meets the goal of 25 percent to 40 percent permanent nesting cover and focus management into those complexes that meet these criteria.”
Lines said this particular size “patch” was derived from previous waterfowl habitat, and is applicable to pheasants, as well. The goal for waterfowl, however, is to include a certain degree of wetland habitat. “We don’t have that need for pheasants, although wetlands can provide winter cover,” he added.
This items builds on the DNR’s plan “to be strategic and targeted,” Lines said.
2) “Increase enrollment of permanent conservation easements and the rate of enrollment and retention in non-permanent conservation programs by private landowners.”
According to the draft plan, “Increases in pheasant populations will require a significant investment in private-land conservation programs.” However, it’s pointed out that demand for such programs often outdistances funding for them.
Among the priorities: move forward with a third round of the state-federal Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program in the state, and “work with landowners to retain as much as possible of the 332,000 CRP acres slated to expire in the next four years within the pheasant range.”
3) “Increase education and marketing of private-lands conservation programs through the Farm Bill Assistance Partnership.”
The FBAP is a collaborative effort of conservation groups to promote federal Farm Bill and state conservation programs. It’s believed additional staff will be needed to provide technical assistance in the pheasant range, which will require additional funding.
4) “Accelerate acquisition of public lands open to hunting across the pheasant range, including state wildlife management areas and federal waterfowl production areas.”
According to the draft, within the pheasant range, “publicly accessible habitat often accounts for less than 2 percent of the landscape,” limiting hunting opportunity and increasing crowding. The recommendation: increased funding – bonding, federal dollars, etc. – for increased land acquisition.
Lines said next year will be a year during which the state Legislature considers bonding for projects. He expects at that point state officials will make a pitch for more dollars for WMAs.
5) “Increase management of habitat on both public and private lands.”
Prescribed burning and conservation grazing are keys to providing top-notch pheasant habitat, according to the draft plan. This likely would involve a “working lands” approach to habitat enhancement – “integrating agricultural practices such as grazing and haying into habitat management.”
6) “Develop and implement a comprehensive riparian buffer program.”
This aspect delves into the recently passed buffer legislation. While buffers protect waters, they also can provide wildlife habitat, according to the DNR.
Lines hopes it goes further than the minimal requirement.
“We’d like to stack incentives (conservation-related) on top of the buffer piece, to offer more significant habitat value,” he said.
7) “Improve roadside management to optimize pheasant habitat.”
Conservationists have pointed out for years that roadsides – many of which are mowed in violation of state law – aren’t living up to their potential to produce pheasants and provide other wildlife habitat.
One possible way to accomplish this, according to the draft: “Revitalize the Interagency Roadsides for Wildlife Task Force and Roadsides for Wildlife Program to prioritize and coordinate roadside habitat efforts.”
8) “Secure federal funding to sustain the Walk-In Access program in the pheasant range in Minnesota.”
The biggie here: find additional funding for the hunter access program. The draft calls for expanding the acreage in WIA to 30,000 (up from about 20,000) and perhaps include more counties in the pheasant range.
In line with that: “Explore other funding options if federal funds are not secured.”
9) “Expand public education about grassland and pheasant conservation issues and support hunter recruitment and retention.”
Key aspects here would include surveys, passing on information via websites and social media, implementing a task force’s recommendations regarding hunter recruitment and retention, and developing a “scorecard” on implementing the plan’s strategies and accomplishments, and informing the public on such.
10) “Expand monitoring and research capacity for both habitat and population studies of grassland wildlife and clearly communicate these results to the public.”
Among the items under this particular action: Continue pheasant research and monitoring of pheasant populations, work with other agencies and researchers in doing so, and let hunters know about the results of such research.
According to the draft, “measurable goals” of the plan include a four-year timeframe, wrapped in the context of a longer, two-decade, timeline.