Photo by Mike Gnatkowski.
In 2008, in Douglas County, a new 1,000-acre wildlife management area was dedicated to honor the 41-year career of Saint Paul’s Roger Holmes, who retired in 2000 after spending a decade as the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources’ director of the Fish and Wildlife Division and 18 years as the chief of the Wildlife Section. Minnesota’s “Build a Wildlife Area” campaign played a critical role in the acquisition of the new WMA.
Holmes was instrumental in the passage of the Minnesota Pheasant Habitat Stamp — Pheasants Forever’s first-ever goal. In the 1960s, Holmes worked as a game manager for the MDNR in Douglas County, where he helped establish 22 wildlife areas. With the help of Minnesota’s Build a Wildlife Area campaign, the Roger M. Holmes WMA in northeastern Douglas County — about 10 miles north of Alexandria — bears his name and memorializes his life’s work.
After deducting contributions from outside organizations and funding matches from the “Reinvest in Minnesota” program (which uses funds from conservation license plate sales to preserve habitat), the MDNR paid a balance of about $1.28 million for the 1,036 acres, with additional funding coming from the Build a Wildlife Area campaign, eight Pheasants Forever chapters, the Minnesota Waterfowl Association, the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association, and the efforts of local groups such as the Vikingland Sportsmen’s Club of Alexandria. The land features grasslands, wetlands and timber that provide habitat for pheasants, wild turkeys and waterfowl.
According to Anthony Hauck, the Pheasants Forever Public Relations Specialist, through the unique Build a Wildlife Area partnership, every dollar raised is tripled with matching grants from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service and other partners. In other words, for every $100 donated, the campaign actually raised $300. Also, there are no administrative costs built into the Build a Wildlife Area campaign, which means 100 percent of the donations go directly into land acquisitions.
“It’s very important now that we continue seeking land for hunting opportunities as the acreage enrolled in CRP disappears,” said Hauck. “Let’s face it. Finding places to hunt is always a big challenge, so anytime pieces of land become available and you have an opportunity to pounce on them with other partners onboard with funding, our chapters are happy to do it. Our chapters do a lot of things, but land acquisition is the primary focus.”CRP Woes
Kurt Haroldson is the MDNR wildlife biologist with the Farmland Wildlife Populations & Research Group. He says the 2008 Farm Bill reduced the national cap for how many acres of CRP you could have in the country, and we have to achieve that goal by 2010.
“I think we’re going to see a continued decline through 2010 until we get to this new lower cap,” said Haroldson, “and then, hopefully, CRP rental rates and crop prices will be fairly stable and close to each other, and that will mean less incentive to farm wetlands and slopes and environmentally sensitive land that should be in CRP. We never like to see the CRP move backward, which is what is happening right now.”
When habitat loss occurs, it may not show up initially to the hunter. The past few seasons, with pheasants concentrating in the available cover, pheasant hunting seemed like it was improving as it has been over the past several years.
“It was a good year,” Haroldson said. “We’ve had quite a string of very good years for pheasant hunting. Last year may not have been quite as good as the previous year, but we did have a cool, wet early spring, which seemed to hurt reproduction, but we had so many hens in the spring that we still ended up with a lot of pheasants.”
Of course, some of the early-season pheasant hunters whined a bit about the birds dodging them because of the crops coming out late.
“Last fall we had some delayed corn harvest, which frustrates some hunters,” said Haroldson. “It probably causes them to end the season early and not come back again. If the early season isn’t good for them, they won’t continue hunting.”
According to Hauck, “Most of the pheasants harvested are killed in those first two weeks, and then a lot of hunter attention turns to deer or grouse or whatever else is going on. For the guys that like to get out there and get after it, it might be a little colder in late November and December, but you miss out on some great late-season opportunities if you choose to hunt only those first couple of weeks.”
The late-season hunting was outstanding, but by the time the end of the season rolls around, there are few hunters left to take advantage of it. One hunter who hits the field at every opportunity is Tim McNeill, who owns a metro-area landscaping business that affords him time to hunt once the work is complete.
“Those farms I’ve been hunting down south don’t have much cover left,” said McNeill, “and this is bunching those birds up on whatever is left. You might think this would be making it easier for us hunters, but the pheasants are flushing out of range and even getting behind the dogs at times. So the challenge is greater even when you are seeing plenty of birds.”
When The Going Gets Tough . . .
McNeill predicts that 2009 will be the year when we notice a decline in pheasant numbers due to the habitat loss. “It’s going to catch up to us this year,” he said. “We’ll be working harder for the birds we do get, and we’ll be sharing a lot of the land with other hunters as they migrate toward the available cover that is left. It will be the WMAs and the WPAs (waterfowl production areas) where the pheasants will be bunching up, and not all of them will be good. You can’t get frustrated when you don’t flush pheasants from one spot. You have to keep looking.”
As an example, McNeill reflects on a hunt last year when he and his trusty dogs, Melvin and Gus, hit two small WMAs and didn’t flush a single bird. On their third location, they busted a group of pheasants that actually circled back behind them and landed back in the WMA they were hunting.
“We worked that spot through twice,” he said, “and these were some smart roosters. They were getting behind the dogs (and) flushing out of range, but there was no other cover for them to use, so they just kept co
ming back. We worked the edges hard and picked up our two birds, but I was surprised at how crafty those roosters were.”
Some may be asking why ground cover like CRP is so important to the pheasant. According to Hauck, “Nesting cover is the single most important limiting factor for pheasant populations. Fortunately, it is a factor that we can directly impact with proper land management. One of our biggest nesting cover creation tools is the Conservation Reserve Program, which provides large blocks of grasslands — good pheasant nesting cover. Hen pheasants seek out the mixtures of grasses and forbs provided by CRP for nesting because the diverse vegetation reduces the density of the grasses, making it easier for the chicks to move around. CRP also provides concealment from predators as well as abundant insects for newly hatched chicks.”
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