Habitat & Conservation  |  10/09/2015

What is the National Wild Pheasant Conservation Plan?

Inspired by the National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative to focus attention on national conservation issues, wildlife biologists from 29 states have produced a National Wild Pheasant Conservation Plan and will soon hire a national coordinator.
Wildlife managers hope the plan and its coordinator will raise the profile of pheasants and grassland conservation concerns in Washington, D.C., and promote pheasant habitat projects on the ground.
“Coordination with a national plan, I think, is really one of the biggest assets to in-state biologists to put the focus on a species—raising the profile at a state level, but also regionally and nationally,” says Budd Veverka, farmland game research biologist for the Indiana Division of Fish and Wildlife, who edited the plan.
“With a well-thought out plan and a good coordinator, you can see strides being made by the quail folks,” says Todd Bogenschutz, upland wildlife research biologist for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. “I would like to  see those of us in the pheasant world make those same strides.”

What Is the National Plan?

The national pheasant plan was the brainstorm of members of the Midwest Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies. These wildlife managers had been meeting for years as the Midwest Pheasant Study Group, as Bogenshutz says, “because pheasants are pretty important in our part of the world.” Several of these same biologists, who work in bobwhite quail states, had produced the National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative in 2002.
In the late 2000s, “a lot of pheasant populations, even in the good states, started to decline,” says Bogenshutz. “Of course, we were seeing a loss of CRP [Conservation Reserve Program land]. We said maybe we ought to think about a national plan for pheasants.”
Veverka remembers first sitting in on the discussions in 2008 and wondering, “Would a plan for a nonnative species fly? Are people going to get behind this or not?” In fashioning a “recovery plan” for a native species, biologists usually look to historic ranges and populations. But the ringneck, an exotic species from Asia, had no such baseline. So instead, Veverka says, “we focused our plan around hunting opportunity and hunting heritage.”
The goal of the National Wild Pheasant Conservation Plan couldn’t be clearer. It rings out in bold type on page 5: “Restore and maintain self-sustaining wild pheasant populations in each state to provide maximum recreational opportunities.”
“We spent most of the 2008 meeting trying to write that goal sentence,” says Veverka. “We spent literally three days working on that one sentence.”
Once they had their goal clearly fixed, the Midwestern biologists reached out to wildlife managers in pheasant-hunting states elsewhere in the country for help and advice. Two years ago, the group published its national plan.
The plan groups participating states into five management regions with similarities such as climate. (A sixth group combines states with small populations that may not have wanted to fully participate in the plan.)
The plan identifies challenges and opportunities for each region. It describes the amount of grassland and other conservation land in each state, and the trend of annual pheasant harvests.
The plan also sets harvest goals for each region and the states within that region. Harvest, in fact, is the only measure of pheasant abundance consistently estimated by all states, according to the plan. And focusing on harvest and the resulting economic benefit of the pheasant keeps the plan grounded in the reason people value this nonnative, says Veverka.
The plan estimates—broadly—the amount each state would have to increase grassland or replace row crop acreage with small grains such as wheat to achieve its harvest goals. As the plan notes, the relationship between grass or grasslike cover (such as small grains) is direct: “Pheasant densities increase as the proportion of undisturbed grassy type habitats increase in the landscape, up to a maximum of about 50 percent grass.”

How Can the Plan Help Pheasants?

So, how does writing up a plan translate into better pheasant hunting?
The first step of the plan is perhaps the most tangible: hiring a national coordinator to represent the pheasant to a national audience. “His main role will be herding all of us individuals like me in the states to take some time out and help him formulate the best course of action, very similar to what the executive officer for the quail folks has done,” says Bogenschutz. “He’s going to be at the 10,000-foot level. He’s not worried about how roadside counts are going. He’s supposed to work on those higher level issues.”
The biologists’ most fervent hope is that a plan and a coordinator will help them to be heard in Washington, D.C. “In Oregon here, we think that pheasants could benefit greatly from better CRP,” says Dave Budeau, upland game bird coordinator in Oregon. In that state, much of the existing CRP is “old and decadent,” with low diversity, and no requirement for native grasses, or any forbs at all. Says Budeau, “We thought that if this national coordinator could influence policy a bit, it could provide some benefits for pheasants down the road if CRP was improved for pheasants and other wildlife.”
Other areas where the plan aims to change federal policy to favor pheasants and grasslands: strengthening conservation compliance by landowners, energy policies (such as ethanol), and a “sod-saver” provision in the next farm bill. From Pennsylvania to Nevada, says Veverka, “creating grass is the key.”
A national representative pushing a national plan will also help focus state efforts, says Veverka. A national representative can unify state efforts in a way that a biologist inside an organization might not be able to, he says.
The plan also envisions a technical committee of biologists, which will identify potential partners inside and outside of government (such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Pheasants Forever) that can work with the states on habitat projects.
When projects are completed, biologists will monitor and share the results. “We’re looking at creating a change, monitoring that change, and then determining whether that change had an effect,” says Veverka. “We don’t want to just put something on the ground. We want to put something on the ground and see it have an effect.”
The technical committee will also identify research needs. Particularly lacking is science-based research on the impacts of climate change on grassland communities (including pheasants), and potential impacts of alternative energy production, such as wind and biofuels.

Is This Just About Pheasants?

The benefits of the national pheasant plan will spill over to other grassland species, such as meadowlarks and bobolinks. The national plan acknowledges that “pheasants are truly a ‘flagship’ species in our agro-ecosystems since the habitats created on their behalf benefit many less charismatic species.”
Says Veverka, “By supporting increased pheasant populations and increased grass on the ground, you’re going to increase the numbers of those nongame native grassland birds that don’t really have a lot of money and resources.”
Story by Greg Breining

Photo Credit: Matt Knoth via a Flickr CC license / Colby Kerber, Pheasants Forever