Habitat & Conservation,Hunting & Heritage  |  06/05/2017

States Hatch Big Plans for Pheasants

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines the word plan as “a method for achieving an end.” No doubt some plans are little more than dust-collecting documents stored on a shelf somewhere. Those sorts of plans give the rest of them bad raps. Other plans – the good ones – in many ways are living documents that track progress through time, outline goals and the methods to achieve them, and provide some measure of accountability.

Consider Minnesota’s Pheasant Summit Action Plan, a document written by the Minnesota DNR following a statewide pheasant summit in December of 2014. The overall goals are to improve and increase habitat for pheasants and provide more opportunity for hunting, but included within its 20 pages are a number of short- and long-term measures designed specifically to achieve those lofty, if general, objectives. Additionally, each year the DNR produces and distributes a report card that shows the progress the agency and partners have made in meeting the various action items.

“We’re only one player of 50 states,” said Kevin Lines, the DNR’s pheasant action plan coordinator. “What happens in Minnesota is what the state can control. We’re in charge of the fate of that, and that’s what the plan focuses on – those things we can put in place,
                        and what we believe is potentially possible to achieve.”
A number of other states – Michigan, Nebraska, New York, Pennsylvania and South Dakota, among them – also have plans or initiatives dedicated to pheasants and pheasant management. Iowa doesn’t have a specific pheasant plan, but does have “an upland game management plan that outlines harvest and hunter numbers we’d like to maintain along with habitat strategies to help achieve/maintain our harvest and hunter number objectives for all upland species,” according to Todd Bogenschutz, upland wildlife biologist for the Iowa DNR. The North Dakota Game and Fish Department is in the process of putting together a pheasant plan – there will be “elements of the national plan incorporated, but it is our own plan,” said Aaron Robinson, upland game management supervisor for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department – as is Kansas.

 “We have state goals within the national plan and we are working on a state small game plan that will include pheasant goals and objectives,” stated Jeff Prendergast, small game specialist with the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism.

That national plan – the National Wild Pheasant Conservation Plan, which was finalized in 2013 – includes harvest goals for 23 states and outlines the habitat needs for achieving those goals. It includes national objectives, such as a national annual harvest goal of 5.9 million roosters. The state and national plans are complimentary, but not necessarily tied to one another, said Dr. Scott Taylor, coordinator of the National Pheasant Conservation Plan. Some states – Minnesota, for example – completed pheasant plans following finalization of the national plan. “The national plan tried to take a broader perspective than any one state,” Taylor said. “It doesn’t get into as much detail as the state plans as far as specific actions and specific targets.”
Minnesota’s plan, for example, outlines exactly how the state plans to achieve itsobjectives. One objective is to “Accelerate acquisition of public lands open to hunting across the pheasant range including state Wildlife Management Areas (WMA) and federal Waterfowl Production Areas (WPA).” Along with the objective are a variety of measures and a specific outcome. In the case of public land acquisition, the outcome is to increase WMA and WPA acquisition by 40 percent. According to the 2017 report card, there’s been a steady trend in that regard: “WMA and WPA acres increased by 90 percent over 2015 and are 5 percent above the average acquisition rate from 2012 to 2014.”
Though state plans generally weren’t written with the national plan in mind, the national plan is designed to reflect the objectives of the various states, Taylor said.
“(The national plan) was a forum through which all the states could express their objectives and desires with regard to pheasant management,” he said. “We hadn’t had that forum before. The idea is to keep the partnership going to help accomplish some of those objectives and provide some of the tools that the states thought were important nationally to meet their individual state objectives.”
Indeed, under the national plan states have the opportunity to band together to push for big, national policies, such as working together to increase the Conservation Reserve Program acreage cap in the 2018 federal Farm Bill. “Most states find (crafting a pheasant or similar plan) to be a useful exercise to really focus attention on what they need – how many acres, what types of habitats, and some benchmarks for success. It helps them focus on what sort of tools they’re going to need to accomplish those objectives and tasks. Generally speaking, the states’ primary vehicle for delivering most of the habitat they think they need is through Farm Bill programs, so that’s another reason why the states wanted to band together to speak with one voice – a stronger voice – for those particular programs that they really need to succeed for pheasants.”

Among state plans, varying focuses

Public land acquisition is a big part of Minnesota’s pheasant plan. Public land tends to be more limited in the state’s pheasant range than in the northern, forested part of the state, but the state also has a better means to acquire lands than most other states thanks to the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment. The state’s voters in 2008 approved the amendment, which increased the sales tax by three-eighths of 1 percent. Roughly $100 million per year is available from a fund for purposes of protecting, enhancing and restoring land. But that’s not to minimize the importance of private land. According to the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources, nearly 80 percent of land in the state is in private ownership. For that reason, one of the plan’s action items – enrolling land in the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) – is especially pertinent at this point. Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton in January 2017 signed an agreement with the United States Department of Agriculture for a CREP whose aim is to enroll 60,000 acres of land in southern and western Minnesota into the program.
“Those 60,000 acres almost all will be accrued in the pheasant range of Minnesota,” Lines said. “From both a water quality and grassland habitat perspective, that’s going to be a huge success over the next five years.”
NEpheasantplan.pngLike Minnesota’s plan, Nebraska’s pheasant plan – known as the Berggren Plan for Pheasants, which was unveiled in 2016 – aims to produce a good overall pheasant-hunting experience for hunters. It’s focused in certain priority areas of the state, and looks to improve pheasant habitat and hunting access, according to John Laux, upland habitat and access program manager for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.
“It’s primarily working with private landowners,” Laux said. “Acquisition is in our plan, but I wouldn’t say that we are actively seeking new acquisitions by any means. Nebraska is 97 percent privately owned, so it’s critical that we work with private landowners.”
Among the plan’s specific goals are to “retain, manage, or gain 390,110 acres of CRP over 5 years,” and “encourage tall small-grain stubble on 252,585 acres per year.”

The Berggren plan follows on the heels of a pheasant initiative in Nebraska that started in 2001 in response to pheasant-population declines. “The same is true with this plan, but we’ve really ramped up our efforts with this one,” Laux said. “Ultimately, we’re trying to improve the pheasant-hunting experience in Nebraska.”
South Dakota Pheasant PlanSouth Dakota’s pheasant plan, which is in place from2016 to 2020, aims “to maintain abundant populations of pheasants for South Dakotans and our visitors by fostering a partnership-driven approach for habitat development and management, to ensure public access opportunities, and to increase public awareness of the broad benefits of quality habitat and hunting.” The plan identifies five goals – “The (South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks) will continue to monitor population and habitat trends and conduct research as needed to address population and habitat-related questions,” among them – and includes measureable, time-bound objectives and strategies for meeting those goals.
Michigan Pheasant Plan

Michigan’s plan – the Michigan Pheasant Restoration Initiative – aims to “facilitate a revitalization of Michigan’s pheasants” in specific recovery areas. Like in other states, the plan includes goals for work on both state-managed and private land. As of January 2016 – the initiative’s halfway point – partners and the Michigan DNR said the initiative had made significant headway. “We are seeing enhanced partnerships, excellent teamwork, habitat improvements and increased enthusiasm for pheasants and pheasant hunting,” said Al Stewart, upland game bird specialist for the Michigan DNR.

Whatever the particulars of the various plans, Lines is a big believer in their potential for being effective means to improve things for pheasants and hunters alike. “It’s always important to have a plan – it’s hard to be successful if you don’t know what you’re going to do,” he said. “It keeps your eye on the target.”
Story by Joe Albert
Photo by Tom Koerner / USFWS