By Andrew Johnson
Along with the call to experience the uplands comes the call to care for them. Here are three stories of extraordinary individuals who have helped lay the financial foundation of Pheasants Forever’s first-ever national fundraising campaign, Call of the Uplands®
CALL OF THE UPLANDS® CONSERVATION DEFENDER — $250,000-$500,000
DAX HAYDEN, HAYDEN OUTDOORS
Dax Hayden hails from Windsor, Colorado, but if you ask him where home is, he’s quick to identify the uplands of western Kansas, where he spent his younger days hunting pheasants with his father and grandfather.
“We shot a lot of pheasants when I was growing up in Goodland, Kansas. But we raised a lot more,” says Hayden, who is managing partner with Hayden Outdoors, a real estate company with farm, ranch and recreational listings spread across 20 states. “Growing up in a farming and ranching environment like I did, you learn pretty quickly what gamebirds need to thrive.”
Hayden’s formative years were spent as part of a working ranch family, but he says the history of Hayden Outdoors can be traced to a blizzard in 1975.
“My grandfather lost 500 head of cattle in that blizzard, and it killed him — it absolutely killed him financially,” Hayden says. “So, in ’75, that’s when my dad first became a real estate agent and started selling crop insurance. I guess you could say I’ve just been tied to it since then.”
Through his career in rural real estate, Hayden speaks with farmers, ranchers and land managers every day. He says the relationships he’s forged with people who own and work the land have fostered his understanding of the balance that can be achieved between agriculture and conservation.
“When it comes to getting real habitat and public access on the ground, you only get a few chances with farmers, and when you’re out there with ’em, driving around their property, they’ll tell you what works and what doesn’t work,” he says. “And when farmers see something that works, it’s like two weeks later and they’re all doing it.”
That’s why Hayden has thrown his full weight behind a state-specific program Pheasants Forever has recently implemented, known as Corners for Conservation, that focus on the remnant corner habitat in square crop fields with center-pivot irrigation. Think round peg, square hole, and you get the idea, as these programs target the half-dozen or so corner acres that lie outside the circle-shaped water line.
Hayden says these programs are win-win-win scenarios that financially benefit farmers, create habitat for wildlife and, in turn, produce more upland bird hunters. To that end, he points to the ebb and flow of upland bird populations he’s experienced first-hand not only in western Kansas, but also in other areas he considers his stomping grounds, such as western Nebraska and eastern Colorado.
“I’ve seen it twice in my lifetime where we’ve gone from little to no birds at all in these areas to the point there are just a ton of birds — the most in the region — by paying farmers well enough to stop farming those corners and simply letting that habitat grow,” he explains. “That’s why our company this past year made a big commitment to PF & QF, and that’s why our real estate agents also donate part of their commission to PF, because PF does a better job of getting habitat on the ground and making things happen than anyone we’ve worked with. Through these programs we can see our dollars at work — we can literally go out and touch what we helped build.”
In addition to his financial commitment, Hayden leads by example through action. He serves on the steering committee for PF’s Call of the Uplands campaign. He also plans to start a new Quail Forever chapter based in the front range of Colorado.
“I have what you’d call a ‘dirty fingernails’ approach to it, and I’m pretty on fire about doing something and not simply talking about it. There’s plenty of management around. We need more doers,” he says. “At the end of the day, Pheasants Forever will be even more successful as we figure out how to fill the landscape with more game, and that’s easier said than done. But it’s possible. I got to see it as a kid, I got to see it in my 20s and 30s, and now that I’m 50 I want to do what I can to see it happen again.”
CALL OF THE UPLANDS® CONSERVATION DEFENDER — $250,000-$500,000
“My dad was a bird hunter — a quail hunter, to be more specific,” says Steve Shafer, who grew up in Palmetto, Florida, which sits just below Tampa in the west-central part of the state. “He hunted other things, but birds were always at the top of his list. Dad had a white F-100 Ford pickup, and he’d load the dogs up in back and he always took me with. I have never not known there to be hunting, and I have him to thank for that and for passing on his passion for the outdoors to me.”
Today, Shafer dabbles in real estate and is also the CEO of Sunsect, which produces a patented, dual-action product that acts as both insect repellent and sunscreen. The company is located in Tallahassee in Florida’s panhandle, just over a four-hour drive north from where Shafer grew up chasing wild quail with his dad across Manatee County.
But the road Shafer has taken from simply being a consumer of the outdoors to being a hunter-conservationist took years to travel.
“What I’ve come to realize is that most hunters go through phases, and back then it was all about killing for me,” he admits. “I stayed in that hunting/killing phase into my early 30s until one day I was out turkey hunting and just felt there’s gotta be more to all of this.”
“So I got talking to an older gentleman who was a mentor of mine, and he told me I should go to a National Wild Turkey Federation banquet,” Shafer continues. “I had no idea what that was at the time, but I still went and ended up winning some guns and had a great time.”
From there, Shafer became heavily involved with the NWTF, first with the local chapter and eventually as the state chapter president for a few years.
“After a while I started looking for something a little different by doing some research online, and I saw there was an event called Pheasant Fest being held in Kansas City,” he recalls. “I thought, ‘what the heck is Pheasant Fest?’ I go pheasant hunting every year, so I thought I’d check it out.”
Through some chance meetings at the Atlanta airport on his way to Kansas City and then while he was at Pheasant Fest, Shafer says he was quickly introduced to like-minded people who helped show him the ropes of The Habitat Organization.
“That started my involvement with Pheasants Forever, and I quickly fell in love with the PF model where money that’s raised locally is able to be spent locally,” Shafer explains. “That was unique and different, in my opinion, where local folks have control but also have a wider outlook on things.”
Shafer ended up diving headfirst into PF’s programs, especially programs geared toward youth conservation programs and shooting sports. Today he sits on the steering committee for PF’s Call of the Uplands campaign.
“Getting kids involved in the outdoors has always been a big deal to me,” Shafer explains. “My dad started me in the outdoors, and when I had kids of my own it really put things into perspective and made me take action to ensure they had the same opportunities I had while I was growing up.”
Another reason Shafer stays so engaged with PF & QF is he wants to help return huntable populations of quail on public lands in Georgia and Florida. It’s a dream he knows will take a lot of work, but he believes it’s possible.
“It’s easy to write a check, man, and there’s a lot of people who can write them. But they often stop there and don’t give any of their time,” explains Shafer. “I believe time is the most valuable thing you have, and I remain driven by the fact that through certain Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever programs one person can absolutely make a difference, where all it takes is one person pushing an agenda item loud enough that others take notice.”
“That’s what keeps me going,” he says, “because I believe in the mission, I care enough to be loud about it, and I back it up with my actions.”
CALL OF THE UPLANDS® HABITAT GUARDIAN — $1,000,000-$2,500,000
WILLIAM “BRAD” BRADLEY
William “Brad” Bradley’s path through the uplands took a midlife detour. But eventually he found his way back.
“I was away from hunting for 30 years,” says Bradley, who is one of four cofounders of NIC, Inc., a publicly traded company that provides online services for federal, state and local government agencies and their constituents. “I was busy with a family and a career, and I wasn’t recreating by hunting. It wasn’t until two of my partners, who happened to be avid hunters, invited me along on a quail hunting trip that I remembered how much I enjoyed it.”
Bradley grew up in northeastern Kansas, where he hunted as a boy. But he also recalls traipsing around land his grandfather owned in east-central Kansas and chasing quail — albeit not very successfully, he admits — from the Kansas River south to the Oklahoma border.
After more than three decades spent pursuing a successful career filled with accolades and charitable contributions too numerous to list here, Bradley’s return home and his reintroduction to the uplands not only stirred up a wealth of memories, but it also fueled a growing interest in upland conservation.
“I went off to work my way through college and establish a career, but ended up settling in the Kansas City area — right where I swore I’d never be — and now I own land a little over an hour away where I’m working to bring quail back,” he says. “After I became interested in hunting again, I started checking out conservation organizations. I was drawn to Pheasants Forever because it was involved with upland bird hunting and was stronger and more focused on upland habitat and conservation than other things, which was definitely in line with my thinking.”
Today, Bradley’s conservation efforts are clearly evident on over 2,000 acres he owns and manages in eastern Kansas and western Missouri. He practices soil health principles on his cropland, holistic grazing on his pasture lands and uneven-aged management on his timberlands.
“Some of the ground is reclaimed mining land and other parts had been overgrazed or were overgrown with cedars. Slowly, I’m bringing it back,” explains Bradley, who admits he’s had to learn some patience along the way. “You start out trying to force — or at least I do, because I’m a forceful person — a response from the land and then you quickly discover that doesn’t work. Then you research and dig deeper about what’s going on, learning about all nature’s subtle actions at play, which leads you to back off and start trying to influence the land.”
Bradley continues to support PF & QF because he believes the organization’s mission is evolving as a “habitat influencer.” That closely aligns with his beliefs that agriculture and conservation go hand in hand. He says flexible habitat programs available through PF & QF enable landowners and land managers to massage habitat back into the landscape by working with nature rather than commanding it.
“If you farm or manage land in the proper way, I think you can stimulate and encourage wildlife instead of crowding them out,” he says. “Quail, for example, were living in these parts a long time before there were farms, so it comes down to how can you integrate what they like with what you like. Other farmers might think I’m messy because the areas that are in crops have cover crops in them, so they’re not neat, clean rows. Other areas of my land I’ve left filled with wild places, as there’s a lot of stuff out there that’s been there for a long time for a reason.”
“Here’s the thing,” Bradley says. “It might look dirty to our eyes, but not to the eyes of wildlife. I always try to keep that perspective in mind, because if you’re called to experience nature, you’re also called to care for it.”
Andrew Johnson reports and writes regularly for Pheasants Forever. He lives in Tea, South Dakota.
The Call of the Uplands is Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever’s first-ever comprehensive national campaign. This represents a $500 million effort designed to enhance over 9 million acres of upland habitat, permanently protect 75,000 acres through fee-title acquisition and conservation easements, and to cultivate the next generation of conservationists by providing over 1.5 million Americans with outdoor experiences from the West’s expansive landscapes and the vast Great Plains, to the quiet southern pine woods. This campaign is our best chance to bring together dedicated citizens, hunter-conservationists, farmers, ranchers, and other partners with a common cause: A promise to conserve our uplands before it's too late.
This story originally appeared in the 2021 Spring Issue of the
Pheasants Forever Journal. If you enjoyed it and would like to the the first to read more great upland content like this, become a Pheasants Forever member today!