In this together: How Pheasants Forever led the way to pollinator conservation
By Chris Madson
It may be the first sound I remember, after my mother’s voice: the two insistent notes at the beginning, then the jumble of song, sweet as strawberry preserves on fresh homemade bread:
A meadowlark, in the first dew-soaked cool of a summer morning, the anthem of Iowa corn country.
As I reach back, it comes to me against a background hum of bees on clover in the hayfield behind the house, the clatter of grasshopper wings in the wildflowers along the white gravel road, the chorus of crickets in the damp shadows, fading with the rising sun. And, out on the edge of the shelterbelt, a rooster pheasant crowing in the first light.
The sounds of my childhood.
As I grew and moved to other parts of the Midwest, the sounds faded, bit by bit, so slowly I hardly noticed. Between 1966, the first year national surveys of birds were run, and 1985, populations of the eastern meadowlark had declined by nearly 60 percent nationwide. Bobwhite quail had declined by nearly two-thirds. Pheasant numbers had dropped by a third. In Iowa, the pheasant harvest slipped from 1.4 million to 600,000. The Nebraska harvest went from 1.2 million to 470,000.
Upland game managers had a simple explanation for the pheasant decline — a lack of cover. The weedy roadsides and neglected corners that had supported wildlife were disappearing as farmers gained the horsepower and chemicals to bring them into production.
At the same time, federal farm policy was changing. From 1956 to 1964, the U.S. Department of Agriculture had paid farmers to retire cropland under provisions of the Soil Bank program. At the height of the program in 1960, 28.7 million acres were supporting some kind of cover. The last of the contracts expired in 1973, and the cover went under the plow with predictable effects on upland game birds and a host of other Midwestern wildlife.
The solution seemed straightforward enough. Wildlife in the farming heartland needed cover. After more than a decade of lobbying from a coalition of conservation interests, conservationists convinced the Department of Agriculture to add an ambitious program to the 1985 Farm Bill -- the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) to establish permanent cover on marginal cropland.
The bill set a target of 40 to 45 million acres of CRP cover, and by 1990 there were 33.9 million acres under contract. Hunters, serious birdwatchers and a host of other conservationists celebrated the unprecedented establishment of wildlife cover on working land and sat back to wait for good news from wildlife surveys in the field.
The news was underwhelming. Numbers of eastern meadowlarks continued to decline, although the rate of loss had slowed a little. The same for other grassland specialists like the bobolink, eastern kingbird and grasshopper sparrow. The catastrophic trend in numbers of the northern bobwhite actually turned slightly upward for two or three years before continuing its heartbreaking decline.
And pheasants? The nationwide survey of pheasants stabilized, and harvest in the core of pheasant country rose substantially, although it didn’t return to the glory days of late 1950s.
Pheasant managers and other avian biologists were puzzled though. There was more federally subsidized cover on the ground than there had been in at the peak of Soil Bank. So why weren’t there more birds?
Scott Taylor, formerly a biologist and upland bird manager for the Nebraska Game and Parks Department and now coordinator for the National Wild Pheasant Conservation Plan, was just finishing his Ph.D. in upland bird research as the question arose. The first hint of an answer, he said, came from an unlikely place: Great Britain.
“The idea that chick survival, specifically” he says, “was something that needed greater attention, was the publication of Dick Potts’ book on gray partridge. I think that was ’86. That’s when the tide turned here in North America.”
The book was The Partridge: Pesticides, Predation and Conservation. The author was G. Richard Potts, an English farmer’s son who earned his Ph.D. with his research on seabirds but quickly became fascinated by the worldwide decline of the gray partridge. The book was the culmination of 18 years of work on the gray partridge in the southeastern British county of Sussex, which followed 22 years of earlier investigations supported by well-heeled sportsmen in the area.
Not even 5 years into his study, Potts had already found that “food insects might be at least as important to chick survival as the weather.” His subsequent decades of work supported that view. After careful examination of the effects of weather, predators of eggs and adults, and loss to human hunters, he concluded that, “taken overall, partridge populations appear as if they are on a down escalator … The only way to move back up the escalator or stop going down is to improve the supply of insects to the chicks.”
Potts documented the effect insecticides had on food supply, but he was also among the first ecologists to recognize that herbicides could have the same effect by killing the broad-leafed plants that supported insects.
Research in Germany, Hungary, and Britain during the 1950s and 1960s supported his own findings, “that herbicides had a dramatic effect on the insect and other arthropod fauna, reducing overall densities by 50%.”
Potts’ research squared with what American wildlife biologists were beginning to see in CRP habitat— a monoculture of tall, thick grass wasn’t the best habitat for many grassland birds, including pheasants and bobwhite quail.
That was about the time Pheasants Forever got involved.
Peter Berthelsen was a biologist with PF, beginning in the early 1990s. He’d done the research for his master’s degree on grassland songbirds and pheasants in CRP. In the early years of CRP, he says, the typical cover crops were “brome and alfalfa. When a state wildlife agency or the Fish and Wildlife Service would say, ‘USDA— maybe we could look at planting some different mixtures,’ USDA said, ‘Hey, this is our program; we got it.’”
It took years to convince the authorities to get a wider variety of plants into CRP habitat and to manage the vegetation to encourage more broad-leafed plants -- the vegetation that supported insects for a spectrum of grassland birds, both game and nongame.
As the Department of Agriculture began to see the advantages of more diverse stands of cover plants, native prairie grasses and wildflowers found their way into seed mixes. In 2002, Pheasants Forever and a coalition of other conservation groups convinced Congress to make an important addition to the conservation title of the farm bill: mid-contract management.
The new provision required participants in the program to break up stands of cover halfway through the federal contract. The disturbance could be fire, a light disking with a tractor, a herbicide, or interseeding broad-leafed plants — anything to open up thriving stands of grass that would otherwise overpower broad-leafed plants.
While this change in approach was debated before finally being implemented, another alarming ecological trend began to emerge: Beekeepers found themselves struggling to maintain their bees.
As it turned out, the arrival of the exotic Varroa mite in 1987 was part of the problem for bees, along with the subsequent appearance of the mysterious colony collapse disorder. The approval of a new generation of insecticides, the neonicotinoids, certainly didn’t help either.
But much of the problem stemmed from a fundamental change on the American farm landscape — a lack of flowers. Without a succession of nectar- and pollen-producing plants through the growing season, honeybees were struggling to survive.
At first glance, a loss of honey bees would seem to be of little concern, except to a few people with a sweet tooth. But bees are responsible for pollinating a variety of crops, from almonds and apples to citrus fruit and cherries, that are crucial to American food supply.
It’s been estimated that pollinators are responsible for one in every three bites of food in the United States. Their activities support $15 billion in agricultural income. With those stakes on the table, the Department of Agriculture and even the White House began to take notice.
As the trouble with bees began to emerge, an even more popular icon on the American landscape was also showing signs of distress. Sometime in the early to mid-1990s, numbers of monarch butterflies started a long slide. The cause of the decline appeared to be the steady loss of nectar-producing wildflowers on the American landscape and, particularly, the loss of several species of milkweed, the only plants monarchs use for egg-laying and the sole source of food for their larvae.
And so, at the dawn of the 21st century, the interests of an unprecedented spectrum of conservationists converged on the need for wildflowers and insects across the farmscapes of America. Pheasants Forever had already been at work on the problem for more than a decade, thinking in terms of forage for gamebirds. But this surge in public interest presented a new opportunity.
Rick Young is vice president of field operations with Pheasants Forever and has been with the organization for well over 30 years — he remembers some of the seminal conversations with Pete Berthelsen, one of his colleagues at the time.
“We hunted together a lot, kicking stuff around going from one pheasant spot to another,” Young says. “He brought up the insect deal and we started piecing it together, how we message things, and it just blossomed.”
Berthelsen says the idea was fundamentally ecological: “Pollinator habitat is pheasant habitat is grassland songbird habitat is duck habitat.”
Young adds that “it resonated well with the biology crowd,” and Bethelsen agrees. "It didn’t take long,” he recalls, for Pheasants Forever to make the commitment to that broader mission.
“And the members,” Berthelsen says, “got it immediately — that it was all the same thing.”
The Pheasants Forever effort on behalf of pollinators and other insects reached from the grassroots to Washington.
Dave Nomsen, PF’s tireless champion for conservation in the Farm Bill, built alliances with other groups that led to a significant change in the 2008 Farm Bill, a provision that emphasized the creation of habitat for bees, butterflies, and other pollinators. Two years later, that provision crystallized into Conservation Practice 42 or CP42 — Pollinator Habitat Establishment— that required a minimum of 9 species of wildflowers to be planted, three blooming in the spring, three during the summer, and three in the fall.
Jason Bleich, one of PF’s conservation specialists in the organization’s seed program, says Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever saw the CP42 program as an ideal opportunity.
“We knew those mixes for CP42 and pollinator habitat were the same mixes we wanted to see on the ground for pheasants and quail,” Bleich explains. “So we jumped on that before anybody else did and ran with it. We started doing landowner workshops, partner trainings, habitat tours, everything that we could to absolutely promote the tar out of CP42 throughout that Farm Bill.”
By 2019, there were more than 507,000 acres of CP42 pollinator habitat across the country — 220,000 acres in Iowa alone, 106,000 in Illinois.
Jason convinced his granddad to plant some pollinator habitat on his farm in east-central Illinois’ Ford County. Back in the 1950s, this landscape had been stiff with pheasants, but over the next 50 years, roosters had gotten thin on the ground. Last fall, the birds were back on the family farm and surrounding townships:
“Me and my dad and some of our buddies — I think we killed around 120 wild birds during the hunting season. That might not be much for South Dakota, but for east-central Illinois, we had a heck of a year.”
Bleich also pointed out the scads and oodles of monarch butterflies and busy bees that had occupied that same habitat during summer, and the butterflies’ early fall migration. It’s but just one example from across the pheasant and quail range: to echo Berthelsen, bee and butterfly pollinator habitat is pheasant habitat is grassland songbird habitat is duck habitat.
With 39 habitat specialists and 155 Farm Bill biologists across pheasant country helping get upland habitat into the ground, Pheasants Forever was in a unique position to “promote the tar” out of programs that support pollinators . . . and insect forage for game birds.
With the explosion of concern for monarchs and pollinators like honey bees, field representatives of Pheasants Forever found new doors opening to them. Drew Larsen, PF’s director of habitat education programs, felt the change immediately.
“People saw us as just a hunting group,” he says. “When you can go into a school and talk about pollinators and their tie to food, it’s amazing how that captures people’s attention. It has really allowed us to speak to a different audience” and let them know that “we are a habitat organization. We do things for pheasants, quail, and a lot of other kinds of wildlife that require the same kind of habitat.”
And a bigger audience leads to more help. Larsen smiles as he considers the “new partners that we’ve never engaged before, new money for us to do habitat work that’s going to be beneficial for upland birds and pollinators. Monarch Joint Venture, urban nature centers, the Pollinator Partnership, the Honeybee Health Coalition, and big ag groups like Corteva, Bayer, Syngenta— they’re all at the table now, trying to be part of the solution for monarchs and pollinators.”
In addition to the organization’s long-standing cooperation with state wildlife agencies and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), Pheasants Forever sought out state highway departments to help establish pollinator habitat on roadsides and median strips along with state departments of agriculture and soil and water conservation districts to open conversations about pollinator habitat with farmers.
PF also reached out to beekeepers through organizations like the Minnesota Honey Bee Producers Association and the Bee and Butterfly Habitat Fund.
PF also found an ally in the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, based in Portland, Oregon. Xerces began its work in the early 1970s as a champion of butterflies but quickly broadened its focus to include all invertebrates.
Today, in the Lincoln, Nebraska, office of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Xerces biologist and pollinator conservation planner Rae Powers works with agricultural agencies and PF Farm Bill biologists on a common goal: building habitat to support insects and the wildlife that depends on those insects. She’s one of 10 Xerces biologists who work with the USDA across the region.
Rae is enthusiastic about her connection with the PF specialists.
“It’s been awesome,” she says of her work with Pheasants Forever. “Honestly, I’ve been really impressed with the depth of knowledge on the PF staff here in Nebraska. I feel like they’re called ‘Pheasants Forever,’ but really they’re thinking about all kinds of wildlife, and I love that. They’ve been knowledgeable about pollinators and what pollinators need.”
STARTS WITH SEED
Pheasants Forever’s commitment to the pollinator effort reaches even further, right down to the ground itself.
In the early years of the Farm Bill, many CRP fields were planted with one or two species of grass because it was hard to find seed for anything else. Recognizing the need for a greater variety of plants on the land, Pheasants Forever got into the business of finding sources of seeds, for food plots and for diversified plantings of native grasses and flowers.
These days, PF offers seed mixes with up to 45 species of plants, far and above the 9 species required in CP42 plantings. Mixes are tailored to region, climate, slope and moisture, and the seed team loves creating custom mixes tailored to individual needs. The seed team also provides seed and planting advice to state wildlife agencies, highway departments, farmers and, in small quantities, to city folk who are interested in helping monarchs and other charismatic insects in their own backyards.
Aaron Kuehl, PF’s director of seed programs, wrestles with the complexities of providing the right seed mixes across a spectrum of landscapes and climate.
“Certainly, species richness, and diversity on the plant side, have a strong tie to insect diversity and abundance,” he points out, “which means you’re increasing chick food. It’s also the structure, the different structure. Every mix— if you increase the diversity, one particular seed might not do great on a low spot in that field or a high spot, but if you have both in that mix, you let Mother Nature sort it out.”
He adds that the variety of plants should be more than species from a single genus. Many insect species are picky about the plants they need for food and reproduction, so a wide variety of plants will support more kinds of insects and more pheasant food overall. He also points out that the seeds Pheasants Forever provides for food plots have not been treated with neonicotinoid insecticides. That means more bugs for the birds.
MORE THAN PHEASANTS
Pheasants Forever President and CEO, Howard Vincent, saw the growing concern over pollinators as an opportunity to show a wider public that the organization what was true of the organization all along – that it was doing much more than trying to produce pheasants for hunting.
“The tools that we’re using like buffers, native prairie, deep-rooted forbs,” he says, “are the single best tools to benefit a wide spectrum of wildlife, including pollinators such as monarch butterflies and honeybees, along with pheasants, quail, deer, neotropical songbirds, the list goes on and on.”
The question the organization faced a generation ago was how to get more people involved in the effort to maintain diverse, productive habitat in farm country. At the time, Vincent says, PF’s professionals wondered, “How could we be more relevant to a broader constituency, not just hunters of pheasants and quail? Who else would benefit by this?”
The pollinator effort proved to offer a powerful way of doing just that. Vincent remembers a story Pete Berthelsen brought back from a speaking engagement in California.
“There was an older woman who was at an almond growers and Xerces conference,” he says. “She stood up after Pete Berthelsen had made a presentation to these five, six hundred people. She stood up and said, ‘Pheasants Forever is a hunting organization and I’m anti-hunting. I don’t believe in that. I sent my membership in this morning because nobody does more for pollinators than Pheasants Forever.’ And she sat down.
“That’s it, right there, in a nutshell.”
So it is.
IN THIS TOGETHER
The pollinator effort is not, in itself, a panacea. Even with the improvements our newfound concern for insects has wrought, CRP and the rest of the conservation title of the Farm Bill have yet to fully turn the tide for grasshopper sparrows and field sparrows and bobwhite quail. According to the long-term surveys, the declines in the populations of these species continues, although at a much slower rate.
What we in the community of upland conservationists have done to build habitat on the working landscape, so far, isn’t enough. But the alliances that are forming on behalf of butterflies, bees and gamebirds hold hope for times to come.
Well over a century ago, John Muir found poetry in a basic ecological truth. "When we try to pick out anything by itself,” Muir wrote, “we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe."
Muir’s sentiment goes for my meadowlarks and monarchs, for aphids and pheasant chicks, for beetles and bobwhites. It’s just as true for birdwatchers and beekeepers, hunters and hikers, farmers and city dwellers, lovers of wildflowers and consumers of clean water.
Pheasants are the miner’s canaries of American farmland-- unimaginably tough, remarkably resilient, but like butterflies and bees, ultimately dependent on the health of the land that supports them. Their futures are ours.
For all the political and ecological complexities the Pheasants Forever pollinator effort entails, its bottom-line message is simple and compelling:
We’re all in this together.
Chris Madson writes about conservation and the environment – and oh yes, occasionally some upland bird hunting – from home in Cheyenne, Wyoming.