Pheasants Forever plays a key role in this critical upland conservation blueprint, which is receiving an update with 16 new work items this spring
By Scott Taylor
Part 1 of a Series
Every hunter knows that habitat is the key to wildlife abundance. Both experience and science has shown this to be true. But how much habitat do we actually need to sustain good pheasant hunting across the country?
Back in 2006, pheasant biologists from more than 20 state wildlife agencies attempted to answer that question, as well as identify policies (primarily through the federal Farm Bill) that could help put that desired amount of habitat in the ground. The approach itself was new to the pheasant world: Although states frequently communicated
about pheasant conservation, they rarely collaborated
on an end product.
The result of that new partnership was the National Wild Pheasant Conservation Plan
. Endorsed by the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies in 2013 and soon thereafter by Pheasants Forever, the plan used a science-based approach to estimate the amount of habitat each state thought it needed to reach a self-determined pheasant harvest goal, and wrapped up all the state-level needs into a national habitat acreage objective.
National Wild Pheasant Conservation Plan team members at the initiative's 2019 meeting in North Dakota.
Goals were based on rooster harvest levels achieved in the recent past (since 1990) to maintain a realistic frame of reference. Since most states believed habitat provided by the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) was key to meeting their harvest goals, the national goal was expressed in terms of CRP acreage.
Biologists estimated we needed a national CRP enrollment of at least 40 million acres, as well as the practices and science necessary to ensure those acres provided high-quality habitats. The biologists also recommended that a full-time staff person be hired to promote this objective, continue to improve the science behind it, and grow the partnership around additional projects and resources from which the states could benefit.
With funds contributed by the state wildlife agencies and Pheasants Forever, I was hired as the plan coordinator in 2016. PF already had a crack staff of policy specialists working on what would become the 2018 Farm Bill, so one of my first jobs was to help gather additional information from the states to bolster the policy positions we took.
Showing is easier than telling, so we constructed graphics to better illustrate the relationships between CRP enrollments and both pheasant abundance and hunter participation (Figures 1 and 2 below). The graphs served their purpose, but also showed us something we did not expect: Recent hunter participation seemed to be declining much faster than pheasant populations were. This, despite the of millions of acres of public access opened through walk-in programs across the heart of the pheasant range since the mid-1990s.
Pheasant Abundance and CRP
Hunter Numbers and CRP
It called into question a central premise of the National Plan – if we build it (habitat), they (pheasants, hunters and harvest) will come.
Can we rely on a proportionate hunter and harvest response to actually happen anymore? A little more digging revealed this question was not limited to pheasant hunters, but probably applied to small game hunters as a whole. State wildlife agencies knew that hunter participation was declining and began ramping up “R3” (hunter recruitment, retention, and reactivation) programs in response, but our analyses showed the loss of small game hunters was the prime cause of the decline, a fact we started widely publicizing among the states.
This led our state partnership to take a step back and rethink the original National Plan. Habitat needed to remain the central focus, but we needed to cast a wider net to account for the changing behaviors of hunters and to better understand (and thus hopefully manage) the causes of those changes. To that end, the states began revising the National Plan and hope to approve a final draft sometime this spring. The states have already identified 16 additional work items they want to collectively address, so stay tuned.
In tjhe next installment in this series, we’ll explore details of the first multi-state pheasant research project conducted in over three decades.
For more information, see the National Plan and Partnership’s website at nationalpheasantplan.org.
Scott Taylor is National Wild Pheasant Conservation Plan Coordinator for Pheasants Forever. Prior to becoming the national plan coordinator, Scott worked for 20 years at the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission as an upland game biologist, wildlife research section leader and Wildlife Division chief. He earned a B.S. in Wildlife Biology from Kansas State University, a M.S. in Range and Wildlife Management from Texas A&M University-Kingsville, and a Ph.D. in Wildlife Ecology and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He lives in Manhattan, Kansas and is a PF Life Member.
Photo credit iStock.