Just as permanently protected habitat is critical for gamebirds, pollinators rely on it too
By Joe Albert
As much as anyone who appreciates open landscapes and the gamebirds that call them home, Steven Burdick loves to follow a good bird dog in the field and shoulder a shotgun as a colorful rooster pheasant wings away from cover. A bird or two in the bag is a happy byproduct of all that boot leather, to be sure. But it’s far from the only thing that brings Burdick back to the places upland birds call home.
He wants to see wildflowers. To smell the smells of the prairie. To feel a vibrant ecosystem. To hear the vibrations of life.
“It’s nice to hear noise out on the prairie,” said Burdick, who is Pheasants Forever’s Minnesota project manager. “We’ve all been to those places where you are outside, in a prairie grassland, and if you just stop and listen you hear insects and birds and all sorts of stuff. It’s a big ecosystem out there and there’s just so much to take in and appreciate about a piece of landscape that’s healthy.”
In Minnesota, there’s getting to be more and more of these healthy prairie ecosystems, due in large part to the state’s citizens voting to increase their taxes via the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment, which they approved in 2008. Another consistent revenue source is the Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund. Between the Amendment and the Trust Fund, millions of dollars are available each year not just to protect, restore and improve Minnesota’s natural resources, but also to enhance pollinator habitat on permanently protected properties and then research its effectiveness.
STAR IN THE NORTH
While other states have programs aimed at permanently protecting land and increasing its utility for pollinators such as honey bees and monarch butterflies, Minnesota leads the way, according to Drew Larsen, PF director of habitat education programs. Why is PF so committed to creating, enhancing and restoring pollinator habitat on the land it plays a role in protecting permanently? To set a good example, given that permanently protected public land acres – even in places relatively rich in public lands, like Minnesota – pale in comparison to the number of acres that are privately owned.
“In order to save a species like the monarch butterfly, the agricultural sector and private land have to be highly involved,” Larsen said. “It would be hypocritical for a conservation organization or state agency not to do the same thing on their land. We have to be able to be the leaders in showing people what good pollinator habitat looks like and then do our part as wildlife managers.”
Since 2009 in the Prairie Pothole Region of western Minnesota, PF and partners including the Outdoor Heritage Fund, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), North America Wetlands Conservation Act (NAWCA) and others have permanently protected 27,581 acres of pollinator habitat and restored/enhanced 12,295 acres more that were already permanently protected and publicly accessible.
And as part of the Minnesota Honey Bee and Monarch Butterfly Partnership, which receives funding from the Trust Fund as recommended by the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources (LCCMR), 1,174 acres of pollinator plots and associated habitat enhancement have been completed … all on permanently protected and public lands. The University of Minnesota will assess and monitor the sites. The partnership includes PF, private landowners, the USFWS, Minnesota DNR, Minnesota Honey Bee Producers Association, Minnesota Department of Agriculture, Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources, LCCMR, NAWCA, University of Minnesota, and soil and water conservation districts in Minnesota.
“Partners are key and we really couldn’t do it without them,” Burdick said. “You can call it pollinator habitat, but it really is just wildlife habitat helping a myriad of species, including pheasants.”
One of the keys to creating plots alive with insects is planting a wide variety of grasses and especially forbs (more commonly and simply known as wildlfowers). Whereas plots may once have had three grass species, now they generally have between 40 and 60 species – some grasses, but many forbs that flower throughout the growing season.
“These high-diversity seed mixes are more resilient to climate change as well as wet and dry cycles. They’re good for clean water, and they have direct benefits for upland gamebirds, pollinators and grassland-nesting songbirds,” Burdick said. “We and our partners are just out there doing good work and putting habitat in the ground. And look at all these people benefitting from it. Fans of butterflies and bees. Bird watchers. Hunters. This really is for the greater good of Minnesota.”