The Build A Wildlife Area Program: Where it began and how far the program has come.
By Bob St.Pierre
The Build a Wildlife Area Origin Story
My story starts with a breakfast meeting during the summer of 2003. I’d been hired by Pheasants Forever in January of that year to handle the organization’s media relations responsibilities working under the leadership of Joe Duggan, one of Pheasants Forever’s earliest employees. Duggan is the embodiment of the “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” concept. In other words, darn near everyone in the conservation world has crossed paths with Joe.
Anyway, that morning Duggan had pulled together a small group of folks including Chuck Delaney (owner of Game Fair), Joe Gonsior (President of the Anoka County Chapter of Pheasants Forever at the time), Rob Drieslein (editor of Outdoor News), and Greg Emerick (then marketing director at Outdoor News). After ordering his standard coffee and water, Duggan unveiled his concept, starting with an overview of Pheasants Forever’s 200,000 acres of land acquisitions to create public wildlife areas around the country and an explanation of land acquisition funding in place within the state of Minnesota.
“Pheasants Forever is doing a lot of excellent land acquisitions across the state with support from the Environmental Trust Fund, the Minnesota DNR, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. With each of our partners, they have grassland priorities that align with our objectives and mission. These new public properties are resulting in thousands of acres of critical habitat and public hunting access for pheasants, ducks, turkeys, and deer,” Duggan explained. “If we could incentivize corporate and individual donations as matching dollars toward the purchase of public land acquisitions, we could stretch those state and federal funds even further.”
Also critical to Joe’s thought process was the need to demonstrate Minnesotans’ support for public lands to the state’s legislative body. That component of Joe’s thinking was multi-faceted. On one hand, Joe was part of a contingent of political powerbrokers working with the state’s elected officials to pass an amendment dedicating funds to wildlife habitat (that concept would later pass in 2008 as Minnesota’s Legacy Amendment). At the same time, there were some political forces within the state who wanted to limit the acquisition of additional state-owned public lands (no-net gain legislation). In Joe’s mind, a campaign engaging the Minnesota public, outdoor business community, and media could achieve a wide array of goals for the organization’s habitat mission and for the good of all Minnesotans.
Joe’s idea was embraced out of the gates by that breakfast gathering. Outdoor News and Game Fair agreed to invest in the concept with publicity and funding through subscriptions and ticket sales. If my memory serves correctly, Drieslein even coined the name for the concept – “Build a Wildlife Area.”
After that breakfast, the idea quickly gained an instant corporate embrace from Federal Ammunition, Gander Mountain, and Apple Autos. In the end, that first campaign resulted in the acquisition of a 318-acre parcel in Minnesota’s Morrison County called the Mud Lake Wildlife Management Area.
The idea was off to the races after that with Ron Schara joining in a big way to help sell plush black Lab “Raven” puppies in Gander Mountain stores for the campaign’s benefit and Minnesota Bound joining in our publicity efforts. KFAN and FAN Outdoors’ Billy Hildebrand also started hosting annual radio-a-thon broadcasts for the campaign. The 400-acre Hunter’s Paradise WMA in Minnesota’s Traverse County followed as a result of the next year’s campaign, which accomplished Duggan’s final goal of establishing a lasting model that would generate new public wildlife areas every year.
Today, the Build a Wildlife Area
program has grown beyond Minnesota’s borders and Pheasants Forever & Quail Forever now have public land projects in Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Montana, Wisconsin, and coming soon to Missouri. Since that breakfast in 2003, Joe’s Build a Wildlife Area idea and many contributions from generous partners has resulted in 13,038 acres of new public land habitat open to hunters across the land.
The Public Lands Pavilion is Born
Also in 2003, Duggan led the creation of Pheasants Forever’s first-ever National Pheasant Fest (Quail Forever wasn’t born until 2005). The event has grown into the largest gathering in the upland world, with over 30,000 people attending 2020’s three-day extravaganza in Minneapolis. This year, we baked the Build a Wildlife Area concept into the National Pheasant Fest & Quail Classic recipe and the new Public Lands Pavilion emerged.
In addition to a Public Lands Stage featuring some of the country’s most respected advocates for America’s public lands, we set out to create a new public wildlife area with the help of our corporate partners and show attendees. As part of the Public Lands Pavilion, 10% of revenue generated by participating exhibitors was also donated toward the organization’s Build a Wildlife Area campaign to fund a new public wildlife area in Minnesota.
This concept caught fire. Land Tawney and Backcountry Hunters, Ben Jones and Ruffed Grouse Society, and Commissioner Sarah Strommen of the Minnesota DNR all jumped on as sponsoring partners of the Public Lands Pavilion. Randy Newberg, keynote speaker for National Pheasant Fest & Quail Classic wrote a check on the show floor after learning of our plans, and the following ten exhibitors worked with PF’s Luc Ramthun to cut checks from their sales to the campaign.
• Backcountry Hunters & Anglers
• The Ruffed Grouse Society
• Duluth Pack
• Hunt 2 Eat
• Modern Carnivore
• Project Upland
• Sage & Braker
• Sam Soholt/Public Land Tees
• Sight Line Provisions
• Sportsman for the Boundary Waters
Additional critical contributors to this Build a Wildlife Area project include:
• Trust for Public Land
• Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge and Wetland Management District
• Longspur Prairie Fund
• Minnesota Sharp-tailed Grouse Society
• Joseph Prosby III
• Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership (TRCP)
My first call after the conclusion of National Pheasant Fest & Quail Classic was to Eran Sandquist. Eran is Pheasants Forever’s state coordinator for Minnesota, the point person for all our organization’s land acquisitions in the state, an avid bird hunter, and one of the best human beings on the planet. Together, we discussed land acquisition projects in the pipeline and the array of funding partners involved through the Build a Wildlife Area campaign. It became clear that our goal was to find a project worthy of the diversity of partners involved in this campaign. Our partners represented the spectrum of conservationists from Minnesota’s Boundary Waters to the prairies, from the grouse of the Northwoods to the pheasants of the grasslands. In Eran’s mind, there was one project that fit our goals perfectly.
Introducing the Cupido Wildlife Management Area
With critical support from Minnesota’s Outdoor Heritage Fund
, a large group of partners led by Pheasants Forever and Minnesota Prairie Chicken Society
are thrilled to announce the acquisition of 955 acres to be opened as public land. The Cupido Wildlife Management Area (WMA) addition features native prairie, one of the most threatened ecosystems on the continent, and adds to a sprawling public lands complex now totaling more than 5,450 acres. The name “Cupido” references the greater prairie chicken’s Latin name – Tympanuchus cupido – as this property protects some of the best remaining critical habitat for the bird in Minnesota’s northwest corner.
Through a $1.8 million grant from Minnesota’s Outdoor Heritage Fund, Pheasants Forever and Minnesota Prairie Chicken Society came together as partners to lead this critically important project. The acquisition was also bolstered by a contribution from Purina
last October and Pheasants Forever’s Give to the Max fundraiser last November.
The Cupido WMA addition was finalized utilizing Public Lands Pavilion fundraising, helping Pheasants Forever and the Minnesota Prairie Chicken Society cap off the land project totaling more than $2 million.
In the end, we have a tremendous new public property featuring habitat for upland game birds, waterfowl, ducks, deer, pollinators, monarchs, songbirds and even moose. The Cupido WMA is a textbook example of collaborative conservation. I’m truly humbled and honored to have been able to work with so many good folks in this public land creation.
The Cupido WMA addition can be found five miles southwest of Twin Valley, Minnesota. There will be a public land dedication later this summer and it will be open to hunting this autumn. Thanks to all our supporters who contributed to this acquisition through the Build a Wildlife Area campaign.