Published October 23, 2011, 10:48 AM

Loss of CRP will mean loss of pheasants

It’s just a hunch, but maybe a person does not need a crystal ball to see into the future. Common sense can be a pretty good substitute.

By: Brian Hansel, Wadena Pioneer Journal

It’s just a hunch, but maybe a person does not need a crystal ball to see into the future. Common sense can be a pretty good substitute.

The future of pheasant hunting is currently in doubt because of the shrinking number of acres in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). Like the old Soil Bank Program of the 1950s, the CRP acres have given grassland-loving creatures a home and room to expand. There were 1.7 million acres enrolled in the program 20 years ago. That number of acres could plummet in the next three years because contracts covering 550,000 of the existing 948,000 CRP acres are scheduled to expire.

Let us look at both sides of this problem. Landowners have some pretty good arguments for turning their CRP acres back into cropland. Farmers are receiving $13 a bushel for soybeans and up to $7 a bushel for corn. The world population just hit 7 billion on Monday and by 2050 it will be 9 billion. Imagine the amount of food that will be needed to feed the many people three times a day! Farmers simply have to produce more food.

But what about wildlife and the hunters who pursue it? From a business standpoint some might say “yeah, what about them? When the day comes that some pheasant is more important that a human being we are in serious trouble.”

You might get the idea that farmers are about as heartless and greedy as The Grinch that stole Christmas – but there you would be wrong. Farmers do more for wildlife by accident than most sportsmen do on purpose. Sure, some of them go gunning for marauding geese in their spring wheat fields and a lot of them hunt deer or let others hunt deer on their land in the fall. Ask some dairy or beef farmer what raccoons can do to an ag bag in one night or what deer can do to a round bale but do not be surprised if the language they use is a little salty.

But what about pheasants?

There are plenty of wildlife species that do just fine in close quarters with people but pheasants are ground-nesting birds that need their space. They are actually imports from China. They do well in dry, grassy country like South Dakota but throw them up against the cold, wooded country of central Minnesota and they need help from Mother Nature and from man.

As CRP acres continue to dwindle so will pheasants. Hunters took a modern era record 655,000 birds in 2007. Last year hunters bagged 359,000 pheasants.

The loss of birds could equal the loss of hunters and the loss of hunters a loss to the economy. A federal report issued in 2006 reported that upland hunters spent approximately $121 million in Minnesota and supported nearly 900 in-state jobs.

But before writing off the future of pheasant hunting in the North Star State for good, a few facts have to be explored.

The state has started a three-year walk-in program that will open private land to hunting. Walk-in hunting is practiced in several other states and reports of his popularity have been high.

Private land has always been an option for hunters but securing permission from landowners is necessary and sometimes difficult. It cuts two ways – hunters do not like to run down elusive landowners and landowners dislike being asked over and over again. Walk-ins can be the answer.

It is much wiser to expect a tough winter in a state like Minnesota than count on a mild one. That is why grasslands are not enough. Two feet of snow can flatten a grass land and choke a stand of cattails. More and more landowners are creating winter wildlife habitat by planting windbreaks of red cedar, redosier dogwood and other good winter cover in strategic spots.

Wildlife officials are on the move too — clearing old farm sites overgrown with cottonwoods, boxelders and buckthorn where predators find shelter. The opportunity to plant winter cover that will aid wildlife is at hand for these groups if they are properly supported.

Winter feeding of deer is discouraged by the DNR but in tough winters and Minnesota is famous for them pheasants can always use an assist. They fight a losing battle when the snow and ice get too deep. They have to find a place where they can survive.

I placed a corn feeder on a windswept knoll last year where I had previously fed pheasants. After having no customers for several weeks I placed that same feeder in a stand of evergreens just two blocks away from our home and fed both roosters and hens. Some relatives who farm south of Barrett had a bird feeder outside of their house last winter. Every day their little grandson watched pheasants come to eat the bird seed that fell on the ground. He finally decided that they were “the birds you see in the winter.”

The loss of CRP has pheasants facing a very long winter.

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