NICOLLET, Minn. — Amid a backdrop of prairie grasses in a landscape dominated by corn and soybeans, Gov. Mark Dayton on Monday released a 10-point plan intended to increase the number of pheasants and pheasant hunters in Minnesota.
The plan focuses on increasing protected native grasslands on public and private property in the pheasant’s range — roughly the southern half of the state — as well as increasing the quantity and quality of acreage open to public hunting.
From focusing on creating larger, connected complexes of wildlife habitat to rekindling near-dormant efforts to protect grasses in roadside ditches during spring nesting season, the plan gives weight to many ideas conservationists and pheasant and duck hunters have been demanding for years.
The popular game bird and its related hunting culture and economy are the primary targets, but water, monarch butterflies, birds and bees should be ancillary beneficiaries, Dayton said.
“Pheasants are one barometer,” Dayton said in announcing the “Pheasant Summit Action Plan,” the work product of a December Pheasant Summit convened by Dayton. A pheasant hunter himself, Dayton called the summit, in response to a years-long decline of pheasants on the landscape and pheasant hunters in the field.
The decline roughly parallels a decline in natural habitat through farm country.
At the sport’s height in 1961, Minnesota boasted 270,000 pheasant hunters; in 2014, that figure was roughly 58,000, according to state figures.
Dayton’s controversial plan to require natural vegetative buffer strips between row crops and waterways has been the highest-profile outcropping of the summit; stepping up the state’s buffer requirements and enforcement was the top priority expressed by the summit’s 350 or so attendees. But, in his words, buffers were just “a first step,” and implementation of the plan eventually approved by the legislature is considered part of the 10-point plan.
Few of the ideas are new, and many are echoed throughout an assortment of state policies and initiatives. But, supporters said, never before have they become state policy issued by the governor.
“This action plan provides a real way forward to improve upland habitat,” said Matt Holland, director of grant development for Pheasant’s Forever, a White Bear lake-based conservation organization that was among several interest groups involved in advising the Department of Natural Resources, which came up with the plan in consultation with farm groups and government agencies as well.
Minnesota DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr said it would cost “hundreds of millions of dollars,” but it’s unclear exactly how much it will cost — or from where additional funding would come. One source identified by Landwehr and Dayton is the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment, a sales tax-hike approved by voters in 2008.
“I can’t tell you how much it’s going to cost,” Dayton said to a supportive crowd at the Nicollet Conservation Club outside Mankato. “But I can tell you what it’s going to cost if we do nothing.”
Without change, he said, water quality will continue to deteriorate, pollinators will continue to disappear, and the number of pheasants and pheasant hunters will continue to decline.
“There’s no magic bullet,” said Landwehr, a former pheasant biologist himself. “We know what we need to do to grow more pheasants in Minnesota … The difference here is the governor’s support, to be candid.”
Pheasant Summit Action Plan
The 10 “action items” in the Gov. Mark Dayton’s state plan to increase and protect pheasant habitat in Minnesota:
♦ Target habitat enhancement and protection in complexes at least 9 square miles in size where 40 percent of the land can be permanently protected.
♦ Increase enrollment and retention in short-term conservation programs while seeking permanent habitat via easements from private landowners.
♦ Increase education and marketing of conservation programs funded by federal farm bill dollars.
♦ Improve habitat management of public and private lands through more controlled fires and grazing.
♦ Accelerate acquisition of public lands open to public hunting in the pheasant’s range.
♦ Implement the buffer plan approved by Dayton and the legislature.
♦ Improve roadside management to optimize pheasant habitat.
♦ Seek reliable federal funding for the Walk-In Access program, which pays landowners extra to allow public hunting.
♦ Expand public education about grassland and conservation causes.
♦ Increase funding for research.