Grassland habitat is disappearing at a meteoric pace in the Upper Midwest and Great Plains. In fact, a recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences put the loss of grassland habitat in the Dakotas, Minnesota, Iowa and Nebraska at a whopping 1.3 million acres between 2006 and 2011. This dramatically changing landscape is having profound negative effects on pheasants and other wildlife. Pheasants Forever’s list of the 12 most threatened areas in pheasant country brings sorely needed attention to what in modern times is unprecedented habitat loss, and also serves as a call to action for pheasant hunters, conservationists and policy makers to do more to preserve wild places and wildlife across America’s heartland.
“The list of the most threatened areas in pheasant country underscores the importance of the federal Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and the current CRP General Sign-Up,” says Dave Nomsen, Pheasants Forever’s Vice President of Governmental Affairs, “Voluntary conservation programs like CRP provide the bulk of upland habitat in pheasant country. Sustainable farming operations include plans addressing soil, water and wildlife conservation and these farms and ranches support strong rural communities and our nation’s hunting heritage. Pheasants Forever hosted hundreds of landowner meetings regarding CRP in the past two months, and landowners still have until June 14th to visit their local USDA Service Center to learn about options that create win-win situations for their operations and wildlife. And continuous CRP practices which specifically emphasize pheasant and quail habitat are available to landowners in many states on an ongoing basis.”
Dickey County, N.D. This southeast North Dakota county borders South Dakota and is a perennial top-10 county for pheasant harvest in North Dakota. But nowhere is grassland conversion happening as rapidly as it is in the Prairie Pothole Region, and areas around towns well known to pheasant hunters – Oakes and Ellendale – have suffered major CRP losses. “County-wide, we’ve lost 27 percent of our CRP habitat, and just in the last year the number of CRP acres has declined by nearly 14,000,” says Matt Olson, a Pheasants Forever Farm Bill Wildlife Biologist, “In the next two years another 16,000 acres are up for expiration. This is a great area where we want to make sure there’s always good upland habitat.”
Lyman County, S.D. - Pheasant hunters annually spend $10 million in Lyman County hunting ringnecks in the heart of pheasant country. But the county suffered a net loss of 13,173 CRP acres last year, and another 4,000 CRP acres are set to leave the program in the next two years. “While the county has lots of pastureland, the CRP acres are what provide the best pheasant nesting habitat in Lyman County,” says Matt Morlock, a Pheasants Forever Farm Bill Wildlife Biologist in South Dakota.
Washington, Marshall and Nemaha Counties, Kans. – This trio of neighboring counties in northeast Kansas has historically been a popular destination for Kansas City metro area upland hunters, but conservation and small grains have taken a backseat to corn and soybean production. Combined, CRP acreage in these counties has declined by nearly 29,000 acres since 2007, a decrease of 34 percent. The habitat horizon is blurry as well, with nearly 20,000 CRP acres set to expire in the next two years. “It’s almost a shame that you can get a hotel room in this area on the pheasant hunting opener, not too long ago it was booked up solid,” says Jordan Martincich, a lifelong Kansas resident and Pheasants Forever’s Development Officer, “We need to work with landowners in these counties to recoup as many CRP acres as possible and keep the upland tradition alive.”
Brown County, S.D. - Brown County has long been the gold standard for pheasant hunters in northeast South Dakota, but no county in the state is set to expire more CRP acres this year (9,136 acres) and next (12,338) than Brown, and this after a net loss of 10,000 CRP acres in the county in the last half decade. Existing upland habitat here is the economic driver for the $16.7 million that resident and nonresident pheasant hunters spend annually in Aberdeen and Brown County.
Carroll County, Iowa – Carroll County’s CRP acreage is down approximately 1,000 acres off its peak, but many of those lost habitat acres were high-quality field and waterway buffers, says Tom Fuller, Pheasants Forever’s Iowa State Coordinator, “This was considered a top-notch pheasant hunting county even a few years ago, but it has taken a big hit, and many winter covering areas that wildlife depended on have been removed from the landscape as well.” In the next two years, another 1,500 CRP acres are slated for program expiration.
Dixon County, Neb. – In 2003, there were nearly 35,000 CRP acres in this northeast Nebraska county, but by 2013 that number had dropped to just 11,876 acres, with nearly all of the exited acres returned to crop production. “Many of these acres were enrolled into the CRP-MAP public access program and provided a significant economic boost to the small towns in the rural county,” says Nebraskan Pete Berthelsen, Pheasants Forever’s Director of Habitat Partnerships. In the next three years, approximately 4,000 more CRP acres expire in Dixon County.
Norton County, Kans. – CRP expirations stabilize in Norton County the next few years, but this follows a period in which one-third of the CRP habitat in the county vanished. “This is a county with a lot of Walk-In Hunting Access, an area capable of providing excellent hunting if the habitat is there” Martincich says, “Pheasants Forever, along with the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks & Tourism, is focusing in on this area to reverse the recent habitat trend.”
Stearns County, Minn. - This central Minnesota location is a popular destination for Minnesota upland hunters, especially from the Twin Cities metro areas just east of it, but it hemorrhaged 50,000 acres of wildlife habitat – mostly grasslands – between 2008 and 2011. Additionally, 5,000-plus more Stearns County CRP acres expire from the program in the next two years.
Sheridan County, Mont. – This northeast Montana area is well-known for the quality pheasant habitat and great pheasant hunting and has been a destination for many hunters. Will it continue to hold that reputation in the future? Conservation Reserve Program acreage has dropped from 156,000-plus acres to just over 111,000 acres and another 17,000 acres leave the program this year. In addition to pheasants, sharp-tailed grouse and Hungarian partridge are upland game birds affected by the habitat loss.
Osceola County, Iowa. – A mix of habitat loss, snowy winters and wet springs has been lethal for Iowa pheasants, but if there’s been a bright spot, it’s been the northwest corner of the state. Even during the modern agricultural boom, CRP acreage in Osceola County has remained steady, actually increasing by a few hundred acres since 2007. However, more than 1,700 county-based CRP lands are set for expiration in the next two years, and the strength of future pheasant numbers could hinge on maintaining current CRP levels.
Codington County, S.D. – The Watertown, South Dakota region has been a popular one in recent times for nonresident hunters traveling from the east, but upland habitat loss has put a severe dent in pheasant numbers here. CRP acreage has nearly been halved, from 29,956 acres in 2007 to 16,318 today, and ringneck numbers have followed suit, with pheasant brood counts in recent years dropping off significantly from the previous 10-year averages. Another 5,700 CRP acres expire in 2013-2014 in Codington County.
Central Nebraska. – The Loess Hills of central Nebraska have always been a prime area for pheasants, quail and prairie chickens. The rolling topography here is a rich mixture of native grasslands interspersed with the draws and plum thickets and grassy draws close to row crops that upland game birds thrive in. Berthelsen says loss of CRP acres coupled with native grassland conversion to row crops is accelerating habitat loss in this region at a significant pace.
Anthony’s Antics Afield is written by Anthony Hauck, Pheasants Forever’s Online Editor. Email Anthony at AHauck@pheasantsforever.organd follow him on Twitter @AnthonyHauckPF.