Written by: C.B. Bylander
Pheasant hunters aiming for a good time should set their sights on Minnesota.
The best hunting is in the southwest and west-central portions of the state. That’s where federal Waterfowl Production Areas (WPA), state Wildlife Management Areas (WMA) and private hunter Walk-In Access lands provide plenty of swales and sloughs for dogs and hunters to roam.
“Minnesota is on an upward trend when it comes to acres of public pheasant hunting land,” said Greg Hoch, prairie habitat supervisor for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. “Today, hunters can find some 400,000 acres of grass on state WMAs alone. This upward trend will continue. More and better public grasslands are part of Minnesota’s future.”
Minnesota’s uptick in public hunting acreage is the result of an inspired funding source, creative partnerships and citizen support for habitat. Unlike most states, Minnesota has a constitutional amendment that guarantees a small fraction of the state’s sales tax must be used to restore, protect, and enhance fish and wildlife habitat. Typically, this small tax generates about $100 million a year for habitat conservation. Non-profit organizations that support pheasant hunting, including Pheasants Forever, are particularly savvy at maximizing the benefits of this rare and powerful funding source by creating mutually beneficial collaborations.
“Pheasants Forever is an amazing partner for the Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service,” said Hoch. “PF and its members strongly supported our state’s 2008 constitutional amendment for habitat funding, and since then has been an active and important partner on scores of projects.”
According to Eran Sandquist, PF’s Minnesota state coordinator, since 2009 PF and its chapters have helped acquire 134 state WMAs totaling 22,347 acres and 118 federal WPAs totaling 14,632 acres. Together, that’s a $134 million investment in habitat. By far, most of these projects have been accomplished thanks to Legacy Amendment funding, Sandquist said.
Currently, PF has 22 purchase agreements with private landowners to acquire more public lands. When approved, these projects will add another 2,624 acres of public hunting land.
“Minnesota is blessed,” said Sandquist. “We have state government Legacy Amendment funding as well as generous citizens who want to leave their own legacy by selling or donating their property so it can become a WMA or WPA.”
Sandquist said that during the past decade private property owners have donated land valued at more than $10 million to Pheasants Forever. This citizen generosity is greatly appreciated because PF, through various matching grants, can make these dollars multiply and do even more good.
Though the amount of public pheasant habitat has been on the rise Minnesota is not immune to the downturn of private land enrolled in the federal Conservation Reserve Program. Roughly 692,000 acres of private grassland habitat has been converted to cropland or non-habitat uses since 2007. Contracts for an additional 282,000 acres of existing private grassland are set to expire between 2021 and 2024. It is unknown how many of these acres will be re-enrolled as wildlife habitat or converted to corn, soybeans or other use.
Minnesota’s current pheasant numbers reflect what’s happening with CRP enrollments. The state’s 2019 pheasant index was 11 percent below the 10-year average and 60 percent below the long-term average. However, DNR staff have heard positive pheasant hunting reports throughout the season. Despite heavy rains, flooding and more, many hunters found birds well into late December. “That’s evidence that if you have good habitat, pheasants and other wildlife can literally and figuratively weather the storm,” said Hoch.
In Minnesota, about 45 Farm Bill Assistance Partnership biologists are constantly working on habitat efforts. These specialists work in local Soil and Water Conservation District offices throughout the pheasant range. They are trained in a wide range of state and federal habitat programs, and thereby have the skills to help landowners make timely and informed decisions.
Farm Bill biologists are the tip of the spear when it comes to farmland habitat conservation. They live in the local community. They work in the local office. They have biological and agricultural expertise. And Minnesota has more of them than any other state in the nation.
Hunters and others interested in the future of Minnesota’s pheasant should visit the DNR’s website and download the recently released 2020-2023 Pheasant Action Plan. This document outlines strategies to increase grassland acres, improve grassland quality, expand Walk-In Access opportunities and more. The document calls for considerable collaboration with such partners as the Board of Water and Soil Resources, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Minnesota Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts and key non-government organizations.
“Our vision for the future is squarely about sustaining a strong pheasant population while simultaneously creating conditions that benefit butterflies, other pollinator species, surface water quality, groundwater retention, carbon storage and more,” said Hoch. He encouraged potential and existing pheasant hunters to visit the DNR’s website where the agency provides information on how to hunt and where to hunt as well as helpful data on pheasant research and pheasant management.
Scott Roemhildt, the DNR’s regional director for southern Minnesota, encourages Midwest hunters to give Minnesota shot. “Self-guided public land hunts are very doable here,” he said. “State-managed parcels are well marked, plus they’re easy to locate with free mapping we offer for mobile devices.”