A Case for Conservation: Conservation Begins with a Conversation

Birds need a beginning long before they end up in your bag. In the case of our most beautiful of upland game and the most welcome of immigrants, the Chinese Ringneck Pheasant, a dab of habitat starts the whole process.

Pheasants are as tough and resilient as they are beautiful. That being said, they are far from prima donnas. They really don’t ask for nor require much. If we can give them just a moderate amount of suitable space in which to live and procreate, they do a fine job of being self-sufficient. South Dakota has some of the most extreme weather events on the plains, yet they thrive through whatever Mother Nature throws their way in my home state.

The only real and ongoing struggle they face is what we do to them. Or, rather, what we don’t do for them. Humans dictate habitat. Habitat equals home.

With modern agriculture now resembling factory farming more than true stewardship of the land and resources as was much more prevalent as recently as the previous generation, it is more important than ever that we as sportsmen do our part to ensure a lasting legacy for our all of our wildlife.

Benefits are many. Not just for those of us in the hunting crowd. Clean water results from buffer zones of responsible farming that greatly reduce the plethora of herbicides and fertilizers used in today’s ag that are far from natural occurring elements. Ensuring cleaner water for all critters including us upright bipedal types.

Of particular interest to me is bringing things back into a more balanced natural state. After all, Mother Nature knows best — always. The closer we can stay to her course the better.

As a person who is fortunate enough to derive my livelihood from the land and all of its bounty, I feel a particular need, and quite frankly an obligation, to devote effort into leaving things a bit better than I found them. If we are to be truly conscientious sportsman, we all should. You may be nodding your head in agreement, but also wondering how much impact you can have as an individual if you do not own large tracts of land and the resources to manage it for wildlife. It is actually easier than you may realize.

As individuals, we can take modest amounts of time and resources donated to organizations with our shared interests in mind and have a major combined influence and impact. There is indeed strength in numbers. It can begin with local sportsman’s clubs or with well-respected national organizations such as Pheasants Forever. PF comes in tipping the scales at upwards of 150,000 members and growing, and it’s truly a heavyweight contender for one of the most effective, widely recognized and respected conservation organizations.

Minimal investment in membership can and does yield real and tangible results. Pheasants Forever has spent $784 million on 530,000 habitat projects benefiting 17 million acres nationwide. Pretty darned impressive by any standard of measure.

We can even pay forward and leave a lasting legacy in the process. Your contribution can even be felt long after you are gone. In my so called “real” profession of estate planning, there are several viable and surprisingly affordable options in which to project forward after you stay behind. Donate IRAs, use Life Insurance. Many tactics have considerable tax advantages. IRA distributions during lifetime. PF advisors?

I am currently working in close conjunction with one of my landowner partners, Don Schellpfeffer, and PF farm bill biologist Sam Fryman, in developing a comprehensive conservation plan to perfect two otherwise quite good properties consisting of 1,600 acres right in the heart of pheasant country in the James River Valley of Eastern South Dakota.

Both consist of agricultural land that is still used for that purpose — just not with an over-intensity that has become all too commonplace. A healthy balance of respect for nature sure goes a long way.

One has an abandoned farm site that has been left completely intact, including the homestead trees. It provides the most classic and picturesque of South Dakota settings — the kind of stuff that makes one think of a Terry Redlin print. Beyond the aesthetic value, the old farm site gives the birds a perfect place in which to seek refuge from blizzards and other severe weather events. The ample grass also makes for good nesting cover come spring. The balance of this parcel consists of a mixture of crop and hay ground, which has unmolested trees sprinkled throughout in low-lying areas with nice stands of reed canary grass below them. Areas providing additional nesting and rearing areas. There is also a very dense tree claim and a small cattail slough for even more important heavy winter cover. Round it all out with a permanent stock dam, food plots and a small chunk of CRP for good balance.

The property is pretty good as it now sits, but with a dab of effort, we figure that we can bring it up to a more complete picture of perfection. Both the biologist and I agree on the importance of pollinator plots for an even more varied selection of cover options with the distinct bonus of attracting a multitude of insects that are so vital as a source of protein for newly hatched chicks. By adding a couple of these plots, I believe this property will be about as good as it gets.

The second piece is a bit of a showcase property in its current state. To date, there has been some excellent conservation measures put into place. There are two nearly half-mile sections of wide shelterbelts consisting of a variety of hardwood and evergreen trees. This gives the birds a large area in which to escape the harsh prairie winds and drifting snow, no matter how severe. An overlooked feature is that they can tuck under the evergreens in the event of extremely fatal freezing rains. No matter what Mother Nature dishes out, the pheasants can ride it out in such well-designed winter cover. The real beauty of this scenario is there is readily available food sources directly adjacent in the form of both food plots and cropland. The farming practices also lend a hand in the fact that plenty of edge and lowland cover is left undisturbed. Alfalfa fields provide an excellent nesting option and remain uncut till the chicks can steer clear of haying efforts. The insect life it harbors once again is invaluable to supporting chick in their initial stages of development. Plus, it offers a canopy of cover that offers protection from the eyes of predators, both on the ground and from the air.

Low-lying areas have heavy cattail sloughs as an additional winter cover source with the grassy edges remaining for even more nesting options. In addition to the dedicated food plots, our farming partner leaves strips of corn each and every year for us, making for great hunting.

Another feature I am particularly fond of is that there are approximately 200 acres of grass in an expansive draw with a spring that runs year round and has never seen a plow. Brome grass has invaded most of the higher ground, but a variety of native grasses and reeds still rule the lower portions. Therefore, natural chick-rearing areas are plentiful.

After surveying the property with the biologist I am very excited and encouraged that some of the forbs and native grasses are still present and competing with the brome grass. He informs me that if we implement some prescribed burning that much of the native plants will rebound to once again thrive. We also plan to place a few small dams along the spring-fed creek to supply additional and larger watering holes for all forms of wildlife. These will no doubt end up being ringed by cattails. As the burning process will eliminate all undergrowth, we can now easily sow in some pollinator plots for quicker establishment.

Hopefully, some of what I have shared here will provide some inspiration for at least a few of you to become not only active, but proactive as well. It is absolutely critical that we enroll and engage as many folks as possible in our community of interested individuals. Also bear in mind that we can also use as many non-hunting people as possible, too. Once again, the benefits are far beyond just our beloved birds.