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Dayton announces plan to revitalize Minnesota pheasant hunting

Following up on the Pheasant Summit he called last December, Gov. Mark Dayton Monday announced a four-year "action plan" aimed at revitalizing Minnesota's pheasant hunting tradition.

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A pheasant hunting party moves across a field of big bluestem near Marshall, Minn. (File photo / Sam Cook / scook@duluthnews.com)

Following up on the Pheasant Summit he called last December, Gov. Mark Dayton Monday announced a four-year "action plan" aimed at revitalizing Minnesota's pheasant hunting tradition.

The state's pheasant numbers have tumbled in the past 10 years as grassland habitat has declined. With crop prices high in recent years, many farmers have elected to take their grasslands out of federal programs and put those lands into corn and soybeans, which are less-favorable habitat for the popular game birds.

The pheasant action plan outlines 10 "immediate and achievable steps," according to the governor, that will make the greatest difference in improving pheasant habitat, pheasant numbers and hunting opportunities.

"For 60 years, I have enjoyed pheasant hunting in Minnesota," Gov. Dayton said in announcing the plan. "The decisions we make today will determine whether future generations of Minnesotans will have those same opportunities. We must work together to increase the pheasant population in our state."

Some of the actions outlined in the plan already are underway. The Legislature in its last session passed legislation that establishes vegetation buffers along rivers, streams and ditches that will help filter sediment. Last month, the Department of Natural Resources received a $1.7 million grant for the hunter Walk-In Access program from the Natural Resources Conservation Service. Conservation groups have submitted 13 proposals to the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council totaling $128 million for grassland habitat protection and management.

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Among other things, the governor's plan includes efforts to:

• Enhance and protect habitat in areas at least 9 square miles in size where at least 40 percent of the area can be permanently protected within four years.

• Increase the rate of enrollment and retention in short-term conservation programs and enrollment of permanent conservation easements by private landowners.

• Increase education and marketing of private lands conservation programs through the Farm Bill Assistance Partnership.

• Increase management of habitat on both public and private lands.

• Accelerate acquisition of land to increase the amount of public land open to hunting across the state's pheasant range.

• Develop and implement a comprehensive riparian buffer program.

• Improve roadside management to optimize pheasant habitat.

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• Secure federal funding to sustain the Walk-In Access program in the pheasant range. The program pays farmers to allow public access to hunting on their lands.

The plan grew out of ideas generated by citizens at last year's pheasant summit. A steering committee comprised of DNR, Minnesota Department of Agriculture, Board of Water and Soil Resources, Minnesota Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts, Pheasants Forever, Minnesota Farmers Union, Minnesota Farm Bureau Federation and Hunting Works.

Increasing private land conservation is a key component of the Pheasant Summit Action Plan, said John Jaschke, Board of Water and Soil Resources executive director.

"We have the programs in place to make the plan a reality and look forward to accelerating our work with DNR, Pheasants Forever, other conservation partners and landowners to provide permanent habitat protection on private lands through the Reinvest in Minnesota Reserve program," Jaschke said.

Agriculture Commissioner David Frederickson said the state's farmers have a role to play.

"I urge all farmers and landowners to review the plan and to consider how you can do your part to help us boost the pheasant population in our state," Frederickson said.

Habitat loss, driven primarily by high commodity prices in recent years and farmers pulling out of the federal Conservation Reserve Program, has driven the pheasant decline.

The 2015 Minnesota pheasant index is 39 percent below the 10-year average and 59 percent below the long-term average, according to DNR roadside surveys in August. Although this year's survey showed a 33 percent increase in the number of Minnesota pheasants compared to last year at this time, the increase was mainly due to favorable weather conditions, DNR wildlife officials say.

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Minnesota has lost 153,492 acres of CRP land since last year and more than 247,000 acres of CRP since 2007. Many more acres - 495,000 acres or more - could expire by 2018 if contracts are not renewed or new acres are not enrolled into the program, DNR officials said.

Corn and soybean prices have dropped since peaking in recent years.

"CRP, even though it's down, is still the major contributor to pheasant habitat," said Matt Holland, director of grant development for Pheasants Forever. "We're also very lucky to have the Reinvest in Minnesota easement program and the Outdoor Heritage Fund and the Clean Water Fund. There are things we can do there."

DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr also stressed the broad involvement the plan will require.

"For the pheasant action plan to succeed, we will need collaboration across agencies, with the Legislature, and with conservation organizations, farmers and landowners," Landwehr said.

Related Topics: HUNTING
Sam Cook is a freelance writer for the News Tribune. Reach him at cooksam48@gmail.com or find his Facebook page at facebook.com/sam.cook.5249.
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