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Morken: CRP is worth fighting for by more than hunters

Yellow lab, Ole, sits for a photo with a couple of roosters he retrieved during the first weekend of the season in Minnesota last year. This year's opener is set for Oct. 14. (Eric Morken | Echo Press)1 / 2
Eric Morken (left) and Marv Kremin of Cottonwood with a limit of six roosters they shot in a field enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program on Jan. 1, 2017. (Submitted)2 / 2

Each year the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources releases annual surveys that often paint a bleak outlook for pheasant hunters.

The August roadside count that pheasant enthusiasts look forward to every year actually rose in 2016. A mild winter, and a dry, warm spring led to more birds on the ground last fall.

I was expecting somewhat of the same this season with another mild winter and what felt like a relatively good spring for chicks to survive. Last year's count turned out to be an anomaly. This year's survey showed the state's pheasant index dropping 26 percent from a year ago.

"There has been a steady decline in undisturbed nesting cover since the mid-2000s, and our pheasant population has declined as a result," Nicole Davros, the DNR research scientist who oversees the annual August roadside survey, said in a release. "Although it appeared mild winter weather and dry summer weather might boost our numbers, that wasn't the case."

Warm winters like the one this past year usually lead to good hen survival. However, the 2017 hen index, at 5.8 hens per 100 miles, was also down 26 percent from last year.

"It's surprising to see our hen index down this year," Davros said. "We experienced a pretty mild winter so hen survival should have been good. But the amount of habitat on the landscape makes the difference in the long run, so we may be at the point that good weather just isn't enough to help us anymore."

Minnesota has lost about 686,800 acres in the Conservation Reserve Program since 2007. The program covered under the federal Farm Bill pays to remove environmentally sensitive land from agricultural and restore vegetation that will reduce soil erosion, improve water quality, and provide habitat for wildlife and pollinators.

The 2012 version of the Farm Bill reduced spending on CRP and implemented a cap of 24 million acres nationwide.

The Farm Bill is due to be renewed in 2018 with Pheasants Forever leading many conservation groups that are asking for enough funding to support 40 million acres of CRP. If this is important to you, it's time to let our elected officials know about it.

Winning the fight for more CRP dollars is never going to be won by just hunters, nor is any issue that impacts the future of hunting. We're not the majority, which is why we need to do everything we can to make sure hunters and non-hunters are working together.

When it comes to CRP, this is much more than a pheasant hunting issue. Millions of acres of grass, trees and wetlands established by CRP benefit countless species of wildlife. Everything from bugs to big game.

Research from the United States Fish and Wildlife Service estimated that the CRP contributed to a net increase of about 2 million additional ducks per year since 1992 in North Dakota, South Dakota and Northeastern Montana. Countless grassland birds continue to benefit, as well.

So too do the pollinators. By now, we all understand their importance with pollinators, especially honey bees, vital to the production of more than one-third of our food products.

It's well documented how CRP improves our water quality. It protects and enhances soil productivity on fragile land. Each year since 2002, CRP reduced soil erosion by 325 million tons or more from pre-CRP levels, according to a USDA report released in July of 2011. Since 1986, CRP had reduced more than 8 million tons of soil erosion.

I'm not naive to the current political climate. Getting 40 million acres funded in the 2018 Farm Bill won't be easy by any stretch, but I hold out hope because there are reasons everyone can get behind this program.

What it does to hold pheasants is perhaps a nonessential byproduct for those who don't hunt. For those of us who do, it's still remarkable to see what the right habitat can do each season even when statewide numbers show a decline.

I'm lucky enough to have grown up in some of the best pheasant hunting areas Minnesota has to offer in the southwestern portion of the state. That's still where I do most of my bird hunting, and last year's final day of the season while hunting a field in CRP was especially memorable.

My buddy, Marv Kremin, and I never like to let January 1 slip away without chasing birds. We went after them in the typical winter cover last year - cattail sloughs and willows.

They just weren't there that day. With the sun shining and temperatures comfortably in the high 30-degrees, the roosters were piled up in the slightly snow covered grass, and they were holding tight. Ole, my yellow lab, pointed one right after another until Marv and I had our six-bird limit on a hunt we'll never forget.

Pheasants are a fragile bird, but good cover gives them a fighting chance. Where there is habitat, there is always the potential for birds - along with so many other species that call these grasslands home. Let's continue to fight to get more of that habitat on the ground.

Eric Morken

Eric Morken is the sports and outdoor editor at the Echo Press and Osakis Review newspapers in Douglas County, MN. Follow him on Twitter at echo_sports.

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