Alexandria was home to the Pheasants Forever state convention the weekend of Jan. 19.

The event was not open to the public, but rather an opportunity for many within the conservation organization to look back at 2018 and put a plan together for 2019.

"People don't always know all the good things we do (as an organization), so it was trying to celebrate what we've done," Douglas County PF president Dean Krebs said. "It does energize you when you hear about these other chapters and what they're doing and what's going on with farm bill biologists and habitat restoration. There is a lot going on, and it is pretty cool. It kind of gets you fired up about the next year and things the chapter can do."

Krebs said one thing he took away from the convention was the importance of all the programs out there that are essential for funding wildlife habitat. Those include federal programs like the Land Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) and Pittman-Robertson, to state programs like the Legacy Amendment passed in 2008 in Minnesota.

The LWCF needs to be resurrected if it's going to continue steering dollars from offshore oil and gas leasing revenues to conservation after it expired in September of 2018 when Congress failed to reauthorize it.

The convention in Alexandria included a speaking appearance by new Department of Natural Resources commissioner Sarah Strommen. Krebs said it was clear Strommen has a passion for the outdoors and wants to connect more people to them for the betterment of the resources. It comes at a time when a decline in hunters across the country has been well documented.

"One thing I thought was very enlightening was conservation has historically come from the hunters and anglers of the hook and bullet crowd," Krebs said. "With our numbers as they are, we have to reach out and reach the hikers, bikers, mountain climbers, the bird watchers. We need to include them to get involved in conservation."

One needs to look no further than pheasant hunting in Minnesota to see that decline in participation numbers. The state had almost 120,000 pheasant hunters in 2007 when more than 655,000 birds were shot. That was down to about 45,000 hunters this past season, despite bird numbers in many portions of the pheasant range being as good as they have been in the state in years.

"Habitat is definitely a big component of that," PF Western Minnesota Regional Rep. Matt Christensen said. "There's a direct correlation between pheasant numbers in Minnesota and CRP acres on the landscape. We can see that trend pretty easily. A lot of what Pheasants Forever members are still telling us is they want a place to hunt. That's access, that's getting out there, that's habitat and birds on the ground."

Included in the recent Farm Bill that was signed into law in December of 2018 was a bump of 3 million acres to the Conservation Reserve Program, from 24 million to 27 million. Minnesota currently has about 1.1 million acres enrolled in CRP. That's down from a high of 1.83 million acres during that big pheasant harvest year of 2007.

"I'm glad it passed finally," Christensen said of the Farm Bill. "That's a relief. I'd like to see more CRP. That's a big component of the private-land habitat initiative here in Minnesota with PF, but we did get an increase, so that's good to see."

Pheasants Forever has had the tagline of being the habitat organization since its inception, and Christensen, who lives near Kensington, said that will continue to be their focus in 2019. Farm Bill biologists through PF, including Josh Meissner in Douglas County, can help landowners see what options are available to them when it comes to habitat programs for their land.

Christensen said quality nesting habitat for pheasants and other ground-nesting birds is the most vital need locally.

"What that means in this part of the state is undisturbed native grasslands and wetlands," he said.

Christensen also emphasized that quality habitat does more than just provide cover for pheasants to hunt. It's home to many wildlife species, from pollinators to whitetails, along with its benefits for water quality. Whether someone is a hunter or not, that's a cause he believes many people should get behind.

"We need to get people in Minnesota to get out and enjoy these resources," Christensen said. "You don't have to be a hunter to do that, and I think we need to continue to emphasize that. (Strommen) mentioned that her family time is outdoors time. That's something we preach in my household, too. We go outside, whether it's snowshoeing, snowmobiling, ice fishing and hunting. Douglas County has a lot of cool places to go and explore."