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Pheasant summit: Habitat improvements needed on private land

Minnesota's strategy to reverse a steady decline in its pheasant population should focus on making habitat improvements on private land, and better enforcement of laws requiring vegetative buffers along waterways and restricting roadside mowing, ...

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Commissioner Tom Landwehr (left) of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources makes a point as Scott Rall of the Outdoor Heritage Council and Governor Mark Dayton visit during the Pheasant Summit held at Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall on Saturday. (Tom Cherveny/West Central Tribune)

Minnesota’s strategy to reverse a steady decline in its pheasant population should focus on making habitat improvements on private land, and better enforcement of laws requiring vegetative buffers along waterways and restricting roadside mowing, Pheasant Summit participants said.

The state also needs to make a greater investment to acquire land for Wildlife Management Areas and habitat in the southern part of the state.
Those are the priorities that emerged as more than 300 gathered Saturday at Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall during the state’s first Pheasant Summit. Governor Mark Dayton called for the summit, which was hosted by the state Department of Natural Resources and Minnesota Pheasants Forever.
“Enough people have said ‘we can’t keep watching this go the way it is going without doing something,’’’ said Tom Landwehr, commissioner of the Minnesota DNR, in remarks at the closing of the day-long summit.
His staff will be developing a comprehensive outline of the priorities that emerged to present during the DNR’s annual roundtable, scheduled for January 16 in Minneapolis.
Minnesota’s pheasant population has been in a steady decline since 2007, as farmers have removed land from the Conservation Reserve Program. The number of farmland acres enrolled in the federal program has decreased by about 25 percent from 2007 to 2013, according to information from the DNR.
“This is a huge gap to make up,’’ Dayton said.
Speaking to participants and later separately to reporters, the governor acknowledged that the state does not have the resources to make up for the losses in habitat. “It can’t be just about more money. It has to be about spending the money we have more wisely,’’ he said.
The governor said he would be urging the Legislature to take up issues from the summit. How legislators will react was impossible to gauge Saturday. State Representative Gary Dahms, R-Redwood Falls, was the lone legislator attending the summit.
The governor and others emphasized that much more is at stake than the sport of pheasant hunting. Pheasants are the “canaries in the coal mine’’ that reveal landscape issues ranging from declines in pollinators to water quality concerns, speakers said.
Howard Vincent, CEO of Pheasants Forever, urged attendees to “tell this story in a bigger way’’ and let people know that Minnesota’s quality of life is at stake.
Solutions will require a partnership with agriculture: Only 2 percent of the land in southern Minnesota is public land, Landwehr said.
“Farmers do care,’’ Roger Toquam of Dodge County told the participants during an open discussion. “Lots of times I hear comments, ‘well the blanking farmers are doing this and the blanking farmers are doing that.’ With that kind of comments, we’re not going to get anywhere. I’m here to work with you and I hope we can work together.’’
Working together will require that farmers receive economic incentives if they are to convert marginal lands into wildlife habitat, according to Doug Pederson, president of the Minnesota Farmers Union. No different than any business, they cannot afford to set aside space without revenue.
He also told participants in one of the workshops hosted through the day that paperwork and other hurdles must be made easier if landowners are going to participate.
If long-term change is going to occur, people in the state will have to persuade federal and state lawmakers to change the programs and policies that are responsible for the landscape today, Tom Kalahar, with the Renville County Soil and Water Conservation District, told participants. “The problem is quite evident. We have a farm policy, this program, federal and state that has produced the landscape we have. And we are going to continue to have this landscape until we change that federal and state policy.’’
Commissioner Land-wehr said the DNR will develop a report card to measure whether the pheasant summit proves to be the turning point in reversing the declining pheasant population.
He was among a number of those present who expressed optimism that the summit would represent a turning point. Count the day’s emcee, Ron Schara as being among them. The well-known outdoor columnist and TV personality had first suggested the summit to Governor Dayton.
“I wouldn’t be here either if I didn’t think we could move the needle,’’ Schara said.

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoors reporter for the West Central Tribune.
He has been a reporter with the West Central Tribune since 1993.

Cherveny can be reached via email at tcherveny@wctrib.com or by phone at 320-214-4335.
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