Northern Wilds Magazine
Points North

Is the 2018 Farm Bill a now or never juncture for pheasants?

It’s a little crazy that you can build a successful trade show around a bird. But the ring-necked pheasant isn’t just any bird. Pheasant Fest, the annual get-together for the conservation organization Pheasants Forever, was held at the Minneapolis Convention Center last weekend, drawing a record-setting crowd of over 30,000.

They came to wander through rows of booths devoted to the pursuit of pheasants: hunting camps, clothing, cookery, shotguns, destinations and dogs…lots of dogs. I walked past one seminar area where a well-known chef was giving a cooking demonstration to an audience of mostly empty chairs. At the next seminar area, a fellow was tossing dummies into the audience for a black Lab to retrieve. The dog had a standing-room-only crowd.

Wandering down the rows, it was easy to see pheasant hunting is a powerful little economic engine. Pheasants generally live in agricultural areas where people are few, meaning most hunters must travel somewhere to pursue them. Their annual arrival in small towns is welcomed by motels, restaurants, convenience stores and other businesses. Back home, pheasant hunters purchase everything from dog food to sport utility vehicles.

Even though pheasant hunters make cash registers sing, their continued existence is always tenuous. While all populations of wildlife rise and fall based on the natural conditions, the abundance of pheasants is directly linked to agricultural policies. Pheasants need cover in which to nest and find shelter on a landscape primarily devoted to row crops. As farming has grown in scale and efficiency, that cover has disappeared beneath the plow. Less cover means fewer pheasants, but far more than this popular game bird is imperiled as a result.

A segment of the show floor was devoted to bees and butterflies, the creatures we rely upon to pollinate plants, including the ones that we eat. You wouldn’t have seen pollinators at a hunting show a decade ago, but their plight has become increasingly dire as populations of common creatures like wild bees and monarch butterflies plummet. In farm country, they are dependent on the same cover as pheasants.

And that brings us to farm policies. Since the mid-1980s, pheasant hunters have benefited from the Conservation Reserve Program, a federal farm policy that pays farmers to take lands prone to erosion out of production. The land is then seeded to permanent cover, most often grasses. Throughout the 1990s and the early part of this century, millions of acres of CRP grasslands created a windfall of wildlife habitat. Pheasant hunting surged in popularity, creating the economic boom visible at Pheasant Fest.

Right now, it is fair to ask how the pheasant economy will fair in the not-too-distant future. Changes in farm policies and commodity markets have led to a steep decline in CRP acres during the last 10 years. Annual hunter harvests of pheasants are diminishing, even in the self-proclaimed pheasant capitol of South Dakota. We’ve already mentioned what’s happening to the bees and butterflies. The populations of these creatures will only recover if we restore grasslands on the landscape.

This is a natural crisis of our own making. We may be able to get by with fewer pheasants, even though that is not fair to bird dogs or the many businesses the pheasant economy supports. We may be able to get by without monarch butterflies, although the world will be a less lovely place. But bees? Without them, we’ll have to find a way to eat dirt, because little greenery will remain.

Unlike many environmental problems, this one has a workable solution. Every five years, Congress revisits agricultural policies and reauthorizes the Farm Bill that contains them. The next reauthorization is scheduled to occur in 2018. At that time, Congress can scale up the Conservation Reserve Program.

At Pheasant Fest, the governors of Minnesota and South Dakota, Minnesota Congressman Collin Peterson, and other officials gathered for a Pheasant Summit, where the primary topic of conversation was how to get more grass on the ground. Their shared goal was to increase the amount of land enrolled in the Conservation Reserve program, from a present level of about 24 million acres to 40 million acres. Congressman Peterson suggested that doing so is within the realm of the possible.

You might think a pending environmental crisis would spur Congress into action, but that is never the case. Conservationists must be geared up to fight for every additional blade of grass. Land taken out of production means less sales of seeds, fertilizer, fuel and farm implements. Then there is the ethanol industry, which depends upon a steady supply of corn.

To be sure, the argument for increasing CRP must be based on more than better pheasant hunting, even though that may be the most tangible result. Fortunately, we already have good information about the environmental benefits of CRP, including the reduction of soil erosion and better water quality. We also know grasslands are the wellspring of life within the agricultural landscape. While paying farmers not to farm may seem a little crazy, we can easily make the case that it is a prudent investment.

The writing is already on the wall for what will happen if conservationists fail to make significant grassland gains in the 2018 Farm Bill. There will be fewer places to hunt pheasants and fewer people hunting the birds. In some places, we may be just a drought away from dust bowl conditions. Poor quality drinking water will be a fact of life in many communities. And the bees and butterflies will be in bigger trouble than they are now.

It may well be that the 2018 Farm Bill is a last-ditch conservation effort, at least for pheasant hunters. Many of the folks walking around Pheasant Fest were a little gray around the muzzle. Given the declines in pheasant abundance that have occurred in the past decade, it is unlikely the sport is gaining new hunters at a rate adequate to replace those who are on their last bird dog. If pheasant hunting fades away, so too will crucial support for grassland conservation.

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