young roosters

A group of young roosters explore the edges of their grassy habitat ahead of pheasant opener. PF is focused on finding ways through private and public avenues to get more grass in the ground and sustain hunting through long-term habitat investments. Simonson Photo.

For upland hunters, pheasant opener serves as New Year’s Day and is the square on the calendar that kicks off not only another season but is also the point in time where efforts on the landscape pay off with more birds and successes and adjustments can be made based on the previous season’s results and other factors over the past year. For Pheasants Forever in North Dakota (ND PF), the approaching opener also allows for the pioneering of new habitat efforts and a sharpening of its habitat focus as the organization works to put more grass in the ground. According to PF State Coordinator Rachel Bush, 2019 has been a successful year for improving habitat conditions in the state.

“North Dakota has our dedicated funding through the Outdoor Heritage Fund and currently [ND PF has] three grants active through the Outdoor Heritage Fund,” Bush related, “one of them is focused in the southwest working with ranchers to improve grazing practices; we have one that’s kind of in the north-central part of the state really focused on soil health, working with croplands and addressing saline issues; and then our newest one is really tying in with the precision ag work we do, addressing marginal cropland acres,” she concluded.

Precision ag targets private options

Through developing technologies that can break down crop fields and production lands by output and profitability, modern farming operations are able to identify those areas that grow crops better and those where plants struggle year-after-year. The process of precision agriculture not only assists in the identification of those areas where seed, fertilizer, herbicide and other expensive inputs are wasted due to frequent wet or dry conditions that inhibit crop growth, but also helps find the conservation programs that provide farmers with income through enrollment of those acres with state or federal agencies as set-aside lands. With two Precision Agriculture Specialists on staff with North Dakota PF, Bush celebrated the connections being made with landowners and the advancement of this program in adding more habitat on private acres.

“Technology is big everywhere, agriculture is not exempt from that, so there’s a lot of data out there and we just think that’s the next step – utilizing that data to help drive decisions on the landscape,” Bush explained, “so we have to precision specialists here in North Dakota and they really work one-on-one with cooperating growers helping them look at their precision ag data with a different perspective,” adding that analysis goes down to an acre-by-acre basis to identify even small areas that are low profitability, or perhaps even a cost to producers, which can in turn be enrolled in set-aside programs to help farmers make more money and provide habitat for wildlife.

Habitat at the core

That habitat remains the focus of Pheasants Forever, both in North Dakota and nationwide, and through those efforts with private producers and through state agencies, the organization works to acquire, improve and preserve grasslands and other environs that pheasants and other wildlife require. In addition to the fact that these reserve acres are the source for the production and rearing of each season’s populations of pheasants, deer and other huntable game, they also improve water quality, preserve topsoil and help reduce chemical presences in the environment. While the people-focused benefits are important, the hunter specific advantages of more grass on the landscape are highlighted this time of year as sportsmen take the field. While it’s a longer-term and more expensive process than pumping dollars into a pen full of raised pheasants and releasing them in the hopes of establishing a population of birds, according to Bush, it is the more worthwhile choice for the sustainability of hunting.

“My biggest question is, How do you want to invest? Habitat is going to be there in the long term, it’s going to be there for the wild birds, it’s going to be there regardless of what our weather does – you know, if we have Snowpocalypse in October, or whether we have wet springs or droughts – we’re going to have the habitat base there,” Bush explained, adding “stocking birds is an expensive endeavor and its ultimately unsuccessful, because the mortality rate on those birds whether they be chicks or bred hens is so high that your return on investment in the actual ability to create a sustainable population with stocking birds is so minimal because those mortality rates are so high – I say invest in habitat.”

Landowners looking to maximize profitability and invest in that habitat and sustainable wildlife populations and huntable game on their lands through conservation programs can contact Precision Agriculture Specialists Melissa Shockman (mshockman@pheasantsforever.org) and Emily Spolyar (espolyar@pheasantsforever.org) for more information.

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