Known as the Habitat Organization, Pheasants Forever (PF) has played a major role in acquiring and opening land to the public in the form of Wildlife Management Areas and Waterfowl Production Areas throughout the upper Midwest. However, in light of an ever-changing commodities market, increasing acre caps under the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) slated for the next few years, and the growing desire of farmers and ranchers to improve the habitat and increase the presence of wildlife on their lands, the organization is becoming more and more focused on helping private landowners through dedicated biologists and specialists across the nation.
Over the past decade, PF’s Farm Bill Biologist program has expanded from just four employees in a fledgling operation to more than 150 across 30 states heading into 2020. These specialists in turn have worked to put millions of acres of high-quality habitat in the ground to benefit pheasants, grouse, deer, and other huntable game along with watchable wildlife and pollinators through a variety of programs from CRP at the federal level on down to various incentive plans available through state and county level entities. In turn, their efforts have helped sustain hunting and huntable populations of wildlife by securing the habitat necessary for their survival and the various phases of their life cycles, from nesting and rearing areas to loafing and thermal cover to help them survive harsh winter conditions.
Ultimately, the role of the Farm Bill Biologist is to make the complex world of varied conservation programs simple for landowners to understand and implement according Tanner Bruse, Pheasants Forever Agriculture and Conservation Programs Manager.
“Farm Bill Biologists ease the pain a little bit I guess when it comes to the enrollment process,” Bruse relates with a laugh, “any time you’re tied to a program it just becomes more complex; it seems like you’re just planting grass, but the reality is that there is a lot of other things that go along with it,” he continued.
Farm Bill Biologists are experienced and have education and training in the various programs available to operators, and they serve as the one-stop-shop for landowners looking to improve their lands and incorporate habitat in their operations to sustain wildlife and reduce costs which might go into farming less-productive marginal lands. Partnering with the USDA, soil and water districts and state agencies, these specialists talk with landowners as to their desired habitat wants and needs, be it upland, wetland, riparian or other conservation ideas for certain species, and find the programs that best match those wants and the type of lands operated by the farmer or rancher. Bruse, a former Farm Bill Biologist himself, stresses that the impact goes far beyond the preparation and planting efforts that follow once a plan is put in place.
“If I could throw one word out there, it would be: impactful,” Bruse stated as to the changes brought about through the biologist and landowner partnership and the understanding gained for their operations, but it goes far beyond the improved land, increased habitat and clean water that results, “I’ll never forget conversations that I’ve had…a year later they come into the office and you’ve got a grown man, a grown farmer, tearing up, telling me a story about how on that habitat we put in, his grandchild shot their first deer or their first pheasant,” he continued in relation to how that the habitat efforts impact the hunting heritage.
Beyond the Farm Bill Biologists, PF is expanding its network of experts on the ground with the addition of Precision Agriculture Specialists who work to improve profitability on an acre-by-acre basis and find those conservation and habitat programs that succeed in marginal areas of working land to improve profitability; and Coordinating Wildlife Biologists who specialize in particular species of wildlife and management practices that benefit those animals in their realm of individualized specialization.