Legacy funding proposals support pheasant action plan

Pheasants and pheasant habitat will benefit from approximately $60 million of more than $111 million in habitat programs and projects recommended by the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council for funding from the Outdoor Heritage Fund next year.

The proposed projects will provide key support for several components of the Pheasant Summit Action Plan announced earlier this fall. That plan arose from the December 2014 Minnesota Pheasant Summit convened by Gov. Mark Dayton.

“This funding is critical to keeping up progress on key steps in the pheasant plan and highlights the great partnerships between governments and conservation organizations, in cooperation with interested landowners,” said Kevin Lines, pheasant action plan coordinator with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

Outcomes of these projects will protect and restore grassland and wetland habitat; create and enhance habitat buffers; and restore once-drained wetlands.

“Together, these activities will improve habitat, wildlife populations, and hunting and other outdoor recreation opportunities across the pheasant range,” Lines said.

The $60 million ties directly to several of the 10 steps included in the pheasant plan by helping to protect large complexes of wildlife habitat; enrolling more land in conservation easements; increasing quality of habitat on public and private land; adding more vegetative buffers along waterways; and increasing land open to public hunting.

“Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council members and staff are aware of the rates of habitat loss in southern and western Minnesota,” said Bob Anderson, who chairs the LSOHC. “We are pleased that our efforts are helping support these habitats and wildlife across Minnesota’s pheasant range as well as the rest of the state.”

The recommended funding package includes about $20 million to acquire public lands; $25 million for private land easement programs; and $15 million to enhance grasslands and wetlands on both public and private lands. All the action plan steps, as well as the complete plan, are online at on the pheasant action plan page.

Recommendations made by the council this fall total more than $111 million. All funding requires approval by the 2016 Legislature.

“We want to thank LSOHC members and council staff for being aware of the habitat needs in southern and western Minnesota,” Lines said. “We are pleased that their efforts are helping support these habitats and wildlife across the pheasant range.”

In many of the projects, conservation organizations work with the DNR and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to acquire land and do the initial improvement work. Once improvements are made, the DNR or FWS manage the land.

“Our partnerships with state and federal agencies lead directly to better hunting and better habitat for pheasants, which benefits other wildlife and water quality, too,” said Eran Sandquist, Pheasants Forever Minnesota state coordinator. “It takes all of us working together to make conservation effective on the landscape.”

Habitat loss
Habitat loss continues to drive the long-term decline in pheasants, waterfowl and other grassland-dependent wildlife. Outdoor Heritage Funds and the support of council members are both crucial to help stem the tide of this loss, enhance existing public lands and make sure those lands are as productive for wildlife as possible. The loss of nesting habitat, primarily driven by the expiration of Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) acres, is one of the largest factors explaining the decline of pheasants over the last six to eight years. Minnesota has lost 247,000 acres of CRP since 2007 and another 495,000 acres will expire by 2018 if contracts are not renewed or new acres enrolled in the program.

“There is no one single answer to the issue of grassland habitat loss and declining grassland wildlife populations,” said Greg Hoch, DNR prairie habitat team supervisor. “Bringing wildlife populations back to historic levels will require a combination of protecting and restoring habitat on public and private lands and managing those lands for the benefit of wildlife.”

The LSOHC, made up of eight citizen and four legislative members, reviews project proposals for the Outdoor Heritage Fund and makes funding recommendations to the Minnesota Legislature for approval. The fund was created after voters approved the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment in November 2008, which increased sales tax by three-eighths of 1 percent.

The Outdoor Heritage Fund receives one-third of the sales tax dollars and may only be spent to restore, protect and enhance wetlands, prairies, forest and habitat for game, fish, and wildlife. Details on all the proposals recommended by the council can be found at the council’s list of funding recommendations.