Pheasant Hunting Thourgh CRP

February 15, 2009 by  

By Doug Leier

A hunters bag of pheasants

A hunter's bag of pheasants

By now I hope most hunters understand the connection between North Dakota’s continued strong pheasant population and the state’s 3.4 million acres of Conservation Reserve Program lands.

But if not, here’s a short refresher on what can happen when you take marginal cropland out of production and plant it to grass.

In each of the last two pheasant seasons, North Dakota hunters have taken nearly 600,000 roosters. It’s possible the 2005 harvest will go even higher. You have to reach back 60 years to find a similar prolonged stretch of high pheasant numbers.

Our current good fortune is not just because of the CRP. Several mild winters in a row have allowed the state’s pheasant population to build and expand. That’s nothing new. Pheasant numbers almost always go up when winters are friendly. Large amounts of idle grasslands on the landscape, however, help accelerate how far, and how fast the growth can occur.

In that context, it’s important to understand that in months, not years, contracts that involve 1.7 million acres of North Dakota CRP are set to expire. A lot will take place in the next year to determine whether North Dakota landowners will have the option to re-enroll that acreage.

Several recent developments have provided glimmers of hope, but reality is staring at CRP supporters on all sides. Budget deficits, revised criteria, and politicking from states that want some of North Dakota’s acreage for themselves threaten the future of CRP at every turn from now until the ink is dry on a new farm bill.

If CRP is drastically altered, whether it’s from a slashed federal budget or overhauled policy, we could see the landscape change in a short time. Without CRP, landowners and land managers would be financially inclined to break the sod and if you don’t think the pheasants will quickly disappear, you probably think the Vikings will still win the Super Bowl.

The last time North Dakota saw the end of large-scale land retirement program was the mid-1960s. I wasn’t born yet, but a look through Game and Fish Department pheasant harvest records is eye-opening.

The Soil Bank program began in the 1950s and idled hundreds of thousands of acres in North Dakota. Soil Bank pretty much ended in 1964, a year in which North Dakota hunters bagged 282,000 pheasants.

If we lose CRP, we may never see pheasant hunting like this again

If we lose CRP, we may never see pheasant hunting like this again

The next year, with Soil Bank grasslands planted to crops instead of providing nesting habitat, the pheasant harvest was 58,000.

To try to avoid such a dramatic change in fortune, Pheasants Forever regional biologist Dan Hare says, “We must continue to make our case known locally and nationally.”

While hunting this fall, it might be easy to focus only on the cackle of a flushing pheasant or the glistening plumage of a rooster in the game bag. But while you’re at it, take a moment to note the habitat. Give pause to recognize the grass that produces a double or even triple take from your trusty 12 gauge.

Don’t let the satisfaction from this fall’s hunt fade before you promise yourself, and future generations, that you’ll do your part to help preserve what we have. Making a call or writing a letter takes less time than walking a quarter of CRP, but it will go a long way toward preserving not only our hunting heritage, but just as important, the habitat heritage.


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