To help pheasants, park the mower
SPRING VALLEY — As Aaron Gross sat through the Dec. 13 Pheasant Summit in Marshall, he heard about the problems pheasants are facing statewide.
Last Friday, he saw the problems first-hand.
He is the president of the Tri-County Pheasants Forever. On Friday, he hunted two pieces of state land near Spring Valley that PF helped buy and donate to the state for wildlife management areas. With him was Rob Johnson, a fellow PF member.
When driving south on U.S. 63 and along Fillmore County roads, Gross saw ditches that had been mowed short. He saw grass waterways where the grass wasn't much thicker or taller than suburban lawns. He saw wetlands where cattails had been cut down.
He wonder why. "That could have been habitat," he said.
Southeastern Minnesota isn't the only place where you'll find this problem. He regularly drives west for hunting and sees the same thing. "You can drive anywhere in the state and find areas that are overcut or unnecessarily mowed," he said. "Even South Dakota people are doing the same thing. That's not a Minnesota problem — this is a generalized issue with habitat in the pheasant area."
But he also saw what PF and the Department of Natural Resources have done to help birds on the state land, such as with food plots and letting grasses grow. "Getting land like this costs more, but it's permanent," he said.
That's what he's looking for — permanent solutions. The Conservation Reserve Program, which has been credited with greatly helping pheasant numbers, typically involves 10-year contracts. It takes a few years to get former cropland into grass, and sometimes, that vegetation gets too thick for pheasants in the later years of the contract, he said. But land the state owns, or has perpetual easements, can be managed to keep it at its peak, he said. That is "the ideal situation for us," he said.
Gross applauded some landowners who let their grasses and cattails grow. Maybe it doesn't give the land a manicured look, and yes, it's probably more of a hassle when planting or harvesting. But it means habitat for birds, butterflies, bees and all kinds of wildlife.
When he drove past a DNR scientific and natural area along the highway near Racine, he was thrilled to see the thick stands of tall, brown grasses.
When he and Johnson arrived at the 80-acre Spring Valley Wildlife Management Area north of Spring Valley, they saw food plots Johnson helped plant, cattails and more grass.
Both liked what they saw — pheasant habitat and a way to help clean water and aid other wildlife.
The good habitat, however, didn't guarantee easy hunting. It's December, after all — pheasants that have made it this long in or around public land are smart and wary.
The two began walking the land with three dogs, two retrievers and a pointer. The dogs didn't get birdy very often, and Bailey, the pointer, seldom pointed.
When they left the field, Johnson said he saw three hens and a rooster along a fencerow. And both saw, and shot at, a rooster that flew from its perch high in a pine tree. Neither connected.
"There were birds," Johnson said. "Toby (his dog) was getting pretty birdy on the four birds. That's good."
"That's very good," Gross said.
From there, it was on the new 137-acre Nosek WMA south of Spring Valley; PF also helped buy that and is looking at more land around there, Gross said.
I joined them in that hunt, and we pushed it hard, and so did the dogs. When we came to a marsh with dogwood and willow, we crashed through. We heard a bird flush nearby, but it took a few seconds before we could see it clearly — a hen.
When we went through a long grove of conifers, Gross could hear birds breaking from cover well ahead of him, and even heard a rooster cackle. But we never saw them. He did see spent shotgun shells, so someone had been shooting, he said.
We were tired when we got close to the car, but the three dogs got birdy and somehow, our legs didn't seem as tired as we ran to get into position. Nothing flushed. The bird was long gone.
That was it. No birds, and no questions why. "It's late in the season — those birds are getting smart," Gross said. They are survivors.
But hunting those two pieces of land confirmed what they knew, and heard about in Marshall — habitat, habitat, habitat. Give pheasants a place to survive winter, and nest in spring, and they will come back.
"It was nice to see the population was still there," Gross said.