Dennis Anderson
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Watching a rooster pheasant rise ahead of an eager gundog is a priceless experience, which is in part explains why some 70,000 Minnesotans will be afield Saturday when the state’s 2017 ringneck season begins.

But sometimes the value of a florid cock pheasant flushing from cover can in fact be measured in dollars and cents. Witness the efforts by nine southwest Minnesota counties to enhance the bottom lines of area businesses by marketing the region as the state’s go-to place to hunt Phasianus colchicus.

Call it trickle-down economics, with a blaze orange twist.

Unique in Minnesota, the endeavor (swmnhunting.com) recognizes that hunters — in this case, pheasant hunters — spend a lot of money when they travel, not just for licenses and stamps, but for gas, lodging, food and equipment.

“The leisure and hospitality industry in Lyon County alone in 2015 was a $52 million business,” said Darin Rahm, director of the Marshall Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Not all of that is related to hunting and visits to our parks, trails and other outdoor activities, but a large portion is.”

Most traveling pheasant hunters who tramp the uplands of Lyon, Lincoln, Murray, Pipestone, Cottonwood, Jackson, Rock, Redwood and Nobles counties are from the Twin Cities, Rahm said, with a sprinkling from Wisconsin, Iowa and other states.

Hunters are attracted to the region by its relatively vast amount of public lands. Twenty federal waterfowl production areas totaling approximately 3,800 acres lie within 25 miles of Marshall alone, along with 132 state wildlife management areas covering 24,407 acres.

Additionally, the state’s walk-in access program has added 8,725 acres of hunting land in the southwest in recent years.

Overseen by the state’s Department of Natural Resources, the walk-in program pays landowners to leave lands open to public hunting. In addition to providing places for hunters to pursue game, the program supports Minnesota’s overall hunting economy.

Each year, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, hunters spend more than $700 million in Minnesota, generating nearly $100 million in taxes for the state.

“Opportunities to hunt are what drive economic impact,” Rahm said. “And the state walk-in program provides so many more opportunities to hunt in our area than we had before.”

To sell themselves to pheasant hunters, the nine counties collectively spend about $25,000 annually to advertise in magazines and on television. This is in addition to the counties’ individual marketing efforts. Regional representatives also appear at Game Fair in Ramsey and similar festivals and trade shows attended by wingshooters.

Boosting its hunting credibility, southwest Minnesota each year harbors some of the state’s highest pheasant numbers. Yet those populations fluctuate, as they have this year, when birds statewide are down 26 percent compared to last year, according to the DNR.

“We don’t throw a parade when pheasant counts are high or hang our heads when they’re low,” Rahm said. “There’s a certain percentage of hunters who will look at those survey numbers and react. But most hunters are going to hunt, regardless.”

Underpinning the region’s hunting advocacy program are civic pride and public spiritedness, said Karen VanKeulen, chief organizer of this weekend’s Governor’s Pheasant Hunting Opener in Marshall.

“We set the bar high when we hosted the same event in 2012, and this year we’re trying to raise the bar even higher,” VanKeulen said. “Everyone in this community is pretty giving and willing to work together.”

The governor’s festivities begin Friday night with a banquet for 300 people at Southwest Minnesota State University, followed by a pheasant hunt Saturday morning in which Dayton, Lt. Gov. Tina Smith, various DNR officials and a phalanx of media attendees will scatter throughout the area in search of ringnecks.

Hosting the event, VanKeulen said, will cost Marshall as much as $30,000, at least some of which will be offset by a community raffle and other fundraisers. Payback is also expected in the exposure the area will receive from participating writers and broadcasters.

“These types of events bring attention not only to our pheasant hunting but to our business and hospitality climate,” Dahm said.

Hunting during the Governor’s Pheasant Opener group is forecast to be great. But the shooting part might lag, not only because pheasant numbers are lower this year, but because most corn and soybeans remain unharvested, providing places for birds to hide.

Ron Prorok is treasurer of Lyon County Pheasants Forever (PF), whose members have planted about 150,000 trees and completed 716 projects covering nearly 8,000 acres, making it one of PF’s most enterprising chapters.

Working with VanKeulen, Prorok and other PF members have secured 47 local guides for the governor’s event and about 40 tracts of private land to hunt.

At his request, Dayton will walk public land. But the remaining 100 or so hunters in his party will scour private property, leaving the bulk of the region’s public areas open for other wingshooters.

The private land, Prorok said, was somewhat challenging to acquire this year, because some area farmers oppose Dayton’s stream and ditch buffer initiative.

“But in the end, we came out OK and we’ll have plenty of land to hunt,” he said.

Bruce Bjelland owns the Traveler’s Lodge Motel in Marshall, a popular destination for visiting hunters and other tourists.

The combined efforts of Rahm, VanKeulen, Prorok and many others in Marshall and the surrounding region have paid off for him, he said.

“We’re full this weekend,” Bjelland said.

Dennis Anderson • 612-673-4424