Steve Cordts dusted off 18 different natural resource management plans to prep himself for framing Minnesota’s 2019 Duck Plan — a document that’s likely to be finalized in September.
The previous Duck Plan, written in 2006, set ambitious, 50-year goals for the addition of 2 million habitat acres and a state population of 1 million breeding ducks. It contained more than 30 pages of nitty-gritty detail.
Those visions haven’t been abandoned, he said last week in an interview, but the proposed new plan is only six pages and breezy in comparison.
“This one covers the next four years,” said Cordts, the leading waterfowl biologist for the Department of Natural Resources. “I think it will help focus habitat efforts.”
The same “short and sweet” approach went into writing the proposed 2019 Pheasant Plan, also due in September. Both documents are in the process of incorporating final public input.
Greg Hoch, primary author of the Pheasant Plan, said the reader-friendly plans are meant to widen support for duck and pheasant conservation by emphasizing benefits that go beyond filling the sky with game birds.
Well-designed habitat projects for ground-nesting ringnecks and migratory waterfowl double as filters to keep drinking water and surface water clean. Restoring grasslands and wetlands boosts biodiversity and benefits songbirds and pollinators. Other lands managed for ducks and pheasants can double as rainwater basins to minimize flooding downstream. There’s also a desire to increase the quantity and quality of wild rice through habitat projects.
Beyond that, the duck and pheasant plans will stress that their projects support outdoor recreation that includes hiking, photography, bird-watching, antler hunting and harvesting wild foods. It’s a movement that certain members of the National Governors Association embraced last week when Maine, Vermont, Utah, Nevada and Oregon announced a tourism-minded outdoor recreation learning network.
“We’re trying to promote and advertise to groups beyond hard-core pheasant and duck hunters,’’ Hoch said.
Both plans also recognize that Minnesota can’t significantly grow duck and pheasant populations without cooperation from farmers and other private landowners. Both documents harp on the importance of reinvesting in land programs that pay for the use of private acres. The opportunities range from the all-important federal Conservation Reserve Program to permanent easements, temporary hunting privileges and all-out public land acquisitions.
“Increasing duck populations will require a significant investment in private land conservation programs,” the proposed Duck Plan says.
“Minnesota pheasant habitat will always be a mix of public and private lands, and both require significant investments,” the proposed Pheasant Plan says.
Another common strategy is to focus on “complexes’’ of land as large as 9 square miles where there’s a chance of amassing “40 percent permanent protection.” On some of those complexes, managers would create overlapping habitat to benefit both pheasants and ducks.
Hand in hand with that goal is a shared duck and pheasant strategy to collaborate with partners on detailed mapping to identify possible linkage between public land and promising private land to expand complexes or create new ones.
The DNR on April 17 arranged a meeting of conservation groups, farming interests, hunters, tribal representatives, wildlife managers, funding sources, tourism officials, soil and water districts, public health experts, naturalists and others to gather ideas for the plans. Hoch said the intention going forward is to use the plans to advocate for funding and to brainstorm together about spending money where it will do the most good.
“The plan will be on DNR letterhead, but it’s a synthesis of everybody’s thoughts,” Hoch said.
Eran Sandquist, Minnesota state coordinator for Pheasants Forever, said he agreed with the emphasis to make the plans readable for audiences — including funding agencies. (The plans don’t come with dollars.) And he applauded the DNR for expanding its outreach to stakeholders for input.
“Everyone knows we need more native grasses and more wildflowers for pheasants,” Sandquist said. “Let’s increase the tools in the toolbox and get more people working toward the same goal.”
A key point made by Pheasants Forever during the process was for Minnesota to upgrade the grasslands it already controls while also adding acreage. The birds thrive where there’s a range of heights and densities of grass for nesting, brood-rearing and winter cover.
“Let’s make the stuff we already have the best that it can be,” Sandquist said.
The proposed plan embraces that strategy. It calls for more conservation grazing and haying. The idea is to work with private landowners in prairie settings where livestock can rotate their grazing between private and public land. Alternating the pastures allows for new growth or regrowth that’s more nutritious and beneficial to pheasants.
The draft pheasant plan highlights Minnesota’s successful Walk-in Access program, which has grown to 30,000 acres in size by paying private landowners to open reliable pheasant habitat to hunters. It’s a priority of the plan to sustain funding for the program.
The proposed Duck Plan is statewide in nature but calls for emphasis on the Prairie Pothole Region of western and south-central Minnesota. A new twist in the plan calls for a small wetlands program similar to the DNR’s existing Shallow Lakes Program, with a dedicated staff specializing in ecological protection and improvements.
An immediate need for small wetlands is to stop them from being choked out by invasive cattails and other unwanted plants. More than 50% of ducks harvested in Minnesota are produced elsewhere. Re-establishing waters in the pothole region will enhance the state as a flyway.