Dennis Anderson
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If you're tramping a Minnesota wildlife management area (WMA) Saturday looking for pheasants on the season's first day, or following your dog on another piece of public ground or perhaps on private property, you might or might not find a limit of birds.

Regardless, take comfort in knowing that a lot of people, some of whom perhaps couldn't identify a rooster ringneck from a hen, are working to ensure that habitats supporting pheasants and other upland wildlife — grasslands especially — will be present on the American landscape for a long time to come.

That's the picture that emerges from an evolving Pheasants Forever, the Minnesota-based conservation group that since 1982 has organized hunters — its "orange army'' — to advocate for better and more intensified conservation on state, federal and private lands.

The primary intent always has been to increase pheasant numbers and boost pheasant hunting prospects, twin goals that were broadened nationally in 2005 when PF formed a companion organization, Quail Forever (QF).

Like other conservation groups, PF and QF took a financial hit during the pandemic when the groups' more than 700 chapters were forced to cancel their fundraising banquets. As a result, their combined membership dropped about 22,000 from its pre-pandemic mark of 143,000.

More positively, the groups' leaders say, its unaffiliated membership is at an all-time high and membership is expected to rebound as chapters begin again to hold fundraisers.

Yet the transformation in recent years of PF and QF that has occurred, and is occurring, extends beyond the number of hunter-members it attracts.

Now employing some 280 wildlife biologists — second in number nationally only to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service — PF and QF are leveraging significant new government and corporate funds to multiply their conservation reach.

"More and more Fortune 500 companies, and even Fortune 100 companies, are developing ways, or want to develop ways, to reach sustainability goals,'' said David Bue, PF and QF chief development officer. "They need partners to do that and we're filling that role.''

A former regional bank CEO, Bue joined PF and QF in 2006 to expand its strategic partnerships with companies like Nestle Purina Petcare Co. ("Purina.'')

Long an advertiser in the conservation groups' magazines and supporter of their annual PheasantFest, Purina has expanded its partnership with PF and QF to include an emphasis on climate resiliency and supply sustainability.

The effort culminated recently with a $1 million donation by Purina to PF and QF to improve soil health and conserve strategic wildlife lands in the Dakotas.

"The prairie pothole region is a special area for conservation and for farming,'' said Joe Sivewright, Purina CEO, announcing the grant. "This partnership will find ways to enhance both so that native plants and cherished wildlife can flourish alongside healthy ingredients like those used in Purina's complete and balanced formulas."

Given climate change's possible effects on natural resources, including soil health and water availability, companies like Purina that depend on uninterrupted shipments of grains and other crops increasingly realize their bottom lines depend on sustainable supply chains

"It also makes good business sense because more and more consumers who differentiate products by brand purchase brands they believe are sustainably sourced,'' Bue said.

PF and QF chapters have formed the groups' conservation backbone since PF's founding in St. Paul 39 years ago. Their efforts last year contributed to a nationwide total of 2.2 million habitat acres enhanced or purchased outright by the two groups.

Which is a lot of land.

"But since 2009, we've lost 53 million grassland acres nationally, or an area about the size of Kansas,'' said Ron Leathers, PF and QF chief conservation officer.

Valiant though hunters' conservation efforts have been and continue to be, Leathers said, absent aggressive new initiatives, they alone can't stem such significant wildlife-habitat losses.

"That's why in February we unveiled our Call of the Uplands campaign,'' Leathers said. "Our goal is to positively impact 9 million acres of grasslands in the next five years, while permanently protecting 75,000 acres of strategic habitat.''

The nationwide expansion to nearly 300 wildlife biologists is part of this effort. Positioned often in Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) offices, many of the biologists work with farmers to find state and federal programs that benefit producers' pocketbooks while also increasing conservation acres.

"How do we find acres where the producer hasn't been successful, where it's been too wet or too dry in past years to produce crops, and improve those acres in ways that benefit soil and water health, while also benefiting the farmer financially?'' Leathers said.

The timing is right to expand interest in conservation beyond the traditional hunter component, Bue and Leathers say, because more people — and more government agencies and more corporations — are realizing that healthy soils, clean water, sustainable food supplies and carbon sequestration are in everyone's interests.

"Nothing is better than grass to keep carbon in the ground,'' Leathers said.

Bue cites his board membership on a group called Field to Market, headquartered in Washington, D.C., as a sign of progress.

Together with Michelle French, director of global sustainability programs at Archers Daniels Midland Co.; Margaret Henry, director of sustainable agriculture at PepsiCo; and Jeremy Peters, CEO of the National Association of Conservation Districts, Bue, among other board members, works collaboratively to serve food, conservation and related interests.

So it should be Saturday when you, a few buddies and a handful of dogs hike aMinnesota WMA or other area, you can take comfort knowing one or more of PF's 74 state chapters likely has developed habitat nearby to improve your chances of finding birds.

Nationwide, others have also recently joined that effort, some for their own reasons — perhaps increased farm profitability, cleaner water or sustainable supply chains — but all of which are likely to help produce a result hunters can appreciate.

More pheasants.

Epilogue: Looking for places to hunt pheasants in Minnesota? Check out a new online interactive map from Pheasants Forever.