coffee creek montana
A pair of bird hunters roam public land near Coffee Creek, Montana. Pheasants Forever

The wind has carved the snow into bizarre and beautiful shapes—long arching curves, swirls; intricate channels etched by winter. The thickets of buffaloberry and hawthorn stand bare and gray against the white, the rosehips red as lung blood, a few dried chokecherries tremble on bare branches. My Lab goes birdy all of a sudden, tail waving like mad, and he rushes forward into a patch of snowberry and flushes a hen pheasant, then another, and another. I mount my old Browning A-5 and wait for the rooster, which does not appear. This is a hard-hunted place, dangerous for a rooster, and only the wiliest of them will be alive this late in the season. But I will find them, farther down this coulee, or up the next, or clear to the willows on Wolf Creek. There will be sharptails, too, sometimes whole flocks of 15 or 20. Once I shot a brace of pigeons that flushed from a tower of white clay in this same coulee on a clear October day of such beauty and power that some part of my mind was left forever changed, in a wonderful way, by its memory.

I am hunting pheasants on thePheasants Forever property near Coffee Creek, Montana, which the group, through its local partners, worked for years to acquire and restore, purchasing a conservation easement on about 800 acres of private land that abuts another 1,200 or so acres of state lands, and planting tens of thousands of forage-rich shrubs and establishing feed plots, security cover, nesting and brood cover, and, in general, maximizing the capacity of the land to support gamebirds (and, with them, every kind of wildlife and bird native to this part of the Montana prairie). The property, with all its wonders, is open to any member of the public willing to walk in. I try to come here every year in the middle of December, when the days are short and most people have quit for the season. It is cold, austere, windy, and lonely—perfect for dog and man to roam and hunt.

A lot of hunters will be surprised, as I was, to learn that Pheasants Forever is actively buying easements and properties and restoring or creating habitat for upland birds, across the U.S., for the sole purpose of making sure there are plenty of birds, and plenty of places for public hunters and their dogs to chase them, in a time when upland bird habitat and hunting access is in severe decline.

First, let’s look at a bit of the history of Pheasants Forever (also known as PF and now merged with Quail Forever, but this story will be about pheasants, so we’re going with the simpler PF). In 1982, a group of bird hunters in St. Paul, Minnesota, saw a disturbing vision of the future: Farming, driven by new technologies, economics, and the massive consolidation of acreage as small farmers left the business and sold to larger and larger entities, was becoming more intensive. Every year, less and less land was available for pheasants and other wildlife, even in the most rural parts of the midwest.

pheasants forever ceo howard vincent
Howard Vincent, the president and CEO of Pheasants Forever, enjoys a hunt. Pheasants Forever

Howard Vincent, born in White Bear Lake, Minnesota, and the current president and CEO of PF, started with the group as a volunteer in 1985. “We were very, very good at planting food plots and we had a lot of landowners helping us,” he explains. “But we knew even then that to have any real effect, we’d have to do a lot more than just feed birds. We needed nesting cover, science-based habitat projects. We needed to create a big-picture effect for pheasants.” How to do that, Vincent said, was not clear at first. “We had all these chapters, with all these fired-up volunteers—which were then and are now the heart and soul of PF—and it was hard to leave behind the idea that just doing local projects was enough, especially when, after 25 years, we were up to 500 chapters, creating or restoring pheasant habitat on 300,000 acres every year.” But there was a kind of ceiling to that hand-on, real-world work. Vincent describes that time as, “successful, but pretty static.”

“We really liked doing the actual habitat work,” Vincent added, “but we were big enough and strong enough that we figured out a way to keep doing that while joining with a much wider partnership—the natural resources people at the state level, the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service, Ducks Unlimited, NWTF, around the year 2000, that brought us into the American Wildlife Conservation Partners—30 of the largest wildlife conservation groups in the U.S. We still have our emphasis on the local level, but we have managed to achieve that larger effect we were looking for.”

Nowadays, that larger effect includes more than 700 chapters,149,000 members, 150-plus biologists on staff, and a staggering number of partnerships and agreements that have resulted in habitat and access projects impacting more than 18 million acres of land. Pheasants Forever has taken on a larger role in advocating at the state and federal level for policies that improve habitat for pheasant and other game species, or that head off the more ecologically disastrous government plans or policies that arise more and more frequently these days. “We are working to get the federal Conservation Reserve Program back up to strength,” Vincent said.

The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) dates back to federal programs in the 1950s that offered payments—usually fairly small—to farmers to leave their most unproductive or erosion-prone lands fallow. The original idea was to preserve topsoil and keep erosion from dumping mud into critical watersheds. A side benefit was that CRP could offer an incentive not to plant lands that were unsuited for agriculture, and where crops had little chance of producing. The rallying cry was “farm the best and conserve the rest,” and CRP was the mechanism for doing that for decades. It was spectacularly successful—the modern version of CRP was born in the 1985 Farm Bill and, by 1986, a record 40 million acres of private land was enrolled in CRP and planted to native grasses or other erosion-controlling plants. Many waterways in farm country were buffered by strips of CRP, which filtered out fertilizers and pesticides before they could contaminate rivers and creeks. Another side benefit, of course, was a tremendous boom in wildlife and upland birds on these conserved lands.

The Conservation Reserve Program, like many other conservation success stories, has come under attack in recent years. CRP contracts last 10 to 15 years. At the end of this past cycle, as the contracts expired, Congress had placed a cap on the number of acres that could be enrolled, and reduced the amount of money paid per acre to farmers. In the 1990s, Congress also passed an ill-advised federal crop insurance bill that guaranteed farmers a federal payment even when crops failed, or failed because they were planted on lands that were clearly unsuitable for farming, encouraging landowners to “farm the government” by plowing and planting lands that could not produce decent yields. To add salt to the wounds, a policy of “conservation compliance”—linking good, long-established conservation practices on private land to the federal payments—was dropped, basically requiring American taxpayers to subsidize the pollution of our water and the loss of topsoil and wildlife. (The policy was so bad that, in the 2014 Farm Bill, after an uproar from everybody from Taxpayers for Common Sense to conservation groups like PF and Ducks Unlimited, conservation compliance was relinked to federal crop insurance payments. CRP was, and remains, in trouble, as does the soil, water, and wildlife that it supports—not to mention the economic benefits it offers to both farmers and the American taxpayer.)

For Vincent, and Pheasants Forever, strengthening the Conservation Reserve Program is one of the most pressing issues in American farm and wildlife policy today. “Eighty percent of the acres being farmed in Iowa right now are losing money because of overproduction and planting all these marginal lands,” Vincent told me.” There is no reason for this. We have the greatest agricultural technology in the world. We have Iowa soybean producers who years ahead, looking at production, water quality, wildlife habitat, and there is room for conservation on every farm in the U.S. With precision agriculture, we can easily identify the more marginal lands that would be more profitably used for conservation. We just need the policies in place to support that. We need the Conservation Reserve Program at full strength.”

Bob St. Pierre, Pheasants Forever’s Director of Communications, is optimistic that we will someday see CRP returned to the powerhouse it was in the 1980s (which produced some of America’s all-time best bird hunting during the seasons of 2007 and 2008, after which we have seen declines over most of the midwest). “PF works in partnership with our farmers and other landowners,” St. Pierre said. “This is a completely symbiotic relationship. We can’t do any of it without them. And all of us want CRP to be fully-funded and brought back. Hunters want it back, farmers want it back. The only people that don’t seem to get it are the politicians.”

montana rooster pheasant
A hunter holds a Montana rooster. Pheasants Forever

While the wheels of government policy like the Conservation Reserve Program can turn slowly—and sometimes swiftly—and in frighteningly wrong directions, other means of creating wildlife and upland bird habitat, and the hunting and recreational economies they support, are more readily at hand.

St. Pierre is extremely excited by Pheasant Forever’s relatively new outright acquisitions of land, and the purchase of conservation easements that are opening up an entirely new frontier of bird hunting, habitat, public access, and open spaces for roaming in places where public land can be very scarce.

“We like to think of ourselves as public land creators,” St. Pierre says. “There are two ways we are doing that: We work directly with willing sellers to buy land, and we work with, say, the Minnesota DNR to create large pieces of healthy, functioning habitat that is open to the public.” So far, PF has created about 200,000 such acres, including the property that I hunt every year in Coffee Creek, Montana.

“We’ve been lucky in finding landowners who want to sell a piece of ground that is next to some big, publicly owned habitat, so we’ve gotten that multiplier effect on the landscape,” St. Pierre added. “And it has become this deeper conversation. There is a societal and ecological benefit to wildlife habitat and public access, and we are finding new ways to incentivize that, and compensate landowners for it.”

He says it is as basic as the web of life that all of us, already, understand. “Thirty-six years ago, when we started doing these projects, we talked about ‘brood habitat’ a lot,” he says. “And what is the best brood habitat? It is native prairie, all kinds of flowers, cone flower, native shrubs. Look at your favorite bird hunting spots; think of the diversity of plants there. That is the best habitat, and it produces the most birds, and the most pollinators, the most bees, the most diversity of wildflowers. It’s the canary in the coal mine of our prairie ecosystems.”

St. Pierre said that it was crucial for American hunters to know about what is possible, right now, to bring back—or go beyond—the best days of our bird hunting. “The glory days were not long ago, and we know how to get them back,” he says. “There is so much that we can do—and are doing. We’re working with the feds on Waterfowl Production Areas, and encouraging people o buy the waterfowl stamps that support the WPAs. Buy two stamps—one for ducks, one for pheasants. Buy them for gifts for your family! Because those WPAs are the absolute best wintering areas we have for pheasants. We are working with the states for payments for landowners to do habitat projects in their dry corners—the parts of the fields that the center pivot irrigator misses as it turns. We’re working to make sure the Farm Bill will have provisions for incentivizing landowners to open private lands to bird hunters.”

And St. Pierre reminds me: “We’re buying land. We’re creating public lands for birds and bird hunters.”

You can listen to the Backcountry Hunters and Anglers podcast with Bob St. Pierre, Andrew Vavre, and Anthony Hauck here.