Habitat loss, not the cold, threatens pheasants, grouse

You might think that with the harshest winter in a decade settled over the rural prairies and woodland that birds like pheasants and grouse would be in major stress. 
 
But it turns out that the farm plow rather than Old Man Winter is doing the real damage, and conservation groups are plenty worried about a grasslands-destruction trend that started a year ago and continues unabated. 
 
The frequent question asked of Pheasants Forever in St. Paul is whether feeding the birds can help them through the cold months.  No, says PF spokesman Anthony Hauk, because corn piles and other feed centers will pull pheasants away from their natural cover and the aggregation of birds makes them easier predator targets. 
 
“Pheasants can survive on seeds and berries under the snow,” Hauk said.

Rick Horton, wildlife biologist with the Department of Natural Resources in Grand Rapids, Minn., said grouse do well in winter.  The biggest problem is if a prolonged warm spell causes snow to crust, and any warming that’s occurred hasn’t come close to cause concern.   
 
Conversions at a torrid pace
But plowing up grassland and even continued wetlands destruction is far and away the major threat to game birds and nongame wildlife, Hauk said, adding that grassland to crop conversion in South Dakota is at such a torrid pace that in 2007 and last year the equivalent of a mile-wide strip from Sioux Falls to Pittsburg was lost to the plow. 
 
Ducks Unlimited (DU) of Bismarck said the lost grassland cover in North Dakota is equal to a three-mile-wide strip through the state from north to south.  In 2007 alone, DU said 420,000 acres of grass were plowed under. 
 
The problem is contracts for the Federal Crop Reserve Program (CRP) are expiring, and landowners are electing to opt out. CRP lands are where farmers are paid not to farm marginal lands, and the set-asides have been spectacularly successful in providing respite from decades of habitat loss throughout the Plains states. 
 
However, as contracts expire the landowners are not re-enrolling, because recent spikes in agricultural commodities have been driving up land values; putting land into the CRP program is uneconomic. 
 
It means much less cover for a spectacular variety of mammals and birds. For pheasant hunters it means significant reductions of hunting opportunities.

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