By Howard Meyerson
Lansing. — Now five years into a 10-year plan to restore pheasant habitat in portions of Michigan, state and other wildlife biologists are crowing a bit. Grasslands are being restored and progress is being made. The challenge, they say, is getting more people involved.
“I think we are doing really great,” said Al Stewart, the Michigan DNR’s upland game bird specialist. “I would like to see more progress, but we are still on schedule.”
The 10-year goal for Michigan’s Pheasant Restoration Initiative is to impact or restore 200,000 acres of pheasant habitat, according to Stewart, along with providing hunters 25,000 acres they can hunt. The work is progressing in three priority areas where pheasant populations currently are strongest. Those include the “Thumb Area” (Huron, Tuscola, and Sanilac counties), central Michigan (Gratiot, Saginaw, and Clinton counties), and southeastern Michigan (Hillsdale, Lenawee, and Monroe counties).
Stewart’s agency is working with Pheasants Forever, regional conservation districts, and private land owners to develop 10 pheasant cooperatives in those areas – agreements where groups of landowners manage their lands to benefit pheasants.
“We’ve gone from nothing and one or two farm bureau biologists – our boots on the ground – to having eight on the ground, which is really helpful,” Stewart said. “We also have gone from no co-op coordinators, people who work with private-land folks and offer technical assistance, to hiring a couple to rally the troops and move things forward.”
To date, the program boasts having restored approximately 7,400 acres of grasslands on state game, wildlife, and recreation areas, and having established 3,160 acres of food plots. Grasslands have been improved on 556 acres just north of the southeastern focus region around the Sharonville State Game Area, where 203 food plot acres also have been cultivated.
A recent press announcement by the DNR lists other accomplishments, including:
• Acquiring 742 acres to add to existing game areas within the Pheasant Recovery Areas; and
• Establishing 765 acres of grasslands and 2,000 acres of food plots at the Allegan State Game Area, which is located outside the existing focus areas.
“I’m impressed that a lot of organizations and agencies, including the DNR, are making restoration a priority and putting a lot of staff time and money into it,” said Bill Vander Zouwen, the Michigan regional director for Pheasants Forever. “Thank goodness for the license restructuring, which (generated additional funds) to put more people out in the field. It’s made a million dollars in grants available, and Michigan Pheasants Forever was able to provide the matching funds needed to receive $600,000 in grant money these past two years.”
Stewart and Vander Zouwen said future growth and success depend on having more landowners involved. High corn prices, among other things, prompted farmers to withdraw their lands from habitat incentive programs like the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Conservation Reserve Program or Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program.
New farm bill
“Having a new farm bill in place is good news,” Stewart said. “What we are worried about is people actually enrolling in it. We didn’t anticipate $8 a bushel corn. When prices were high, farmers used different farming practices (less conducive to pheasants). They thought they would ride it out, pay for the farm, and put their kids through college, and put in warm-season grasses once the prices dropped. Things have slowed down in the last couple of years, and now it’s a matter of getting people excited (about CRP and CREP).”
Michigan CRP enrollment dropped from approximately 233,000 acres in 2010 to approximately 178,000 acres in 2014, according to Vander Zouwen, who adds that the deadline for signup is Feb. 26.
“We are hoping for a good signup for CRP,” Vander Zouwen said. “There was a substantial CRP rental rate boost this year, and that gives us hope.”
© 2016 Howard Meyerson
Appears in Michigan Outdoor News.