By that time, the Department of Agriculture's soil-bank programs were in full swing. Farmers were encouraged to let a lot of their ground lie fallow and produce weeds, or to plant cover crops. Acres that once grew corn began growing pheasants. People who went hunting in those days still talk about it with wonder.
But then, the pheasant population went into a nosedive. According to Finden, there were always year-to-year population variables, even during the heyday of the soil-bank programs. An extreme winter could starve much of a population; an especially wet spring could destroy nests and broods, thereby damaging reproduction rates. Normally the pheasants recovered quickly, but in the early 1970s that changed.
"With the stroke of a pen the United States Department of Agriculture wiped out a lot of pheasants," says Finden. "When Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz told farmers to start farming from road to road, it was disastrous for all wildlife—especially pheasant. It's been proven over and over that regulated hunting doesn't hurt a population. [Especially pheasant hunting, because only the polygamous males are shot.] Habitat loss is always the major threat to wildlife."
The result of the Department of Agriculture's revised policy was an inland sea of virtually contiguous corn and soybean fields. Pheasants were pushed onto tiny islands of cover, mostly along fencerows or on untillable land. "In some places the change was so gradual that many people would never have noticed it," says Finden. "It took about 25 years, but we lost five million acres to row crops here in Minnesota."
Changes in agricultural practices have chipped away at pheasant populations in less visible ways as well. "Many people don't realize that pesticide use has tripled since the 1950s," says Finden. "It's obviously not healthy for young chicks if they get directly sprayed, but the most drastic effect is what it does to the food chain. For the first four weeks of life, pheasant chicks subsist almost totally on insects that provide needed moisture and protein." Unfortunately for pheasant chicks, the insects that provide them with sustenance are often the very insects that are targeted for pesticides.
Herbicides are also in wide use, wiping out the weeds that mature pheasants use for cover and feed. In addition, changes in harvesting techniques have claimed habitat. Each year more and more farmers immediately follow their harvest combines with plows. The stubble fields that once provided winter food for pheasants and other wildlife now offer nothing but dirt clods.
As it happened, some states weathered the agricultural storms better than others. Kansas, Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota all maintained populations of two to three million birds even during the worst years. Pheasants Forever estimates that between 1971 and 1986 the pheasant population declined 33% in the Midwest and 67% in the Plains and western states.
Appropriately for this 100th hunting season, the picture is brightening. In the past decade state game agencies have channeled funds from hunting licenses and equipment taxes into habitat by means of land-buying programs. Conservation groups in many states are also pushing governmental groups to protect as much habitat as possible. Laws prohibiting the mowing of road ditches until after the nesting season have had a particularly positive effect on pheasant numbers in Minnesota and Iowa.
The activities of Pheasants Forever have certainly played a major role in the ringneck's rescue. "Just since 1987 we've planted 4� million trees on a total of 5,800 different projects," says Finden. "In that same time we've put in 33,253 food plots on over 407,956 acres and have added over 124,000 acres of nesting cover on 7,453 separate projects."
Ironically, the biggest gift of all has come from the USDA. "The farm bill of 1985 [which, among other provisions, specifically took marginal land out of production] has been a real boon to pheasants," says Finden. "The Conservation Reserve Program has put about 42 million acres of what were once crops back into grassland, and the farmers can't do much to it for 10 years. The program was designed to take eroding cropland out of production, but it's providing a tremendous amount of cover for wildlife."