How Prairie Birds Found an Unexpected Group of Heroes in Hunters

As critical habitat disappears, imperiled grassland species are finding refuge on land preserved for an exotic pheasant.

There’s a hard line between where the birds might be and where the birds certainly are not. On one side lies a rolling field of native prairie­grasses—wheatgrass and big bluestem, Indian grass and false sunflower. On the other, a long, slow rise of closely cropped soybean stubble that unfurls to the blue horizon. It’s hard to imagine much more than a June bug scratching out a living there.

I’m in the good stuff, a Conservation Reserve Program field. CRP, as it is widely known, is a program, funded by the farm bill, through which the U.S. Department of Agriculture pays landowners to replace low—producing crops with native plant species beneficial to wildlife and ecosystems. I push through tall, winter-brown grass stalks and seed heads that rake my thighs. Beside me is Paul Niebur, the landowner who planted this field, and four other hunters flank us to the right. Their blaze-orange vests and hats wink through the grassland as two bird dogs vault ahead, sifting the air for the scent of a Ring-necked Pheasant.

I grip my shotgun and pick up the pace. We’re nearing the end of the field, and when the pheasants rise they boil out in waves—first three birds closest to the dogs, then another half-dozen, launching from the flocculent grasses, the long plumes of the cock pheasants rippling like kite tails as they break for the sky.

“Rooster! Rooster! Rooster!” The hunters shout to identify the male birds, which are legal to shoot, as shotguns bark and more birds flush from the field. Four roosters fall, and the birds keep coming, three and five and a dozen at a time, until nearly 50 Ring-necked Pheasants clatter overhead.

“Look at ‘em go!” Niebur shouts at the sky, a wide smile on his face. “Wild birds, baby, and that’s why we do this!”

This field just west of Redfield, South Dakota, is emblematic of one of the more curious intersections in bird conservation: Hunters who ardently pursue an exotic, widespread Asian bird, and conservationists racing to stem the loss of native grassland species that share similar habitats. Niebur, a retired Minnesota businessman, originally bought 330 acres of row crop fields with a partner in 2000, later purchasing another 420 acres on his own.

He’s since poured his heart, sweat, and treasure into tailoring the farm into habitat where pheasants thrive. He’s converted fields of corn and soybeans to vast plots of native grasses and seed-bearing forbs, planted thousands of trees, and put in acres of pollinator meadows. “I get as much enjoyment out of the habitat work as I do the hunting now,” he says.

Pheasant hunting is a gateway drug. Once you get people to appreciate pheasants and their habitats, it opens their eyes to all the native gems out there.

Niebur’s story plays out across pheasant country, from Texas to Minnesota, and west to the Pacific grasslands: Private lands purchased, protected, and managed by hunters crazy over a non-native species provide critical habitat—in many places the only habitat—for a suite of birds that is among the world’s most imperiled.

Across the Great Plains, grasslands are under siege. Nearly half of the region’s original acreage has been lost. In 2016 alone, more than 700,000 acres of northern Great Plains grasslands fell to the plow. The destruction has helped drive a dramatic drop in the numbers of birds that depend on that habitat: From 1968 to 2011, populations of North American grassland birds fell almost 40 percent, according to a Breeding Bird Survey analysis. The declines include species as varied as Chestnut-collared Longspur, Bobolink, and Northern Harrier. The fate of such birds is closely tied to that of private lands, as four-fifths of the country’s remaining grasslands are privately owned.

Those lands contribute more than ground cover and food for hunters’ quarry. Each year, hunters who travel to pheasant country spend hundreds of millions of dollars leasing lands from locals and paying for lodging and meals, which both shores up rural communities and gives farmers good reason to keep wildlife habitat on the ground. That sets up a seeming contradiction: Despite its non-native status, and the fact that the traditional methods of managing land for pheasants haven’t always been as beneficial to native species as they could be, the Ring-necked Pheasant has emerged as a flagship bird that helps carry the weight of grassland conservation across huge portions of the country, offering a lifeline, albeit an imperfect one, for native birds.

As habitat management by landowners gains steam, biologists and private-lands advocates see a ripe opportunity. “Pheasant hunting is a gateway drug,” says Pete Bauman, a range specialist with South Dakota State University. “Once you get people to appreciate pheasants and their habitats, it opens their eyes to all the native gems out there. That gives us the opportunity to tweak pheasant management to take care of all those other birds and animals.”

Here’s how America’s breadbasket turned into a bizarre roosterland: Efforts to plant Old World pheasants into the colonies date at least to the 1730s, but it wasn’t until the 1880s, when the U.S. consul to Shanghai imported Ring-necked Pheasants to his native Oregon, that successful large-scale introductions kicked off. In 1908, three South Dakota hunters purchased three pairs of Ring-necked Pheasants from an Oregon game farm and released them a few miles north of Redfield, in the state’s east-central region. While earlier pheasant releases had met with mixed results, these birds successfully nested, so much so that in 1911 the state of South Dakota augmented the burgeoning population with another 48 pairs.

In the ensuing decades, pheasant numbers grew exponentially. While untold millions of farm-bred birds are released for hunting each year—few of which survive the following winter—wild, self-sustaining populations of Ringnecks are now found in such far-flung places as western Washington and the dunes of North Carolina’s Outer Banks.

Pheasant hunting inspires enormous levels of enthusiasm. In South Dakota, when I arrived at the Aberdeen Regional Airport, posters of bird dogs and flying pheasants welcomed hunters to town. At the car-rental counter, I was asked to sign a special form used during pheasant season that stipulated a $250 fine for excessive dirt or dog hair inside the vehicle. (“And no animal offal,” the agent told me. “Don’t be that guy.”) In Redfield, population 2,416, which calls itself the Pheasant Capital of the World, a giant pheasant raced across the town water tower. The high school mascot is a pheasant. There are dozens of hunting lodges in town, and spending on pheasant hunting works its way through every layer of community life. Statewide, pheasant hunters spent $244 million in 2016, and in Spink County, home of Redfield, nearly 6,000 hunters, two-thirds of whom were from out of state, dropped $10 million.

In some cases, landowners use pheasant hunting to augment their existing farming and ranching operations. Jim Faulstich, who raises cattle and crops on 8,000 acres in South Dakota’s Hyde County, began offering the sport on his ranch in 2000, and he uses rotational grazing to boost nesting and winter cover for birds. “The bird hunting is another revenue stream,” says Faulstich. “It adds diversity to the financial enterprise so we can add diversity to the landscape.”

In other instances, out-of-town hunters end up buying a plot of their own. It’s difficult to calculate how many nonresidents own hunting land in the state and manage it specifically for pheasant habitat, but Tim Olson, senior private lands biologist for South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks, says it’s a trend that has been on the rise for decades. Shelly Wipf, Redfield’s assistant financial officer, lives in tiny Doland, 20 miles east of Redfield. “There are maybe 200 people in town,” she says, “and I know of a dozen houses owned by out-of-state hunters.”

“Most everyone else out here is a fifth-generation farmer trying to make a living growing grain. My place is an oasis for wildlife.”

These landowners take advantage of federal and state programs to retain native prairie, plant native grasses, keep row crops off the landscape, and put in dense wintering bird cover. Greg Cronkhite, a Pennsylvania businessman, bought 2,500 acres of South Dakota farmland in 2011. He’s turned it into a pheasant haven and an accidental sanctuary for native species, with 1,000 acres of native pasture and grassland and hundreds of acres of CRP habitats and sorghum, sunflower, and corn food plots. With some exceptions, “most everyone else out here is a fifth-generation farmer trying to make a living growing grain,” he says. “My place is an oasis for wildlife.”

That isn’t to say that maximizing Ring-necked Pheasant numbers has historically been the perfect prescription for many grassland birds. “Pheasants are much more generalized in their use of habitats than many native birds in the grasslands,” explains David Pashley of the American Bird Conservancy. While the non-native birds can make a living in a wide range of landscapes, from pristine, unbroken prairie to intensively cropped parcels, species such as Sprague’s Pipit, Baird’s Sparrow, and Chestnut-collared Longspur need large, open grasslands. Pheasant friendly features such as food plots fragment that habitat. So can planting shelterbelts of trees—something many hunters do when managing land, as the tree rows can accommodate a congregation of pheasants and hold them while hunters and bird dogs approach.

Sam Fryman, a wildlife biologist with the conservation group Pheasants Forever, agrees that past recommendations overlooked important habitat requirements for native birds. He works directly with South Dakota landowners, fashioning habitat-management plans. Every week, he says, landowners come into his office wanting to improve their property for wildlife, and one of the first things they ask about is planting trees. He often counters with a challenge: Let’s think about planting grass. Increasingly Fryman sees landowners embracing a more holistic approach to management, he says, including planting species to support pollinating insects that in turn support grassland birds.

Together with this shift, the impact of large-scale land conservation for a non-native bird is undeniable. In the southwestern corner of Minnesota, I walked through a wide ribbon of restored prairie grasses and cattail sloughs that unfurled for 12 unbroken miles. In a project managed by the Nobles County chapter of Pheasants Forever, local hunters led an effort that raised more than $850,000 to buy this tract and donate it to the state. Over the past 35 years, the chapter has spent more than $7 million to protect nearly 3,000 acres in the county.

“Our approach is pretty simple,” says Scott Rall, president of the chapter. “We raise money, buy cornfields with drained wetlands, restore the habitat, and donate it or give it away. That’s where the Bobolinks and Dickcissels live and where the prairie ducks nest. And the pheasants and pheasant hunters get to use it, too.”  

Given the outsize importance of pheasant hunting to both local economies and native grassland birds, hunters and conservationists alike have been alarmed to see wild pheasant populations, like those of native birds, fall in recent years. In addition to outright habitat loss, they’ve been hit by severe summer drought and tough winters. After pheasant numbers in South Dakota dropped 64 percent between 2012 and 2013, Governor Dennis Daugaard held a habitat summit that recognized the bird’s importance to rural economies and kicked off a working group to address habitat loss.

Still, pheasant numbers in the state continued to decline; South Dakota’s 2017 pheasant brood survey was down 65 percent from the 10-year average. Next door, in North Dakota, the 2018 spring pheasant count was down 30 percent from the previous year. (Some states that had wetter weather, including Kansas, Colorado, and Nebraska, actually saw moderate year-over-year gains, and biologists are hoping that the rainy spring many pheasant-heavy states had this year will lead to population gains this hunting season.)

Meanwhile, the number of people who take part in the sport is dropping, too. In South Dakota there were 38,000 fewer pheasant hunters in 2016 than in 2007. In Illinois, a quarter-million hunters chased pheasants in the 1960s. That number fell to barely 10,000 last year. This underscores a grave concern that grassland conservation faces a new peril: The erosion of a constituency of support.

“Losing hunters and bird dogs and shotguns would be catastrophic for grasslands,” says Marshall Johnson, vice president and executive director of Audubon Dakota, which works with private landowners in the region. This year Audubon Dakota seeks to influence management on 200,000 acres of grasslands with programs that stand to benefit both native-bird and pheasant populations. It also hosts farm and ranch tours to let the public see how landowners are working for wildlife. “A lot of people are trying hard to do right by the land out here,” Johnson says. “It’s time to support private landowners in an unprecedented way, because grassland birds face unprecedented challenges.”

That support could come in the form of preserving the conservation initiatives funded by the federal farm bill, which expires at the end of September. “The farm bill is increasingly important,” says Matt O’Connor, who coordinates habitat restoration for Pheasants Forever, “because it carries these landscape-scale programs that make such a difference to farmers and other private landowners.”

As hunter numbers fall, conservation of grasslands—and all grassland birds—faces a new peril: The erosion of a constituency of support.

Among them is the Conservation Reserve Program—the private-lands partnership that resulted in the “good stuff” I hunted in with Niebur. But the CRP has fallen far below its potential. Signed into law in 1985, the program originally was capped at 40 million acres; Congress dropped the cap to 24 million acres in 2014. As the 2018 reauthorization deadline approaches, conservationists are working to raise the cap and secure long-term funding for the program. (As of mid-August, the House and Senate were in negotiations to reconcile their respective drafts, which both have modest CRP gains: from 24 million acres to 25 million acres in the Senate’s bill, and 29 million acres in the House’s.)

“There’s a lot of nexus here between the hunting, birding, farming, ranching, and rural communities,” says Jim Inglis, director of government affairs for Pheasants Forever. “We are talking about billions of dollars that impact tens of millions of acres for wildlife and natural resources, and we need everybody on board for this.”

Conservationists recognize the power of such an alliance, especially when it comes to protecting imperiled grassland birds. As we walk Niebur’s property one morning, Fryman observes that he is “exactly the kind of landowner we need out here. He’s constantly thinking of ways to improve habitat. More CRP. Bunch grass. Pollinator plots.” Fryman customized a seed mixture for the pollinator plot we’re standing in with some 30 native plant species. It’s the kind of field that might attract Lark Buntings and Dickcissels. But neither Fryman nor Niebur has any illusions about what drives this habitat work.

“The pheasants are the main motivator. I’m not going to lie about that,” Niebur says. “But I’ve learned that diversity is a huge part of habitat planning, and I’m seeing so much come back to life out here.” Just this past summer, he says, he was on his tractor in the pollinator plots, and the butterflies were so thick in the air that he had to wave his hat in front of his face to breathe. “I’d never seen anything like it.”

This story originally ran in the Fall 2018 issue as “Goodwill Hunting.” To receive our print magazine, become a member by making a donation today.