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Conserving Our Wildlife

For a quarter of a century, McHenry County Pheasants Forever has developed and protected local wildlife habitats so they remain healthy and thrive for years to come. The organization invites the community and next generation of sportsmen to get involved.

It’s called Pheasants Forever, but that’s just a small part of the story. In order to create habitats for wildlife like pheasants, restore  wetlands  and  protect  prairies,  McHenry County Pheasants Forever has done so much in its 25 years and is in the midst of a busy 2012.

Since its founding, the McHenry County chapter has installed and improved more than 2,000 acres of pheasant/wildlife habitat and planted thousands of acres of annual winter survival food plot mixes/crops, according to President Nick Myers. “Each habitat field has its own distinct and diverse culture of warm season grasses [prairie grasses], cool season grasses [brome, reed canary grasses], wild-flowers, forbs or a combination,” he explained.

Population Change

Up until the late 1970s, according to Myers, Illinois was one of the Midwest’s top pheasant producers, with hunters harvesting around 1 million pheasants annually. Today, it’s dropped to about 65,000 pheasants for a number of reasons.

First, in the late ’70s, a contract for the Soviet Union to buy U.S. grain fell through. Unfortunately, farmers had already begun taking steps to free up their land for production, which devastated wildlife habitats.

Fortunately, in the early 1980s, as a response to the drastic decline in pheasants and other wildlife, the U.S. government began to fund Conservation Reserve Programs (CRP) (read more about CRP in the next section). By the mid-90s, CRP and organizations like Pheasant Forever helped restore many acres of habitat destroyed in the ’70s. By 1995, pheasant harvest numbers rose to about 325,000 birds.

In the winter of ’95/’96, however, a significant rainstorm and subsequent freeze killed many Illinois pheasants, dropping their population to around 100,000.

More than a decade later — due to continued grassland habitat interference like trees, hedgerows and fence lines, as well as predators — the number is at an all-time low.

Sportsmen and Saving the CRP

Pheasants Forever’s legislative fund is geared toward lobbying politicians in Washington D.C., to support wildlife habitats. One of the greatest habitat programs that recently benefited from this fund is the CRP, according to Myers.

“CRP consists of a cost-sharing or ‘rental’ program directed by the United States Department of Agriculture,” he added. “This program encourages farmers to remove highly erodible and environmentally sensitive land out of crop production and put it into habitat. CRP, in addition to Pheasants Forever sites and public land sites, not only promote wildlife, but also aid in keeping waterways clean and prevent soil erosion.”

To date, CRP acres account for nearly 30 million acres of habitat nationwide. Unfortunately, CRP acres are down from 39 million in 2008 to 30 million acres today. Illinois has lost about 340,000 square miles of CRP between 2005 and 2010.

Sportsmen, who largely make up organizations like Pheasants Forever, are imperative in this fight to boost CRP funding. “As long as sportsmen keep supporting us, we will continue to fight for CRP funding,” Myers added.

“The efforts sportsmen have made within the conservation world are mammoth,” Myers continued, “and remain the premier conservationists starting with our movements founder Teddy Roosevelt.”

According to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, hunters and fishermen fund nearly 75 percent of the annual income for all of the 50 state conservation agencies. Through license fees and excess taxes on arms and gear, sportsmen contribute more than $200 million per year for wildlife conservation.

Further, the Winter 2012 issue of Pheasants Forever magazine reports that “In 2006, the total contribution from outdoor sports in the U.S. was nearly $730 billion per year, generating more than 6.4 million U.S. jobs and $99 billion in federal and state tax revenues. This includes hunting, fishing, wildlife viewing and other outdoor sports.”

“These numbers are staggering and keep in mind the first quote applies to public lands only — it does not include efforts made on private lands,” Myers said. “Our next generation of outdoors men are the keepers of conservations. The future of habitat depends on them.”

Goals for 2012

Prescribed grass burnings are Pheasants Forever’s first objective this year. These make cool season fields useful for nesting and roosting and also provide shelter for pheasants and other wildlife throughout the year.

With its first-ever certified burn crew consisting of Pheasants Forever committee members, the organization can now efficiently complete its burnings within the short spring burning season.

“We want to target sections of cool season grasses for burning in the coming years because they are used by pheasants and other wildlife,” Myers said. “With some of our burns, we hope to come across landowners who may be interested in converting their cool seasons into warm seasons [prairie grasses].”

Increasing interest in the organization is its second ongoing objective. In order, for example, to increase turnout at its March 10 banquet at the McHenry VFW, “We have lowered our ticket prices, changed the location and moved the day to a Saturday rather than a Friday,” Myers said.

The third goal to decrease habitat fragmentation within McHenry County is perhaps its biggest, Myers said. “Habitat fragmentation is the breaking up and removal of grassy and wooded hedgerows, grassy fence lines and mowing  of  what  would  otherwise  be  overgrown roadside ditches,” he explained. “Without such habitats to connect fields, pheasants and other wildlife are forced to expose themselves to the elements.”

To help decrease our fragmented habitats, the organization wants to begin targeting rural homes that have 20 or 30 acres of mowed turf grass and are located near or around other habitat sites. “Converting these large pieces of turf grass into pheasant habitat makes a significant positive impact on the birds’ survival,” Myers said.

Pheasants Forever has a few sites like this already in place, he said. Hen pheasants are producing clutches of chicks on these properties. After the chicks are grown and have moved onto other neighboring fields, they can still use these sites in the form of roosting cover, shelter from winter storms, and safety zones while traveling from one field to the next.

Youth Involvement

Engaging young people in the world of conservation through the Youth Pheasant Hunting Program is an important effort for Pheasants Forever.

“The youth pheasant hunting program is a way to provide an opportunity for kids between the ages of 10 and 16 to get outdoors and be with nature,” Myers said. “This is a great experience for participants to learn and improve upon proper hunting etiquette, responsibility and gun safety, and a great way to keep our youth involved with our hunting heritage and tradition.”

This summer, Pheasants Forever plans to offer hunter safety courses for McHenry County youth as an alternative to Illinois safety courses, “which are always booked well in advance, making it difficult for kids to get their hunters safety certificate,” he said. “We plan on holding five to six such hunts each year at little to no cost.”

Youth involvement and support is a key strategy, according to Myers, because “they are the conservationists of the future,” he added. “Habitat and wildlife of tomorrow depend on them. To carry on what Teddy Roosevelt started — his legacy and tradition — it is vital that we keep our youth engaged and encouraged to partake in the outdoors through all means.”

Join the Cause

Pheasants Forever counts on local hunting clubs, volunteers, landowners, event sponsors and committee members to achieve its annual goals.

“From new members to those who have been with us for 25 years, without their dedication and help, we could not do what we have done, nor accomplish what we are about to accomplish in this coming year and years to come,” Myers said.

Pheasants Forever is always looking to team up with community members, particularly when it comes to prescribed burns, habitat restoration, youth hunts, hunter safety course instruction and land improvement.

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