Pete and Laura Berthelsen’s small farm in central Nebraska may well be the epicenter of a national movement to save quail and pheasants.
When they bought the 160 acres in 2005, the place didn’t look like much of a wildlife paradise. It was largely devoid of cover, it was rough and it was only marginally productive.
But the Berthelsens had a dream — an impossible dream, some said.
“Linda and I had two objectives.” said Berthelsen, a senior field supervisor for Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever. “The place had to produce income, and it was going to serve as a wildlife laboratory.
“The order of those objectives depended on which of us you talked to.”
Almost 10 years later, both husband and wife are satisfied beyond their wildest dreams.
Berthelsen set out to completely change the landscape, making it wildlife friendly. He used prescribed burning; high-intensity, short-duration grazing; the planting of food plots, shrub thickets, and buffer strips; and the use of herbicides to remove undesirable vegetation. And it wasn’t long before he saw huge changes.
Today, his land — 60 percent of which is in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), in which the federal government compensates farmers for idling marginal land — is a shining example of hope for those fighting to reverse the trends that have seen quail and pheasant numbers plummet nationwide.
The Berthelsens have 15 coveys of quail and a noticeable increase in pheasant numbers on their land — all without sacrificing financially.
“We had two coveys of quail when we bought this place,” Berthelsen said. “This proves that landowners can make a difference.
“If you provide the habitat, you will have quail. And we’ve found that great quail habitat is great pheasant habitat.
“We’ve just wrapped up a very successful hunting season at a time when others were complaining about a lack of birds.”
Berthelsen will carry that message of hope to Kansas City this week at the national Pheasant Fest and Quail Classic. The event, which will open Friday and continue through next Sunday, will be centered at Bartle Hall in downtown Kansas City. Organized by national conservation groups Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever, the extravaganza will be a celebration of upland hunting. It will include a bird-dog parade, seminars by nationally known experts, a large sports show with almost 400 vendors and a kids zone. But it will be much more than fun and games.
A central message will dominate the proceedings: We can bring the birds back.
“The strength of our pheasant and quail populations boils down to two things: habitat and Mother Nature,” said Dave Nomsen, vice president of governmental affairs for Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever. “Well, we can’t do anything about the weather. But we’re finding that we can have a big impact on the habitat.”
Pheasants Forever was born in 1982, when crop prices were high, farmers were rushing to put land into production and wildlife habitat was disappearing at an alarming rate. By 2005, a sister organization, Quail Forever was added.
Today, Pheasants Forever has more than 125,000 members in 600 chapters in the United States and Canada. The organization’s chapter projects benefited more than 235,000 acres of land last year. And Pheasants Forever Farm Bill biologists made more than 12,000 landowner contacts, resulting in almost 580,000 acres of habitat improvement.
At the heart of that effort is the CRP, which now compensates farmers for specific conservation practices. Leaving buffer strips between crops and timber, planting warm-season grasses, leaving nesting and brood-rearing areas in crop fields, hinging trees to provide brushy habitat — they’re all part of the way landowners can create a more wildlife friendly environment and be compensated at the same time.
But officials with Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever know that there are many challenges. Getting landowners to take even marginal land out of production at a time when crop prices are high isn’t easy.
And that challenge will be drawn into sharp focus this year. Contracts on almost 6.5 million acres of the 30 million enrolled in CRP are due to expire. If farmers don’t re-enlist their land in the program or new land isn’t enrolled, wildlife habitat could be reduced significantly.
That’s why Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever officials are urging farmers to consider putting at least a portion of their most unproductive land into the CRP program when the enrollment period is held from March 12 through April 6.
As a special feature at the Pheasant Fest and Quail Classic, a Landowner Habitat Help Room will assist landowners in devising a habitat plan specific to their farms.
All the landowners have to do is bring the legal description of their property (township, range and section). Through technology, biologists will get a detailed look at the land on large-screen monitors at work stations. The experts will then devise a habitat plan and will even advise landowners on what local, state, and federal conservation programs qualify for enrollment.
John Cockerham of Osborne, Kan., is certainly sold on the benefits of working with Pheasants Forever programs on CRP land. He took 150 of his 700 acres out of production, put them in the CRP, then worked with Pheasants Forever to create wildlife habitat.
“With the help of Pheasants Forever, we planted 950 trees in 1994 to build shelterbelts,” Cockerham said. “Then we planted some grass patches for nesting cover and some food plots.
“We’ve really seen a difference in our bird numbers. The quail really made a jump this year. And we’re seeing more pheasants, too.”
Stories like that convince Nomsen that Pheasants Forever is on the right track.
“There’s no question that Pheasants Forever has made a difference,” he said. “A lot of that has to do with the partnerships we’re involved with.
“But there’s still a long way to go.”
by Brent Frazee