Another boost for pheasantsNew SAFE program lets landowners enroll marginal land for habitat cover
By: Julie Buntjer, Worthington Daily Globe
WORTHINGTON — The southwest Minnesota pheasant population is anticipated to get another boost in habitat area, thanks to a multi-agency collaboration that will allow farmers to enroll marginal land in a newly introduced conservation effort — Minnesota’s State Acres For Wildlife Enhancement (SAFE) Back Forty Pheasant Habitat program.
Open enrollment began on Monday and will continue until the allocated 23,100 acres have been filled in the state.
The SAFE program in Minnesota is hoped to benefit not only the pheasant population in southern Minnesota, but the Greater Prairie Chicken Range in the northwest part of the state as well. In addition, waterfowl and other birds will likely be positively impacted.
A component of the Conservation Reserve Program, SAFE requires landowners who enroll to establish areas of grassland to provide habitat for pheasants. In some cases where a large block of land is enrolled, a food plot or tree planting can also be established.
Steve Woltjer, district conservationist at the Nobles County Natural Resources Conservation Service, said approximately 75 percent of the land enrolled in the program will be planted to native prairie grasses, with the other 25 percent to include introduced grasses such as timothy, orchard grass, sweet clover, red clover and others.
“For the person looking to develop long-term habitat for wildlife, they can do a lot of stuff out there,” said Woltjer.
Landowners can enroll anywhere from 10 to 40 acres in SAFE. However, parcels smaller than 10 acres that are adjoining land in another conservation program such as CRP, a wildlife management area or shelter belt may also be eligible.
There is no limit on the number of acres that can be enrolled within eligible counties.
“It’s first come, first served,” said Woltjer, adding that landowners have the option to sign up for either a 10-year or 15-year contract. Whether or not the program will open for re-enrollment after the contracts expire is yet unknown.
Landowners who enroll in SAFE have the option to delay the start of the contract until this fall.
“Most people have their crops planned already for this year,” said Woltjer. Also, because of the funding cycle of the Farm Service Agency, which coordinates sign-ups, waiting until fall will mean producers receive a full-year incentive payment for the first year of enrollment rather than a partial payment.
“Where we’re seeing the most interest is where people have ground that’s quite sandy,” said Woltjer. “(The program) is for highly erodible land, sandy soil that just isn’t very productive.”
Regardless of the type of land enrolled in SAFE, Nobles County Pheasants Forever Chapter President Scott Rall is excited to see yet another program to benefit the pheasant population.
“Even small amounts of acres included in the CRP Back Forty program could and should have a substantial impact on pheasant numbers in southwest Minnesota,” said Rall. “From a Pheasants Forever perspective, we’re incredibly excited for landowners to participate in the Back Forty program. We realize that the competition from high commodity prices and high land prices may make filling all of those acres challenging.”
Rall said less than 3 percent of the total acres in this area of the state consists of established wildlife cover.
“Any additional grassland acres … will just incrementally increase pheasant populations for all hunters,” he added.
In addition to the Farm Service Agency, NRCS and Pheasants Forever, agencies who worked to develop SAFE include the Minnesota Prairie Chicken Society, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources, Minnesota Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts, Ducks Unlimited, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and The Nature Conservancy.