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The future of area pheasants rests with substantial tree belts

WORTHINGTON -- I was really hoping I would make it through the entire winter without having to use my snowblower. I guess my wish was not a realistic one.

It now looks a lot like every other winter in Minnesota. The timing has really made this an easy winter for almost all of the creatures that call southwest Minnesota home. Pheasants and deer are all in great shape, and with only about 60 days of true winter left the winter of 2006-07 appears as though it will be another great year for wildlife survival. That will make it five consecutive winters.

I spoke a few weeks ago about the lack of core winter habitat that pheasants need to survive the really tough winters we have had in the past, and at some point will have again.

With almost all of the large cattail sloughs in southwest Minnesota gone, the future of pheasants rests with substantial tree belts to survive severe winters. When people think of trees, most often tall trees like ash, maple and oak come to mind. These are really a poor choice when it comes to pheasants. Tall trees provide very little in the way of ground cover and have a tendency to fill with snow after the first big storm. Tall trees also make great perches for owls, hawks and other winged predators.

When you think about tree varieties that benefit pheasants, always keep in mind that they should be short in height and there needs to be a lot of them.

Shrubs are really better than trees for pheasants. Five rows of shrub-like trees (honey suckle, lilac, and red twig dogwood, etc.) will stop the snow and allow the birds a place to get out of the wind and survive blizzards. There is one other choice of short trees that works really well -- the eastern red cedar. Eastern red cedars are probably the best tree on earth for pheasant survival.

I have mentioned that there are many programs that can help you plant these life-saving habitats. The one program that can be very helpful is called a living snow fence. Theses programs are really designed to stop snow from blowing onto roadways and making road maintenance difficult. Creating a quality winter pheasant habitat is just a great side benefit. A living snow fence consists of three rows of shrubs with a grass area on both sides that acts as a snow catch area. Some living snow fences will be 300 feet wide with three rows of shrubs or trees and others will only be 60 feet wide. It really depends on weather it's a northsouth or east-west road, and what other snow catching terrain exists in the area.

These plantings are similar to other CRP acres in that they pay the landowner an annual rental rate of approximately $100-$130 per acre for anywhere between 10-15 years. There are cost-share and signup incentives that, in many cases, cover almost all of the input costs. The only cost that is not included is the mat that is used to keep the weeds down and give those new tree or shrub plantings an extra leg up. This mat is very expensive but is almost a necessity unless you really like weeding trees. Survival of young trees is much higher when mat is used.

If you are interested in finding out more about living snow fences check with the area soil conservation office in your county. These plantings will make a great difference to the look of the landscape and can increase your income on certain parcels to boot. Try to add an extra row or two to really create the core winter areas that pheasants need. By planting trees and shrubs -- and, if possible, more trees and shrubs -- it will make southwest Minnesota a little friendlier place for the awesome ring neck pheasant that we we're lucky enough to have introduced here many decades ago.