Who Speaks For The Long-Tailed Bird?

USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack announced a new CRP sign-up at the 2010 Pheasant Fest.

Once upon a time, it seemed that every game species had its advocate group except the pheasant. Apparently the nation's pheasant hunters figured that the long-tailed bird was mean enough to fly to Washington and spur, peck and flog lawmakers into doing right by habitat.

That of course is not the case--outdoor interests, those of hunters and anglers--usually take a back seat to the numerous sweetheart deals and perks that Congress bestows on the Haves at the expense of the Have Nots.

The only way hunters, anglers and other outdoor enthusiasts can make a dent is to organize. It happened with Ducks Unlimited, with Quail Unlimited, with the Ruffed Grouse Society, with Trout Unlimited--all species-oriented groups. There was no one talking tough to legislators for the pheasant.

Minnesota outdoor writer Dennis Anderson realized that, tough as pheasants are, they aren't tough enough to beat the reality of political life, so he lobbied for an organization along the lines of Ducks Unlimited and other conservation groups, but dedicated to the pheasant.

That was in 1982 and the result was Pheasants Forever. PF has become a leading conservation organization with more than 125,000 members in 600 local chapters. Its annual Pheasant Fest, which gypsies from Midwest city to city each year, has become a major celebration of bird dogs and upland-related equipment.

PF has become a true success story and its child, Quail Forever, is doing for quail what PF did for pheasants. Almost certainly a result of intense pressure by PF, the Obama Administration has announced a dramatic rescue for the Conservation Reserve Program.

The group chose its 2010 Fest, held in Des Moines, Iowa, the last weekend in February, to let USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, a native Iowan and former governor of the state, announce a new Conservation Reserve Program sign-up, the first in four years. CRP, the best thing that has happened for upland wildlife in decades, was in danger of collapse with the contract expiration of millions of CRP acres in the Midwest.

There is little doubt that those acres would have been plowed and cowed, just as happened when the Soil Bank expired in the 1960s. It took CRP some 20 years later to bring critters such as pheasants and quail back from low ebb.

More than 18 million CRP acres would have expired before 2013 had the new sign-up not happened. Vilsack promised to keep the program at 32 million acres and to expand several farming practices that benefit wildlife, especially quail and ducks (nesting cover).

This is concrete accomplishment as opposed to the silly public relations inanities of such groups as PETA and HSUS (if you don't know what those abbreviations stand for, don't bother). The PF money goes to habitat improvement, which has touched more than five million acres so far.

PF created one of the programs that Secretary Vilsack has promised to increase--the State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement (SAFE)--by 150,000 acres. There currently are 253,000 acres in 34 states.SAFE targets key species in a number of states--pheasants in North Dakota, Iowa, Illinois and Minnesota, grassland birds in South Dakota, quail in Mississippi and Georgia, upland habitat in Nebraska and sharptailed grouse in Idaho.

USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack (left) and Howard Vincent, President and CEO of Pheasants Forever, sign a Memorandum of Understanding.

It's lobbying work like this that makes PF tick, but there's much more to the group.

Volunteers work on local habitat programs. PF and QF are almost unique in that virtually all money collected stays local, rather than funneling to the national headquarters. The two groups worked on more than 17,000 wildlife habitat projects in 2008 alone.

Pheasant Fest, which will be held in Omaha in 2011, gathers hundreds of exhibitors, ranging from someone selling tractors to someone selling Clumber spaniels. Of the two, the latter are far more huggable.

And the three-day exhibition attracts thousands of visitors (more than 20,000 in Des Moines) who wander the aisles, drooling over Benellis or Brownings or Berettas, cuddling Lab, shorthair and Brittany puppies, buying new shell vests and orange caps, their charge cards vibrating like tuning forks.

It is more fun than anything short of a day in the field with a good dog. Many attendees represent chapters of Pheasants Forever, but they also come unaffiliated and a large sign-up booth offering memberships in Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever is the first thing they see when they enter the exhibition hall.

Have a kid who is just on the verge of hunting age? (There are currently 19,000 young PF members.) There will be gun safety seminars and other instruction. The kids can shoot laser guns at video roosters. And they can pet a multitude of dogs and puppies of many bird dog breeds.

You'll see breeds you never expected to see and maybe some you've never heard of. A couple of shaggy Spinoni paraded past a booth featuring Deutch Kurzhaars (German shorthairs from Germany). It's a candy store for any 20-, 30-, 40-, 50- or 60-something kid who enjoys bird dogs and what they do. The Fest opens with a Bird Dog Parade where proud owners lead their favorites into the exhibition hall in a Canine Miss America-type celebration.

While PF celebrates with a Mega-Fest, other conservation groups have similar goals and offer member benefits, like the many banquets where attendees can bid on lush items and enjoy lying to each other about how good their dogs are.

The point is, membership in a conservation group is vital to the health of hunting (or fishing, for that matter). Only en masse do outdoor enthusiasts have political clout.And without clout, we're without the outdoors.

Joel Vance is the author of Grandma and the Buck Deer (softcover $15); Bobs, Brush and Brittanies (hardcover $25); Down Home Missouri (hardcover $25); and Autumn Shadows limited edition, signed $45). Available from Cedar Glade Press, Box 1664, Jefferson City MO 65102. Add $2/book for S/H.

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