Effective prairie conservation requires a collaborative effort among a wide variety of interests, including ecologists, naturalists, birdwatchers, ranchers, educators, hunters, and others. Each of these might approach prairie conservation from a different perspective, but they have more in common than you might expect.
People outside Nebraska might be surprised to learn that one of the strongest forces for prairie conservation in our state is Pheasants Forever. Pheasants Forever, along with its sister organization Quail Forever, is helping protect, restore, and manage prairies in multiple ways, including:
- Private lands biologists (17) who work with landowners on habitat projects, providing both advice and access to federal, state, and private cost-share assistance.
- Promoting and facilitating the use of prescribed fire across the state by providing equipment and training opportunities, helping to establish and coordinate prescribed fire associations, and organizing landowner tours to showcase the value of prescribed fire.
- Promoting the use of, and helping to provide, diverse native seed mixtures for habitat restoration/improvement projects.
- Organizing workshops and field tours on habitat management, prairie restoration, plant identification, and pollinator conservation.
The man who has provided most of the energy for these efforts for more than 20 years is Pete Berthelsen, who has just stepped into a new role for Pheasants Forever, Inc. and Quail Forever; the Director of Habitat Partnerships. He is now charged with taking the kinds of habitat partnerships and statewide habitat programs he helped develop in Nebraska and replicating those programs across the organization at the national level.
Pete and I have worked together on many projects over the years. We don’t always see eye to eye on everything, but that’s not a surprise – it’s why (and because) we work for different organizations! Overall, we’ve managed to find more than enough common ground to form the basis of a solid partnership. I particularly enjoy working with Pete and other Pheasants Forever staff on field tours for landowners and conservation agency personnel. Those days in the field give us the chance to discuss wildlife management, plant identification, pollinator habitat, prairie restoration techniques, and many other aspects of conservation with each other and the participants of the tours. I always come away from those events feeling better educated and more energized.
I hope the example of Pheasants Forever’s prairie conservation work in our state can help stimulate people outside of Nebraska to seek partnerships among diverse organizations. To help delve into the details of what PF does for prairies, and why, I recently conducted a brief interview with Pete. Here is the result:
From an outsider’s perspective, PF seems like an organization with a fairly narrow focus, but in reality, you advocate for a broad ecological approach to the restoration and management of habitat. Why is that?
With a name like “Pheasants Forever” or “Quail Forever” it’s really easy to form the conclusion that we’re a conservation group that’s just interested in upland game birds and hunting them. While that certainly is a focus and something that drives many of our 170,000 members, it doesn’t adequately describe what our mission is.
People with a wide background of passions and interests can find common ground under our tent. Our habitat and youth education mission produces results that should excite people with passions that include: pollinators, native prairies, grassland songbirds, water quality, managing grasslands, sustainable agriculture, threatened and endangered species, wetlands, and more.
Why have you spent so much effort promoting and facilitating the use of prescribed fire?
For the first 15 years I worked with landowners in Nebraska, we would promote the value of prescribed fire. After 15 years of promotion, very, very little prescribed fire was happening on private lands in the state. It always seemed to come down to: 1) I don’t know how to burn, 2) I don’t have enough help to burn, and/or 3) I don’t have the equipment to burn.
Through a great coalition of partners in the state (the Nebraska Environmental Trust being key among the partners), PF built an innovative partnership to address each of those 3 limitations. Five years after starting a new partnership to encourage prescribed burning on private land, we’ve helped form 10 local prescribed burn association and completed 368 prescribed burns without incident on 25,358 acres. In addition, we’ve built 11 Mobile Prescribed Burn Units, conducted 71 prescribed burn training workshops for 1,519 attendees, and held 84 Landowner Habitat Tours for 2,445 people.
In just a few short years, I’ve seen the culture of prescribed burning completely change in areas of the state. That’s a great thing for wildlife, ranchers and people who want healthy grasslands.
You’ve promoted the idea that pollinator habitat is good pheasant habitat. Can you explain what you mean by that?
This may be the best example of how so many different interests and passions can fit under one big tent. The habitat needs of native bees and other pollinators are exactly the same things I’ve been talking about as an upland wildlife biologist for the past 30 years…….we just didn’t realize it until recently. The plant diversity, plant community composition, and habitat structure that create the best nesting and brood-rearing cover for pheasants and quail are the same qualities that make up great pollinator habitat.
This is just one more of the many examples that all come back to describing the need for habitat. Whether the focus is on grassland songbirds, regal fritillary butterflies, pollinators, pheasants or quail, it always comes back to habitat. Pheasants Forever describes itself as “The Habitat Organization” and that’s because its mission is really about creating and improving great habitat……not just more pheasants and quail.
How has owning your own land, including some nice native prairie, helped shape your perspective about habitat and ecological management?
Owning a piece of land has had a profound impact on me. The notion of “caring for the land and leaving it better off for the next generation” used to just be words I would hear…..now, it seems like the roots of native prairie grow deeper inside me every day. Being a landowner has allowed me to “practice what I preach” about land and wildlife habitat management. My wife and I enjoy the opportunity to have an outdoor classroom in which to show and demonstrate land management practices. My experience as a landowner has also been the genesis of many our habitat partnerships, including the Grassland Improvement Program, the Expiring CRP Program, the promotion of pollinator habitat, and the formation of local prescribed burn associations.
Anything else you want to say?
I guess I would conclude with a word about partnerships. As I travel the country, I’m frequently asked a question that goes something like “How are you able to form all those unique partnerships in Nebraska”? The answer I always give is that there is a unique culture of people working together to accomplish things. In the 21st Century, if you want to accomplish significant things on the landscape that we care so much about, you need to do it in the form of partnerships. Whether you’re a county weed superintendent, rancher, hunter, TNC member, Audubon member, PF member or QF member…….we have lots and lots of common ground to work together.
For more information on the work Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever does in Nebraska, including their innovative Grassland Improvement Program, Expiring CRP Program, the work they’ve done to form prescribed burn associations, and more, visit http://www.nebraskapf.com.