10 steps to a successful upland habitat project
— By Andrew Johnson
You might have hung your pheasant vest up till next fall, but there’s never an off-season when it comes to improving habitat. Whether you’re a landowner, land manager or member of an active Pheasants Forever Chapter with plans to increase the amount and quality of habitat in your neck of pheasant country, here are 10 tips to ensure your habitat game plan starts off on the right foot.
1. Educate Yourself
My high-school English teacher had a sign hanging above the chalkboard — yes, we still had those in my day — that read, “Education is what survives after you’ve forgotten what you’ve learned.”
In other words, you don’t know what you don’t know, and that goes for plenty of landowners who may not have grown up with an agricultural background or majored in biology. In fact, most folks looking to upgrade habitat on their little slice of heaven would benefit from a refresher course on solid management practices and what qualifies as good habitat in their state or region, says Matt O’Connor, team coordinator for Habitat Forever, a subsidiary of Pheasant Forever.
“Of course, the perfect scenario would be to start looking for literature and information on what you want to do,” says O’Connor, who heads up a team of habitat specialists spread out across pheasant country. “That will help generate some ideas of what you would like to enhance or restore on your land.”
Online resources from Pheasants Forever, state and federal wildlife agencies, and state and federal ag departments offer endless supplies of information. There is also a bevy of free material available at local NRCS offices and extension offices across the country.
2. Take Inventory
Once you have an idea of what habitat improvements you want to make, it’s important to take inventory of the existing habitat and landscape features on and around the property.
“Some people get so excited about a property and the idea of what they can make of it that a lot of the little details get missed,” O’Connor says. “What happens then is people don’t do what they should to properly prepare for their project.”
O’Connor referenced Aldo Leopold, who not only talked about the importance of taking inventory of the potential your property may have, but to also look beyond your borders and see what habitat is available on the surrounding properties or landscapes. To illustrate this point, O’Connor recalled a banner hunt on a small, 50-acre property.
“Many years ago a PF chapter in north-central Iowa wanted me to join them in a hunt of their first habitat project,” O’Connor recalls. “It was a nice area — a pond with plenty of grass surrounding. On a south-facing slope next to the pond were 12 rows of cedar and spruce that were getting big enough to provide good habitat. Back behind the pond was 25 acres of switchgrass and a 5-acre corn food plot.
“The area was crazy with pheasants flushing when we got out of the truck, flushing when we shut the doors, flushing as we approached the area,” he continues. “I wondered where in the heck all of these pheasants were coming from. After the hunt I drove around the section and got my answer, as there were 600 acres of brome CRP all around the hunting area. Plenty of grass to produce birds, but after the first snowfall every bird wanted into that habitat hot spot for the rest of winter.”
At the same time, O’Connor says taking inventory and being aware of what surrounds your property will help you understand your project’s limitations.
“That assessment of surrounding properties may not be what you want to see,” he cautions. “If the area around your property is predominately timber, for example, that 40-acre pheasant dream habitat of yours may never work out. You need to be realistic with your goals.”
3. Meet the Pros
While taking inventory, you should also make a list of potential contacts who should be kept in the loop, O’Connor advises.
“Make a list of people who can give you advice and help you with best-management practices,” he says. “Rely on the knowledge these people have gained from planning and implementing the same projects you are considering. Tell them what you’re thinking, what you’d like to do, and then ask for their opinions.”
O’Connor says many wildlife agencies have private-lands biologists available, and there’s always PF farm bill biologists, staff from NRCS offices, foresters and many, many more — even other landowners that have completed similar projects.
“What is important about meeting with professionals or experienced landowners is that you can learn more about the planning and the follow-up implementation and maintenance of your habitat project,” O’Connor says. “These people have been through it and know how to get the work done.”
4. Maintain Focus
And getting the work done can sometimes be a problem, as many people start the process with too many irons in the fire, O’Connor says.
“The one problem we run into the most is that good, well-meaning people take on too much work right off the bat,” says O’Connor. “Most of them understand that habitat is a wonderful thing, but they just try to do too much at one time and end up fighting from behind on their habitat projects.”
Instead of biting off more than they can chew, O’Connor advises people to keep it simple and start slow.
“Focus on one thing at a time,” he says. “Whether it’s establishing a food plot or a pollinator plot or running a prescribed fire, pick what you want to do, and do it well.”
5. Know the Cost
“Great ideas can sour quickly once cost is included,” admits O’Connor. “And not just monetary cost, but time and commitment costs, also.”
This is where relying on professionals for guidance also comes into play, as they’re trained to help find funds available through various cost-share programs.
“Lining up any potential cost-share should be one of your priority items,” he says. “Fall is the best time to talk cost-share possibilities with a private-lands wildlife biologist or a farm bill biologist. Or, if you’re putting in trees or shrubs you should be talking to a forester. The earlier the better, as now is the time to be talking to someone, not next spring.”
6. Plan Ahead for Prescribed Fire
Prescribed fire is an extremely useful tool in habitat planning and restoration, but it requires the most planning, O’Connor says.
“When it comes to prescribed fire, you should be at least a year out with your planning,” he says. “It never fails that in the first two weeks of April we’ll get calls to come out and do a burn by the end of the month, but if you’re starting to plan your prescribed fire at the beginning of April, you’re just asking for problems.”
In other words, you can’t just show up and light a fire, he says, and based on plenty of experience he knows that a good, safe prescribed burn requires plenty of thought and preparation. Mowing and creating firebreaks, removing potential hazards such as deadfalls and other problem trees, obtaining the necessary permits and following local laws, notifying neighbors and the fire department, and waiting for perfect burning conditions are all part of the process.
“Good preparation will make that day of actual burning more safe and less stressful,” he adds. “The great thing now is that there’s this huge window to get the work done. With the right conditions and the right prep and as we’ve learned more, the window of opportunity is much larger than it used to be — we’re darn near burning throughout the year nowadays.”
7. Make a Food Plot, Not a Kill Plot
Food plots are one of the most popular habitat projects, and rightfully so. However, O’Connor says not all food plots are created equal.
“So often food plots turn into shooting plots,” he says. “Most are convenient to hunt, but as tough as it is for some land managers to understand, harder-to-hunt food plots benefit pheasants and other wildlife long after the season’s over. Remember, it’s there to keep hens healthy and bring them into spring closer to nesting cover and in better shape than if they had to travel a half-mile in search of more food.”
That said, O’Connor says he prefers food plots be planted in blocks of no less than 5 acres.
“If someone is putting in a 5-acre food plot, they shouldn’t identify just 5 acres, but 10 acres in a place where they’ve gone in and looked at soil maps and maybe done some soil testing on ground that’s not on highly erodible and is reasonable to be farmed,” he says. “Anything under 5 acres isn’t big enough, as it just turns into a wildlife sink, and it’ll never become a habitat project that’s improving the area with the potential to benefit more wildlife. Also, if it’s too small it runs the risk of filling in with snow the further north you go.
“If you look at something in the 5- to 10-acre range, you have to really think about it and identify a spot that’s 10-20 acres so that the actual food plot isn’t in the same place every year — so that it moves within that area,” he continues. “My key is not to keep drilling or farming the same piece of ground. A good example would be 5 acres in sweet clover and alfalfa and the other 5 acres would be a food plot. That browse will keep deer off the food plot and make wonderful brood habitat, as well as pollinator habitat.”
8. Plant for Pollinators
Speaking of pollinators, another trend in habitat management is infusing plantings with flowering plants to encourage insect activity.
“They’re targeted toward bugs, but people like them, too. And from our standpoint, pheasants really like ’em,” O’Connor admits. “However, with a pollinator plot, it’s important for landowners to learn what their responsibility is once it’s been planted.”
Unlike a food plot, which typically yields fast, tangible results, pollinator plots are much more involved and require more TLC.
“These forbs take longer to develop,” O’Connor says. “You might plant it right, but if you don’t take care of it what happens is you’re into Year 5 and your pollinator plot might look like a weed patch. If you do take care of it, however, you’ll have people stopping by to take pictures. We’ve had that happen before where complete strangers have shown up to some places we’ve put these in and asked the landowners if they could take pictures next to the flowers.”
As far as care goes, in a lot of cases it’s a matter of mowing that site the first year, O’Connor says.
“When I say mowing, I’m talking of a height of 8-10 inches,” he says. “We want to get light down to those young plants and stress the weeds. That way the weeds won’t uptake water, and a majority of the available water will then be used by prairie plants and not by the weeds. As you go farther west you won’t have to mow as often, but it can make a big difference when water is a real issue.”
9. Control Weeds
No matter what type of habitat project you undertake, weed control will somehow be a part of it, O’Connor admits.
“Sometimes the whole idea of controlling weeds bogs people down to where they don’t get anything else done, but it doesn’t always have to be that complicated,” he says. “It might be as simple as spraying an area of brome with Roundup or mowing an area so it’s ready to be converted into a food plot.”
While most landowners pay attention to weeds in the spring and summer, O’Connor says the fall might be the best time to effect meaningful weed control.
“Fall is a perfect time to control problem spots when other plants have gone dormant and you can really target the weed or whatever is giving you a problem,” he says. “Take a patch of thistles in a portion of a pollinator plot — it’s an excellent time to spray those things and not worry about hurting other stuff.”
10. Manage Expectations
In all the years he’s been helping people, O’Connor says he’s never seen a habitat project magically come together overnight. As examples, pollinator plots and native grass seedings can take years to develop, and poor weather conditions can push a prescribed burn back several days or even weeks.
“These things take time, and as habitat specialists some of the most important work we do is helping people understand what it takes to get a job done, and at other times it’s just to be there to look at their site and tell them it’s going to be ok,” he says. “I had it happen several times this summer when a landowner was worried that it just wasn’t happening at his site. So I visit the property, and we drive around to look at grass and weeds and forbs, and by the time we got back he was OK. A huge part of what we do is follow up with people and help keep things in perspective to let them know that they’re still on track.”
If you’ve been dreaming big but haven’t pulled the trigger on your own property, now’s the time. Habitat projects take some work and can be intimidating, but if you use these simple, smart tips to get started on a solid game plan, you’ll be well on your way to big rewards.
Editor’s Note: This article was first published in Pheasants Forever Journal. It is reprinted here with permission.
About the Author: Andrew Johnson and his Lab, Gauge, have fun chasing roosters across his home state of South Dakota. Johnson is editor of Outdoor Forum and a frequent contributor to Pheasants Forever. Follow him on Twitter @OutdoorForumMag.