Southwest Minnesota Pheasants Forever group earns national Chapter of the Year for the third time
Nobles County puts fundraising efforts into land acquisitions.
WORTHINGTON — The Nobles County chapter of Pheasants Forever has once again been named the No. 1 chapter in the U.S. for turning private lands into pheasant habitat ground open for the public’s enjoyment of hunting, birding and wildlife watching.
The Conservation Excellence Award, announced during Pheasant Fest earlier this year, is in recognition of the chapter’s total dollars invested in habitat — $14 million — within the county. Nobles County Pheasants Forever President Scott Rall received the plaque naming Nobles County the Outstanding Chapter for 2021, which will be displayed alongside plaques the chapter received in 2010 and 2014, also for habitat investment.
Rall said the chapter’s partnerships with Worthington Public Utilities, the Okabena-Ocheda Watershed District, Minnesota Build a Wildlife Area, and the Board of Water and Soil Resources and their combined investments, propelled the chapter to its distinction.
Many of those partnerships have been focused on taking marginal land out of production within the city of Worthington’s wellhead protection area south of the city. It has resulted in a multi-parcel complex, the largest of which is the Worthington Wells Wildlife Management Area.
The project has been a win-win for everyone involved, as the restored lands seeded to grasses and forbs help buffer the stream that flows from Lake Ocheda to the city’s wellfield near Lake Bella. In fact, the city’s public utilities manager attributes the habitat project as the reason the city doesn’t have measurable nitrates in water coming from the wellfield.
“Without those partnerships, Nobles County could not and would not have achieved the successes that we have today,” Rall said. “To win the National Chapter of the Year once is a great honor. To have won it three times is unparalleled. I don’t know of another chapter that has been the National Chapter of the Year three times.”
Since its inception 39 years ago, Nobles County Pheasants Forever has focused on public lands acquisition. As they acquired marginal lands within the county and converted them to grasslands for pheasant habitat — and the enjoyment of hunters and non-hunters alike — they gained more sponsorships, more donations and more momentum to continue their quest.
“When you contribute, and a year or two later you see the results of that, that’s very motivating,” Rall said, noting the chapter had a record number of individual and corporate sponsors during its fundraising banquet in mid-March.
“There are chapters that give lots of money to the Legislative Action Fund and other (Pheasants Forever) programs,” he said. “In our county, they can go out and stand on (their investment), see and smell what their contributions have resulted in. That’s the single largest … supporting factor for our success.”
With an eye to the chapter's 40th anniversary next year, Rall said plans are to host a land dedication on Pheasant Run 40 — the chapter’s 40th land acquisition, which happens to be a parcel that adds to the complex of its very first acquisition — in mid-June 2023.
Two more parcels have been acquired since the chapter’s 40th piece of property, with Pheasant Run 41 and Pheasant Run 42 being additions to the Lambert Prairie Wildlife Management Area in Dewald Township, near Rushmore. Those acquisitions comprise a 75-acre parcel and a 59-acre parcel, and are part of the now 294-acre complex. The Lambert Prairie WMA began with an 80-acre acquisition by Pheasants Forever in 1997.
“Herlein-Boote (Slough) drainage runs through there,” Rall said of the complex. “Those parcels have some pretty rare wetland and meadow-type properties on them.”
The two newly added parcels will eventually be home to some restored wetlands, and be seeded into three distinctly different seed mixes based on soil type, Rall noted.
While the chapter has had numerous successes in land acquisition, an increase in land values in southwest Minnesota has hindered the number of acres Pheasants Forever is able to purchase.
“Flood plains, restorable wetlands and properties that are highly erodible or prone to other environmental concerns are the lands we will continue to focus on,” Rall said.
To date, Nobles County Pheasants Forever has acquired 3,204 acres of land, which was ultimately transferred to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources for designation as public lands.
“Nobles County Pheasants Forever is one of the most prolific land acquisition chapters in the U.S.,” Rall said. “Even with our success, we have impacted less than 0.7% of the land mass in Nobles County since 1984."
Becoming a destination
Rall believes that with the success of land acquisitions and the development of habitat, Nobles County is becoming a destination for pheasant hunters. He knows of at least 100 people who hunted roosters from outside the county — even out of state — within the last two years, including a couple from upstate New York.
While neighboring South Dakota has long touted itself as a pheasant hunting destination, the state is home to a lot of game farms where people pay to hunt pheasants. In southwest Minnesota, the pheasant hunting may be more challenging — and a good hunting dog may be needed to fill a limit — but that’s what makes a hunt fun.
Adding to the challenge, particularly in recent years, is the sheer number of birds available.
While many people think the severity of a Minnesota winter has the largest impact on pheasant numbers, Rall said the largest detriment for the birds is heavy spring rains.
“Currently, pheasant numbers in Minnesota are down substantially from their 10-year and long-term average,” Rall said. “Even with great quality habitat, Mother Nature needs to participate.”
Last June was the first in more than five years that Nobles County didn’t receive more than 10 inches of rain in the two weeks before — and the two weeks following — the peak of the pheasant hatch, said Rall. That’s helped pheasant numbers rebound, but it will take more than one good year for numbers to return to where they were.
“It takes two to four years to rebound from a nesting failure,” Rall said. “Even though pheasant populations are below the 10-year average, there are still satisfactory populations of pheasants in Nobles County.”
Adopt a WMA
Last year, Nobles County Pheasants Forever became one of four Minnesota chapters to sign a no-fee contract with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources through its Adopt a Wildlife Management Area program. The contract allows local Pheasants Forever members to do certain maintenance projects on WMAs, such as mowing, spraying, invasive tree removal, signage and trash pickup, along with a variety of other tasks.
“Those maintenance efforts cost the DNR nothing,” Rall said. “We can do anything and everything except prescribed fire.
“Our motivation behind this is to reduce the Area WMA Manager’s workload to the most important aspects of land management,” he added. “We allow volunteers to do routine maintenance, which we believe frees them up to focus on bigger fish.”
Since the contract was finalized, Rall said Nobles County Pheasants Forever volunteers have logged more than 1,500 hours of maintenance work on WMAs within the county. Another 100 hours of volunteer work are planned this month in recognition of Earth Day, he added.
“Many of our supporters don’t hunt, but they appreciate wildlife, quality wildlife habitat, pollinators, clean water and exposing our youth to the outdoors,” Rall said
Anyone with questions about Pheasants Forever or public lands initiatives is welcome to contact Rall at firstname.lastname@example.org or (507) 360-6027.