Adding room to grow

A recently announced conservation program could make the Kansas countryside much more accommodating to wildlife. Pheasants Forever has a goal to add 1 million acres of quality habitat to Kansas in three years.

"We think by making it as easy as possible for landowners to improve habitat, the program can make a big difference in a hurry," Devon Walter of Pheasants Forever said.

Walter, the group's western Kansas representative, is speaking of their new Kansas Grass Roots Conservation Campaign. Within a few weeks, five new Pheasants Forever biologists will be stationed across Kansas.

Some of their job will involve land inspection and habitat recommendations with landowners. More importantly, they'll be doing much of the legwork needed to make their recommendations into realities.

That includes securing some funding for most habitat projects.

Some federal programs already pay almost $1 million a year to Kansas landowners for specific habitat projects. State money is also available and Walter said local Pheasants Forever chapters may also help with funding.

In many instances such grants will pay for more than half of a landowner's costs.

The U.S. Natural Resource Conservation Service is cooperating with Pheasants Forever for the new program. Walter said their new biologists will be based out of conservation service offices and drive conservation service vehicles.

Their contribution isn't done once all possible funding is located.

"Each biologist is basically going to be a one-stop shop for the landowners," Walter said. "They take care of all of the paperwork, if work is needed by a third party they'll locate that third party and get things set up. They'll locate any seed that's needed and find equipment when it's needed."

Biologists will often know where there are things like no-till drills, mowers, ground tilling equipment and sprayers for loan.

The program will also furnish trailers filled with what's needed to conduct a safe prescribed burn. Biologists will arrive with more than just the trailer.

"They'll get together a group of volunteers to help with the burns," he said. "We can get help from our local chapters. That shouldn't be any problem."

Nor should there be a problem finding landowners willing to use the new program. Walter said he currently gets at least three calls a week from Kansans asking for habitat advice.

Similar programs are already successful in several other states, including Nebraska.

"They've just hired five new biologists, so that puts them up to about 12 or 13," Walter said. "It's working up there. For every hour those Nebraska biologists work, they're getting about 11 more acres of habitat."

Traditional food plots with various kinds of legumes, sorghums and other plants are part of the program.

A major program focus will also be helping landowners deal with existing brome pastures which have little benefit to wildlife. Sometimes biologists may suggest a program of simply disturbing the soil with a disc, which allows long-dormant forbs seeds to sprout.

Forbs, which includes many types of wild flowers and other prairie plants, attract insects and produce seeds. Birds ranging from tiny sparrows to wild turkeys do well on such diets. The plants are also a valued food for deer and rabbits.

Thousands of acres of brome will probably be converted back to native grasses similar to what was originally found all across Kansas.

Pheasants Forever has their own line of seed blends largely designed for the program.

The right mixture of grasses and forbs can provide most of what many birds need, from nesting and brood-rearing habitat to winter food and cover.

Walter foresees a day when such specialized habitat is the norm rather than the exception in all corners of Kansas.

"We could have as many as 20 farm bill biologists in Kansas alone in coming years," he said. "Over time, our goal is to provide a conservation plan to every landowner in Kansas, or at least give them the opportunity."

For more information on property west of I-135, contact Walter at 785-658-7389. For east of I-135, contact Jordan Martinich at 816-560-1070.