Spring Planting for Upland Game

By Nick Simonson

While it may not feel like it, spring is just around the corner, and with the six-to-ten weeks ahead, landowners and conservationists still have time to get their planting plans in place to help aid not only upland game species like pheasants and partridge, but also benefit songbirds, watchable wildlife and pollinators.  When considering what grasses, shrubs and trees to plant, many landowners turn to local and state resources to find what works best on their lands, and agents of the North Dakota Game and Fish Department (NDG&F), the North Dakota National Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) offices, and non-government organizations have options available to advise and assist spring conservation planting efforts across the state.

According to Doug Howie, Assistant Leader for the NDG&F Private Lands Program Section, grass mixes that promote better nesting and recruitment of pheasants are a popular choice among landowners in the Peace Garden State looking to improve habitat and populations of upland birds on their land.

“A lot of times we’ll do a dense nesting mix that has two or three different types of wheat grasses, maybe some alfalfa or sweet clover,” Howie advised, “that seems to do a pretty good job, is fairly strong, and doesn’t lay down as easily in winter,” he concluded, touting the year-round benefits of the right grass planting varies with location in the state and other environmental factors.

Additionally, the NDG&F recommends for those landowners looking to plant more woody and herbaceous cover, that shrubs be utilized to provide better winter habitat and eliminate predator perches for hawks and other raptors which may prey on pheasant chicks and other small birds residing in newly-planted areas.

Grass plantings help sustain pheasant populations along with those of other upland and song birds. (Simonson Photo)

“While it depends on the soils, you should stay away from the tall trees and go with shrubs and fruit-bearing shrubs,” said Howie, “you want a shrub that provides food; and smaller shrubs will sucker out and make for nice, thick winter cover,” he finished.

The NRCS touts utilizing a warm-season grass mix for great all-around cover and good winter cover, as opposed to planting trees for native upland birds like grouse and partridge, and advocates plantings of switch grass, big bluestem, little bluestem and indian grass. Grass plantings are also highly recommended in those areas where waterfowl may be found, as trees and shrubs provide cover for skunks and other predators as well, and woody plantings may negatively affect recruitment of ducks and geese.

The NRCS also advises against tree plantings located anywhere near stretches of native prairie in the state, as these fragmented areas are the last remaining portions of an endangered ecosystem, and introduction of non-native trees and shrubs can easily out-compete the native grasses over time, further eroding the biodiversity of both prairie flora and fauna.  Landowners interested in  grass plantings should contact their local NRCS office for plans, mixes, advice and potential cost sharing options as well as estimates on what the price per acre will be.

With bee and butterfly numbers dropping at an increased rate across the upper Midwest in the last two decades, there has been a greater push for pollinator habitat and plantings that benefit biological bellwethers such as monarchs and bumblebees. As a result, local and state agencies along with non-government entities like Pheasants Forever, are beginning to promote and see an uptick in the use of planting mixes which incorporate species of wildflowers, including milkweed which is essential to developing monarch caterpillars.  This diversity not only provides a varied and shifting habitat, but also results in a stretch of ground that typically changes color with the season as various species of wildflowers come into bloom throughout the warm-weather months. Additionally, a diverse planting attracts more species of wildlife, including songbirds and insects.

There are cost-sharing programs in place throughout North Dakota to encourage plantings on private acres.  Some through the NDG&F require opening the acres to public access through the Department’s PLOTS program.  Local conservation groups such as Pheasants Forever may also help defray costs of such plantings and interested landowners should reach out to those non-government organizations for help in their immediate areas.

For more information on these planting ideas and more, visit the NDG&F Private Lands Program page and the North Dakota NRCS homepage.

(Featured Photo: Wildflower mixes are becoming more popular to help sustain pollinator populations while still providing good upland habitat. Simonson Photo)


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