GRAND FORKS — Like conservation groups across the country, Pheasants Forever is doing what it can to survive the havoc wreaked by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Fundraising has been a struggle, to be sure, but Pheasants Forever’s habitat-driven mission is alive and well not only in North Dakota, but across the country, said Renee Tomala, Pheasants Forever’s field representative for North Dakota, who is based in Bismarck.

That’s encouraging news with another pheasant season on the horizon. North Dakota’s regular pheasant season opens Saturday, Oct. 10.

“(The pandemic) wiped out an entire spring banquet season, save for one banquet right before it happened,” said Tomala, a South Haven, Minn., native and 2015 graduate of the University of Minnesota-Crookston. “So, it wiped out the bulk of our local chapter banquets, which hurts a lot. That’s their primary fundraiser for the year, and it’s what allows them to do all of their mission delivery throughout the year, save for a couple of raffles and things.”

Under Pheasants Forever’s business model, local chapters keep 100% of the funds they raise locally and retain all of the decision-making control of those funds, Tomala said. Annual memberships, along with sponsors and various partners, support Pheasants Forever’s mission at the national level, she said.

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North Dakota has 26 chapters and more than 3,800 members statewide, including a handful of Quail Forever members, Tomala said.

“Support of local chapters is as important as ever, and a membership to Pheasants Forever matters a whole lot,” she said. “Buying a raffle ticket and joining or renewing as a member of Pheasants Forever during these tough times allows us to do more for habitat conservation, outreach and wildlife.”

In North Dakota, the state’s Outdoor Heritage Fund also has helped fund a variety of Pheasants Forever initiatives to enhance working lands for the benefit of pheasant and wildlife habitat, Tomala said. Administered by the North Dakota Industrial Commission, the fund offers grants to a variety of state and tribal entities and nonprofits such as Pheasants Forever to enhance conservation around the state.

Not slowing down

Despite the ongoing pandemic, banquets are slowly resuming but uncertainty lingers, Tomala says.

“It’s been a rough go at it so far, but we’re not slowing down and refuse to let it slow down because Mother Nature doesn’t stop and our mission can’t stop,” she said. “The wildlife still needs us so we’re happy to just figure it out and make it work and keep pushing forward to put habitat on the ground and still get some kids out in the field to learn how to shoot and learn how to hunt and women on the trap range to learn.

“So, we’re still forging forward but it’s been bumpy.”

While banquets have been few and far between, Tomala says it’s been an active summer for women’s events, a trend largely driven by the Capital City Lady Birds chapter of Pheasants Forever based in Bismarck.

A “Hike for Habitat” event, a three-night series of women’s shooting clinics in Bismarck and Williston, three “Women Caring for the Land” events one virtual, one in Alexander and one in Beach, N.D. and a virtual “Women, Wine and Wild Game” all are helping to attract women to the outdoors and Pheasants Forever’s conservation mission, Tomala said.

“Broadening out into women’s outreach has just been the best thing,” she said. “It’s growing, and there’s a lot of desire and appetite for it to happen.”

It hasn’t been business as usual, by any means, but the pandemic has opened doors for alternative fundraising efforts, Tomala says. North Dakota Pheasants Forever raffled off a pronghorn tag in July, she said, and local chapters are holding online auctions and gun calendar raffles as part of ongoing efforts to offset the loss of banquet income.

Once life gets back to normal and banquets can resume on a full scale whenever that might be Tomala says wouldn’t be surprised to see these alternative fundraisers continue.

“They're unique ways to raise money and they’re fun they’re outside of the box,” she said. “I think it’s fun to be innovative and find new ways to bring in dollars and engage your community, so I don’t think those are going to go away. I think they'll just be additive to our local or normal fundraising.”

With pheasant season at hand, Tomala says she’s talked to quite a few farmers and landowners who’ve said they’re seeing lots of broods. As Game and Fish reported in mid-September, brood counts and total pheasant numbers are up statewide from last year, although numbers in the southeast were down.

“It’s not a blanket across the state,” Tomala said of the increase. “The southeast had it a little bit tough, and then I know earlier on in the spring, the southwest had a little bit of hail and stuff that was damaging.”

Overall, though, the scenario for pheasant production was better than last year.

“I have been hearing good things,” Tomala said. “I’m pretty hopeful it’s going to be a really good year.”

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Brad Dokken
Brad Dokken