Pheasant hunting pumps new life into farming community
Newhouse News Service
REGENT, N.D. — Gary Cappelletti, dedicated pheasant hunter, felt like he had just stepped through his sport's pearly gates. The evidence was everywhere.
Twelve monster roosters lay on the tailgate of the pickup parked on a dirt road snaking across the golden prairie of southwestern North Dakota. A northerly breeze pushed waves across the ocean of tall grass surrounding him, launching even more pheasants into the cornflower-blue sky, while others walked boldly across the road 100 yards away. All this barely two hours into a three-day trip purchased at a bargain price.
"Just look at this," Cappelletti said. "How can it get any better?"
Well, how about if the incredible hunting was the result of a conservation story, one in which a group of farmers had struck upon the idea of using managed pheasant hunting as a way to protect their property and pump some money into their dying town? And what if that idea caused a growing list of farmers to invest in wildlife-friendly land management? And what if their idea, the Cannonball Company, was so successful that it converted skeptics, contributed to record pheasant hatches and fueled imitators that were spreading conservation — and great pheasant hunting — all across the land?
"When this all started, none of us expected it to become so big and so successful," Barb Mayer, an original Cannonball member, said while sitting in her farmhouse, which is one of the bed-and-breakfast lodges that serve Cannonball hunters. "We were just like a lot of other small towns out here, looking for some answers to stay alive.
"It's just nice that something as good for the land as pheasant hunting has been one of the answers."
In their never-ending struggle to preserve landscapes from development, sportsmen and conservationists have long searched for examples that blend the two: communities that have found a formula for treating the land in a manner that not only produces great dividends for fish and wildlife but also makes economic sense for the landowners. Regent, N.D., is one such place.
Regent moves at a pace perfect for a community of people who cherish their relationship to the land and one another. And for 40 years it was a mirror image of a hundred other farm towns in this state, slowly dying as new generations left for bigger cities such as Bismarck, Fargo and Minneapolis.
When the first child of Barb Mayer and her husband, Vern, graduated from high school in 1987, his class had 16 students. By the time the couple's third child got his diploma, he was one of seven in the class.
"That pretty much tells you what was happening in Regent," Barb Mayer said. "The population went from over 400 to just above 200."
Flocking to birds
But something else was also happening. Hunters from the state's bigger cities were suddenly overrunning the farms during pheasant season. The surge began after 1986 when Congress passed the Conservation Reserve Program, a feature of the Farm Bill, which pays landowners a subsidy not to plant highly erosive acres. The native prairie grasses that reclaimed marginal cropland provided ideal cover and food for a wide range of wildlife, especially upland game birds such as pheasant.
By 1990, the exploding pheasant population was drawing record numbers of hunters to farm country.
"In March of 1992, 10 farm couples got together because we realized all these pheasants ... represented a marketable resource," Barb Mayer said. "Our community desperately needed some type of economic development, and managing the hunting could both help solve the problem of being overrun by strangers but at the same time provide new income."
They had the birds and the habitat. They had local hunters who could serve as guides. They had farmhouses that could serve as B&Bs.
Those meetings gave birth to the Cannonball Company, named for the river that runs through the county. The business model was simple, and designed to bring outside money to the community and leave it there. Landowners who signed contracts with Cannonball would be paid a fee for each bird taken from their property. No hunters could use their land without a Cannonball guide, who would be a local resident. All Cannonball hunters would stay in local homes.
That first season, eight landowners pooled 15,000 acres. Hunters paid $125 per day for a guided hunt and overnight stay at a farmhouse, including meals. The landowners were paid $2 a bird.
"None of us knew what to expect," said Pat Candrian, now the manager of Cannonball. "We just decided to try and see what happened."
And a lot happened.
This year, Cannonball has 60,000 acres from 40 landowners, 24 guides and 11 farmhouses in the B&B program. If this season is similar to last year, and another record pheasant hatch indicates it will be, some 800 hunters will pay $275 to $400 per day and kill about 5,500 birds, each of which will earn the landowner $23.
Candrian estimates an economic impact of more than $1.5 million.
"In rough numbers, we spend 90 percent of our income right here in Regent," he said. "It's been a tremendous success for the town."
And for the landscape.
The economic lure of pheasant payoffs has prompted a renewed interest in managing for wildlife, local farmers admit. Candrian said about 20,000 of Cannonball's 60,000 acres are in the Conservation Reserve Program, and many thousands more are in food plots specifically designed to help game birds.
"Farmers are some of the best conservationists in the nation, because it's in their own self-interest to take care of the land," Candrian said. "But there's no doubt the economic incentive of getting paid for raising pheasants helps. You have to pay the bills, and if you can do it raising birds instead of raising wheat, that helps the community, too.
"Anyone who looks down Main Street during pheasant season can see that."
From October through December, you'll see groups of people in orange jackets and brush pants walking from the cafe to the Cannonball Saloon, where they can down a cold one and discuss shots made and missed. You will see them having a latte at the Mocha Magic coffee shop and grill. You will see vehicles with license plates from states as far away as Vermont, Maryland, Arizona and Washington.
Most are repeat customers, like Cappelletti and his hunting buddy Randy "Rebar" Allender, men who have hunted pheasants across the country and claim this is the best they have experienced.
"Plus here, you can see how this is helping the habitat," Cappelletti said. "It's just a win-win situation all around."
But not for everybody.
Some local hunters and others across North Dakota are alarmed by the amount of habitat being posted. Cannonball's success has spawned imitators who have locked up even more land. It's a far cry from the days when a person driving across the state could stop anywhere, walk into a field and begin hunting. Cannonball has tried to address those concerns with contracts that allow landowners to close their property to guided hunts any time they want to entertain private hunts. But Candrian admits Cannonball still has its critics.
"When we first started, there were a lot of people against us, but as those people have become involved, and started reaping some of the benefits, they've come on board," he said. "But you can never please everyone."
Other critics are concerned Regent may be counting on a seasonal business to be a year-round solution for its long-term survival.
"Cannonball is great, but it doesn't bring business here 12 months a year," said Kristen Vesledahl, owner of the Mocha Magic coffee shop and economic-development director of Hettinger County.
"Don't get me wrong. Cannonball has been great, but you should never put all your eggs in one basket. What happens if hunting goes down?"
That happened in 1997 after a severe winter. The birds bounced back in a few years, thanks to the growing amount of Conservation Reserve Program cover planted because of the economic incentive provided by Cannonball.
And yet a larger question concerns that very program. Grain prices have soared to record highs, and some landowners will be taking a more critical look at farming for wildlife. And with many of the standard 10-year Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) contracts expiring in the next three to five years, Cannonball supporters know they are facing a challenge.
"My argument would be that bird hunting is more stable than grain prices," Candrian said.
A bigger concern is the idea that Congress might reduce the Conservation Reserve Program.
"That would be a disaster," Candrian said. "That would hurt the land, the birds and us."
For hunters like Cappelletti and Allender, that would be heartbreaking. Avid wing shooters, they traveled the country for years searching for the best bird hunting. When they found Cannonball last year, they stopped looking.
"How can it get any better?" Cappelletti asked. "Just look at this."
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