Dynamic Stewardship of Land — Passed Down from Royal Gamekeeper

As owners of a carefully managed pheasant hunting preserve, Anne and I enjoy unique and wonderful access to both released and wild pheasant. We have employed the “three legged stool” principles of dynamic stewardship that I learned of when I toured half a dozen European hunting estates. We lived with the gamekeepers of these estates for a week at a time. In the process, the long term pheasant management strategies that have been employed by these pheasant experts since Romans brought pheasants to Europe and Great Britain more than a thousand years earlier, became clear to me.

First, the estates provided critical and strategic habitat. This was actually straightforward and relatively easy. Food, grit, water, security cover, some strategic changes in “elevation,” where birds could “dry off,” and thermal mass, all happening within short distances of the other factors.

Second, the estates modified their farming methods. Herbicides and pesticides were rarely, if ever, employed. Timing of crop harvest was synchronized with pheasants and their life model. For example, they didn’t cut alfalfa during the peak of pheasant nesting!

Third, predators were managed too. (All but the sacrosanct badgers in Great Britain, at least!) And here in the US our repertoire of predators is larger, and different, and definitely requires a lot of work to effectively manage. For example, you won’t “casually” trap a coyote. They are cagey, intelligent, and very good at discerning inept attempts on their life. One has to be both conscious and willing to invest the calories to be effective in controlling the wide spectrum of pheasant predators our pheasants contend with. And combine that with North America’s own “badger” — the raptors and owls that are sacrosanct here—and the challenges of actual predator management in North America become glaringly apparent.

Way back in what some no doubt consider pre-history, Prince Philip’s gamekeeper, an ex special forces individual who brought additional skills to the job, described the “three legged stool” principles to me as we viewed the island upon which Princess Diana had been buried back in 1997. According to this impressive individual, Adey Greeno, who had competed with some 300 other gamekeepers for his job, all three of the principles must happen or the system does not perform at anywhere near optimum!

Prince Philip’s gamekeeper, an ex special forces individual who brought additional skills to the job, described the “three legged stool” principles to me as we viewed the island upon which Princess Diana had been buried back in 1997.

Bruce Kania

The public too often sees poor land management with our tax dollars.

Now compare this with a public land hunt in Montana. It was an experiment. Anne and I wanted to see, to learn, how our hunting preserve stacked up against public land pheasant hunts in our vicinity. The ground we went to was a short drive from Billings, along the Yellowstone river, like our place. There was standing corn, with plenty of cobs still untouched, despite the deer, both mulies and whitetail, that occur on the Yellowstone. There were river bottom willow thickets. There were a number of strategic habitat plantings. These included acres of native tall grass prairie species, all in good shape too!

There was also evidence of chemical treatment. Spraying equipment and such.

There was no indication of any attempt at predator control. Had there been, I would have noticed. As it was, the abundance of predator sign was absolutely clear. This included coyote, red fox, raptors and owls, raccoon and skunk. Mink and feral house cat were in the mix too.

a view from the rear of two hunters, one shorter, and one tall, wearing hats and carrying rifles walk in the brush with their yellow retriever
Anne and I on one of our hunting excursions.

Anne and I, and our three high performance canines, hunted hard for four hours. This was a balmy, early December afternoon. We never cut a single pheasant track. Our labs flushed no birds, and there were no “points” by my Brittany. We did jump three cottontail rabbits over the course of the afternoon, but that was it.

This extensive, thousand acre property had been stocked with pheasants earlier in the season. The only sign we saw of pheasants, and pheasant hunting, was three empty shotgun shells. And tellingly, they were #8 trap loads. No dynamic stewardship of land here!

If you hunt our place in Shepherd, I will confirm that you are hunting with appropriate loads. Trap loads don’t cut it!

This public land, with truly vast potential, only employed one of the three legs of the stool. The habitat leg was definitely in place, and very well done. But government policy around weed control, and predator control, were limiting this ground.

Evidence of dynamic stewardship

On the other hand, here at Shepherd, our place has yielded, literally, nearly one wild rooster pheasant per acre, in an optimal year where spring weather is conducive to successful nesting. A hunter can push our cover, with an effective dog, and eyeball over a hundred birds in an hour. Sometimes more. Recently, Anne and I spent a bit less than four hours hunting here, and bagged four rooster pheasants and two drake mallards. Two of the pheasant were released, and two wild. We also had opportunity on Canada geese and sharptail grouse.

A successful pheasant hunt at Shepherd, thanks to our dynamic stewardship of land.

There are many nuances to this anecdote. With dynamic stewardship of land, all wildlife will flourish. Waterfowl, deer, and predators too, and fish, will flourish, and make for a mixed bag opportunity. Water benefits hugely. No Harmful Algae Blooms, and lots of healthy, mixed age class fish. Think Fish Fry Lake. Avoidance of chemicals, pesticides and herbicides, and inorganic fertilizer, all contribute to healthy water! This is an actual full shopping bag of benefits!

Take action to steward proper land management

There are three legs to the stool of property stewardship, and unless they happen in concert with each other, we hunters will not experience much bang for our tax dollars. And this leads me to the primary message here…government policy is dynamic. It can and will change with input from the public. With our input, we can support a healthy transition (link to Transition Water?) of government policy. The complex and ponderous nature of government policy is really dynamic. Individuals make policy.

I project that if each of us dedicated three days a year to attendance, virtual or otherwise, at Fish and Game Commission meetings, strategic messaging, personal contact with our officials, there will be transition. It’s a worthy investment.

These are hopeful times. We see change happening at a rapid pace throughout our culture, and our environment. Our resilience is being tested in the process, and this is good.

If I invest as much energy in communication with our FWP officials as I invest in snaring coyote, or in maintaining a bait station to contend with skunk, raccoon and feral housecats, I expect that FWP officials will “roll their eyes” when they see me coming! But so be it. I have become an evangelist for natural design solutions!