This interview with Pheasants Forever/Quail Forever President and CEO Howard Vincent is part of OutdoorHub’s Leaders of Conservation series, in which we sit down with leaders of the North American conservation movement to learn more about the stories behind their organizations and people.

It has been 33 years since Dennis Anderson, outdoor editor at the Saint Paul Pioneer Press and Dispatch, first drew attention to the growing habitat problem for upland birds in Minnesota. Shortly after he wrote the article, Anderson was inundated with hundreds of letters and phone calls by sportsmen also concerned with the decline of pheasant habitat in the state, and Pheasants Forever was incorporated later that year. The budding organization took its first tentative steps in the basement of Jeff Finden, Pheasants Forever’s first CEO. In 2000, Howard Vincent took over the reins and has been guiding the organization ever since.

“There’s been challenges every day but there also has been new opportunities just as well. The team we built here, whether in the offices, working with landowners, or our members out on the field, is just incredible,” Howard told me.

Few organizations have more influence in protecting upland habitat than Pheasants Forever and its quail division, Quail Forever. Howard credits this to their unique model that gives individual chapters autonomy with regard to how to spend locally raised funds. With active chapters in more than 40 states and Canada, Pheasants Forever is able to complete over 20,000 habitat projects every year.

“At the heart of our work is restoring parries, restoring wetlands, restoring habitat for upland birds. We do this by our direct habitat work and through our efforts in Washington DC,” Howard said. “We are also concerned about where our members and the public can hunt. Access is very important to us, and obviously, so is getting the next generation into the outdoors.”

Learn more about Pheasants Forever and how you can contribute to saving upland habitat below:

At over 130,000 members, the organization today is a far cry from when its leaders were still meeting in Jeff Finden’s basement. According to Charity Navigator, Pheasants Forever draws in about $43 million in revenue every year. About 93 percent of that goes straight back into conservation programs, expenses, and fundraising costs. The organization holds a perfect four-star rating with Charity Navigator and is one of the highest-ranked conservation organizations listed on the website. I asked Howard if he was proud of that accomplishment.

“We’re very conscious and proud of our unique model, which has its own challenges,” he replied with a chuckle. “If we can raise a dollar, 92 cents go towards the mission. We recognize that it’s a very high efficiency rate. Our volunteers are a very big part of that because they not only raise they money, but they’re also the ones on hand to work with landowners and ranchers to promote conservation. It’s incredible.”

It’s estimated that the organization’s projects benefit more than five million acres of upland habitat across North America. Pheasants Forever also spearheaded the drive for Conservation Reserve Programs (CRPs) that encourage farmers and landowners to restore habitat for a variety of wildlife species. Just recently, Iowa opened enrollment for a program that will register up to 50,000 acres of land for the ring-necked pheasant, and local chapters will be on hand to help. Howard says this is system of empowering local chapters is the “magic that makes it work.”

The Pheasants Forever CEO prides himself on running a tight ship. More than half of the organization’s 220 employees are biologists working at local levels, including those specifically working to inform landowners about Farm Bill programs. Over the last 33 years, Pheasants Forever volunteers have worked to preserve 8.5 million acres of wildlife habitat. Howard has been with the organization for 27 of those years and 14 as chief executive officer. He too was once a volunteer.

“When I first came here, it was a job,” he stated. “But then I started hanging around people in the conservation world who truly believed what they were doing, like our founding members, and I saw the passion they had for our natural resources. It rubbed off on me. As corny as it may sound, I started to believe.”

Born and raised in Duluth, Minnesota, Howard described himself as an avid hunter—if not always of the pheasant variety.

“I grew up grouse hunting with my parents, who taught me an appreciation of being outside regardless of whether the hunt was successful or not. These days I evolved into a more of a pheasant hunter,” Howard said.

Maybe it had something to do with his job.

“I was 28 when I first started pheasant hunting and about 50 on my first quail hunt. It’s interesting because you get excited when your dogs get excited during the hunt,” Howard shared.

Dogs are ideal hunting companions. They are always eager to get going and are more than happy to share a quiet moment. Howard said that bird dogs are a part of the glue that binds Pheasants Forever members together, and every year these hard working canines are celebrated with a pageant in their honor at the National Pheasant Fest.

Ever wonder what a hunting trip looks like from a dog’s point of view? Shaky cam ahead!

These days Howard’s best hunts usually involve a trusty hound and his two grown sons, Marco and Ian. Like many of the conservation leaders I’ve spoken to over the past few months, Howard rarely has as much time to hit the field as he used to. Now his time is devoted to supporting legislation and projects that will ensure the survival of upland birds.

“There’s not a war to be won here, but it’s an ongoing battle for more access, to protect water and soil, to preserve wildlife,” Howard concluded.

We would like to thank Howard for taking the time to talk with us. For more profiles of leaders of conservation, please read our recent interview with Backcountry Hunters and Anglers director Land Tawney.

Image courtesy Howard Vincent

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