Private lands comprise nearly two-thirds of the lower 48 states. While these lands are vital for both agricultural production as well as wildlife habitat, today nearly 93 percent of the native prairie is gone.
This is why brothers Mike and Howie Fitz envision private lands as the future of conservation after witnessing firsthand a gradual decline in natural habitat in their nearly 55 years of outdoor activities including pheasant hunting.
“We’d see road-to-road intense farming and no wildlife habitat,” Howie said. “That’s why we wanted to change things and get back to conservation.”
This passion for nature runs deep with the Fitz brothers. Having grown up in rural Western Nebraska, they’d done their fair share of hunting, fishing and camping. That passion for the outdoors led them to Colorado State University where Mike graduated in 1972 and Howie in 1975, both with degrees in wildlife biology in the Warner College of Natural Resources.
While the brothers recognize the necessity of production on private lands, they feel there is opportunity for positive change especially if it benefits both wildlife and people.
“We believe that providing food for our world and conserving the lands that sustain us aren’t mutually exclusive.” Mike said. “We’ve seen evidence that—approached thoughtfully—conservation and production need not be at odds, and we want to invest in education to advance that understanding.”
Today, nearly 50 years after graduating, the brothers have initiated the Fitz Brothers Land Conservation Fellowship in the Warner College at CSU to invest in the private land conservationists of tomorrow, but Mike and Howie are applying their vision to their own lives first, hoping other producers will follow.
“We’re walking the talk,” Mike said. The brothers have already bought two sizeable parcels of land in Cheyenne County in Western Nebraska, taking them out of production and converting them into wildlife habitat and pollinator spaces.
“We took the land down to bare Earth,” Mike said. “We’re putting in diverse grass and plant species, nesting cover, brood cover and winter cover and trying to change that land to get it back to where it was decades ago.”
Land, wildlife and Pheasants Forever
The Fitz brothers’ efforts to return intensively-farmed land to native grasslands is not a novel idea. For decades, farmers have been paid to keep land out of production through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Conservation Reserve Program. However, most CRP lands were planted with a monoculture of grass to prevent soil erosion.
That’s where the brothers’ knowledge helped them to revamp the land. They used their degrees in wildlife biology, their lifelong experience as hunters as well as research and science from Pheasants Forever, a nonprofit whose mission is to conserve and improve habitat for wildlife, provide public access, education and conservation advocacy, to thoughtfully design the landscape of the parcels. They hoped to see deer, pheasants, grouse, bees, songbirds and other native species return.
“We designed it ourselves because we know a lot about it,” Howie said. “We had a good, solid plan.”
In a great act of giving, the brothers have donated the land parcels as a retained life estate to Pheasants Forever. For their efforts, in July 2021 the organization gave the brothers their highest level of membership as Gold Patron Members and entry into the prestigious Habitat Legacy Society.
During their lifetimes with this type of gift, the brothers will retain both the rights to their land and the ability to maintain it, which they’ve taken great joy in doing thus far.
“When we’re driving out there; it’s like being an expectant father,” Mike said. “We want to see what’s growing and how the plan is coming together. It’s great to see what’s working, what isn’t. We’re very proud.”
Land Conservation Fellowship at Warner College
The Fitz brothers hope to inspire conservation action in owners of farms and ranchlands. While they understand sustaining lives and livelihoods through food production is a vital priority, they also realize sections of farm and ranchlands can simultaneously be used for conservation to benefit future generations.
The brothers see CSU as a place that respects both land utilization and land conservation, training students who can make a meaningful impact on future land use and conservation through sustainable approaches. In establishing the fully-endowed Fitz Brothers Land Conservation Fellowship in the Warner College of Natural Resources, they’ll support graduate students with research focused on this topic, moving science forward on conservation on working lands.
The brothers said a goal is for the grad students to have skills in conservation science and a working knowledge of productive lands. They must also possess the ability to communicate science in meaningful and persuasive ways to incent conservation adoption.
“We’re looking for a student who can sell this idea about taking land out of production and adding habitat,” Howie said. “It’s a communication challenge as well as a conservation challenge. We need someone who can do both.”
The brothers credit their own degree from Warner College for giving them a baseline understanding of the attainability of this vision. They said they have benefitted from the leadership and examples set by CSU professors Dale Hein and Eugene Decker. Hein, who was student advisor to both brothers has recently re-connected with Howie, and they discuss wildlife principles today—five decades later.
“We put our wildlife biology degrees to work all these years later,” Howie said. “I still use my degree every day. We both do. We just have a better appreciation and awareness for the environment.”
“Our only regret is not doing all this sooner,” said Mike.