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Minnesota Pheasant roadside count declines for 2009

(Released September 8, 2009)

Minnesota pheasant hunters, who in recent years have experienced some of the best hunting since the mid-1950s and early 1960s, are expected to harvest fewer birds this autumn.

Survey regions for Minnesota's August pheasant count roadside survey.That according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources’ (DNR), whose wildlife staff report the state’s pheasant index is down 27 percent from last year and 27 percent below the 10-year average. The index had been above average for the past four years.

Dennis Simon, DNR Wildlife section chief, said three factors influenced this year’s bird numbers. First, last winter’s weather was moderately severe throughout much of the pheasant range for the first time since 2001. This resulted in hen counts 22 percent below the 10-year average. Second, 72,000 acres of private land was removed from the Conservation Reserve Program, thereby reducing nesting opportunities. And third, a period of cool and wet weather at the normal peak of pheasant hatch appeared to reduce early brood survival.

“As a result, a decrease in the range-wide pheasant index is not surprising. South Dakota experienced a similar decline,” said Simon.

Pheasant hunters should find birds in about the same abundance as 2004, when 420,000 roosters were harvested. This compares with harvests that have exceeded 500,000 roosters five of the past six years. The half-million bird harvests correspond with a string of mild winters and high CRP enrollment.

“Habitat is what drives populations and harvest rates,” said Simon, noting that in 1958 - the height of the Soil Bank conservation days - the pheasant harvest peaked at 1.6 million. During 1965-86, the years between Soil Bank and CRP, harvest averaged only 270,000 birds.

Kurt Haroldson, DNR wildlife biologist and chief author of this year’s pheasant survey report, said best opportunities for harvesting pheasants will likely be in the southwest, where observers reported 116 birds per 100 miles of survey driven. Good harvest opportunities might also be found in the west-central, central and south-central regions, where observers reported 65, 59, and 53 birds per 100 miles driven, respectively. This year’s statewide pheasant index was 59 birds per 100 miles driven.

Simon said the most important habitat for pheasants is grassland that remains undisturbed during the nesting season. Protected grasslands account for about 6 percent of the state’s pheasant range. Farmland retirement programs make up the largest portion of protected grasslands in the state. The effectiveness of farmland conservation programs remains under threat due to continued high land rental rates and competing economic opportunities. This year’s 72,000-acre loss of CRP in Minnesota’s pheasant range followed a 38,000-acre loss last year. Another 63,000 acres of CRP contracts are scheduled to expire in Minnesota on Sept. 30.

Simon said if Minnesota is to avoid a drastic decline in pheasant and other farmland wildlife populations, hunters, landowners, wildlife watchers and conservationists must make the case for farm conservation programs. Although CRP was reauthorized in the current farm bill, its success will depend on the rules for implementation. Conservation organizations such as Pheasants Forever, Ducks Unlimited and many others can help hunters and wildlife enthusiasts stay informed of the latest developments.

The DNR is a major partner in the Farm Bill Assistance Partnership to expand the habitat base through marketing of farm bill conservation programs in partnership with Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources, Pheasants Forever, and county Soil and Water Conservation Districts. In addition, the DNR is continuing a focused habitat effort to develop large grassland wetland complexes through a “Working Lands Initiative” with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other partners. New funding from the constitutionally dedicated Outdoor Heritage Fund is expected to accelerate acquisition of Wildlife Management Areas and Waterfowl Production Areas beginning in 2010.

The August roadside survey, which began in the late 1940s, was standardized in 1955. DNR conservation officers and wildlife managers in Minnesota’s farmland region conduct the survey during the first two weeks in August. This year’s survey consisted of 170 routes, each 25 miles long, with 152 routes located in the ring-necked pheasant range. Observers drive each route in early morning and record the number and species of wildlife they see. The data provide an index of relative abundance and are used to monitor annual changes and long-term trends in populations of ring-necked pheasants, gray partridge, eastern cottontail rabbits, white tailed jackrabbits and selected other wildlife species.

The gray partridge index was similar to last year, but 71 percent below the 10-year average. Cottontail rabbit indices also declined about 40 percent from 2008, the 10-year average and the long-term average. Jackrabbit indices were similar to last year, but 86 percent below the long-term average. In contrast, the mourning dove index was up 26 percent from last year.

The 2009 August Roadside Report and pheasant hunting prospects map can be viewed and downloaded from the DNR Web site.

Minnesota’s pheasant season is Oct. 10 - Jan. 3. The daily bag limit is two roosters (three roosters from Dec. 1 - Jan. 3), with a possession limit of six (nine from Dec. 1 - Jan. 3). Shooting hours are 9 a.m. to sunset.

The 2009 Minnesota Roadside Pheasant Survey is available online.