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DNR's pheasant harvest goal is 750,000

For The Journal

Between 1931 and 1964, the average pheasant harvest in Minnesota was 1,046,000 roosters. Between 1965 and 1986, the yearly average had plummeted to 270,000.

"That's an astounding change," said Kurt Haroldson, Department of Natural Resources (DNR) wildlife research biologist at the Madelia Farmland Wildlife Populations and Research Station. "And it correlates with the land use changes that took place across the pheasant range in Minnesota during those years."

As grasslands and cattail sloughs were rapidly converted to row crops in the mid-1960s, the pheasant population crashed. The decline was enhanced by the expiration of the Soil Bank Conservation Reserve, a land retirement program similar to todayâs Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). The 1970s were Minnesotaâs darkest period in history for farmland wildlife. Federal farm policy encouraged fencerow to fencerow farming, with little consideration for wildlife, water quality, or the environment in general.

Despite the dramatic pheasant declines over the past 50 years, optimism about the future of the ringneck in Minnesota is very much alive. Having learned from past mistakes, we are now enjoying the benefits of more environmentally friendly federal farm programs. With the addition of more than 1 million acres of grass enrolled in the CRP from 1987 to 2003, the pheasant harvest in Minnesota increased 35 percent to 364,000 roosters per year compared to the pre-CRP period (1965-86). And there is room for additional growth.

The DNR's Strategic Conservation Agenda and draft long-range pheasant plan aims for an annual average harvest of 450,000 roosters by 2008 and 750,000 roosters by 2025.

Last year, hunters actually killed an estimated 511,400 roosters in Minnesota, a significant increase over the 358,000 total the previous year and the 267,000 in 2001. It was the first time the harvest topped the one-half million mark since 1991 and just the second time since 1981.

Habitat and weather are the two factors that most affect pheasant populations, Haroldson noted. "There's nothing we can do about the weather, but there is a lot that can -- and should -- be done to improve habitat conditions."

Farm programs drive pheasant and other wildlife populations, up or down, Haroldson pointed out. "When you have good conservation programs like CRP or CREP, pheasant populations increase," Haroldson noted.

Pheasants do best in landscapes that contain 30-50 percent grassland with the remainder in row crops, according to DNR research.

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