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News Articles

24
Minnesota Pheasant Counts Down
From the Minnesota DNR

Unseasonably cold, wet weather this spring caused Minnesota's pheasant counts to drop 47 percent from 2003, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR). Overall, the counts indicate pheasant populations will be close to the 10-year average.

Gray partridge, cottontail rabbit and white-tailed jackrabbit numbers were also down in the annual roadside survey, conducted in southern and western Minnesota during the first two weeks in August. The survey is 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.

"March and April were warmer and drier than average, which typically bodes well for wildlife production," said John Giudice, a DNR wildlife research biologist in Madelia. "Unfortunately, frequent rainfall and below average temperatures prevailed during May and early June, the peak hatching period for pheasants in Minnesota."

Rainfall during May was 81 percent above the long-term average.

Southeast and northwest regions were 150 percent to 200 percent above average. The mean temperature during May was 4 degrees Fahrenheit below normal in May and 3.7 degrees Fahrenheit cooler than normal in June.

"Pheasant and gray partridge chicks simply can't survive in cold, wet weather," said Giudice, who supervised the annual August roadside survey. "In addition, poor weather reduces the amount of available food and time for foraging. Flooding after heavy rainfall also caused nest loss and abandonment in some areas."

The number of pheasants along survey routes, while down significantly from last year, was still similar to the 10-year mean (1994 2003).

The state's pheasant population was high going into the 2004 breeding season, Giudice said. Spring counts of hens and cocks on intensive study areas were up 44 percent and 15 percent, respectively, compared with spring 2003. However, poor weather during the critical nesting and brood-rearing period caused a drop in production. Mean brood size decreased from 5.0 chicks per brood in 2003 to 4.2 chicks per brood in 2004. Likewise, the brood index (broods per 100 miles) decreased 45 percent from 2003.

Giudice said there is a possibility that the survey may have missed some hens.

"Many of the hens detected in spring were not observed during the August surveys, suggesting that some hens were still nesting or had young broods -- typically undercounted in roadside surveys," Giudice said. "The true population decrease may not be as great as indicated by the August roadside survey, especially in areas containing good habitat and where the late reproductive effort was successful."

While overall the size of the fall population will be close to the 10-year average, there will be more adults and fewer juveniles. The southwest and south-central regions should offer the best opportunities for harvesting pheasants in 2004, but reasonable numbers of birds will be found in other regions as well.

Habitat in the pheasant range is at the highest level since the mid-1990s, Giudice said. More than 1 million acres of grassland habitat are currently enrolled in farm programs that pay farmers to retire land from agricultural production. Among those programs are the Conservation Reserve Program, Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, Re-invest in Minnesota and the Wetland Reserve Program. Another 550,000 acres of habitat are protected permanently in state wildlife management areas and federal waterfowl production areas.

The DNR is working with partners in the private and public sector to expand the habitat base through accelerated acquisition of wildlife management areas and marketing of farm bill conservation programs in partnership with the Minnesota Board of Water & Soil Resources, Pheasants Forever, Ducks Unlimited, and county Soil and Water Conservation Districts. Habitat abundance in the pheasant range should gradually increase until 2007, when a large proportion of existing CRP contracts will expire. Within the pheasant range, protected grasslands account for about 6 percent of the landscape.

"We have a long way to go in terms of meeting the habitat needs of grassland-dependent wildlife," Giudice said. "For example, pheasants generally do best in landscapes that contain 30-50 percent grassland and the remainder in row crops. Grasslands that remain undisturbed until Aug. 1 are especially important."

PARTRIDGE

Gray (Hungarian) partridge numbers declined 58 percent from last year and were 55 percent below the 10-year average and 63 percent below the long-term average. The number of adults observed per 100 miles was similar to last year and the 10-year mean, but the proportion of adults observed with broods (24 percent) and mean brood size (5.7 chicks per brood) were down considerably from last year.

"The best chance of flushing a covey or two will be in the southwest and south-central regions," Giudice said.

RABBITS

The number of cottontail rabbits counted during the roadside survey was down 29 percent from last year, but was similar to the 10-year mean and long-term average. Counts and estimates of the percentage of change were highly variable among routes and regions.

"The best chance of harvesting cottontail rabbits will be in the South Central, Southwest, and East Central regions," Giudice said.

Jackrabbits counted during roadside surveys declined 54 percent compared with last year. The statewide count was similar to the 10-year average but remain 89 percent below the long-term average. Giudice explained that the range-wide jackrabbit population peaked in the 1950s and declined to its lowest level in 1993, from which the population has not recovered. The long-term decline in jackrabbits probably reflects the loss of their preferred habitats (i.e., small grains, pasture and hayland).

The annual roadside survey began in the late 1940s and was standardized in 1955. DNR conservation officers and wildlife managers in the farmland region of Minnesota conduct the survey during the first two weeks in August. The survey consists of 172 routes, each 25 miles long, with 153 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 2004 August Roadside Report and pheasant-hunting-prospects map can be viewed and downloaded from http://www.dnr.state.mn.us/hunting/pheasant/index.html

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