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Dennis Anderson: Dakotas are full of pheasants
Dennis Anderson, Star Tribune
August 20, 2004

Pheasants are shaping up to be the highlight of the fall for bird hunters. Here's a snapshot of what to expect in the fast-approaching pheasant, duck and ruffed grouse seasons:

• Pheasants: South Dakota is Ground Zero for these birds, and it appears ringneck hunting might be as productive as last year, and perhaps more so.

That's saying a lot, considering pheasant hunters in South Dakota killed 1.8 million roosters last fall -- the most in 40 years.

Although South Dakota's August roadside survey isn't complete, word from hunters and other residents is that "birds are everywhere."

North Dakota should also have another excellent pheasant season. Crowing counts there were up about 20 percent this spring. Also, the southern two-thirds of the state has been fairly dry this summer, which is good for upland bird nesting.

Pheasant roosterBill MarchelMinnesota and Iowa represent something more of a question mark regarding pheasant production. Both were wet in May and June, and their pheasant habitat is not as good as that of the Dakotas. Still, July and August were fairly dry in both states, allowing for re-nesting attempts, and the spring pheasant populations in both states should have been reasonably high, given the number of birds in the state last fall.

Upshot: Minnesotans this fall might not kill the 500,000 pheasants they did in 2003. But hunters in Minnesota and Iowa can expect a good year nevertheless. South Dakota hunting, meanwhile, should be great.

• Ducks: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Minnesota Department of Natural Resources are giving Minnesota hunters a 60-day season this fall, with six-duck daily limits.

Such liberal hunting restrictions imply ducks will be plentiful. Don't count on it. Production in North Dakota is expected to be below that of a year ago, and the outlook from Canada is mixed.

In the far north, for example, near The Pas, Manitoba, a late spring storm and considerable rainfall in May and June hampered breeding efforts by a wide variety of duck species, according to Shaun Greer, project manager for Ducks Unlimited in The Pas.

Farther south, on Manitoba and Saskatchewan prairies, the duck production picture is brighter. Early summer rains filled potholes, giving hens an opportunity to nest and, if necessary, re-nest in attempts to bring off broods.

Rains this summer even fell on Alberta prairies, which have been dry for more than a decade.

What all of this means for Minnesota waterfowlers remains to be seen. The DNR counted reasonable numbers of ducks in the state this spring, and the season is opening relatively early (Sept. 25), perhaps allowing for a larger teal and wood duck harvest than in years past. Additionally, with shooting beginning at 9 a.m. on the opener, rather than at noon, as previously has been the case, more birds are likely to fall on the season's first day than in years past.

Whether such hunter-friendly regulations are wise, given that Minnesotans seem to have evermore difficulty finding ducks, is debatable. But for now, that's the way it is.

Bottom line: Ducks are gregarious, and wherever hunters find them congregated, they'll also find good hunting. But with South Dakota being so dry, and much of North Dakota, too, and production in Canada mixed, chances are duck hunting, in general, will be no better this fall than a year ago, when action generally was only fair.

• Ruffed grouse: DNR drumming counts indicated ruffed grouse declined 11 percent in Minnesota this spring from a year ago. According to the counts, populations remained generally stable in the north-central part of the state, but declined in the far north and south.

The decline was unexpected, because grouse populations were believed to be cycling upward. DNR wildlife officials conceded they didn't know whether the counts reflected reality, given the wet, cool spring experienced across Minnesota -- conditions that oftentimes slow grouse drumming.

Based on discussions I've had with people who are in the woods a lot, including bear guides, grouse drumming was late this spring. One Grand Rapids area guide said drumming in late May and June was significantly higher than a year ago. "And I'm seeing more birds in the woods this year than last," he said.

What to expect: Wet springs generally hurt grouse production. Still, it's likely this season will be at least as good as a year ago, and probably better.

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