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Minnesota’s pheasant index remains unchanged from 2009 but is 22 percent below the 10-year average, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

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Contributing factors to the below-average index include:

  • The most severe winter in the farmland region of Minnesota since 2001, resulting in hen counts 28 percent below the 10-year average.
  • Fewer nesting opportunities caused by the removal of more than 100,000 acres of private land from the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and other farm programs during the past four years.
  • Cool, wet weather during the normal June peak of the pheasant hatch appears to have reduced early brood survival.

A severe winter, fewer acres of habitat, and a cool, wet June all contributed to what DNR wildlife biologists are calling a below average pheasant population.

“We expect hunters to harvest a similar number of birds in 2010 as they did in 2009,” said Kurt Haroldson, a wildlife biologist for the DNR’s Farmland Population and Research Group in Madelia. “But after a series of above-average pheasant harvests from 2005-2008, Minnesota’s pheasant population has fallen below average for a second consecutive year.”

The pheasant population estimate is part of the DNR’s annual roadside wildlife survey. The survey summarizes roadside counts of pheasants, gray (Hungarian) partridge, cottontail rabbits, white-tailed jackrabbits and other wildlife observed in the early morning hours during the first two weeks of August throughout the farmland region of Minnesota.

“Given the severity of last winter, we expected a decrease in the range-wide pheasant index and we were pleasantly surprised to observe no change from last year,” Haroldson said Pheasant hunters are expected to harvest about 400,000 roosters this fall, similar to last year and 2004. This compares to harvests that have exceeded 500,000 roosters five of the past seven years. The 500,000 bird harvests correspond with a string of mild winters and high CRP enrollment.

The best opportunities for harvesting pheasants likely will be in the southwest, where observers reported 104 birds per 100 miles of survey driven. Hunters also will find good harvest opportunities in the central and west central regions, where observers reported 76 and 70 birds per 100 miles driven, respectively. This year’s statewide pheasant index was 63 birds per 100 miles driven.

Haroldson said the most important habitat for pheasants is grassland that remains undisturbed during the nesting season. Protected grasslands account for about six percent of the state’s pheasant range. Farmland retirement programs such as CRP, Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, Reinvest in Minnesota and Wetlands Reserve Program make up the largest portion of protected grasslands in the state.

High land rental rates and competing uses for farmland diminish the economic attractiveness of farmland conservation programs. During the next three years, 500,000 additional acres would be removed from Minnesota’s CRP land if no acres are re-enrolled, reducing the total number of CRP acres in Minnesota by 32 percent.

To help offset continued habitat losses caused by reductions in conservation set-aside acreage, DNR has accelerated acquisition of Wildlife Management Areas in the farmland region of Minnesota. DNR also supports habitat conservation on private lands by working with a variety of partners in the Farm Bill Assistance Partnership and Working Lands Initiative.

The August roadside survey, which began in the late 1940s, 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. This year’s survey consisted of 168 routes, each 25 miles long, with 148 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 other select wildlife species.

The gray partridge index was similar to last year but 55 percent below the 10-year average. The cottontail rabbit index was also below the 10-year and long-term average. The jackrabbit index was 96 percent below the long-term average. In contrast, the mourning dove index was similar to last year and the 10-year average.

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