Pheasant count is down in 2013

Published 4:44 pm Saturday, September 14, 2013

Column: Woods and Water, by Dick Herfindahl

As we head into the heart of the fall hunting season, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources released its latest survey on the pheasant numbers in Minnesota. They are not painting a pretty picture for those of us who spend time afield in search of most hunters’ favorite bird which opens Oct. 12.

Although I have not been an avid pheasant hunter for many years, I’m still concerned about the decline of the sport in our state. There are many things that factor in when looking for answers. I am not a statistician, but I feel very strongly that the loss of hunting habitat is the biggest contributor to the declining numbers. Weather can have an adverse effect on a hunting season, no matter what critter you are seeking to hunt, but that is only a temporary situation.

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I’d hope that most landowners would choose to keep some habitat available for wildlife, because if we let the chase for the mighty dollar destroy the environment, then we’ll also destroy our outdoor heritage. I know farmers need to make a living, and they are the backbone of our community, but it does make me feel a little sad when I see marshland being tiled, groves of trees being cut down and habitat being plowed under. The Lessard-Sams amendment, which we voted in a few years back, played a very important role in habitat preservation, but the portion of the bill that makes land acquisition possible has been under attack by some legislators from day one. A year ago, there was a proposal that would have required the DNR to sell some public land before it purchased more. That didn’t make any sense to me, because you weren’t gaining a thing. Here in Freeborn County, we are lucky enough to have 11 wildlife management areas available for public use, and there are also landowners in the county who set land aside for habitat. We need both public and private habitat to ensure that our outdoor heritage will be preserved for future generations.


DNR reports pheasant index down 29 percent

The DNR issued a news release about pheasant numbers for the upcoming season. A long winter followed by a cold, wet spring contributed to a significant decrease in Minnesota’s pheasant count, which declined 29 percent from 2012.

“Minnesota’s results reflect what we’re seeing in other states,” said Rachel Curtis, a DNR wildlife research biologist. “South Dakota had a 64 percent decrease in its brood survey. North Dakota’s most-recent rooster crowing count is down 11 percent from last year. And Iowa reported a 19 percent decrease in its August roadside count.”

Minnesota’s 2013 pheasant index is 64 percent below the 10-year average and 72 percent below the long-term average.

Pheasant hunters are still expected to harvest about 246,000 roosters this fall. That’s down 44,000 from last year’s estimate and is less than half the number taken during the 2005-2008 seasons when hunting was exceptionally good.

The highest pheasant counts were in the southwest region, where observers reported 51 birds per 100 miles of survey driven. Hunters should find good harvest opportunities in west-central, east-central and south-central Minnesota.

“Pheasant populations respond to habitat abundance and changes in weather,” Curtis said. “The steady downward trend in Minnesota’s pheasant population during the past several years is primarily due to habitat loss. Weather has caused minor fluctuations.”

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 such as the Conservation Reserve Program, 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. CRP enrollment declined by 63,700 acres in Minnesota’s pheasant range over the last year and contracts for nearly 400,000 acres of statewide CRP lands are scheduled to expire during the next three years. If not re-enrolled, this would reduce CRP acres in Minnesota by 30 percent.

To help offset continued habitat losses caused by reductions in conservation set-aside acreage, the DNR has accelerated acquisition of wildlife management areas in the farmland region of Minnesota. The U.S Fish and Wildlife Service also acquires and protects habitat across the state. In addition, the DNR supports habitat conservation on private lands by working with a variety of partners in the Farm Bill Assistance Partnership and Working Lands Initiative.

Until next time, fall is a great time to do a little hunting or fishing, but most of all to just get out and spend some time in our great Minnesota outdoors.

Please remember to keep our troops in your thoughts and prayers, because they are the reason we are able to enjoy all the freedoms we have today.

Dick Herfindahl’s column appears in the Tribune each Sunday.