A mild winter followed by a warm spring contributed to a significant increase in Minnesota's pheasant count, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR).
The pheasant population index increased 68 percent from 2011. Pheasant hunters are expected to harvest about 290,000 roosters this fall. That's up from last year's estimated harvest of 204,000 but roughly half the number taken during the 2005-2008 seasons when hunting was exceptionally good.
"While the 2012 increase reflects movement in a positive direction, the counts still remain 51 percent below the 10-year average," said Kurt Haroldson, the DNR biologist who compiled the survey.
While favorable weather worked in the birds' favor this year, their long-term success is more closely linked to habitat than annual variations in snowfall, rainfall and temperature.
"The state's pheasant population is linked more closely to quantity and quality of habitat than annual differences in weather," Haroldson said.
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 half of August throughout the farmland region of Minnesota.
The highest pheasant counts were in the west central region, where observers reported 58 birds per 100 miles of survey driven. Hunters will find good harvest opportunities in portions of west central, east central and southwest Minnesota.
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 Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CRP), 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, contracts for 620,000 acres of CRP lands are scheduled to expire. If not re-enrolled, this would reduce CRP acres in Minnesota by 42 percent.
Minnesota's pheasant population largely has mirrored what's happened on the land.
"Pheasant numbers were higher during the small, diversified farming days from roughly 1931 to 1964 when habitat was more abundant," Haroldson said. "Pheasant numbers declined during the intensive farming boom from 1965-1986 as field sizes grew and habitat shrank. Then, pheasant numbers rebounded when CRP began in 1987. However, enrollment in that program peaked several years ago, and further declines will not bode well for future pheasant populations."
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. More than 15,000 acres of private property have been opened to public hunting through the state's Walk-In Access program.
Page 2 of 2 - 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 half of August. This year's survey consisted of 171 routes, each 25 miles long, with 152 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 also increased from last year and is similar to the 10-year average. The cottontail rabbit index remains below the 10-year and long-term average. The jackrabbit index was 96 percent below the long-term average. Finally, the mourning dove index was 36 percent above last year but similar to the 10-year average.