ST. PAUL — A mild winter and seasonable spring helped Minnesota pheasant numbers rebound this year, with the state’s annual roadside count up 33 percent over 2014.
That should mean good news, and more birds, for the state’s pheasant hunters who take to the field starting Oct. 10.
Despite the rebound, however, the ongoing loss of habitat converted to cropland continues to hold pheasant numbers down.
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Tuesday said the pheasant index is 39 percent below the 10-year average and 59 percent below the long-term average, mostly due to the loss of habitat turning grassland and wetlands into farmland, especially as crop prices and land values soared a few years back.
Minnesota has lost 153,492 acres of federal Conservation Reserve Program grassland over the past year and more than 400,000 acres since 2007 when pheasant numbers were high. Many more acres of CRP could come out of the program, some 500,000 acres by 2018, if contracts are not renewed or new acres are not enrolled into the program.
“Habitat loss still poses serious threats to pheasant populations and other grassland wildlife,” said Nicole Davros, a DNR research scientist, in Tuesday’s pheasant report. “The short-term increase is good news that results from a mild winter and relatively favorable weather during the nesting season — conditions that led to increases in the roadside index for many farmland wildlife game species.”
DNR staff and others each August fan out on predetermined, historic routes and record how many pheasants and other wildlife they see. This year’s statewide pheasant index was 40.7 birds per 100 miles of roadside driven.
Weather and habitat are the two main factors that drive Minnesota’s pheasant population trends. All regions showed increases in the roadside pheasant index compared to 2014 except for the south-central region, which stayed the same as last year. The highest pheasant counts by number of pheasants were in the southwest, west-central and east-central regions, where observers reported 46 to 76 birds per 100 miles driven.
“The future trend for pheasants, and all grassland-dependent wildlife, does not look good unless we can find ways to keep habitat on the ground,” Davros said.
South Dakota last week reported a statewide 42 percent increase in pheasants, although, as with Minnesota, numbers remained below recent and historic highs.
The 2015 brood index in Minnesota, hens with chicks, increased 35 percent from last year.
The average number of chicks per brood was similar to last year and the 10-year average but was 14 percent below the long-term average. The median hatch date of nests was June 9, which was three days earlier than the 10-year average and seven days earlier than last year. Some areas of the state received above-average rainfall amounts in May, which may have delayed or interrupted nesting attempts. However, near-normal temperatures and precipitation in June and July were beneficial to nesting birds and young chicks.
This year’s farmland wildlife survey consisted of 170 25-mile-long routes, with 151 routes located in the ring-necked pheasant range.
Other critters counted included mourning doves (up 14 percent from 2014 but below the 10-year average), gray partridge (up 150 percent from 2014 but well below the 10-year and long-term average), cottontail rabbits (up 36 percent from 2014 and 34 percent above the 10-year average), white-tailed jackrabbits (about the same as last year and near an historic low) and white-tailed deer (about the same as 2014 and 33 percent above the 10-year average and 98 percent above the long-term average.)
The 2015 pheasant season runs through Jan. 3. The daily bag limit is two roosters through November, and it increases to three roosters on Tuesday, Dec. 1. The possession limit is six roosters, increasing to nine roosters on Dec. 1. Shooting hours are 9 a.m.to sunset.