Pheasant counts down 50 percent from 2000

DNR Reports

Madelia, Minn. Ring-necked pheasant counts are down 50 percent
from last year, according to surveys recently completed by the
Minnesota DNR. Agency wildlife biologists blame the drastic drop on
last year’s harsh winter and a soggy spring. The adverse weather
also helped reduce rabbit numbers by 44 percent and gray partridge
numbers by 25 percent.

“To sum it up,” said John Giudice, wildlife research biologist
with the DNR’s Farmland Wildlife Population and Research Group in
Madelia, “hunting prospects for Minnesota pheasants and cottontail
rabbits are poor to fair this fall.”

Giudice, who supervised the DNR’s yearly August roadside survey,
said that overall the number of pheasants seen along survey routes
was down 50 percent from 2000 and was 35 percent below the
five-year mean (1996-2000).

“A severe winter followed by a cold, wet spring typically
results in declines in pheasant, gray partridge and cottontail
populations,” Giudice said. “We are disappointed, but we are not
surprised.”

The most severe pheasant population declines were in southern
and west-central Minnesota, where winter cover is more sparse,
while populations in east-central and central Minnesota remained
above the five-year mean.

“During the three-year period from 1998 to 2000 with mild
winters, Minnesota’s pheasant numbers increased even in areas with
marginal winter cover,” Giudice said. “But with no improvement in
winter cover, the hard winter of 2000-01 resulted in significant
overwinter mortality, especially in southern and west-central
regions.”

Despite the statewide decline in pheasants, fair densities
(25-49 birds per square mile) can be found in portions of
east-central, southwest, and central Minnesota. “By scouting
around, hunters will be able to find a few local hot spots in other
regions,” Giudice said.

Above-average precipitation in April and May resulted in low
nest success and may have delayed nesting. “Fortunately the hot,
dry conditions in late June and July were excellent for
brood-rearing and renesting,” Giudice said. He explained that
pheasants are persistent renesters if initial nest attempts fail
and hens are in good condition. As a result, there could be more
pheasants this fall than the August counts indicate.

“Young, late-hatched broods are undercounted in roadside
surveys,” Giudice said. “As a result, the roadside indices may not
accurately reflect late-season production.”

Giudice estimated that pheasant hunting prospects should be
similar to those in 1997, when hunters harvested 248,000 roosters.
“I predict we’ll be closer to 275,000 this year,” Giudice said.
“However, the actual harvest may be greater if there was a strong
renesting effort.”

Pheasant population trends and harvest predictions are based on
results of the DNR’s annual roadside survey, which began in the
late 1940s and was standardized in 1955. The survey is conducted
during the first two weeks in August by DNR conservation officers
and wildlife managers in the farmland region of Minnesota. The
survey consists of 175 routes, each 25 miles long, with 156 routes
located in the ring-necked pheasant range. Observers drive each
route in early morning and record the number of game animals they
see.

Giudice said average habitat conditions remain poor for
grassland wildlife throughout most of Minnesota’s pheasant range
due to intense farming and a 33 percent decline in CRP acres in the
pheasant range from the peak of 1.2 million acres in the early
1990s. To put it in perspective, only 3 percent of the farmland
landscape in Minnesota is enrolled in conservation programs.

The number of cottontail rabbits counted during the roadside
survey declined 47 percent from 2000, when populations were at
their highest level since 1981, and was 18 percent below the
five-year mean. Declines occurred in all regions and ranged from
minus 21 percent in the southeast to minus 78 percent in the
west-central region.

Jackrabbits counted during roadside surveys increased 73 percent
from 2000 and were 50 percent above the five-year mean. However,
jackrabbit numbers remain at very low levels.

Minnesota’s pheasant season opens Saturday, Oct. 13. The small
game season, which includes rabbits and partridge, opens Saturday,
Sept. 15.

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