Despite tough winter, so far, so good for pheasants in ’09

Madelia, Minn. – Pheasants in Minnesota did a good job of
weathering a winter that proved to be more like winters of old, and
till now, have had a spring conducive to pulling off a good
hatch.

But there’s still much of June to contend with, the month that
can determine if there are plentiful bird numbers in the field this
fall, or not.

While last spring pheasants in the state struggled with wet
conditions, they’ve had it relatively good this year.

“(The spring) has been good from a pheasant’s perspective,” Kurt
Haroldson said late last week, adding that the weather’s been cool
at times. The DNR’s pheasant specialist in Madelia said winter may
have taken a few birds, but based on wildlife manager observations,
most did just fine.

Haroldson checked in with the wildlife officials via email
following the winter, to get their impressions of winter pheasant
loss. The response he got was “better than expected,” expecially in
west-central Minnesota, where snow came and stayed most of the
winter.

“It was the first moderately severe winter in about eight years,
so I was expecting worse stories,” Haroldson said.

Given pheasants’ winter survival, “We’ve got some potential to
make a crop for this fall,” he said.

But that potential is subject to conditions during the next few
weeks. The peak of pheasant hatch is right around June 7, Haroldson
said. Cold and rain during the upcoming period when chicks are
young could reduce their survival rates, he said.

“Things generally are looking pretty good – the big unknown is
how the weather shapes up in the next month,” he said.

Small-game hunter surveys haven’t been compiled yet, but
Haroldson said last year’s harvest likely will be somewhere around
half a million birds, perhaps a slight decrease from 2007. There
were about 123,000 pheasant hunters in the state last year, down
somewhat from 2007, when there were about 129,000.

Last year also saw an increase in hunters’ bag limit; in
December, the bag increased from two to three.

“I wasn’t sure what to expect,” Haroldson said, adding that the
new rule likely had “minimal impact” on overall harvest. Hunter
participation typically wanes during the final full month of the
season, and birds are fewer and better educated by then.

One other factor that might influence pheasant numbers is
availability of habitat. Though the loss is slower than some other
states, including South Dakota, Minnesota continues to slowly lose
pheasant habitat created by the federal Conservation Reserve
Program.

“It’s not like South Dakota where we’re losing a ton of (CRP
lands),” he said. “But we’re losing some every year; we’re going
backwards.”

The CRP loss has been offset somewhat by increases in state
wildlife management area acreage. Haroldson estimates the WMA
program is adding about 5,000 acres each year in the state’s
pheasant range.

South Dakota

While South Dakota, like other states, is losing CRP acreage
that provides prime pheasant habitat, there were good reports
regarding pheasant survival following the winter.

Chad Switzer, senior upland bird specialist for the state Game,
Fish and Parks Department in Huron, said the 2008-09 winter was
“normal,” compared with past mild winters. Overall temperatures
were lower, and snow was abundant. But the Dakota pheasants toughed
it out.

“The birds pulled through quite remarkably,” Switzer said. He
said state conservation officers reported finding a few dead
pheasants during the winter, something he expected. But it was
“nothing significant,” he said.

Conditions for nesting appeared good, he said.

“Things are setting up for another good season this fall,”
Switzer said.

Last fall, hunters in South Dakota harvested about 1.9 million
roosters, down from about 2.1 million the previous year. Switzer
attributed the decline to the last harvest of corn in some areas,
as well as snow that arrived in copious amounts by
mid-December.

South Dakota officials conduct a winter sex ratio survey, and
Switzer said this year there was an estimated 47 cocks per 100
hens, indicating a “huge surplus of roosters.”

According to Switzer, South Dakota last year lost about 120,000
acres of CRP to contract expiration. A few thousand stayed retired
when landowners re-enrolled in the continuous CRP option.

Further, the state is embarking on a Conservation Reserve
Enhancement Program project that will attempt to enroll about
100,000 acres of land along the James River, from the North Dakota
border to southern South Dakota.

Iowa

After a year when Iowa saw its pheasant harvest plummet to about
383,000 birds, game officials there are hoping for a dramatic
rebound in 2009.

The Iowa DNR announced recently that the harvest in 2008 was the
lowest on record, and only the second time since 1958 when the
pheasant harvest dipped below 500,000.

Both poor harvests, officials said, came on the tail of a severe
winter, the latest coming in 2007-08.

“The good news is that so far, we are having a good nesting
season, and if the weather holds through the middle of June, our
pheasant population could see an increase of up to 20 percent,”
said Todd Bogenschutz, an Iowa DNR upland wildlife biologist, in an
agency press release.

Poor numbers in the state’s August roadside pheasant count
likely limited participation last year in Iowa. The DNR says just
86,000 hunters pursued pheasants in the state in 2008, an all-time
low.

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