MN: Pheasant opener largely lives up to poor pre-season expectations

Watson, Minn. – Two tough winters and one wet spring may not
have dampened anticipation of the 2011 pheasant-hunting opener, but
reports based on August roadside surveys certainly lowered
expectations.

By most accounts – based largely on conservation officer and other
DNR reports – those expectations were met. Perhaps more
disappointing for some hunters was the fact that limited success
coincided with a large portion of farm-country corn and beans
already binned at grain elevators.

There were, of course, some success stories. One group of five
hunters in the Windom area reported killing eight roosters during a
Saturday morning hunt. Plenty of hens, too, took flight during that
jaunt across acres enrolled in the federal Conservation Reserve
Program.

Curt Vacek, a DNR area wildlife manager in southwestern Minnesota,
hunted with a group of about 10; they took 11 birds on Saturday
near Appleton.

“There may be fewer birds than last year, but it wasn’t all that
bad,” said Vacek, who works in the DNR’s Watson office.

About a month ago, pheasant hunters were lamenting the results of
the August roadside counts, the more reliable indicator of what one
might expect when chasing roosters in the fall. This year’s
pheasant index was 64 percent below last year’s, the survey
indicated. It was about 70 percent below the 10-year average,
thanks to poor weather and declining habitat.

But there’s a chance something positive occurred after the August
survey.

“Initially when we did the counts everything looking kind of
dismal,” Vacek said. “But we started seeing more broods after that,
so there may have been a late hatch.”

Indeed, some pheasant hunters last weekend reported seeing a few
very young birds.

While soybean harvest was nearly complete, the amount of corn
remaining in southwestern fields tended to vary, though most
observers said farmers appeared to be fast-tracking harvest.

“If anything, we’re ahead here in corn harvest,” said Kurt
Haroldson, DNR wildlife researcher in Madelia. He said harvest
appeared to be at the halfway point, based on his “windshield
estimate.”

That observation jibed with a report issued by the Minnesota
Department of Agriculture for the week ending Oct. 16. According to
that report, 48 percent of the corn in the state was harvested,
compared to 43 percent last year and a five-year average of 28
percent.

The soybean harvest, the report said was “virtually
complete.”

Dry weather was in the immediate forecast earlier this week,
hinting at continued rapid corn harvest progress.

Whether that improves pheasant hunting remains to be seen.
Conservation officers offered little in the way of optimism based
on their reports from opening weekend.

CO Matt Loftness, of Marshall, reported that, “as expected, the
pheasant opener saw fewer pheasants taken than in previous years.
With almost the entire soybean crop harvested, and approximately 75
percent of the corn harvested, most hunters still struggled to find
birds.”

Greg Abraham, a CO in the New Ulm area, said he was sidetracked by
a trespass complaint on Saturday, but deemed it “the worst pheasant
opener in recent memory.”

On Sunday, Abraham said he checked several hunters who’d “switched
from pheasants to ducks because of the poor pheasant hunting …”
That day, he said, he didn’t observe a harvested pheasant.

Willmar CO Jeff Denz reported most groups of hunters were seeing
some pheasants and having some opportunities.

Wendy Krueger, DNR area wildlife manager in Slayton, checked
hunters at the Talcot Lake WMA on Saturday and Sunday. She said
participation was good on Saturday, but when queried, hunters
reported a mere .3 birds per hunter that day. That compared with .7
per hunter last year.

The “car count” was 32 on Saturday, Krueger said, compared with 37
last year and 47 in 2009.

She also said hunters reported seeing what appeared to be young
birds, which kept them, at times, from shooting.

“I talked to several guys who would pull up on a bird, then would
have to let it go,” she said.

Walk-In Access use

Pheasant hunters – and others – had a new option this year: access
to private property, thanks to the new Walk-In Access program that
made available about 9,100 acres, mostly in the state’s pheasant
belt. Much of that land is enrolled in the federal Conservation
Reserve Program.

Selected landowners were paid a base of $10 per acre to allow
public hunting access.

It’s part of a three-year pilot program in the state made possible
with federal Farm Bill dollars. Next year the program is expected
to grow to about 25,000 acres, according to Marybeth Block, the
DNR’s program coordinator.

However, Block said this week, federal dollars haven’t yet been
committed for the third year, and, given the deficit-reduction
attitude nowadays in Washington, federal funding might be in
doubt.

“That’s a bit of a worry right now,” she said.

Current three-year contracts in Minnesota stipulate the state must
receive federal funding, according to Block.

There’s been no official monitoring of Walk-In Access area usage
thus far, she said, but DNR Wildlife officials and conservation
officers offered some insight into the popularity of the plots,
which range in size but average about 100 acres. There are about
100 sites, too.

Doug Lage, of Marshall, said apparently a few hunters were aware of
the availability of new hunting land. In some cases, he said,
“People were sitting there at 8 (the season opened at 9 a.m.) in
the morning,” he said, adding that vehicles were at all of the WIA
areas he checked.

“They were used, and people were asking about them,” he said. “I
think it went pretty well.”

COs Eric Schettler, of Fairmont, and Jim Robinson, of Slayton, also
said the WIA areas in their counties saw some degree of use, though
lower hunter numbers could’ve contributed to the lack of hunting
pressure in some cases. Robinson said that typically the pheasant
openers in Minnesota and South Dakota aren’t the same weekend; this
year, they both opened Oct. 15, which might have made for lower
hunter numbers in some parts of the southwest.

Habitat issues

Prior to the pheasant-hunting season opener, the DNR released
information warning of threats to habitat favorable to
pheasants.

Twenty years ago, the release said, “CRP had strong legs in
Minnesota, covering more than 1.7 million acres with native grass
that provided pheasants with the food and cover they need.

“Today, that number has shrunk to 948,000 acres. Soon, it could
drop more. That’s because 550,000 acres of existing CRP contracts
are scheduled to expire during the next three years,” according to
the DNR release.

Also, high farm commodity prices make re-enrollment – if available
– a less favorable option for landowners.

Federal Farm Bill conservation programs have been credited for the
return of pheasants and pheasant hunting in the state.

Loss of habitat and harsh winters led to a pheasant harvest that
declined from 655,000 in 2007 – a modern-era record – to 359,000
birds last year, according to the DNR. “This year’s harvest is
expected to be modest, too,” the release said.

This year’s pheasant-hunting season runs through Jan. 1. The daily
limit is two roosters until Dec. 1, when the limit increases to
three daily.

License sales

Pheasant stamp sales, like recent harvest, has continued a downward
trend this year; as of Monday, about 66,750 stamps had been sold,
compared with 77,100 a year ago at the same time. For the past
eight years, stamp sales the Friday prior to the opener have been
more than 66,000 stamps.

Governor’s Opener

Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton and GOP House Speaker Kurt Zellers were
in the same party for a morning, though it wasn’t a political
party. They were in the same hunting party for Minnesota’s first
Governor’s Pheasant Opener.

Dayton, Zellers, and several others spent a sunny Saturday morning
hunting on the Lac qui Parle refuge in western Minnesota.

The West Central Tribune of Willmar reports the governor did not
bag a bird but Zellers harvested one. Refuge manager Dave Trauba
said Dayton had to hold his shot because his press secretary was
between him and two roosters the party flushed.

By noon the parties had harvested 30 birds and reported flushing
well over 150 others.

The governor also went out for a second try in the afternoon, but
was not successful.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Categories: Hunting News, News Archive

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