After dismal ’11, rooster numbers rebound

New Ulm, Minn. — It won’t be like some of the stellar seasons of the recent past, but results of this year’s August Roadside Survey suggest pheasant hunters should have better luck in 2012 than 2011.

According to the survey, the state’s pheasant population index is up 68 percent from last year.

“Considering what a deep hole we found ourselves in last year, we are now moving in the right direction,” said Kurt Haroldson, the DNR assistant regional wildlife manager in New Ulm who compiled the report. “But it’s going to take some time to get where we want to be.”

Based on the roadside counts – derived from counting pheasants along 152 routes in the state’s pheasant range during the first half of August – officials forecast hunters will kill about 290,000 roosters this fall.

The highest pheasant counts this year were in the west-central part of the state – 58 birds per 100 miles – and officials say the best hunting likely will be in the west-central, east-central, and southwestern parts of the state.

Hunters last fall killed 204,000 pheasants, which was the lowest since 1986. Before the season, the DNR predicted they would kill about 250,000.

Haroldson figures expectations were part of the reason hunters didn’t kill as many birds as they might have.

“People were used to seeing more birds,” he said. “They went out, didn’t see enough, and found something else to do.”

If hunters shoot as many birds as forecasted this fall, it would mean a harvest similar to 2001. And it would be less than half of the 655,000 they killed in 2007.

“It’s still going to seem low,” Haroldson said, “but, geez, in the past 10 years we’ve had some really good years.”

This year’s increase is the result of a mild winter and warm spring that aided reproduction. While the increase from last year is large, this year’s index – 38.9 birds per 100 miles – is 51 percent below the 10-year average and 62 percent below the long-term average.

This year’s hen pheasant index is 75 percent above last year, but 51 percent below the 10-year average. The number of broods observed during this year’s survey was 105 percent above last year, but 48 percent below the long-term average.

The pheasant population is rebounding from two harsh winters – 2009-2010 and 2010-2011 – and a cold, wet spring last year.

“We had fewer hens make it to the spring, and then fewer hens got produced during the spring,” Haroldson said. “We just lost a lot of birds.”

But mild winters, warm springs, and quality habitat can turn things around in a hurry. In 2001, for example, hunters killed 267,000 pheasants. They shot nearly 356,000 in 2002, and then more than 500,000 in five of the next six years.

That was a period of good weather and good habitat, Haroldson said.

“If you have the right conditions, you can make progress,” he said. “But it doesn’t happen in one year.”

It’s anyone’s guess what the weather will do. But the amount of habitat on the ground can be controlled. Last year in the state’s pheasant range, there was a net habitat gain of 31,701 acres, which includes farm programs and lands protected as wildlife management areas and waterfowl production areas.

While the increase is positive, “I suspect we are just biding our time,” Haroldson said.

That’s because nearly 300,000 acres of CRP in the state is set to expire later this month. And a total of more than 620,000 acres is set to expire in the next three years, according to the DNR.

Money from the Legacy Amendment voters approved in 2008 has accelerated acquisition of state and federal wildlife lands, “but there’s no way we could every replace (lands protected via farm bill programs),” Haroldson said.

Other species

While pheasants are the main target of roadside surveys, observers also count other wildlife species. Following are some of this year’s results:

  • Grey partridge: This year’s index – 4.8 per 100 miles – was up from last year, similar to the 10-year average, and 68 percent below the long-term average. 
    “They seem to do well when we have consecutive dry years,” Haroldson said. “And here we are in (dry) year number two.”
  • Cottontail rabbit: At 4.1 rabbits per 100 miles, the index is similar to 2011, and 34 percent below the 10-year and long-term averages.
  • Jackrabbit: Similar to last year and the 10-year average, but 93 percent below the long-term average.
  • Mourning dove: At 213.8 doves per 100 miles, the index is 36 percent above last year, similar to the 10-year average, and 16 percent below the long-term average.
  • Deer: At 14.2 deer per 100 miles, the index was similar to last year and the 10-year average, and 51 percent above the long-term average.
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