State pheasant counts fall

Madelia, Minn. — Pheasant counts in the state have been on a general decline for years, and this year is no different, results of annual August roadside surveys show.

This year’s index – 27.2 birds per 100 miles – is 29 percent below last year, 64 percent below the 10-year average, and 72 percent below the long-term average.

Officials say the long winter and cold, wet spring played a part in the decline – but only a part.

“A one-year decline would be less concerning because it could be (the result of) the extended winter and cooler than normal spring,” said Marrett Grund, DNR farmland wildlife populations and research group leader in Madelia. “But when we see continued annual declines, that’s a good indication the problem is bigger than just not having favorable weather conditions.

“It’s a fairly predictable situation we are in, given we know the dire situation we’re facing with trying to preserve grassland habitat,” he added.

States around Minnesota also report pheasant declines. South Dakota’s pheasant brood counts fell by 64 percent from last year; counts were down 11 percent in North Dakota; and in Iowa, they were down 19 percent.

Minnesota’s pheasant index is based on the number of birds observed during the first half of August on 152 routes. Each route is 25 miles; there are a total of 171 routes in the state, but 19 are outside of pheasant range.

The survey has been conducted every summer since 1955. This year’s counts are 91 percent below the benchmark years of 1955-1964, and officials say counts during the past three years indicate the population has seen major declines since 2005. The index that year was 102 pheasants per 100 miles.

Like the overall counts, the number of pheasant broods observed this year also was down. This year’s count was 3.4 broods per 100 miles, which is 45 percent below last year, 71 percent below the 10-year average, and 74 percent below the long-term average.

From 1955-1964, the index was 34.8 broods per 100 miles.

“Pheasant populations respond to habitat abundance and changes in weather,” said Rachel Curtis, the DNR wildlife research biologist who coordinated the roadside surveys. “The steady downward trend in Minnesota’s pheasant population during the past several years is primarily due to habitat loss. Weather has caused minor fluctuations.”

Grassland that’s undisturbed during the nesting season is most important to pheasants, according to the DNR. Grasslands protected via programs such as CRP and Reinvest in Minnesota account for about 6 percent of the state’s pheasant range.

But for many landowners, farmland conservation programs are less attractive than they once were, thanks to high rental rates and high commodity prices. Over the past year, CRP enrollment in the state’s pheasant range fell by 63,700 acres. During the next three years, about 400,000 acres of CRP contracts are set to expire.

Absent an increase in grassland acres, Grund doesn’t expect to see pheasant numbers rise.

“(The number of grassland acres is) in human control, but the economics associated with high grain prices make it really difficult to maintain the historical approach that we have used to preserve and protect grassland habitat,” he said. “We may need to change some of our models for trying to acquire land and to preserve the grassland we have out there.”

Some of the CRP losses can be offset via land acquisition through the Outdoor Heritage Fund, for example, though the net effect likely still will be a loss of grassland acres. The DNR also is researching how best to improve the grassland habitat on public lands.

“On those public lands where we can preserve and protect grassland species, how do we best manage those areas to best maximize pheasant carrying capacities over time?” Grund said. “We’re looking at every way possible to improve the quality of habitat out there on public lands.”

Based on the roadside counts, the DNR estimates hunters will kill about 246,000 pheasants this fall.

Other species

During roadside surveys, observers also watch for other wildlife species, including:

  • Gray partridge: The index of 1.1 partridge per 100 miles is 77 percent lower than last year, 82 percent below the 10-year average, and 92 percent below the long-term average.
  • Eastern cottontail rabbit: The index of 4.6 rabbits per 100 miles is 17 percent higher than last year, 22 percent below the 10-year average, and 23 percent below the long-term average.
  • White-tailed jackrabbits: The index of 0.2 rabbits per 100 miles is similar to last year and the 10-year average, but 87 percent below the long-term average.
  • White-tailed deer: The index of 20.7 deer per 100 miles is 46 percent higher than last year, 38 percent above the 10-year average, and 116 percent above the long-term average.
  • Mourning dove: the index of 168 doves per 100 miles is 20 percent lower than last year, 23 percent below the 10-year average, and 35 percent below the long-term average.
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