New Ulm, Minn. — Another pheasant season is upon Minnesotans, and as the hunt begins, there’s a bit of consternation mixing with the usual optimism of opening day.
Some hunters, conservation groups, and state officials have expressed concern that the federal government shutdown will force pheasant hunters from places like federal wildlife refuges as well as waterfowl production areas.
Then there’s the not-so-small matter of a late, wet, chilly spring and its effects on the pheasant hatch, and the subsequent 29-percent drop in the August roadside pheasant count from last year (64 percent below the 10-year average).
And not to be overlooked is the loss of pheasant habitat, a story that’s no longer new news.
But all that aside, there remains reason for optimism. Birds could be more plentiful than indicated in the August survey, corn and bean crops are being harvested at a rapid pace, and earlier this week, AccuWeather.com predicted opener weather in southern Minnesota to be “partly sunny and beautiful.” The predicted high was 66 degrees for both Saturday and Sunday.
For longtime hunters like Curt Vacek, DNR area wildlife manager in Watson, forecasts go out the window come the morning of Oct. 12. It’s enough, merely, to again walk the pheasant fields and watch the dogs work. Flushes and bagged birds, he says, are the icing.
Vacek believes, however, like others, that the number of pheasants available this fall might have been misrepresented somewhat by the August counts, due to late hatches.
“There are always some of those late birds,” he said. “This year I think there were proportionally more.”
Kurt Haroldson, DNR assistant regional wildlife manager in New Ulm, said it appears the late-hatch phenomenon also occurred in that part of the state.
“Anecdotally, it appears that we missed a fair number of birds that didn’t get counted in the August roadside survey,” Haroldson said.
That said, will those birds be available this Saturday? It might be later in the season when hunters are flushing and distinguishing hen from cock, according to Haroldson.
“We always see roosters in the fall that are from a late hatch – it always happens,” he said. “It just happened more this spring.”
Haroldson said he put himself among those who are “cautiously optimistic” heading into the 2013 season.
It’s also worth noting that young birds might find winter more challenging than would more mature pheasants. The harshness of early winter likely will dictate survival.
Another factor to consider this year is crop harvest in the pheasant range of the state. Unlike last year, when an early spring led to early planting and to a nontypical early harvest, progression of soybean and corn harvest this year is more “normal.”
Because of the federal government shutdown, official crop-harvest statistics – usually provided weekly – aren’t currently available. However, Vacek said farmers were working in earnest to combine beans this week, and that as of Tuesday, it appeared about half the crop was out.
Some corn had been chopped, but in most cases, combining of corn was just getting under way, he said.
According to the DNR, this year’s roadside counts likely mean a pheasant harvest in the vicinity of 250,000 roosters, below last year’s take but above that of 2011-12. As recently as 2008-09 state hunters killed more than half a million pheasants.
In most of the state’s pheasant range, officials say it’s the loss of habitat – attributed mainly to the expiration of Conservation Reserve Program contracts – that’s been a key factor in the reduction in birds. Weather, too has been a primary reason for the recent decline.
Federal land closures
State officials, including conservation officers, say they’ve been bombarded of late with questions regarding the availability of federal public lands for pheasant hunting and other pursuits.
Until the federal government shutdown is over, those lands, including waterfowl production areas, are considered closed, according to Maj. Phil Meier, DNR Enforcement operations manager.
Federal officials have said WPAs and federal wildlife refuges are closed, Meier said, “and we are going to abide by what they say.”
Earlier in the week, a consortium of conservation groups held a teleconference to discuss the implications of the government shutdown.
During that call, Howard Vincent, president and CEO of Pheasants Forever, said he believed the closure of some federal lands could have a “significant impact” on the pheasant hunt.
“This is another hit,” Vincent said, referring also to the loss of federal conservation program acres, as well as a crop harvest that’s lagged so far.
In a press statement issued by PF earlier this week, the organization urged hunters to contact their members of Congress and “demand that legislation to re-open public lands be passed immediately, and to voice their concern (about) Congress having not passed a federal farm bill.”