It’s habitat that matters and loss of habitat in the farmland regions has contributed to a 26 percent decline in Minnesota’s pheasant index compared to last year, according to the Department of Natural Resources.
“There has been a steady decline in undisturbed nesting cover since the mid-2000s, and our pheasant population has declined as a result,” said Nicole Davros, the DNR research scientist who oversees the annual August roadside survey that monitors pheasant population trends. “Although it appeared mild winter weather and dry summer weather might boost our numbers, that wasn’t the case.”
The 2017 pheasant index is 32 percent below the 10-year average and 62 percent below the long-term average.
Minnesota has lost about 686,800 acres of Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) acres statewide since 2007. The program, covered under the federal Farm Bill, pays farmers to remove environmentally sensitive land from agricultural production and restore vegetation that will reduce soil erosion, improve water quality, and provide habitat for wildlife and pollinators.
Roadside survey data
The DNR’s August roadside survey for pheasants showed a 26 percent decrease in the overall pheasant index from 2016. This year’s statewide pheasant index was 38.1 birds per 100 miles of roads driven.
All regions had declines in the pheasant index compared to last year except the south-central and southeast regions, which remained similar. The highest pheasant counts were in the west central, southwest, and south-central regions where observers reported 43 to 55 birds per 100 miles driven. Hunters should find the best hunting opportunities in these regions.
Minnesota’s 2017 pheasant season runs from Saturday, Oct. 14, through Monday, Jan. 1.
Pheasants and grassland habitat
Weather and habitat are the two main factors that drive Minnesota’s pheasant population trends. Although weather causes annual fluctuations in pheasant numbers, nesting habitat is more important for long-term trends. Minnesota peaked in nesting habitat acres, particularly CRP, in 2007 but has been experiencing a steady decline annually. The pheasant index and pheasant harvest have declined in response to these habitat losses.
The 2012 version of the Farm Bill called for reduced spending on CRP and a cap of 24 million acres nationwide. The Farm Bill is due to be renewed in 2018, and many conservation groups are asking for enough funding to support 40 million acres of CRP.
The DNR and Minnesota conservation community also are advocating for a Working Lands program associated with CRP that allows grazing and haying of some acres under a conservation plan; and increased state input in determining where those acres should go to achieve the greatest benefits for landowners, wildlife, pollinators and clean water.
Weather conditions and survival
Warm winters usually lead to good hen survival and therefore more nests in the spring; however, the 2017 hen index, at 5.8 hens per 100 miles, was also down 26 percent from last year.
“It’s surprising to see our hen index down this year,” Davros said. “We experienced a pretty mild winter so hen survival should have been good. But the amount of habitat on the landscape makes the difference in the long run, so we may be at the point that good weather just isn’t enough to help us anymore.”
Another key indicator of annual reproduction is the number of broods observed during roadside surveys. The 2017 brood index decreased 34 percent from last year, and the number of broods per 100 hens declined 10 percent from 2016.
Monitoring pheasant population trends is part of the DNR’s annual August roadside wildlife survey, which began in 1955. DNR wildlife managers and conservation officers in the farmland region of Minnesota conduct the survey during the first half of August. This year’s survey consisted of 171 25-mile-long routes, with 151 routes located in the pheasant range.
Observers drive each route in early morning and record the number and species of wildlife they see. The data provide an index of relative abundance and are used to monitor annual changes and long-term population trends of pheasants, gray (Hungarian) partridge, eastern cottontail rabbits, white-tailed jackrabbits, mourning doves and other wildlife.
The 2017 August Roadside Survey report and a map of pheasant hunting prospects are available at mndnr.gov/hunting/pheasant. Also recorded in this year’s survey:
The gray partridge index decreased 63 percent from 2016 and was 60 percent below the 10-year average and 90 percent below the long-term average.
The mourning dove index decreased 6 percent from 2016 and remained below the 10-year average and long-term averages.
The cottontail rabbit index increased 8 percent from 2016 and was 45 percent above the 10-year average and 28 percent above the long-term average.
The white-tailed jackrabbit index was similar to last year and remains historically low.
The white-tailed deer index was similar to 2016 and was 52 percent above the 10-year average and 137 percent above the long-term average.
During the 2017 pheasant season, the daily bag limit is two roosters through November, and it increases to three roosters on Friday, Dec. 1. The possession limit is six roosters (increasing to nine roosters on Dec. 1). Shooting hours are 9 a.m. to sunset. Additional details are available at mndnr.gov/hunting/pheasant.