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Habitat, weather indicate poor pheasant opener

Minnesota’s pheasant hunting season opens this Saturday, but hunters may not need a full box of shells this time around.

After two harsh winters, along with a cold, wet spring, Minnesota’s pheasant population index declined by more than 60 percent, according to the Department of Natural Resources’ roadside survey. Minnesota isn’t the only state with poor numbers, either.

“Yeah, it’s Minnesota and pretty much across the Midwest that have seen similar declines,” said Jeanine Vorland, DNR area wildlife manager.

The DNR estimates Iowa will have its lowest pheasant harvest in history — half of the 250,000-bird harvest predicted for Minnesota. Even South Dakota’s numbers are predicted to be fewer.

More than predation, food or weather-related issues, loss of habitat has been the worst burden to pheasants. According to the DNR, 20 years ago Minnesota’s Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) had more than 1.7 million acres that provided pheasants with food and cover. Today that number is 948,000 acres, and it’s still declining. Nearly 550,000 acres of CRP contracts will expire during the next three years.

Within the pheasant range, about 9,000 acres, or 15 square miles, of Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) have been lost since last year. Statewide, about 128,000 acres of CRP contracts will expire on Sept. 30, while only 33,180 acres were enrolled during this year’s spring sign-up period.

Along with decreasing habitat, pheasants have experienced rough nesting conditions locally. According to Vorland, much of pheasants’ habit lies adjacent to wetlands, which severely flooded last fall and even this spring.

Perhaps the only good news is the recent dry, warm weather. Though it can take a couple seasons for pheasant populations to bounce back, a fall upswing could be coming. Vorland said pheasants are persistent with nesting and likely hatched out some late clutches this summer. While late hatchlings would normally be fighting cold, wet conditions this time of year, they’re likely thriving right now.

“It allows those late-hatch birds to mature,” Vorland said.

Furthermore, the early harvest should force whatever birds there are into thicker concentrations in grassy areas. That could be good news for hunters, along with the fact the DNR isn’t putting any dampers on hunters, either. The DNR kept the bag limit consistent with previous years, and the season will once again end on Jan. 1.

However, the DNR is taking some steps through the Outdoor Heritage Fund to ensure the future of pheasants in Minnesota. The fund, which was created following the passage of Minnesota’s Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment, has awarded three grants for wildlife management areas totaling more than $5.5 million to the Minnesota DNR. A fourth grant, $4.4 million, has been recommended by the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council for 2012. These dollars are being invested in state wildlife management areas (WMAs), which are open to public hunting and other recreation.

Yet for this year, hunters will have to hope for a mild winter to bring pheasants back. CRP land will likely continue to dwindle as the conservation program can’t compete with today’s record-high grain prices.