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Minnesota pheasant population up 65 percent from 2002

Ring_necked pheasant numbers are up 65 percent this year from the same time last year, according to surveys recently completed by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. DNR wildlife biologists credit the increase to grassland conservation and restoration efforts, a relatively mild winter, and fair weather during nesting and brood rearing (at least in southern portions of the state). Cottontail rabbit numbers also increased in 2003, whereas gray partridge, mourning dove, and white-tailed jackrabbit numbers were similar to last year.

Minnesota’s pheasant season opens Saturday, Oct. 11. The small game season, which includes rabbits and partridge, opens Saturday, Sept. 13.

According to John Giudice, wildlife research biologist with the DNR’s Farmland Wildlife Population and Research Group in Madelia, “Hunting prospects for Minnesota pheasants and cottontail rabbits are fair to excellent this fall.”

Giudice, who supervised the DNR’s yearly August roadside survey, said that overall the number of pheasants seen along survey routes was up 65 percent from 2002 and was 117 percent above the 10_year mean (1993_2002).

“Overwinter survival was probably above average in most areas and hens entered the nesting season in excellent condition,” he said.

Production appeared to be average-to-good throughout much of the range, Giudice said. Exceptions may have occurred in portions of the west-central, central and east-central regions that experienced heavy spring rainfalls. The southwest and south-central regions appear to offer the best opportunities to harvest pheasants in 2003, but local areas with good pheasant densities probably can be found in other regions as well.

Gray (Hungarian) partridge numbers were similar to last year, but there was a lot of variation among survey routes and regions. The only significant increase occurred in the southwest region. The proportion of adults observed with broods was less than last year, but mean brood size was larger than in 2002 and the 10-year average.

“The best chance of flushing a covey or two will be in the southwest and south-central regions,” Giudice said.

The number of cottontail rabbits counted during the roadside survey was up 93 percent from last year and the 10-year mean, and 60 percent above the long-term average. Cottontail numbers increased in five of seven regions. The best chance of harvesting cottontail rabbits will be in the south-central, southwest and southeast regions.

Jackrabbits counted during roadside surveys were similar to last year and the 10-year average, but remained 76 percent below the long-term average. Giudice explained that the range-wide jackrabbit population peaked in the 1950s and declined to its lowest level in 1993, from which the population has not recovered.

Population trends of pheasants and other farmland wildlife are based on results of the DNR’s annual roadside survey, which began in the late 1940s and was standardized in 1955. DNR conservation officers and wildlife managers in the farmland region of Minnesota conduct the survey during the first two weeks in August. The survey consists of 173 routes, each 25 miles long, with 153 routes located in the ring_necked pheasant range. Observers drive each route in early morning and record the number of game animals they see. The data provide an index of relative abundance and are used to monitor annual changes and long_term trends in populations of ring_necked pheasants, gray partridge, eastern cottontail rabbits, white_tailed jackrabbits and selected other wildlife species.

Giudice said habitat conditions remain poor for grassland wildlife throughout most of Minnesota’s pheasant range. Giudice explained that pheasants generally do best in landscapes that contain 30-50 percent grassland and the remainder in row crops. Grasslands that remain undisturbed until Aug. 1 are especially important for pheasants. In 2003, undisturbed grassland habitat under the protection of farm programs and wildlife agencies accounted for only 5.8 percent of the land area within the pheasant range. Grassland-conservation acres increased 0.3 percent compared with 2002, but still remains well below optimal levels.

“Furthermore,” said Giudice, “Minnesota continues to lose nonprogram grasslands and other potential nesting cover (odd areas, small grains, pasture, hayland). Thus, it isn’t surprising that pheasants and other grassland-dependent wildlife remain at relatively low levels.”

The good news is that strong conservation provisions in the 2002 Farm Bill have the potential to add additional grassland habitat to Minnesota’s landscape, according to Giudice. The first general Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) sign-up since February 2000 occurred in May 2003. Although general CRP sign-ups will undoubtedly be important for grassland-conservation efforts in Minnesota, continuous CRP probably has the greatest potential for increasing grassland habitats within the pheasant range. For example, the Farmable Wetlands Program alone has the potential to add more than 80,000 acres of new habitat to Minnesota’s pheasant range. However, commodity subsidies are still tied to production, which will partly offset conservation gains (i.e., incentives still exist to farm or convert marginal lands).

“Conservation interests will have to aggressively market land-retirement programs in order to maintain or increase grass abundance in Minnesota’s farmland region,” Giudice said.




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