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
“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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