The bad news for Minnesota pheasant hunters came down this month. The pheasant population index, based on August roadside surveys, was down 26 percent from last year.
And last year was not a great year for Minnesota pheasant hunters.
The bottom line is much the same in other states, but Minnesota has the numbers leading to it. Washington stopped doing widespread pheasant surveys years ago.
The Minnesota counts this year are 32 percent below the 10-year average and 62 percent below the long-term average, state Department of Natural Resources officials said.
These are not the good ol’ days of pheasant hunting. A few days earlier, South Dakota’s Game, Fish and Parks Department announced that roadside surveys showed a 45 percent decline in that state’s pheasant population from last year.
North Dakota’s pheasants have been hammered by drought.
This year’s statewide pheasant index in Minnesota was 38.1 birds per 100 miles of roads driven.
The root of the problem? It’s declining acreage in grassland habitat that’s important for pheasants, songbirds and pollinators, DNR officials say.
“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, DNR research scientist.
Minnesota has lost about 686,800 acres of Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) acres statewide since 2007, according to the DNR. The program pays farmers to remove environmentally sensitive land from agricultural production and restore vegetation that provides habitat for wildlife. CRP in Minnesota peaked in 2007 at 1.83 million acres.
“We saw the highest pheasant harvest in decades in 2007 when CRP was at its highest level (in Minnesota),” Jared Wiklund, public relations manager with Pheasants Forever, a Minnesota-based conservation group. He noted that CRP helped make up for the loss of grasslands. “As CRP has declined, so has the annual pheasant harvest.”
Hunters in Minnesota shot 655,000 pheasants in 2007. By last fall, the harvest had declined to 243,000.
Weather and habitat are the two main factors that drive Minnesota’s pheasant population trends, DNR officials say. Although weather causes annual fluctuations in pheasant numbers, nesting habitat is more important for long-term trends.
The 2012 version of the federal Farm Bill, still currently in effect, 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.
Leaders in the House of Representatives have said they hope to take up the Farm Bill discussion this fall.
“The 2018 Farm Bill will be critical for sustaining pheasant populations in Minnesota,” Wiklund said. “A 40-million-acre cap is warranted from our perspective.”