Pheasant hunters will find fewer birds this year. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources reported Tuesday that the loss of habitat in the farmland regions has contributed to a 26 percent decline in Minnesota’s pheasant index compared to last year.
“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,” stated Davros in a news release.
The 2017 pheasant index is 32 percent below the 10-year average and 62 percent below the long-term average.
Hunters in the Willmar area will find their best hunting in the counties to the west, but the numbers of birds seen during the count were down everywhere. Jeff Miller, assistant wildlife manager with the DNR in New London, is among those who drive the 100-mile routes to get a “snapshot” of pheasant numbers in August.
Miller told the Tribune that he saw fewer birds on all of his routes, including one that brings him into the heart of pheasant territory in the area of the Lac qui Parle refuge. He was surprised- and disappointed- by how few birds he could spot during the early morning counts.
In reporting the pheasant index decline, the DNR pointed out that Minnesota has lost about 686,800 acres of Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) acres statewide since 2007.
The DNR reported that the 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,” stated the DNR.
Minnesota’s 2017 pheasant season runs from Saturday, Oct. 14, through Monday, Jan. 1.
In the news release, Davros noted that she was surprised that the number of hens spotted during the roadside count was down following a relatively mild winter. 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.