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State pheasant forecast both good and bad

Another mild winter, good nesting season conditions and a slight increase in grassland habitat in the pheasant range all combined to increase Minnesota’s roadside pheasant index by 29 percent compared to last year, according to the Department of Natural Resources.  

“Grassland habitat is critically important to pheasant populations,” said Nicole Davros, a DNR research scientist who oversees the August roadside survey. “Over the past two years we have had weather that benefited pheasant numbers, but in the long term we’re still looking at a downward trend in habitat and that drives the population trends.”

The 2016 pheasant index is still 14 percent below the 10-year average and 48 percent below the long-term average. Loss of Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) acres statewide remains a concern, as Minnesota may lose about 393,000 acres of CRP land by 2018 because of reduced spending on the program at the national level.

Through the federally administered CRP, farmers are paid to remove environmentally sensitive land from agricultural production and plant species that will improve environmental health and quality.

Although CRP acreage continues to shrink in the long term, these losses have been partially offset by acquisitions of land for wildlife management areas and waterfowl production areas, and through more land being put into easement by landowners. Many of these acres were permanently protected through funds provided by the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council. The acres show the importance of the public investment in permanent conservation compared to temporary programs. However, grasslands are still in short supply overall in the pheasant range.

Minnesota’s 2016 pheasant season begins Saturday, Oct. 15, and ends Sunday, Jan. 1.

Roadside survey data

The DNR’s August roadside survey for pheasants showed a 29 percent increase in the overall pheasant index from 2015. This year’s statewide pheasant index was 52.1 birds per 100 miles of roadside driven.

All regions had increases in the pheasant index compared to last year except the southeast region which declined 31 percent. The highest pheasant counts were in the southwest, east-central and south central regions, where observers reported 53 to 96 birds per 100 miles driven.

Compared to 2015, the largest percentage increases were in the central, south central and east-central regions with increases of 72 percent, 70 percent and 27 percent, respectively. Hunters will find good harvest opportunities in all regions of the pheasant range except the southeast.

Pheasants and grassland habitat

Weather and habitat are the two main factors that drive Minnesota’s pheasant population trends.

Weather causes annual fluctuations in roadside indices. Grassland habitat for nesting and brood-rearing drives the longer-term pattern. Minnesota has been experiencing a steady decline in nesting habitat in the pheasant range, especially CRP, since 2007. The pheasant index and pheasant harvest also hit low points as a result.

This year, there are some positive signs that come with an uptick in CRP acres, but there is still concern about the long-term trend.

“CRP is by far our most important private lands conservation program in terms of number of acres of habitat on the ground, and it is vitally important to helping make conservation happen in an important agricultural state like Minnesota,” Davros said.

The federal Farm Bill, which includes CRP, is up for renewal in 2018, and federal funding levels for the program are a critical factor in levels of re-enrollment.

Additionally, Minnesota’s new buffer law that requires vegetation buffers along rivers, streams and ditches likely led to some land being enrolled in CRP this year. Enrolling land in CRP is one way to meet the requirements of the new state law. 

Weather conditions and survival

In warm winters more hens survive which means more nests in the spring. The 2016 hen index was 7.9 hens per 100 miles driven, up 31 percent from last year.

“We’ve had two back-to-back mild winters and two relatively good springs and summers in a row. There’s no doubt that this has really helped our pheasant population rebound, especially when you consider the habitat losses we’ve been facing since 2007 in Minnesota,” Davros said.

Another important indicator of annual reproduction is the number of broods observed during the roadside surveys. The 2016 brood index increased 39 percent from last year, and the number of broods per 100 hens increased 7 percent from 2015.

The average number of chicks per brood was down slightly (7 percent) compared to last year and the 10-year average. The estimated median hatch date was June 11, which was similar to last year and the 10-year average. Some areas of the state, especially the southwest and southeast regions, received above-average rainfall early in the nesting season, which may have forced hens to re-nest. However, above average temperatures during May and June helped young chicks survive.

Monitoring pheasant population trends is part of the DNR’s annual August roadside wildlife survey, which began in 1955. DNR wildlife managers and conservation officers in the farmland region of Minnesota conduct the survey during the first half of August. This year’s survey consisted of 172 25-mile-long routes, with 151 routes located in the pheasant range.

Observers drive each route in early morning and record the number and species of wildlife they see. The data provide an index of relative abundance and are used to monitor annual changes and long-term population trends of pheasants, gray (Hungarian) partridge, eastern cottontail rabbits, white-tailed jackrabbits, mourning doves and other wildlife.

Also recorded in this year’s survey:

  • The mourning dove index decreased 22 percent from 2015 and remained below the 10-year average and long-term averages.
  • The gray partridge index increased 62 percent from 2015 and was similar to the 10-year average but remained 72 percent below the long-term average.
  • The cottontail rabbit index was similar to 2015 and was 34 percent above the 10-year average and 18 percent above the long-term average.
  • The white-tailed jackrabbit index was similar to last year and remains historically low.
  • The white-tailed deer index increased 30 percent from 2015 and was 67 percent above the 10-year average and 149 percent above the long-term average.

During the 2016 pheasant season that runs from Oct. 15 to Jan. 1, the daily bag limit is two roosters through November, and it increases to three roosters on Thursday, Dec. 1. The possession limit is six roosters (increasing to nine roosters on Dec. 1). Shooting hours are 9 a.m. to sunset.

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