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Pheasants hold big advantage as 2009 season opens

Finding the colorful ring-necked pheasant rooster is expected to be quite a chore until row crops are harvested.

Hunters are getting their first crack at those gaudy, squawky playboys of the cornfields this weekend across Minnesota's pheasant range.

It is a special time for pheasant hunters no matter what the weather or crop conditions are in the state. That double-barrel has been on the gun rack for too long. The pooch has been penned up too long. Those hunter legs, which can only really get in shape by crossing some rough ground in search of roosters, need some stretching.

Pheasant hunters are confronted with a big, thumping piece of bad news as the season begins. The state's population is estimated to be down 27 percent from last year. An old-fashioned Minnesota winter and a cool stretch of June weather, when pheasants were hatching out their first brood, have combined to give us fewer birds.

The gloom, despair and agony do not stop there. Most of the state's row crops are still sitting in the field. Like a sub-contractor waiting for the prime contractor to finish their portion of the job, pheasant hunters are waiting for farmers to harvest their row crops. Only 13 percent of the soybeans in central Minnesota are harvested and the corn harvest is yet to begin as the pheasant hunting season gets under way.

"I expect it is going to be tough going," Fergus Falls DNR area wildlife manager Don Schultz said, in sizing up the early season hunting prospects. "The big thing is the crop harvest is delayed so that is definitely going to make it tougher."

But enough already with the bad news. The pheasant range in Todd County, just south of Wadena, is supposed to have some "fair" numbers (25-49 birds per square mile) according to the Department of Natural Resources' annual August roadside count. Southeastern Otter Tail can also claim some good numbers. The state's best pheasant numbers (49 birds and up) will be found in the southwestern part of the state.

The 400,000 roosters that the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources is estimating this year, points to an "average" rather than "excellent" year for hunters. The 522,000 roosters that were bagged last fall marked the fourth straight year that Minnesota hunters topped the half-million mark. The 655,000 birds that were harvested two years ago were the most state hunters bagged since 1964.

Pheasant hunters will be able to hunt for 85 days -- until Jan. 3. The limit of two roosters a day will increase to three beginning Dec. 1.

While the forecast for 2009 is hardly dismal, there are some dark clouds out there.

The coming storm for pheasant hunters will not be measured as much by the barometer as by acres. Minnesota landowners have pulled 72,000 of acres out of the Conservation Reserve Program this year and are sticking them back into crop production as their contracts expire. Some 63,000 acres of CRP are slated to be plowed up next spring. This means less habitat for wildlife and fewer birds. On top of this, the current federal farm bill has reduced CRP acres from 39.2 million to 32 million.

"When you lose habitat there is no way of coming back from that," DNR Wildlife Research Biologist Kurt Haroldson said.

Economic reasons are driving landowners away from CRP according to Haroldson. CRP payments have not been able to match cash rent or commodity prices. CRP contracts are also written for shorter periods of time.

The Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council, which gets its funding from Minnesota's Dedicating Funding Amendment, is aware of CRP's woes but council member Les Bensch of Ashby said the LSOHC is looking at backing Reinvest in Minnesota and Wetlands Reserve Program projects instead of CRP. RIM acres are permanent easements while WRP contracts are written for 30 years.