Despite a short-term increase in the number of Minnesota pheasants, habitat loss continues to be the primary factor in the long-term decline of the state’s pheasant population, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
The DNR’s August roadside survey for pheasants showed a six percent increase in the pheasant index from 2013, an increase that occurred in spite of a severe winter, a slow start to spring and heavy rains in June.
This year’s statewide pheasant index was 28.7 birds per 100 miles of roadside driven. The highest pheasant counts were in the southwest, south-central and west-central regions, where observers reported 28 to 62 birds per 100 miles driven. Hunters will find good harvest opportunities in these areas.
Looking over longer periods of time, the 2014 pheasant index is 58 percent below the 10-year average and 71 percent below the long-term average.
Weather and habitat are the two main factors that drive pheasant population trends. Weather causes annual fluctuations in roadside indices. Available grassland habitat for nesting and brood-rearing drives the longer-term pattern.
Like other Midwestern states, the loss of Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) acres is the primary reason there’s been a steady decline in Minnesota’s pheasant harvest since 2006.
“We expect the decline in the rooster harvest to continue because of more anticipated losses in grassland habitat in the next few years as CRP contracts continue to expire and more grassland is converted to cropland,” said Nicole Davros, the DNR research scientist who oversees the August roadside survey.
Pheasant hunters are expected to harvest about 224,000 roosters this fall, which is less than half the number of pheasants taken during the 2005-2008 seasons when hunting was exceptionally good.
Davros cautioned that direct comparisons between survey results from this year and last year may not accurately reflect population trends.
“The 2014 pheasant roadside counts do show improvement over last year’s numbers but we believe there were more birds in the field last year than what we counted because of the late hatch,” Davros said. “This year’s results suggest the survey did not undercount birds so hunting conditions should be comparable to last fall.”
Although many regions in Minnesota experienced a tough winter, conditions within the core of the pheasant range were not as severe. This likely led to higher winter survival for hens as evidenced by an 18 percent increase in the hen index from 2013. Higher winter hen survival leads to more pheasant nests in the spring.
Reproductive indices showed increases from 2013 despite having cooler spring temperatures and substantial rainfalls in June. The number of broods observed per 100 miles driven increased 28 percent and the number of broods per 100 hens increased three percent.
The average number of chicks per brood was down 15 percent compared to 2013, which may be related to below normal survival rates of very young birds during heavy rains in June. The median hatch date of nests was June 16, which was five days later than the 10-year average. Warmer temperatures in June may have helped young chicks survive the rains and drier conditions in July were beneficial for re-nesting birds.
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 171 routes, each 25 miles long, with 152 routes located in the ring-necked 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 the survey:
- The cottontail rabbit index increased 11 percent from 2013 but remained below the 10-year average and long-term averages.
- The gray partridge index decreased 13 percent, well below its 10-year and long-term average.
- The mourning dove index decreased five percent, well below its 10-year and long-term average.
- The white-tailed jackrabbit index was similar to last year but remains at a historic low.
- The white-tailed deer index was similar to 2013, at 20.8 deer per 100 miles, which is 34 percent above the 10-year average, and 109 percent above the long-term average.
The 2014 August Roadside Survey report and a map of pheasant hunting prospects can be viewed and downloaded from www.mndnr.gov/hunting/pheasant.
Minnesota’s 2014 pheasant season runs Saturday, Oct. 11, through Sunday, Jan. 4. The daily bag limit is two roosters through November. It increases to three roosters from Monday, Dec. 1, through Sunday, Jan. 4. The possession limit is six roosters (increasing to nine roosters on Dec. 1). Shooting hours are 9 a.m. to sunset. Additional details are available on the DNR website at www.mndnr.gov/hunting/pheasant