Pheasant count and hunting licenses down, experts say

Photo by Jenny Kirk Sales rep Ryan Michaelson, right, shows customer Mitch Reinsma how a choke tube works in a shotgun on Wednesday at Borch’s Sporting Goods in Marshall. Residents and businesses are gearing up for the 2017 pheasant season opener on Saturday.

MARSHALL — With the opening day of pheasant hunting season two days away, area hunters have been purchasing licenses and shells, rounding up appropriate clothing, cleaning out their guns, getting their dogs ready and making other preparations in time for the big day.

On Wednesday, Slayton native Mitch Reinsma came to Borch’s Sporting Goods to look into purchasing a choke tube — a small device that is used in shotguns to change the pattern of a shot in order to gain better range and accuracy.

“I’ll be going out pheasant hunting Saturday and Sunday,” Reinsma said. “I’ll be hunting around the Slayton area, probably by the big slough. It’s a big enough area that 50 hunters could be out and they still wouldn’t be able to cover all of it.”

While he’s only a year out of high school, Reinsma is already an avid pheasant hunter.

“I enjoy the fresh air — getting out and getting exercise — and being with friends,” he said. “Every year, I go out during the week and on the weekends when I’m not working.”

Ryan Michaelson and Jeremy Barck, sporting goods salesmen at Borch’s, said pheasant licenses seemed to be down at this point in time but that a lot of other pheasant hunting type items are on pace with other years.

“It seems like license sales are maybe down a little bit this year,” Michaelson said. “But that might be because a lot of the farmers are not done working and they’re waiting to get into the field in the next week or two. Whenever there’s corn in, people get less excited about pheasant hunting and wait until the second or third weekend to go.”

With the 2017 Minnesota Governor’s Pheasant Hunting Opener being held in Marshall, Michaelson said he expected more out-of-town purchases being made.

“I figured with the Governor’s Opener, we’d be seeing a lot of out-of-towners, but we haven’t seen that yet,” he said. “There’s been some, but not a lot. (The orange clothing, gun and ammo) seem to be selling about like normal.”

Both sales representatives said they think the bird count is probably down a little bit this year.

“I would say so,” Barck said. “I was really hopeful earlier in the year, but as I get out now, I’m not seeing nearly as many birds as I did earlier. I think a lot of them, just because there’s so much crop out there, they’re diving and hiding in the crop.”

Though he hopes he’s wrong, Barck said there could be another reason why people aren’t seeing as many pheasants this fall.

“I’m worried that all that rain we got flooded out the hatches,” he said. “That could’ve happened.”

Michaelson tried to look on the bright side.

“The good news is that everybody’s been having a lot more success duck hunting this year,” Michaelson said. “I’m sure that’ll continue to be good this weekend, which is nice. Around here, we have so many things to hunt, so if one thing is bad, you have something else that is probably good.”

Pheasant season runs from Oct. 14 to Jan. 1. In southwest Minnesota, early goose and duck seasons were held in September. The goose and duck seasons will open back up on Oct. 14.

“The duck season closes down here and then reopens the same day as pheasant,” Barck said.

When asked if goose tastes any good, Barck said they can if you cook them right.

“It’s like anything else, you just have to figure out how to cook it,” he said. “A friend of mine turns them into bratwurst and they’re really good that way.”

Depending on conditions, Michaelson said a lot of hunters might opt out of pheasant hunting this upcoming weekend.

“I’m sure we’ll see a lot of guys go duck hunting or goose hunting this weekend and wait for the crops to come out before going pheasant hunting,” he said.

Area hunters shouldn’t have to worry about access for pheasant hunting this weekend, despite the large number of people who are expected to hunt in and around the Marshall area as part of the Governor’s Pheasant Hunting Opener.

“It’s all going to be done on private land,” said Al Dale, a member of the Lyon County Pheasants Forever and National Wild Turkey Federation. “We’re not hunting on public lands. We don’t want to take away form other hunters who might be pheasant hunting this weekend. We’re fortunate that we had enough landowners within 20-25 miles of Marshall give us permission (to hunt on their land).”

Dale said there are enough volunteer mentors that organizers of the event are able to pair two hunters up with one mentor and his or her dog.

“There are at least 100 hunters that will be there,” he said. “The hunters are the only ones who will carry guns. The mentors will just be there with their dogs.”

Dale added that it’s exciting that both Gov. Dayton and the Lt. Gov. Tina Smith are both avid pheasant hunters and understand the importance of habitat preservation, conservation and carrying on hunting traditions — some of the primary reasons why the Opener was established in 2011.

While the economic impact of the sport and the travel and tourism aspects are important factors, some could argue that the biggest focus is on preserving Minnesota’s hunting heritage and cultural traditions. Local sportsmen’s clubs and wildlife organizations work hard all year long to advocate for hunting, raise funds for conservation and develop suitable habitat for various species.

Pheasants are a grassland-dependent species associated with agriculture — it’s why southwest Minnesota is such a rich environment to go pheasant hunting in. Lyon County Pheasants Forever Treasurer Ron Prorok is staying optimistic about this year’s pheasant hunt in the area.

“According to the state, the bird counts are down,” Prorok said. “But from what I’ve heard from people who have been out (scouting), it’s as good as last year. I’d agree from just what I’ve seen around.”

Ironically, Prorok went out looking around for pheasants the other day, but “didn’t see a thing” — until he got home.

“I was out in the afternoon on Sunday, looking around for some conditioning and didn’t see a thing,” he said. “Then when I got home, I flushed one out of my yard. I take that as a good omen.”

According to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, an average 350,000 roosters are harvested each year by Minnesota hunters.

The DNR said it’s habitat that matters and 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.”

According to a recent DNR news release, the 2017 pheasant index is 32 percent below the 10-year average and 62 percent below the long-term average.

Minnesota has lost about 686,800 acres of Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) acres statewide since 2007. The program — covered under the federal Farm Bill — pays farmers to remove environmentally sensitive land from agricultural production and restore vegetation that will reduce soil erosion, improve water quality, and provide habitat for wildlife and pollinators.

A DNR pheasant hunting prospect map for 2017 shows the best prospect for birds (greater than 49 birds per square mile) is in the central and northern parts of Lincoln County as well as most of Brown County. Lyon County is rated as fair (25-49 birds per square mile), as is most of Murray County and Yellow Medicine County. The map is online at http://files.dnr.state.mn.us/recreation/hunting/pheasant/prospect_map.pdf.

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