MARSHALL - Depending on where you hunt, you might see more ducks in the air this fall. Unfortunately, there will also be fewer pheasants in the field.
While Minnesota's mallard population is 17 percent higher than last year's estimate, the Department of Natural Resources said Tuesday that the state's pheasant index has fallen more than 60 percent from 2010.
The DNR said a second consecutive severe winter left hen counts 72 percent below the 10-year average. The cold, wet weather during the April through June nesting period resulted in brood counts that were 75 percent below the 10-year average.
"It's a combination of two things - winter survival for hens was low and the wet spring resulted in delayed planting of corn that was hard on chick survival and nesting in general," DNR wildlife biologist Kurt Haroldson said. "It's a double-whammy. We knew this was gonna happen; when you have long, cold winters the hen survival is reduced, and the wet, cold spring reduces chick production."
Pheasant hunters are expected to harvest about 250,000 roosters this fall, the lowest harvest since 1997, the DNR said, compared to harvests that have exceeded 500,000 roosters five of the past eight years.
But it's more than the weather that's wreaking havoc on pheasants. Nearly 120,000 acres of grass habitat enrolled in farm programs such as the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) have been lost since 2007, and the DNR estimates that contracts for 550,000 acres of CRP lands are scheduled to expire in the next three years. If not re-enrolled, this would reduce CRP acres in Minnesota by 36 percent.
Programs like CRP, the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, Reinvest in Minnesota and the Wetlands Reserve Program help provide optimal cover for nesting because the grassland remains undisturbed during the nesting season. Protected grasslands account for about 6 percent of the state's pheasant range.
"We're signing up fewer acres than we're losing because it's more profitable to grow crops," Haroldson said. "The rental rates in CRP haven't kept up with cropping rates."
The DNR has stepped up acquisition of Wildlife Management Areas in farmland regions to help offset habitat losses. The DNR supports habitat conservation on private lands by working with a variety of partners in the Farm Bill Assistance Partnership and Working Lands Initiative. Also, nearly 10,000 acres of private property will be open to public hunting through the new federally-funded Walk-In Access program. Among southwest Minnesota counties, Lincoln County has the most acreage offered in the WIA program at 1,891 in 19 separate parcels. Murray County has 1,250 acres enrolled in 13 sites, and landowners in Lac qui Parle County enrolled 1,033 acres in the program at seven sites. Lyon County has four WIA sites.
The Marshall Convention and Visitors Bureau website has a link showing WIA sites at www.swmnhunting.com. A map of Wildlife Management Areas can also be found on the website.
Southwest Minnesota, which traditionally is home to the state's strongest pheasant population, is taking a big hit compared to other parts of the state. The pheasant index fell 82 percent from 2010.
"That's a pretty serious hit," Haroldson said.
Haroldson said it could take a number of years to bring the pheasant population back to its original standards, but even that's hard to predict.
"It would depend on weather, which we have no control over, and habitat," he said. "If we can maintain pheasant habitats, which are mostly grass, then it can rebound in a few years. If not and there are the serious threats to CRP land. The last number of years we've been going downhill on those acres."
Minnesota's not the only state facing a pheasant fallout. The DNR said wildlife officials in South Dakota reported a 46 percent population index decline, and North Dakota's spring population survey showed a decline as well.