MARSHALL - Pheasant country in Minnesota has taken a hit, but we're not alone.
According to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources' annual August roadside wildlife survey released this week, Minnesota's 2013 pheasant index is 64 percent below the 10-year average and 72 percent below the long-term average. South Dakota, meanwhile, has seen a 64 percent decrease in its brood survey, and North Dakota's most recent rooster crowing count is down 11 percent from a year ago. Iowa has reported a 19 percent decrease in its roadside count.
"If you compare what our pheasant count is today versus where it has been the last decade, we're substantially down," said Marrett Grund, wildlife research group leader for the DNR's farmland research group. "Based on the weather patterns, we were expecting numbers to be somewhat low."
The numbers for 2013 are in stark contrast to what took place in 2012.
Hunters took an average of 3.1 pheasants last year, which was up from 2.6 pheasants in 2011, the increase a result of a mild 2011-12 winter followed by a warm spring that resulted in better-than-normal winter survival and good reproductive conditions, the DNR said.
The good news for local hunters is that they're sitting in what could be considered the lone bright spot in Minnesota. In the southwest corner of the state, observers reported 51 birds per 100 miles of survey driven - the highest pheasant count in the state, the DNR said.
"When I go pheasant hunting this year, my efforts will probably be focused on southwest Minnesota," said Grund. "It's some of our best traditional pheasant hunting ground. If you're looking in Minnesota for a place to hunt pheasants this fall, southwest Minnesota is the most ideal location."
Grund said despite the "doom and gloom" trend the state has experienced since the glory years of 2005-08, there is some reason for optimism. He said the most recent cock-to-hen ratio could ultimately be perceived as somewhat skewed because of re-nesting. That could mean a slight boost to overall pheasant numbers.
He said what typically happens if a late winter and a cool, wet spring destroy nests, a good number of hens will be hidden while re-nesting and likely won't be counted during that year's survey.
"We know this is not gonna be a year like what we saw in 2004, 2005 and 2006; this year will be substantially less than that," Grund said, "but the indication is there are still a lot of broods out there that aren't being seen. The number of hens observed was very low, which often indicates that they're still raising their young chicks, they're still in thick cover. There are probably more pheasants out there than what the August roadside count indicated."
Grund said the continuing downward slope in pheasant counts can be traced to a combination of less-than-ideal weather patterns and a loss of grassland habitat through a decline in Conservation Reserve Program acres and other farm programs that are designed to preserve and protect grassland habitat.