MARSHALL - While southwest Minnesota continues to be a prime spot for pheasant hunters, overall pheasant numbers in Minnesota have hit a downward slide.
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources this week said only 62,000 pheasant hunters took to the fields last fall, and they bagged only 169,000 roosters.
Hunter numbers declined 19 percent ,and the pheasant harvest was down 32 percent from 2012 when an estimated 84,000 people hunted pheasants.
Nicole Davros, a DNR wildlife research biologist with a focus on pheasants, said last year's August roadside count was down because of a late spring and subsequent delay in nesting. A big loss of habitat, poor nesting weather and a corresponding drop in the ringneck population in recent years all combined for a poor season.
She said hunters experienced a kind of "sticker shock" when they saw a low pheasant index, but "didn't read beyond that. I think people gave up on the season too early, or didn't try at all because the numbers were down."
Davros says habitat is the main driver of long-term trend for pheasants, and the state is on a downward slide in that regard. Minnesota has recently lost more than 100 square miles of grassland habitat in the pheasant range, and since pheasants are highly reliant on grass, the numbers have nowhere to go but down across the state.
"They really rely on our Conservation Reserve Program acres, and we've been losing those pretty steadily the last few years," Davros said. "We peaked in 2006 but have been losing some every year since then."
Southwest Minnesota has traditionally been a haven for pheasant hunters because it has so much grass, Davros said, and hunters in this corner of the state should have success this fall.
"The people I talked to last year who actually went out and worked in the field did really well," Davros said. "We did have a bad opening weekend I recall it being pretty windy and some areas had some rain, but there was some success."
Last year, Davros credited a mild 2011-12 winter, which lead to above average pheasant survival. A nice spring in 2012 resulted in plenty of reproductive success, she said.
Minnesota's pheasant population dropped 29 percent in 2013.