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Paynesville Press - July 19, 2006

Pheasant harvest highest in years

Favorable weather and nearly two million acres of grassland protected under farm conservation programs made 2005 one of the best pheasant hunting seasons in 40 years.

According to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, hunters harvested 585,000 pheasants last fall - the highest harvest since 1964 and well above the 2004 harvest of 420,000 birds.

Hunters also harvested more doves and ducks.

"Landowners and conservationists have put together all the habitat elements for excellent pheasant production and in the last few years it has all come together," said Dave Schad, director of the DNR Division of Fish and Wildlife. "Severe winters in the mid-1990s and cool, wet springs more recently have limited pheasant production in the past 15 years."

"But in the last several years, the weather has been favorable and grassland habitat is abundant, thanks in large part to the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) and Reinvest in Minnesota (RIM)."

The number of active pheasant hunters increased to 111,000 in 2005 from 104,000 in 2004. Hunters averaged 5.3 birds each for 2005, compared with 4.0 birds per hunter in 2004.

Last year marks only the fourth time the pheasant harvest topped 500,000 birds since 1964, when Minnesota saw the last large-scale land retirement program expire. Under the Soil Bank program, which began in the mid-1950s, pheasant harvests of more than one million birds were common.

In two out of the last three years, Minnesota's pheasant harvest has topped the 500,000 mark.

"These are good times for pheasant hunters," Schad said, "but CRP contracts that cover some one million acres are set to expire from 2007-2009. If CRP is drastically altered, landowners will no longer have financial incentive to protect their most environmentally sensitive lands. Pheasants and other grassland bird species will decline."

In the immediate future, pheasant hunting should be very good again, Schad said. "Nesting conditions have been very favorable this year and habitat continues to be abundant. We will have more information on this fall's prospects when annual roadside wildlife counts are completed in late August."

The 2006 pheasant hunting season begins on Saturday, Oct. 14.

Mourning Doves
Although fewer Minnesotans pursued mourning doves in 2005 than in 2004, those who did had better results. The estimated harvest per hunter rose from 6.2 birds in 2004 to 7.0 birds this past fall.

According to the DNR, about 5,000 fewer dove hunters took to the field last year, harvesting a total of 78,000 birds. In 2005, hunters harvested 107,000 doves.

"It's not uncommon for hunter numbers to fall after the first year of a new season," said Bill Penning, farmland wildlife habitat leader. "We're creating a new dove hunting tradition in Minnesota. We expect those numbers to slowly build in the coming years."

To help encourage more dove hunting, the DNR this summer began managing 14 three- to five-acre public fields to attract doves. The fields were planted this summer with small grains, sunflowers, or other crops known to attract doves. The fields, located on wildlife management areas across southern and central Minnesota, will be posted with signs.

Hunters must use nontoxic shot. Because the fields are considered baited under federal regulations, waterfowl hunting will not be allowed.

A complete list of public fields managed for dove hunting will appear in the 2006 Hunting Regulations Handbook.

Overall, the duck harvest declined as hunters took 677,000 ducks in Minnesota, 50,000 fewer ducks than in 2004, a year many duck hunters felt was one of the slowest in recent memory.

However, the average harvest per duck hunter increased in 2005 to 7.3 birds, compared with 6.9 birds in 2004.

Part of the reason for the lower overall harvest is duck hunter numbers, which declined from 105,000 in 2004 to 92,000 last season. The harvest numbers also reflect the long-term decline in the quantity and quality of waterfowl habitat in Minnesota.

To help improve Minnesota duck hunting, the DNR recently updated its duck plan with a new long-term goal of restoring more than two million acres of wetland and grassland habitat in Minnesota.

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