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Paynesville Press - September 13, 2006

Pheasant counts still high in 2006

Source: DNR

Minnesota's pheasant index remains at its highest level in 20 years, thanks to favorable habitat and nesting conditions in southern and western portions of the state, the Department of Natural Resources announced last week.

According to results of the annual August roadside survey of farmland wildlife, the state's pheasant index (113 birds per 100 miles of survey driven) is 75 percent above the ten-year average and similar to 2005 when hunters harvested nearly 600,000 roosters, the most since 1964. "All the elements are in place for another very good pheasant hunting season," said Dennis Simon, DNR wildlife section chief. "A mild winter and good weather during this spring's nesting season allowed birds to take full advantage of more than one million acres of grassland habitat enrolled in farm programs and another 650,000 acres protected in wildlife management areas and waterfowl production areas."

The best opportunities for harvesting pheasants will likely be in the southwest, where observers reported 242 birds per 100 miles of survey driven. Good harvest opportunities might also be found in the central and west central regions, where observers reported 113 birds per 100 miles driven.

Although winter weather was considered moderate to mild and spring was favorable for nesting, a spate of cold and wet weather from June 9-11, the peak of Minnesota's pheasant hatch, could have hampered brood survival, according to Sharon Goetz, DNR wildlife research biologist. "The adult pheasant index increased from 2005, which reflects improved winter survival," Goetz said. "Reproductive success, however, was only average."

The rangewide hen index increased 21 percent from 2005 and varied from 5.2 hens per 100 miles driven in the southeast to 41.2 hens per 100 miles driven in the southwest. The cock index was up 49 percent compared to 2005.

The mourning dove index increased 50 percent while indices for gray partridge, cottontail rabbit, white-tailed jackrabbit, and deer were similar to 2005.

One key to increased pheasant populations is grassland habitat, Goetz said. Within the state's pheasant range, protected grasslands account for about six percent of the landscape, the highest number since the mid-1990s. Farm programs make up the largest portion of protected grasslands in the state.

Sign-up began in June for the Minnesota CREP II, targeting enrollment of up to 120,000 new acres of environmentally-sensitive cropland in the Red River, Lower Mississippi, Missouri, and Des Moines river watersheds.

Although progress continues on CRP and CREP II, the expiration of a large proportion of existing CRP contracts beginning in 2007 is still a major concern for future wildlife populations.

"If Minnesota is to avoid a drastic decline in pheasant and other farmland wildlife populations, hunters, landowners, wildlife watchers, and conservationists must make the case for farm programs," Simon said.

"CRP, RIM, and CREP have provided great benefits for those who enjoy upland bird hunting in the agricultural regions of the state."

The DNR is working through the Farm Bill Assistance Program to expand the habitat base through marketing of farm bill conservation programs in partnership with the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources, Pheasants Forever, and county soil and water conservation districts.

Beginning this year, there will be new emphasis on grassland-wetland complexes through a "Working Lands Initiative" with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other partners.

The annual roadside survey, which began in the late 1940s, was standardized in 1955. DNR conservation officers and wildlife managers in the farmland region of Minnesota conduct the survey during the first two weeks in August.

This year's survey consisted of 170 routes, each 25 miles long, with 151 routes located in the ringnecked pheasant range.

Observers drive each route in early morning and record the number and species of wildlife they see. The data provide an index of relative abundance and are used to monitor annual changes and long-term trends in populations of ring-necked pheasants, gray partridge, eastern cottontail rabbits, white-tailed jackrabbits, and selected other wildlife species.

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