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Paynesville Press - September 14, 2005

Pheasant counts abundant again

The fourth consecutive mild winter, warm spring, and abundant habitat boosted Minnesota's pheasant counts 75 percent from last year and 68 percent from the 10-year average, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

Gray partridge, cottontail rabbit, and white-tailed jackrabbit numbers were similar to 2004 in the annual roadside survey, conducted in southern and western Minnesota during the first two weeks in August. The survey is 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.

"Above average winter survival and good brood-rearing conditions in June and July were key to this year's increase," said Sharon Goetz, a DNR wildlife research biologist in Madelia. "High numbers of hens survived the winter and nearly all produced a brood this year."

Spring weather, although mixed, was favorable for brood survival, Goetz said. Rainfall during April was average with above average temperatures, setting the stage for good pheasant reproduction. Although May was two to four degrees cooler than historic averages, temperatures in June and July were above average.

Over the past decade, the Minnesota pheasant harvest averaged 357,000 birds. The southwest, central, west central, and south central regions appear to offer the best opportunities for harvesting pheasants in 2005, but good numbers of birds will probably be found in other regions as well.

The pheasant season opens on Saturday, Oct. 15, and will extend through Saturday, Jan. 1.

Habitat in the pheasant range is at the highest level since the mid-1990s, Goetz said. More than one million acres of grassland habitat are currently enrolled in farm programs that pay farmers to retire land from agricultural production. Among those programs are the Conservation Reserve Program, Conservation Reserve Enhance-ment Program, Re-invest in Minnesota, and the Wetland Reserve Program. Another 600,000 acres of habitat are protected permanently in state wildlife management areas and federal waterfowl production areas.

Within the pheasant range, protected grasslands account for about six percent of the landscape (range: 2.9-10.3 percent). "We're doing well, but there's still a long way to go," Goetz said. "Land-scapes that contain 30-50 percent grassland and the remainder in row crops are best for pheasants. Grasslands that remain undisturbed until Aug. 1 are especially important for nesting and brood-rearing."

The DNR is working through the Farm Bill Assistance Program to expand the habitat base through accelerated acquisition of wildlife management areas and marketing of farm bill conservation programs in partnership with Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources, Pheasants Forever, and county Soil and Water Conservation Districts.

In recent years, there has been emphasis on grassland-wetland complexes through a "Working Lands Initiative" with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other partners. Habitat abundance in the pheasant range should gradually increase until 2007, when a large proportion of existing CRP contracts will expire.

Gray (Hungarian) partridge numbers were similar to last year and were 32 percent below the 10-year average and 47 percent below the average since 1955. The number of adults observed per 100 miles was similar to last year and the 10-year mean, but the proportion of adults observed with broods (32 percent) and mean brood size (7.0 chicks/brood) increased from last year.

The number of cottontail rabbits counted during the roadside survey (6.9 rabbits per 100 miles) was similar to last year, to the 10-year mean, and to the average since 1955.

Jackrabbits counted during roadside surveys (0.5 rabbits per 100 miles) was similar to last year. The statewide count was similar to the 10-year average but remains 82 percent below the long-term average. Goetz explained the range-wide jackrabbit population peaked in the 1950s and declined to its lowest level in 1993, from which the population has not recovered.

The long-term decline in jackrabbits probably reflects the loss of their preferred habitats (i.e., small grains, pasture, and hayland).

Mourning doves observed per 100 miles in 2005 was similar to last year and the 10-year average.

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. The survey consists of 171 routes, each 25 miles long, with 152 routes located in the ring necked 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.

The 2005 August Roadside Report and pheasant-hunting-prospects map can be viewed at

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