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DNR roadside survey: Pheasant index down 26 percent

The 2017 pheasant hunting prospects map based on the DNR's August Roadside Survey. (Minnesota DNR)

The Minnesota DNR released its August roadside survey results on Monday with the state's pheasant index down 26 percent from a year ago and a loss of habitat continuing to take its toll.

"There has been a steady decline in undisturbed nesting cover since the mid-2000s, and our pheasant population has declined as a result," Nicole Davros, the DNR research scientist who oversees the annual August roadside survey that monitors pheasant population trends, said in the release. "Although it appeared mild winter weather and dry summer weather might boost our numbers, that wasn't the case."

The 2017 pheasant index is 32 percent below the 10-year average and 62 percent below the long-term average. Minnesota has lost about 686,800 acres of Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) acres statewide since 2007. The program, covered under the federal Farm Bill, pays farmers to remove environmentally sensitive land from agricultural production and restore vegetation that will reduce soil erosion, improve water quality, and provide habitat for wildlife and pollinators.

Roadside Survey

This year's statewide pheasant index was 38.1 birds per 100 miles of roads driven.

Douglas, Grant, Pope, Todd and Otter Tail Counties were all rated as poor (10-24 birds) or very poor (less than 10 birds) on the 2017 Pheasant Hunting Prospects map based on the numbers gathered during roadside count. Areas with good habitat within those counties can still hold good number of birds despite the county being rated as "poor" or "very poor" overall.

All regions had declines in the pheasant index compared to last year except the south-central and southeast regions, which remained similar.

The highest pheasant counts were in the west central, southwest, and south-central regions where observers reported 43 to 55 birds per 100 miles driven. Hunter are expected to find the best results in these areas during the pheasant season that runs Oct. 14 through Jan. 1, 2018.

Weather and habitat

Weather and habitat are two of the primary factors that affect the state's pheasant trends, with nesting habitat being more important for long-term trends, the DNR said.

Minnesota peaked in nesting habitat acres, particularly CRP, in 2007 but has been experiencing a steady decline annually. The pheasant index and pheasant harvest have declined in response to these habitat losses.

The 2012 version of the Farm Bill called for reduced spending on CRP and a cap of 24 million acres nationwide. The Farm Bill is due to be renewed in 2018, and many conservation groups are asking for enough funding to support 40 million acres of CRP.

Warm winters like the one this past year usually lead to good hen survival. However, the 2017 hen index, at 5.8 hens per 100 miles, was also down 26 percent from last year.

"It's surprising to see our hen index down this year," Davros said. "We experienced a pretty mild winter so hen survival should have been good. But the amount of habitat on the landscape makes the difference in the long run, so we may be at the point that good weather just isn't enough to help us anymore."

Another key indicator of annual reproduction is the number of broods observed during roadside surveys. The 2017 brood index decreased 34 percent from last year, and the number of broods per 100 hens declined 10 percent from 2016.

How the survey is conducted

The DNR began its August roadside wildlife survey in 1955.

Wildlife managers and conservation officers in the farmland region of Minnesota conduct the survey during the first half of August. This year's survey consisted of 171 25-mile-long routes, with 151 routes located in the pheasant range.

Observers drive each route in the 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 population trends of pheasants, gray (Hungarian) partridge, eastern cottontail rabbits, white-tailed jackrabbits, mourning doves and other wildlife.

The full survey can be found at Below is a look at additional species tracked in the survey.

• The gray partridge index decreased 63 percent from 2016 and was 60 percent below the 10-year average and 90 percent below the long-term average.

• The mourning dove index decreased 6 percent from 2016 and remained below the 10-year average and long-term averages.

• The cottontail rabbit index increased 8 percent from 2016 and was 45 percent above the 10-year average and 28 percent above the long-term average.

• The white-tailed jackrabbit index was similar to last year and remains historically low.

• The white-tailed deer index was similar to 2016 and was 52 percent above the 10-year average and 137 percent above the long-term average.

Eric Morken

Eric Morken is the sports and outdoor editor at the Echo Press and Osakis Review newspapers in Douglas County, MN. Follow him on Twitter at echo_sports.

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