Roadside count indicates pheasants should be around Douglas County for opener
There was a time in mid-June when there was concern across many parts of the Minnesota pheasant range that huge rainfalls would mean a poor nesting season.
While that might have been the case in small pockets of the state, the annual August roadside count came out in early September and pheasants spotted were up 19 percent from a year ago. The roadside counts painted a particularly positive picture for numbers in Douglas County, where birds spotted were some of the highest in Minnesota.
"You definitely get a better idea by talking to area managers in those zones, but looking across the state, I thought the rain would affect the pheasant populations a little more," Glenwood Area DNR assistant wildlife manager Jason Strege said. "Not necessarily in my work area. My work area, I wasn't surprised we were up at all. We didn't get those really early rains. We got missed by a lot of them."
This year's statewide pheasant index was 45.5 birds per 100 miles of roads driven.
The pheasant index increased in all regions except the south-central region, which decreased by 36 percent from 2017. While the overall index is similar to the 10-year average across Minnesota, it is still 52 percent below the long-term average.
The highest pheasant counts were in the west-central, southwest and central regions where observers reported 48 to 65 birds per 100 miles driven. Hunters should find the best hunting opportunities in these regions. Douglas County had high count numbers and is rated "good" on the 2018 Pheasant Hunting Prospects map from the DNR.
Weather and habitat are the two main factors that drive pheasant population trends. Wet and cold nesting seasons can particularly drive down the success of a hatch, but habitat can help mitigate the impacts of weather. Lindsey Messinger, the DNR wildlife biologist who coordinated the 2018 roadside survey, said it appears hens may have delayed nesting until later and chicks were able to tolerate the rain in most areas.
The availability of quality nesting habitat is the most important factor in deciding long-term pheasant population trends. Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) acres in particular play a large role in providing habitat for pheasants in Minnesota. 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.
Minnesota peaked in nesting habitat acres, particularly CRP acres, in 2007 but has declined since then. Minnesota added about 82,500 habitat acres in the past year, many of which were CRP acres. However, nearly 297,000 acres of CRP may be lost within the next two years due to contracts that are set to expire.
Strege sees the good hatch in Douglas County this year being a result of multiple factors, including having areas of good cover that is so important to a successful hatch.
"A lot of it is avoiding that early-season rain, but Douglas County does have some better habitat than as you go west," he said. "Stevens County showed really well too. It goes hand-in-hand with the quality and amount of good pheasant habitat. That helps even on non-perfect nesting seasons when the habitat can make up for some of those rains."
Generally, the success of the spring hatch for pheasants can directly impact what hunters are seeing in the fall. Minnesota's pheasant season opens on Oct. 13 this year and runs through Jan. 1. The daily bag limit is two roosters through November before increasing to three roosters on Dec. 1. The possession limit is six roosters before increasing to nine that first day in December. Shooting hours are 9 a.m. to sunset.
"I think it will certainly be better than last year," Strege said of this year's local hunting forecast. "If I were to speculate, there's still going to be pockets of birds and areas of next to nothing for birds. I don't think the increase is going to be enough to put it back to the seasons of 2009, 10, 11, 12. Not that those years were great, but some of the borderline habitat had birds back then. That's kind of an indicator that the population is doing really well."
Monitoring pheasant population trends is part of the DNR's annual August roadside wildlife survey, which began in 1955. DNR 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 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.
Also recorded in this year's survey:
• The gray partridge index remained similar to 2017 and was 50 percent below the 10-year average and 93 percent below the long-term average.
• The mourning dove index decreased 7 percent from 2017 and remained below the 10-year average and long-term averages.
• The cottontail rabbit index decreased 23 percent from 2017 but was 13 percent above the 10-year average and similar to the long-term average.
• The white-tailed jackrabbit index was similar to last year and remains historically low.
• The white-tailed deer index decreased 13 percent from 2017 but was still 19 percent above the 10-year average and 99 percent above the long-term average.