The bad news for Minnesota pheasant hunters came down early this past week. The pheasant population index, based on August roadside surveys, was down 26 percent from last year.
And last year was not a great year for Minnesota pheasant hunters.
For broader perspective, the counts this year were 32 percent below the 10-year average and 62 percent below the long-term average, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources officials said.
These are not the good ol' days of pheasant hunting in Minnesota. A few days earlier, South Dakota's Game, Fish and Parks Department announced that roadside surveys showed a 45 percent decline in that state's pheasant population from last year.
This year's statewide pheasant index in Minnesota was 38.1 birds per 100 miles of roads driven. 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.
The root of the problem? It's declining acreage in grassland habitat that's important for pheasants, songbirds and pollinators, DNR officials say.
"There has been a steady decline in undisturbed nesting cover since the mid-2000s, and our pheasant population has declined as a result," said Nicole Davros, DNR research scientist.
"Although it appeared mild winter weather and dry summer weather might boost our numbers, that wasn't the case."
Minnesota has lost about 686,800 acres of Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) acres statewide since 2007, according to the DNR. The program pays farmers to remove environmentally sensitive land from agricultural production and restore vegetation that provides habitat for wildlife. CRP in Minnesota peaked in 2007 at 1.83 million acres.
"In a lot of ways, the pheasant range, including Minnesota's, is at a point where average weather conditions just aren't enough to support a pheasant population increase with the amount of grassland we've lost in the last 10 years," said Jared Wiklund, public relations manager with Pheasants Forever, a Minnesota-based conservation group. "We saw the highest pheasant harvest in decades in 2007 when CRP was at its highest level (in Minnesota). As CRP has declined, so has the annual pheasant harvest."