Chris Schultz

Outdoors Column

By Chris Schultz
Winsted-Lester Prairie Journal & Howard Lake-Waverly Herald, Minn.

September 8, 2003

Prospects are excellent for 2003 Minnesota pheasant hunting

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resoureces recently completed its August roadside counts for pheasants and other wildlife, and the numbers look good, especially if you're a pheasant hunter.

After huge increases in pheasant numbers last year, 133 percent in the southwest portion of the state, 161 percent in the west, and a 234 percent increase in the south central portion of Minnesota, there was a substantial increase again this year across Minnesota's pheasant range.

According to results from the survey, the DNR is reporting a 65 percent increase in pheasant numbers this year.

Adding up the increases from last year and this year puts the number of birds this year at 117 percent over the 10 year average. If you're a Minnesota pheasant hunter, that's great news, and you should be jumping for joy in Minnesota pheasant sloughs this fall.

Although I haven't had the opportunity to read the actual data, and look at specific region numbers yet, locally, the numbers should be very good and much better than last year. If you can remember, last year's pheasant numbers in our area took a good hit and were down due to heavy spring and summer rains.

This year, local reports from farmers and road crews noted all kinds of young birds, at least many more than in recent years.

All this information indicates the chances for a super hunt across all of Minnesota's pheasant ranges this fall.

In this week's column, I have also included a press release from the DNR on the August roadside survey. In next week's column, I'll take a more in-depth look at the upcoming pheasant hunting season and let you know where I think the best hunting will be found.

Minnesota pheasant population up 65 percent from 2002

From the DNR

Ring-necked pheasant numbers are up 65 percent this year from the same time last year, according to surveys recently completed by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

DNR wildlife biologists credit the increase to grassland conservation and restoration efforts, a relatively mild winter, and fair weather during nesting and brood rearing (at least in southern portions of the state).

Cottontail rabbit numbers also increased in 2003, whereas gray partridge, mourning dove, and white-tailed jackrabbit numbers were similar to last year.

Minnesota's pheasant season opens Saturday, Oct. 11. The small game season, which includes rabbits and partridge, opens Saturday, Sept. 13.

According to John Giudice, wildlife research biologist with the DNR's Farmland Wildlife Population and Research Group in Madelia, hunting prospects for Minnesota pheasants and cottontail rabbits are fair to excellent this fall.

Giudice, who supervised the DNR's yearly August roadside survey, said that overall the number of pheasants seen along survey routes was up 65 percent from 2002 and was 117 percent above the 10-year mean (1993-2002).

Overwinter survival was probably above average in most areas, and hens entered the nesting season in excellent condition, he said.

Production appeared to be average-to-good throughout much of the range, Giudice said. Exceptions may have occurred in portions of the west-central, central and east-central regions that experienced heavy spring rainfalls.

The southwest and south-central regions appear to offer the best opportunities to harvest pheasants in 2003, but local areas with good pheasant densities probably can be found in other regions as well.

Gray (Hungarian) partridge numbers were similar to last year, but there was a lot of variation among survey routes and regions. The only significant increase occurred in the southwest region. The proportion of adults observed with broods was less than last year, but mean brood size was larger than in 2002 and the 10-year average.

The best chance of flushing a covey or two will be in the southwest and south-central regions, Giudice said.

The number of cottontail rabbits counted during the roadside survey was up 93 percent from last year and the 10-year mean, and 60 percent above the long-term average.

Cottontail numbers increased in five of seven regions. The best chance of harvesting cottontail rabbits will be in the south-central, southwest and southeast regions.

Jackrabbits counted during roadside surveys were similar to last year and the 10-year average, but remained 76 percent below the long-term average. Giudice explained that the range-wide jackrabbit population peaked in the 1950s and declined to its lowest level in 1993, from which the population has not recovered.

Population trends of pheasants and other farmland wildlife are based on results of the DNR's annual roadside survey, which began in the late 1940s and 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 173 routes, each 25 miles long, with 153 routes located in the ring-necked pheasant range.

Observers drive each route in early morning, and record the number of game animals they see. The data provides 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.

Giudice said habitat conditions remain poor for grassland wildlife throughout most of Minnesota's pheasant range. Giudice explained that pheasants generally do best in landscapes that contain 30-50 percent grassland and the remainder in row crops.

Grasslands that remain undisturbed until Aug. 1 are especially important for pheasants. In 2003, undisturbed grassland habitat under the protection of farm programs and wildlife agencies accounted for only 5.8 percent of the land area within the pheasant range.

Grassland-conservation acres increased 0.3 percent compared with 2002, but still remains well below optimal levels.

Furthermore, said Giudice, Minnesota continues to lose non-program grasslands and other potential nesting cover (odd areas, small grains, pasture, hayland). Thus, it isn't surprising that pheasants and other grassland-dependent wildlife remain at relatively low levels.

The good news is that strong conservation provisions in the 2002 Farm Bill have the potential to add additional grassland habitat to Minnesota's landscape, according to Giudice.

The first general Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) sign-up since February 2000 occurred in May 2003. Although general CRP sign-ups will undoubtedly be important for grassland-conservation efforts in Minnesota, continuous CRP probably has the greatest potential for increasing grassland habitats within the pheasant range.

For example, the Farmable Wetlands Program alone has the potential to add more than 80,000 acres of new habitat to Minnesota's pheasant range. However, commodity subsidies are still tied to production, which will partly offset conservation gains (i.e., incentives still exist to farm or convert marginal lands).

Conservation interests will have to aggressively market land-retirement programs in order to maintain or increase grass abundance in Minnesota's farmland region, Giudice said.

Sportsmen's club appreciation supper this Saturday

Winsted Sportsmen's Club will host its appreciation party Saturday, Sept. 13 at 1:30 p.m. at the Lake Mary Sportsmen's Club.

The party is to thank everyone who helped or donated in any way to the club.

Food and beverage will be provided. Dinner will be served at 5 p.m.

Outdoor notes

­ Quack, quack it's back. The Winsted Chapter of Ducks Unlimited annual banquet is set for Tuesday, Sept. 9 at the Blue Note Ballroom in Winsted. The quacking hour begins at 6 p.m., with feeding at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are available at the Blue Note.

­ The early Canada goose hunting season in our area opened Saturday, Sept. 6.

­ The regular Minnesota waterfowl hunting season opens Saturday, Sept. 27 at noon. Dry conditions in our area could make it a tough opener.

­ Now is the time to take care of all those little and last minute details for your fall hunting adventures.

­ Dry conditions this fall could affect duck and pheasant hunters. Potholes and small sloughs in our area are completely dry, limiting the number of places for ducks and duck hunters.

Dry conditions also add to the risk of fire, which landowners can be very sensitive about, and heavy dust and hard ground can make the going rough for hunters and dogs.

­ The small game hunting seasons and the archery deer season open Saturday, Sept. 13.

­ The days are getting shorter in a big hurry. If you have the time, note the position of the sun each evening for one entire week in September. If you do that, you'll get an idea of actually how fast the position of the sun and earth are moving.

Each evening the sun is making its way south, and would be hard to notice in the course of one evening. But, if you watch it every evening for a week, you will notice a big change.

­ With the hunting seasons underway, review the the 10 commandments of firearms safety, and take the time to practice with and get familiar with your firearms again.

­ Look for great fall fishing on the Crow River this year. Water levels are low, and the fishing could be easy to catch.

­ Take a kid hunting or fishing ­ he or she will have fun, and so will you.

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