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Weather hurts Minnesota pheasant count

DULUTH, Minn. -- An extended winter season and cold, wet spring contributed to a significant drop in Minnesota's pheasant count this year, the state Department of Natural Resources reported Monday.

The annual August roadside count of Minnesota's pheasant population showed a 29 percent decline this year compared to 2012. Last year the state had seen a rebound in pheasant numbers after a dismal 2011, when winter storms took a big toll.

"Minnesota's results (in 2013) reflect what we're seeing in other states," DNR wildlife research biologist Rachel Curtis said in a news release. "South Dakota had a 64 percent decrease in its brood survey. North Dakota's most-recent rooster crowing count is down 11 percent from last year. And Iowa reported a 19 percent decrease in its August roadside count."

The cold, wet spring hurt nesting this year, with the average hatch date delayed to June 20 -- 11 days later than the 10-year average. Brood size was larger than last year and comparable to the long-term average, the DNR reported. And some hens may still have been nesting or in heavier cover with young chicks -- and thus out of sight -- during the survey. The highest pheasant counts were in the southwest region, where observers reported 51 birds per 100 miles of survey driven.

Minnesota's pheasant season opens Oct. 12. Based on the survey results, pheasant hunters are expected to harvest about 246,000 roosters this fall. That's down from last year's estimated harvest of 290,000 and less than half of the average for 2005-2008, when pheasant production and hunting were unusually good. Minnesota's 2013 pheasant index is 64 percent below the 10-year average and 72 percent below the long-term average.

While weather can cause seasonal fluctuations in pheasant populations, Curtis said, "the steady downward trend in Minnesota's pheasant population during the past several years is primarily due to habitat loss."

Some of the state's remaining grassland habitat is being pulled out of the federal Conservation Reserve Program so it can be used to plant crops, in part because of high commodity prices. CRP enrollment declined by 63,700 acres in Minnesota's pheasant range over the past year, the DNR reported, and during the next three years contracts for nearly 400,000 acres of CRP lands are scheduled to expire. If not re-enrolled, that would reduce CRP acres in Minnesota by 30 percent.

The DNR's annual August roadside wildlife survey has been conducted since 1955; conservation officers and wildlife managers in the state's farmland region traveled 171 25-mile routes in the early morning hours in the first half of August and recorded their observations of pheasants, gray (Hungarian) partridge, cottontail rabbits, white-tailed jackrabbits and other wildlife.

This year's gray partridge index also decreased from last year, and remains below the 10-year average. The cottontail rabbit index increased from last year but remains below the 10-year and long-term average. The jackrabbit index was 87 percent below the long-term average, a slight improvement from last year. The mourning dove index was 20 percent below last year and below the 10-year and long-term averages.