DULUTH - The news across the pheasant range is pretty good for 2018 - numbers up in Minnesota, South Dakota and Iowa and stable in North Dakota - with seasons underway in coming weeks.
Numbers are still down from peak levels a decade ago, but high enough to offer encouragement to hunters who will go afield starting at 9 a.m. Saturday in Minnesota.
But, the news for the state's pheasant hunting tradition isn't as good.
According to data released by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources last week, only 45,263 hunters pursued pheasants in the state in 2017 - a 32 percent decrease compared to 2016 and down from nearly 120,000 a decade ago. Pheasant harvest declined from 196,141 roosters in 2016 to 171,883, a 14 percent decline. That harvest was down nearly 74 percent from the 655,000 roosters taken in 2007.
Moreover, the DNR reports just 71,925 pheasant stamps were sold in 2017, the fewest ever since the pheasant stamp program began in 1983. It's down almost half from 133,384 in 1991, the peak year for sales.
License and stamp sales help fund wildlife projects. And fewer hunters mean fewer people pushing for grassland conservation, by far the biggest factor determining pheasant numbers.
"It's a concern for us for sure,'' said Lindsey Messinger, Minnesota DNR wildlife research biologist who oversees pheasants from her Madelia, Minn., office. "Hopefully, with the (pheasant) numbers up some this year, more people go out again, and take new people."
Here are this year's state pheasant forecasts:
The 2018 statewide pheasant index was 45.5 birds per 100 miles of roads driven.
Pheasant counts were variable across regions with the west-central the highest at 65.1 birds per 100 miles. That's a big jump for one year, and just a bit above the 10-year average. But to keep it in perspective, that's only 0.45 pheasants per mile compared to South Dakota's 2.47 pheasants per mile.
This year Southwestern Minnesota had 54.1 birds per 100 miles and central areas were at 48.1 birds per 100 miles.
This year's brood index, the number of young pheasant families spotted, is up 28 percent. It appears hens nested and hatched their eggs a couple weeks later to avoid unfavorable weather.
Minnesota, like much of the Midwest and plains, has lost hundreds of thousands of acres of grassland habitat as farmers moved out of the federal Conservation Reserve Program and planted more corn.
"Around 2007 we had a pretty big peak in CRP acres and pheasants responded pretty well. Our roadside index hit 106.7 per 100 miles in 2007... almost double what we're seeing now,'' Messinger said. "The long-term trends really are based on habitat, with year-to-year numbers impacted some by weather."
In the 1950s, Minnesota reported 300 to 400 birds per 100 miles, Messinger said, or eight times as many birds as today. Since then, hundreds of thousands of acres of wetlands, grasslands, roadside ditches, grassy fence lines and wild back-40s have been plowed under for crops.
Minnesota's pheasant season runs Oct. 13 through Jan. 1. Hunting in Minnesota runs 9 a.m. to sunset. The daily bag limit is two roosters through November with a possession limit of six. The bag limit increases to three roosters on Dec. 1 with a possession limit of 9 roosters.
South Dakota is holding its 100th pheasant hunting season with some reason to celebrate the centennial: Pheasant counts were up 47 percent statewide over 2017, which was one of the worst years in recent memory. They are still below the 10-year average, but any increase is welcome news.
South Dakota's statewide average pheasants-per-mile count hit 2.47, up from 1.68 last year. But that number varies widely, from a high of 5.29 per mile near Chamberlain to a low of 1.15 at Yankton. The Huron and Mitchell areas had the highest increases over 2017. But the highest overall numbers still remain along the Missouri River corridor, state wildlife officials said.
South Dakota pheasant season starts Oct. 20 and runs through Jan. 6.
Shooting hours are noon to sunset for the first seven days of the season then 10 a.m. to sunset starting Oct. 27. The daily limit is three birds daily with a possession limit of 15.
Iowa saw pheasants increase across the state in 2018 but their overall numbers are still pretty low. Every one of its nine zones showed a major increase, including 62 percent in the central zone and 75 percent in the west central zone.
Iowa's most pheasant-rich region is still the center of the state with 38.6 birds counted per 30 miles, or about 1.29 per mile. That's better than last year and would rank low in South Dakota but better than Minnesota.
The survey counted a state average of 21 birds per 30 mile route which translates to a statewide harvest estimate of 250,000 to 300,000 roosters this fall.
Iowa's pheasant season runs Oct. 27 to Jan. 10. Shooting runs from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Daily limits are three birds and the possession limit is 12.
North Dakota's roadside pheasant count showed a statewide average down 1.9 percent compared to 2017 while the number of broods were unchanged.
There was some good news for 2018: The number of birds in each brood was up 27 percent.
The Southeast region saw an increase of 63 percent compared to 2017 and sits at 40 birds per 100 miles, or .4 birds per mile. But southwestern North Dakota still has the most pheasants per 100 miles surveyed at 45, or .45 birds per mile, state officials say.
Game and Fish expects the statewide hunter harvest to be about the same as last year, when it totaled only 309,000 birds and was the smallest in 16 years. The agency's benchmark for a good hunting season is 500,000 roosters killed.
State officials said Oliver, Dickey and Divide counties should produce decent numbers of birds for hunters this year.
North Dakota's pheasant season started Oct. 6 and runs through Jan. 6. Shooting runs from a half hour before sunrise to a half hour after sunset. The daily limit is three with a possession limit of 12.
The statewide index for pheasant abundance from the annual July Rural Mail Carrier Survey was down 6 percent compared to 2017. Only the Sandhills area of the state saw any increase.
State wildlife officials say the Panhandle and southwest regions will again provide the best opportunities for pheasants, with public land access higher in the southwest. Indices were higher than their five-year means in the Panhandle, Sandhills and southwest, indicating harvest opportunities in those areas should be better than typical over the past five years. Spring weather was unseasonably cold, possibly leading to a delay in the onset of nesting. A late April snowstorm also affected parts of the state, but there were no reports of mass mortality events and the snow was short-lived on the ground.
Nebraska's pheasant season runs from Oct. 27 to Jan. 31. Bag limits are three daily and 12 in possession.