When the Minnesota pheasant season opened Oct. 12, hunters were likely to find some areas with plenty of pheasants and other areas where the birds will be tougher to find, judging by results of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources annual roadside pheasant survey.
The roadside pheasant survey showed a 17 percent decrease in the overall pheasant index this year from 2018. The 2019 index was 11 percent below the 10-year average, and 60 percent below the long-term average. This year’s statewide pheasant index was 37.4 birds per 100 miles of roads driven.
“Though some regional and statewide pheasant indices declined, there is still reason to be optimistic,” said Tim Lyons, upland game research scientist. “Birds are still abundant in some areas. But after a prolonged winter and wet spring, hunters may need to be choosier about where they go.”
Uplands that escaped spring snowstorms and flooding, and contain native grasses and wildflowers provided the best opportunities for hens to nest and raise young. These areas typically provide the best hunting opportunities as well. Hunters can use the DNR’s online mapping tools to find wildlife management areas, at mndnr.gov/wmas, and the DNR Recreation Compass, at mndnr.gov/maps/compass.html, to help locate state hunting grounds and private lands enrolled in the Walk-in-Access program.
Looking at the survey results, the pheasant index decreased throughout much of the pheasant range, except in the south-central and east-central regions. There, the index grew by 24 percent and 13 percent, respectively, from 2018. The highest pheasant indexes were in the west-central and south-central regions where observers reported 43 to 49 birds per 100 miles driven. Hunting opportunities will also be good in the southwest and central regions.
Weather and habitat are the main influences on Minnesota’s pheasant population trends. Weather causes annual fluctuations in pheasant numbers, while habitat drives long-term population trends.
Winters that linger can delay the start of the breeding season and reduce the success of early nests. Heavy rain, particularly at or just after hatching, can reduce chick survival.
This year, deep snow cover blanketed most of the pheasant range in February and March. Snowmelt and rainfall in April and May contributed to widespread flooding and estimated hatch dates indicate that nesting activity was delayed over much of the pheasant range. The range-wide hatch date in 2019 was nearly a week later than in 2018, and also a week later than the 10-year average.
Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) acres in particular play a large role in providing habitat for pheasants in Minnesota. The program, authorized 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.
How DNR conducts the survey
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 172 25-mile-long routes, with 152 routes located in the pheasant range.
Observers drive each route in early morning and record the number of farmland wildlife game species they see. The data provide an index of species abundance and are used to monitor annual fluctuations and long-term population trends of pheasants, gray (Hungarian) partridge, eastern cottontail rabbits, white-tailed jackrabbits, mourning doves, Sandhill cranes, and white-tailed deer.
For the 2019 August Roadside Survey report, a map of pheasant hunting prospects, survey data for other surveyed species, and information on hunting regulations and bag limits, visit the DNR pheasant hunting page at mndnr.gov/hunting/pheasant.