Roadsides provide more than 500,000 acres of nesting areas in the pheasant range of southern and western Minnesota. But wildlife activists are concerned about dwindling habitat. (Le Sueur News-Herald file photo)

Is Minnesota’s ring-necked pheasant population at a crossroads?

Habitat losses, coupled with harsh weather conditions, have taken a huge toll on the state’s pheasant numbers. And with an estimated one-fourth of Minnesota’s existing CRP (Conservation Reserve Program) farm land set to expire in 2015, that’s another 290,000 acres of potential wildlife habitat back in agricultural production.

While the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) don’t believe that will happen, wildlife and hunting activists consider this critical habitat issue central to re-establishing the state’s pheasant population.

“Minnesota ring-necked pheasants are at a crossroads for conservation,” said Jared Wiklund, public relations specialist for the Minnesota branch of Pheasants Forever in St. Paul. “Protecting grassland and wetland habitat critical for pheasants and other wildlife is one of the major environmental challenges facing Minnesota.”

The state’s 2014-15 pheasant season concluded Jan. 4 and while total numbers have not yet been reported, few hunters were even taking to the fields in south central Minnesota over the past weeks, according to regional Pheasants Forever representatives.

Ed Roozen, a Waseca County Pheasants Forever member, said the story was pretty much the same no matter who he talked to this season.

“Every Sunday, I’ve talked to hunters who said the same thing, that they never even saw a pheasant,” Roozen said. “The pheasant numbers in Waseca County are dismal. They’re almost non-existent.”

Roozen said other organization members throughout the region echoed similar observations throughout the 2014-15 pheasant season and point to the same basic issue – a loss of wildlife habitat.

“Habitat obviously is our biggest problem,” Roozen said. “But we can’t point fingers at the farmers. We’ve got to come up with solutions.”

Harsh winters and the past springs heavy rains also contributed to the decline in the region’s pheasant population, Roozen added. Pheasants begin mating in April and May, with hens laying an average of a dozen eggs, which will hatch in 23 to 25 days, according to the state DNR office. But the June 2014 rains and flooding killed off many young birds.

Minnesota’s pheasant population had been making somewhat of a comeback up until 2007, when a 40-year, modern-day record harvest of 655,000 birds was reported by the DNR. In 2013-14, an estimated 169,000 roosters were bagged by just 62,000 hunters, the fewest numbers of both categories in 27 years. Those numbers represented a one-year drop in hunters of 19 percent and 32 percent pheasant harvest decline.

State DNR reports estimated that more than 1 million pheasants were harvested annually from 1931 to 1964.

In comparison, the state’s DNR office estimates that some 782,000 ducks have been harvested annually the past few seasons by about 80,000 hunters.

The 2014-15 harvest final numbers are expected to drop even lower, according to Pheasants Forever. The concerns over the future of the state’s pheasant hunting season prompted Gov. Mark Dayton in fall 2014 to call the first-ever “Minnesota Pheasant Summit.”

The inaugural summit, hosted by Pheasants Forever and the Minnesota DNR, focused on strategies to increase the state’s pheasant populations through increased habitat conservation efforts. Wiklund was encouraged after the summit.

“The meeting brought together hunters, farmers, policy makers, conservationists and key members of the governor’s cabinet to ensure future generations of Minnesota hunters have the opportunity to enjoy one of the state’s most popular and iconic game birds,” Wiklund said.

The summit recommended five action items: 1) Enforce existing laws on buffers, roadsides and easements; 2) Increase bonding funds for Wildlife Management Area acquisition; 3) Target funding to specific, high-quality habitat areas through state, local and federal cost-share programs; 4) Increase state and local funding for such programs; 5) Create competitive compensation for conservation practices.

Minnesota DNR commissioner Tom Landwehr says those ideas from the summit have been compiled, with the help of Pheasants Forever and other conservation organizations, and are expected to by presented at the agency’s upcoming “roundtable” event this Friday, Jan. 16.

Roozen, like other conservation and hunting activists, also understand there’s a political side to the debate.

“When you’re dealing with any kind of natural habitat, you are dealing with politics,” he acknowledged. “But we don’t ever want to give up on anything. We’ve got to come up with some solutions.”

Reach Associate Editor Dana Melius at 507-931-8568 or follow him on Twitter @SPHdanajohn.

Former Regional Managing Editor, Adams Publishing Group--Southern Minnesota/Western Division: St. Peter Herald, Waseca County News, Le Center Leader, Le Sueur News-Herald. Now serving as a freelance reporter.

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