Sitting down to a tasty pheasant dinner after the 2011 pheasant hunting season was a precious and rare event in Minnesota hunting households.
State hunters harvested only 204,000 birds, the lowest number since 1986, when only 159,000 birds were taken.
But the opportunity to serve up a meal of pheasant in cream sauce might be a bit more frequent this fall, if results of the annual Farmland Wildlife Roadside Counts are any indication.
The numbers from the surveys conducted last month have been crunched and the state pheasant index is up 68 percent from 2011 — 38.9 birds observed per 100 miles up from 23.2 birds/100 miles observed in 2011.
The dramatic decline of pheasants last year was due to a severe winter of 2010-11 followed by cold, wet weather during the nesting season.
Kurt Harold, a wildlife biologist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in New Ulm, credited the increase this year on the unusually mild winter and favorable nesting conditions this past spring.
“We’re still 51 percent below the 10-year-average but we had some very good years in there so pick your benchmark,” he said. “We’re certainly better than we were last year.”
“If you look at the harvest rates since the 1960s, we’ve had annual harvests of 500,000 birds seven times over the last 40 years or so,” he said. “Five of those years have been since 2003. In 2007, we harvested 655,000.”
Haroldson estimated that hunters will harvest about 291,000 pheasants this fall.
Besides the weather, a key component to rebounding pheasant populations is habitat and on that count, Haroldson is less optimistic.
A measure of good news this year is that even though Minnesota lost some 43,000 acres of Conservation Reserve Program land statewide this past year, in the state pheasant range, those losses were mitigated by 31,000 acres of protected habitat created by acres enrolled in other conservation programs and the accelerated acquisition of Waterfowl Protection Areas and Wildlife Management Areas with Legacy funds.
However, even with Legacy funds, it would be impossible to acquire enough land to replace future losses of CRP acres.
Some 300,000 acres of Conservation Reserve Program contracts will expire at the end of September and an additional 320,000 acres within the next three years.
High commodity prices, escalating rental rates and the uncertainty about what conservation measures will be included in a Farm Bill that Congress continues to wrangle put the future of land retirement programs in doubt.
By the numbers, the most birds were tallied in west central Minnesota where there were 58 birds/100 miles — an increase of 105 percent from the 28.2 birds/100 miles counted during the 2011 survey.
Southwest Minnesota posted the largest percentage increase — 173 percent — from 19.2 birds/100 miles in 2011 to 52.4 birds/100 miles this year.
In the central region, pheasant numbers are up 57 percent from 18.9 birds/100 miles to 29.7 birds this year.
The south-central region that includes the Mankato area posted a 46 percent increase from 23.1 birds to 33.7 birds/100 miles.
East central Minnesota saw a 9.1 percent increase from 50.6 birds/100 miles to 55.2 birds/100 miles.
The only decrease in the pheasant index occurred in southeast Minnesota where 3.6 birds/100 miles were observed in 2012 compared to 4.8 birds last year, a decline of 26 percent.
Other wildlife observed during the surveys were: Hungarian partridge, up 180 percent; eastern cottontail, up 12 percent; white-tailed deer, down 5 percent; mourning dove, up 36 percent.
Minnesota’s pheasant hunting season opens Oct. 13.
John Cross is a Free Press staff writer. Contact him at 344-6376 or be e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.