By John Cross
Free Press Staff Writer
When Minnesota’s pheasant hunting season opened last October, it was on a decidedly pessimistic note after a severe winter followed by a cold, wet spring decimated bird numbers.
But Saturday’s Minnesota pheasant opener will be greeted with at least a small measure of optimism after roadside surveys indicated a 68 percent increase in birds over 2011 numbers.
And really, it couldn’t have gotten much worse, could it?
Well, yes, actually it could have. A lot worse.
Try having no pheasant hunting season at all.
It happened in 1969.
After a particularly severe winter of 1968-69, Minnesota’s pheasant spring breeding population had fallen to about a third of 1968 levels.
Bowing to public and political pressure over concerns that hunting would further decimate pheasant numbers, a decision was reached to close the 1969 pheasant hunting season entirely in Minnesota.
“Give ’em a break and let them rebuild their numbers,” was the reasoning in spite of wildlife biologists’ admonitions that stockpiling pheasants wouldn’t work.
A spring roadside survey conducted by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources the following spring indeed revealed a significant jump in pheasant numbers.
However, in Iowa where bird populations also had suffered a similar precipitous decline but where the hunting season still took place, bird numbers increased at the same level.
So rather than letting pheasant numbers rebound, the only thing closing Minnesota’s 1969 pheasant season really did was deprive state hunters of hours of outdoor recreation.
And, of course, allow state wildlife biologists to say, “See, we told you so.”
Further proof of the inability to stockpile the game birds was underscored again just a few years later when in 1972, a sportsmen’s club in Douglas County in West Central Minnesota managed to get the state to go along with a study that would close the entire county to pheasant hunting from 1973 to 1975.
In lieu of a hunting season, about 5,000 pen-raised pheasants were released throughout the county at a density of about 7.7 birds/square mile each year.
In surrounding counties where hunting continued, bird stocking was done at a far smaller rate of .6 pheasants/square mile annually.
A logical conclusion would be that with no hunting and more stocking, Douglas County should be awash in birds.
The reality was there was virtually no difference in bird numbers, hunted or not.
Fortunately, since 1970 when pheasant hunting resumed with an abbreviated, 16-day season, there have been no more closed pheasant hunting seasons in Minnesota.
In fact, over the years, the season has been expanded considerably; the 2012 season will run for 81 days — Oct. 13-Jan. 1, 2013.
And in spite of the longer season, pheasants are doing about as fine as can be expected.
Most would now agree that rather than hunting, the most critical factor to pheasant populations is the quantity and quality of habitat and to a lesser degree, the weather.
Since 1986, a key component to pheasant populations in Minnesota and elsewhere has been the Conservation Reserve Program.
The amount of CRP acres in Minnesota has varied in the past but it has ranged as high as 1.7 million acres since the first contracts were signed in 1986.
That figure has been in a downhill slide in recent years.
On Sept. 30 alone, contracts for nearly 300,000 acres of CRP expired. What’s more, contracts on another 300,000 acres of CRP will be expiring over the next three years.
High commodity prices are driving up land values and rents to levels that even the most altruistic, conservation-minded farmers find difficult to resist.
And it doesn’t help that Congress has been unable to get its act together in crafting a new farm bill.
So the future of the immensely popular program that has been a boon to conservation and wildlife remains clouded and uncertain.
In the meantime, at least when compared to last year, bird numbers are up a bit.
In fact, the DNR is predicting we’ll harvest about 290,000 roosters this fall, up from the 204,000 birds taken in 2011.
That’s far short of the magical million-bird mark that Minnesota pheasant hunters routinely achieved in the best days of pheasant hunting during the ’40s, ’50s and even into the ’60s.
But it’s a heck of a lot better than none at all.
John Cross is a Free Press staff writer. Contact him at 344-6376 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.