The Free Press

Minnesota’s pheasant hunting season opens Saturday and runs through Jan. 1.

The state’s best days of pheasant hunting — when the bagged bird numbers counted in the millions — were during the ’40s, ’50s and even into the ’60s.

The numbers for birds bagged this year may be down from 2018 because nesting acres probably were adversely affected by the heavy spring rains throughout the region, according to the nonprofit conservation group Pheasants Forever.

Hunters’ prospects were worse 50 years ago. There was no pheasant season at all.

After the 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, wrote former Free Press outdoors columnist John Cross in 2012.

A spring roadside survey conducted by the 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 allowed state wildlife biologists to say, “See, we told you so,” Cross wrote.

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 1973-1975.

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.

Pheasant hunting resumed in 1970 with an abbreviated 16-day season. Since then, there have been no more closed pheasant hunting seasons in Minnesota.

In fact, over the years, the season has been expanded.

Most would now agree that rather than hunting, Cross wrote, the most critical factor to pheasant populations is the quantity and quality of habitat, and, to a lesser degree, the weather.

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