Date: Monday, September 14, 2015
Each year the Minnesota department of Natural Resources uses a roadside survey to assess its upland game populations. The August Roadside Survey, as it is called, is conducted on sunny calm, mornings, with a heavy dew on the grass, between August 1st-15th of each year with results posted in September.
Good weather conditions have pushed Minnesota pheasant numbers 33 percent higher this year compared to 2014, state conservation officials said Tuesday.
That big one-year gain, however, masks a serious long-term problem — a dramatic drop in nesting habitat across the state, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources said Tuesday.
More than 50,000 hunters are expected to take part in Minnesota's 2015 pheasant season, which starts Oct. 10 and ends Jan. 3.
The DNR said its August roadside survey for pheasants calculated 40.7 birds per 100 miles of roadside driven. That's one-third greater than 2014.
However, the 2015 pheasant index is 39 percent below the 10-year average and 59 percent below the long-term average, the agency said.
Wildlife managers attribute most of population decline to habitat loss. Pheasants are mostly found in the southern two-thirds of the state and prefer grasslands. Nicole Davros, a research scientist for the DNR who oversees the pheasant survey, says Minnesota looked a lot different in the '50s and '60s.
"You had row crops but you also had small grains," Davros said. "Pheasants are a really adaptable species, but they do need undisturbed nesting cover, so whether it comes in the form of grass or small grains, pastures, hay fields, when you look at the long-term average you have to think about what the landscape looked like then versus what it looks like now."
Since 2007, Minnesota farmers have moved nearly 250,000 acres out of conservation and into agricultural production. Some 500,000 acres of conservation habitat may also disappear by 2018 if farmers don't keep that land in the conservation program.
Although pheasants can adapt, Davros says climate change could be a mixed bag for the birds. If Minnesota continues the trend toward mild winters, that would probably help the population. On the other hand, Minnesota and the rest of the Midwest are seeing heavier rains due to climate change. Davros says if those rains come after pheasant chicks have hatched, they can die from exposure or starvation.
She says that's why wildlife managers are focused more than ever on providing more and better pheasant habitat.
"It kind of adds a buffering effect," Davros said. "If you have more habitat, you're going to have more birds. So you might have some severe weather and you might lose a few birds, but you're still going to have this really good population base from which to build off of. So this past year was a really good indication of how quickly pheasants can respond and how resilient they can be."
And wildlife managers say a successful pheasant population bodes well for a host of other species — songbirds like meadowlarks and pollinators such as honeybees and monarch butterflies.