The Pheasant Phenomenon

The Pheasant Phenomenon

Thanks to high nesting success, Minnesota's pheasant population has survived the storm of declining habitat -- so far. With CRP land dwindling, hunters around the state are taking advantage of good hunting -- while it's still available. (October 2009)

Thanks to declining pheasant habitat and CRP land losses, hunters could face more challenging conditions during the 2009 season.

Photo by Mike Gnatkowski.

In 2008, in Douglas County, a new 1,000-acre wildlife management area was dedicated to honor the 41-year career of Saint Paul's Roger Holmes, who retired in 2000 after spending a decade as the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources' director of the Fish and Wildlife Division and 18 years as the chief of the Wildlife Section. Minnesota's "Build a Wildlife Area" campaign played a critical role in the acquisition of the new WMA.

Holmes was instrumental in the passage of the Minnesota Pheasant Habitat Stamp -- Pheasants Forever's first-ever goal. In the 1960s, Holmes worked as a game manager for the MDNR in Douglas County, where he helped establish 22 wildlife areas. With the help of Minnesota's Build a Wildlife Area campaign, the Roger M. Holmes WMA in northeastern Douglas County -- about 10 miles north of Alexandria -- bears his name and memorializes his life's work.

After deducting contributions from outside organizations and funding matches from the "Reinvest in Minnesota" program (which uses funds from conservation license plate sales to preserve habitat), the MDNR paid a balance of about $1.28 million for the 1,036 acres, with additional funding coming from the Build a Wildlife Area campaign, eight Pheasants Forever chapters, the Minnesota Waterfowl Association, the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association, and the efforts of local groups such as the Vikingland Sportsmen's Club of Alexandria. The land features grasslands, wetlands and timber that provide habitat for pheasants, wild turkeys and waterfowl.

According to Anthony Hauck, the Pheasants Forever Public Relations Specialist, through the unique Build a Wildlife Area partnership, every dollar raised is tripled with matching grants from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service and other partners. In other words, for every $100 donated, the campaign actually raised $300. Also, there are no administrative costs built into the Build a Wildlife Area campaign, which means 100 percent of the donations go directly into land acquisitions.

"It's very important now that we continue seeking land for hunting opportunities as the acreage enrolled in CRP disappears," said Hauck. "Let's face it. Finding places to hunt is always a big challenge, so anytime pieces of land become available and you have an opportunity to pounce on them with other partners onboard with funding, our chapters are happy to do it. Our chapters do a lot of things, but land acquisition is the primary focus."CRP Woes

Kurt Haroldson is the MDNR wildlife biologist with the Farmland Wildlife Populations & Research Group. He says the 2008 Farm Bill reduced the national cap for how many acres of CRP you could have in the country, and we have to achieve that goal by 2010.

"I think we're going to see a continued decline through 2010 until we get to this new lower cap," said Haroldson, "and then, hopefully, CRP rental rates and crop prices will be fairly stable and close to each other, and that will mean less incentive to farm wetlands and slopes and environmentally sensitive land that should be in CRP. We never like to see the CRP move backward, which is what is happening right now."

When habitat loss occurs, it may not show up initially to the hunter. The past few seasons, with pheasants concentrating in the available cover, pheasant hunting seemed like it was improving as it has been over the past several years.

"It was a good year," Haroldson said. "We've had quite a string of very good years for pheasant hunting. Last year may not have been quite as good as the previous year, but we did have a cool, wet early spring, which seemed to hurt reproduction, but we had so many hens in the spring that we still ended up with a lot of pheasants."

Of course, some of the early-season pheasant hunters whined a bit about the birds dodging them because of the crops coming out late.

"Last fall we had some delayed corn harvest, which frustrates some hunters," said Haroldson. "It probably causes them to end the season early and not come back again. If the early season isn't good for them, they won't continue hunting."

According to Hauck, "Most of the pheasants harvested are killed in those first two weeks, and then a lot of hunter attention turns to deer or grouse or whatever else is going on. For the guys that like to get out there and get after it, it might be a little colder in late November and December, but you miss out on some great late-season opportunities if you choose to hunt only those first couple of weeks."

The late-season hunting was outstanding, but by the time the end of the season rolls around, there are few hunters left to take advantage of it. One hunter who hits the field at every opportunity is Tim McNeill, who owns a metro-area landscaping business that affords him time to hunt once the work is complete.

"Those farms I've been hunting down south don't have much cover left," said McNeill, "and this is bunching those birds up on whatever is left. You might think this would be making it easier for us hunters, but the pheasants are flushing out of range and even getting behind the dogs at times. So the challenge is greater even when you are seeing plenty of birds."

When The Going Gets Tough . . .

McNeill predicts that 2009 will be the year when we notice a decline in pheasant numbers due to the habitat loss. "It's going to catch up to us this year," he said. "We'll be working harder for the birds we do get, and we'll be sharing a lot of the land with other hunters as they migrate toward the available cover that is left. It will be the WMAs and the WPAs (waterfowl production areas) where the pheasants will be bunching up, and not all of them will be good. You can't get frustrated when you don't flush pheasants from one spot. You have to keep looking."

As an example, McNeill reflects on a hunt last year when he and his trusty dogs, Melvin and Gus, hit two small WMAs and didn't flush a single bird. On their third location, they busted a group of pheasants that actually circled back behind them and landed back in the WMA they were hunting.

"We worked that spot through twice," he said, "and these were some smart roosters. They were getting behind the dogs (and) flushing out of range, but there was no other cover for them to use, so they just kept co

ming back. We worked the edges hard and picked up our two birds, but I was surprised at how crafty those roosters were."

Some may be asking why ground cover like CRP is so important to the pheasant. According to Hauck, "Nesting cover is the single most important limiting factor for pheasant populations. Fortunately, it is a factor that we can directly impact with proper land management. One of our biggest nesting cover creation tools is the Conservation Reserve Program, which provides large blocks of grasslands -- good pheasant nesting cover. Hen pheasants seek out the mixtures of grasses and forbs provided by CRP for nesting because the diverse vegetation reduces the density of the grasses, making it easier for the chicks to move around. CRP also provides concealment from predators as well as abundant insects for newly hatched chicks."

Mother Nature's Hand

Even with good nesting cover, the weather plays a major part in nesting success. "During the nesting period, pheasants need cooperation from Mother Nature," Hauck said. "The amount of moisture can greatly determine nesting success. Moisture is essential in that it spurs vegetation growth, creates nesting cover and attracts insects for new broods to feed on. However, heavy rains can wash out nests before eggs hatch or wash away the young pheasants before they can escape the rising water. Rain is good, but excessive rains can be harmful. We don't want those 2-, 3- or 4-inch rainfalls."

The heavy rains that caused some nasty floods in southeastern Minnesota last year had a definite effect on the bird numbers and made it tough for hunters in that region. This spurred a lot of hunters to head to areas on the outside edges of the pheasant range where the success was good overall.

"I think the people in the Fergus Falls area and in Clay County around Fargo/Moorehead are seeing more pheasants than they used to," said Haroldson. "It doesn't appear to be significant numbers, so we're not seeing a giant shift. It's probably more weather related than anything else, but there does seem to be more pheasants out on the edges."

McNeill agrees with Haroldson that the upper edge of the pheasant range is a good place to go if you are looking for less-pressured birds. "There may not be as many pheasants in Douglas and Todd counties as there would be in say Nobles and Cottonwood counties," he said, "but there are some great WMAs and WPAs on the northwestern edge of the pheasant range and these birds don't get pressured like they do down south."

"I spend quite a bit of time out in the Lac Qui Parle area," said Hauck, "and I was surprised to see the number of pheasants when I was there this spring. That's a testament to the good winter cover and, of course, the resiliency of these birds. The farther northwest you go in Minnesota, the thinner the numbers get, but there are plenty of pheasants where there is good cover.

"A lot of Minnesota hunters are guilty sometimes of fixating on the southwest and west-central portions of the state," Hauck continued. "There certainly are other pockets like Meeker County. You might try getting past St. Cloud to Sauk Center and the Fergus Falls areas, even in an area like Kanabec County. They have a very strong Pheasants Forever chapter there and some really great pheasant hunting in that region. Most people think at that point you're getting into the woods and grouse territory. It takes a little work and you have to ask around, but there are certainly plenty of opportunities beyond the general south and west we tend to fixate on."

"Back in the early 1960s, I was looking at some old range maps of pheasants in Minnesota," added Haroldson, "and they had the pheasant range going all the way up to Highway 2 in Crookston. That's way north of the current range now. With the gradually warming trends we have been having, along with the milder winters, I think we are seeing a shift of pheasants farther north."

So how will the shooting be for hunters in 2009? "I think as far as good numbers, it's just a combination of all the things we've talked about," Hauck said. "We're fortunate that we have the nesting cover where we need it. The winters haven't been as hard on the birds, so we're getting good carryover. There's been some good winter cover when some of those bad storms have come through.

"By and large, the spring weather has boosted production in some areas. I think at the level Pheasants Forever is working, we're seeing the good numbers and we're happy about that. This year should be another good year, but the battle is keeping that habitat in place and I'm not even old enough to remember what it was like in the '70s and early '80s. It doesn't take much to cripple the bird numbers when you start sliding in that direction. We have a good thing going right now, and it's a matter of keeping the habitat on the ground and the bird numbers up. You can't control the weather, but you can control the amount of habitat out there to a certain extent. You never know how it will pan out, but I'm hoping for a good hunting season this year."

Picking Pockets

Haroldson predicts there will be pockets of good hunting throughout the pheasant range, and hunters can get the information they need to find these spots by checking out the MDNR Web site.

"We post a forecast based on the August roadside survey in early September," he said, but he warns that you don't want to be fooled by the numbers alone. "If you compare the number of birds per square mile, in southeastern Minnesota compared to southwestern, it's lower in the southeast. But that doesn't mean it can't be good hunting where bird numbers are lower. If you have good habitat, you can have good pheasant hunting."

McNeill says, of course, that hunting is always good, it's just that on some days you get more shooting than others. His strategy will be to work the grassy areas during the early season and switch to the cattail swamps after the snow falls and the ice gets thick.

A devoted, lifelong hockey player, McNeill says in the past couple of years he has even taken to some of the WPAs in skates. "After the ice gets a few inches thick, before there is any snow," he said, "I'll put on skates and take to some of those WPAs and get right out in the middle. You can skate around those cattail bogs and let the dogs work the birds out to you. You have to be a good skater to do this, but it's faster than boots with cleats, and for me it's a lot more fun.

"I am expecting the hunting to get a bit tougher this year," he added. "On a lot of the private property I hunt, the cover just isn't there anymore. I hunt a lot of public land too, but with the pressure these areas get, those birds just don't make it easy for you to get close to them.

"My game plan this year is going to be more thorough," said McNeill. "I'm going to hunt some areas that are a little farther out in the pheasant range, but I'm going to cover the ground a couple of times if I have to. The last couple of years I've been working fields two or three times to dig out those pheasants that are getting behind the dogs. I'm seeing a lot more birds getting up behind me and this doesn't mean those dogs aren't doing their job; it means those roosters are getting smarter. They've learned some new tricks."

One part of McNeill's plan that won't change is to hunt right up until the final day. "Just because the pheasants have been pushed out of a WMA by hunting pressure those first few weeks of the season doesn't mean they won't come back when things slow down. A lot of guys don't like hunting these birds because they are such a challenge. The reward is when you scratch up a limit in a spot you have all to yourself that a few weeks ago was covered with hunters."

For information regarding the MDNR roadside counts and the forecast, visit its Web site at www.dnr. state.mn.us, and click on the "Hunting and Trapping" link. Visit www.pheasantsforever.org for more information regarding Pheasants Forever programs.

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