MARSHALL - This year's pheasant index is further proof that weather cycles can either be one of Minnesota's most popular wildlife residents' worst enemy or their best friend.
While this year's count - released Tuesday by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources - still remains more than 50 percent below the 10-year average, the pheasant population index increased 68 percent from 2011. The DNR projects hunters are expected to harvest about 290,000 roosters this fall; that's up from last year's estimated harvest of 204,000 - a 43 percent drop from 2010-11.
"Last year we saw a decrease because of the weather; it wasn't a change in habitat," said DNR wildlife/pheasant biologist Kurt Haroldson. "We had a huge decline due to a severe winter, followed by a cold, wet spring, so that reduced the number of surviving hens. The cold, wet spring reduced the number of chicks."
But 2012 could offer up the exact opposite, Haroldson said, as the state is coming off one of the most mild winters in recent memory. However, since fewer young hens were produced the previous year, the population was lower. Hen survival last winter was strong, he said, but was offset a bit by the lower surviving hen count.
The pheasant population estimate is part of the DNR's annual roadside wildlife survey, which summarizes roadside counts of pheasants, gray (Hungarian) partridge, cottontail rabbits, white-tailed jackrabbits and other wildlife observed in the early morning hours during the first half of August throughout the farmland region of Minnesota.
This year's survey consisted of 171 routes, each 25 miles long, with 152 routes located in the ring-necked pheasant range.
The highest pheasant counts were in west central Minnesota, where observers reported 58 birds per 100 miles of ground covered. The DNR said hunters will find good harvest opportunities in portions of west central, east central and southwest Minnesota - that's especially good news for the immediate area which will host the 2012 Governor's Pheasant Opener in October.
The ideal winter weather this past year, however, is merely a silver lining in an otherwise dark cloud, as major concerns linger about the state's quantity of habitat. During the next three years, the DNR said contracts for 620,000 acres of CRP lands are scheduled to expire.
If not re-enrolled, this would reduce CRP acres in Minnesota by 42 percent. Haroldson said 300,000 acres of CRP contracts will expire at the end of the month alone.
"CRP is our biggest concern," said Haroldson, who said 100,000 acres of CRP land were enrolled this past spring. "We're set to lose 300,000 acres, and so far, we haven't enrolled nearly that many new acres."
Haroldson said the DNR estimates the number of enrolled acres every August.
"Right now, we're in good shape, but quite honestly, I expect we're gonna lose a fair amount of CRP in October. Next August we will estimate what the overall change was."
Undisturbed grassland is ideal habitat for pheasants and, as of now, protected grassland accounts for 6 percent of the state's pheasant range, the DNR said. Those grasslands are made up mostly of retired farmland in CRP, Reinvest in Minnesota or the Wetlands Reserve Program.
The DNR said in efforts to help offset continued habitat losses caused by reductions in set-aside acreage, it has accelerated the acquisition of wildlife management areas in the farmland region.
The DNR also works with a variety of partners in the Farm Bill Assistance Partnership and Working Lands Initiative. Also, more than 15,000 acres of private property have been opened to public hunting through the state's Walk-In Access program.
The complete pheasant index report is available online at www.mndnr.gov/hunting/pheasants.