This Saturday across central and southern Minnesota, hunters will step out into the early autumnal dawn in search of Minnesota’s premier upland game bird: the ring-necked pheasant. The pheasant season, which begins October 10 and runs until January 3, 2016, has historically been one of the more important hunting seasons for many Minnesotans. In recent years, however, startling declines in the state’s pheasant population have cast a cloud over its future.
The ring-necked pheasant first arrived in the U.S. from China in 1881, and was successfully released in Minnesota in 1916. The birds are a grassland-dependent species that thrive on a diet of insects, as well as corn, soybeans, and other grain crops. Pheasants breed in undisturbed grasslands in the late spring, but spend other parts of the year in wetlands and grasslands near grain fields, making southwest and central Minnesota prime habitat. Come fall, hunters hope to glimpse the male rooster’s copper body feathers and greenish-black heads, as well as their iconic red eye patch and white neck rings. Female hens, which are off-limits to hunters, sport a molted brown color that aids in camouflaging.
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources estimates that an average number of pheasants taken during the hunting season is some 350,000 birds per year. In 2008, that number was close to half a million. In recent years, however, that number has been significantly lower. In 2014, just 153,000 roosters were taken over the pheasant season—the lowest total in 30 years.
The primary cause for this decrease is loss of grassland habitat—not only in Minnesota, but across the entire Midwest. Higher crop prices for corn and soybeans in recent years have led many farmers to plant crops in areas once specifically set aside to create grassland habitat for upland birds. These areas were often part of the federal Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) administered by the Farm Service Agency (FSA), which provides rental payment for farmers who agree to stop cultivating agricultural land and choose instead to allow natural grassland to flourish for a period of 10–15 years. Budget cuts to the CRP in recent years left farmers without any incentives to maintain the grasslands, leading to a loss of over 97,000 acres of pheasant habitat in recent years. CRP protections expired on a full 100,000 acres of land this September.
The lower totals are also due to the fact that fewer Minnesotans are hunting pheasant. Last year, just 58,000 hunters comprised the lowest participation in 40 years. And when fewer hunters participate, fewer licenses are issued, which leads to less funding for restoring pheasant habitat and boosting pheasant populations.
Among the ranks of Minnesotans concerned over the future of pheasants and other upland fowl in the state is Governor Mark Dayton, who will be in Mankato this weekend to host the fifth annual Governor’s Pheasant Hunting Opener. Dayton has been vocal about the issues facing the pheasant hunt in Minnesota, making several public appearances with officials from the Minnesota DNR to spread his concerns. This increased awareness has helped some—despite habitat loss, the population of Minnesota pheasants has increased by 33 percent in the last year, up to 41 birds per 100-mile radius. Still, that’s down 39 percent from the birds’ 10-year average and 59 percent below the long-term average.
In an attempt to reverse these trends, the Minnesota DNR recently released their Pheasant Summit Action Plan, which plans to use money from the Outdoor Heritage Fund to set in motion short- and long-term plans to “increase and improve habitat for pheasants and opportunities for hunting” across Minnesota. It is the hope that this program will not only help counter the loss of CRP lands, but also encourage younger Minnesotans to take to the golden fields of fall in search of the elusive pheasant.
With the forecast calling for ideal fall weather this Saturday, thousands will take the field to participate in a nearly century-old tradition. Let us hope that the efforts being made today will mean that a century from now this tradition will continue to blaze on.