Will Pheasant Season Go Belly Up?

_by Chad Love

_The forecast for Minnesota's fall pheasant population is out, and the news is grim.

From this story in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune:

Bad news for Minnesota pheasant hunters. Last winter's severe weather, followed by a wet, cold spring will put a damper on ringneck prospects this fall, the Department of Natural Resources said Tuesday. The state's pheasant population index dropped 64 percent from 2010, the DNR said, and is 71 percent below the state's 10-year average. Contributing factors include: A second consecutive severe winter, resulting in hen counts 72 percent below the 10-year average.

Cold, wet weather during the April through June nesting period, resulting in brood counts 75 percent below the 10-year average. Loss of nearly 120,000 acres of grass habitat enrolled in farm programs such as the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) since 2007. The practical result of the drop-off: Ringneck hunters are expected to harvest about 250,000 roosters this fall, the lowest tally since 1997. This compares to harvests that have exceeded 500,000 roosters five of the past eight years. The 500,000 bird harvests correspond with a string of mild winters and high CRP enrollment.

But Minnesota's certainly not alone. Iowa's pheasant numbers have dropped to an all-time low, South Dakota's pheasants are down significantly as are North Dakota's, Nebraska's and virtually every other state in the central-northern plains and Midwestern states. And further south, bobwhite quail numbers continue their inexorable decline.

So what's going on? Obviously the brutal winter, followed by a wet spring didn't do northern birds any favors, while further south an ongoing drought has affected quail numbers. But weather alone can't account for such dramatic populations drops. According to this release from Pheasants Forever that addresses the South Dakota numbers, the downward spiral indicate we're finally starting to see the effects of decreasing CRP enrollment.

CRP grassland habitat is essential for pheasant production, and enrollment in South Dakota has declined from 1.56 million acres in 2007 to the current 1.17 million acres. According to the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department, that reduction equates to more than 600 square miles of grassland habitat. Comparatively, pheasant numbers in the state are now 41 percent lower than the average of the past 10 years, a period that represented a modern historical high. "Even South Dakota, the crown jewel of pheasant habitat and pheasant hunting, is not immune to the devastating effects of large-scale upland habitat loss," says Dave Nomsen, Pheasants Forever's Vice President of Government Affairs and a lifelong pheasant hunter who visits South Dakota each autumn.

So that's the situation in South Dakota, a 25 percent loss in enrolled CRP acres since 2007. But what about your state? If you'd like to get an idea of your state's CRP breakdown and how it's changed since 2007 here's the link to the 2007 data, and here's a link to the latest numbers from July 2011.

Don't let the pie charts and graphs scare you off, it's an interesting read. Here are a few revealing numbers I took away. Total acres enrolled in CRP in 2007? 36,770,984. Total numbers enrolled in 2011? 31,169,255. That's over 5.5 million acres lost in just the past four years. In my home state of Oklahoma we've dwindled from 1,074,041 to 860,366, a loss of over 213, 000 acres. And in Kansas, the state I hunt the most behind Oklahoma, it's even worse, over a half-million acres lost in the same period.

What's the damage in your state?