Drought conditions prove challenging for pheasants, observers

September 13, 2021


Statewide pheasant index declines but prime pheasant areas exceed statewide average

Pheasant numbers have declined by 25 percent from 2020, but numbers remained on par with the 10-year average, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources’ annual roadside wildlife survey.

“While the decline from last year sounds significant, pheasant numbers are actually fairly good and hunters will likely still see plenty of birds when the season opens Oct. 16,” said Tim Lyons, DNR upland game research scientist. “This year, smoke from wildfires and drier-than-average conditions during the survey may have made birds less detectable, possibly skewing the index lower.”

While down from last year, this year’s pheasant indices are on par with or exceed 10-year averages in all regions of the state.

Weather and habitat are the main influences on Minnesota’s pheasant population. Weather causes annual fluctuations in pheasant numbers, while habitat drives long-term population trends.

This year’s statewide pheasant index was 41 birds per 100 miles of roads driven. All regions except the southeast saw a decline from last year in the pheasant index. Still, the southwest (63.2), south central (49.8), and west central (43.3) regions all exceeded the statewide average and remain the prime pheasant hunting areas of the state.

Habitat factors
Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) acres in particular play a large role in providing habitat for pheasants in Minnesota. The program, authorized under the federal Farm Bill, pays farmers to remove environmentally sensitive land from agricultural production and restore vegetation that will reduce soil erosion, improve water quality, and provide habitat for wildlife and pollinators.

Although expiring contracts led to a decline in CRP acres in 2021, there was a net increase in conservation on private lands as more than 10,000 acres were protected through other federal and state set-aside programs. An additional 24,000 acres of habitat were permanently protected through U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service acquisitions and by the DNR as Wildlife Management Areas (WMAs).

Many publicly owned lands are open to hunting, as are private lands enrolled in the state’s Walk-In Access program. Hunters can use the DNR’s online mapping tools to find WMAs at mndnr.gov/wmas, and the DNR Recreation Compass to help locate state hunting grounds and private lands enrolled in the Walk-In Access program, including updates on the condition of specific properties.

How the DNR conducts the roadside wildlife survey
Monitoring pheasant population trends is part of the DNR’s annual August roadside wildlife survey, which began in 1955. Wildlife managers and conservation officers in the farmland regions conduct the survey during the first half of August. This year’s survey consisted of 163 25-mile-long routes, with 148 routes located in the pheasant range.

Observers drive each route in early morning and record the number of farmland wildlife game species they see. The data provide an index of species abundance and are used to monitor annual fluctuations and long-term population trends of pheasants, gray (Hungarian) partridge, eastern cottontail rabbits, white-tailed jackrabbits, mourning doves, Sandhill cranes, and white-tailed deer.

Additional resources
The 2021 August Roadside Survey report, a map of pheasant hunting prospects, data for other surveyed species, and information on hunting regulations and bag limits are available on the DNR pheasant hunting page.