WORTHINGTON, Minn. -- Ask any hunter who walked the grassed waterways and shelterbelts about how successful they were in flushing pheasants last fall and it won't take long to realize it was less than a stellar season.
With back-to-back rough winters in 2010 and 2011, followed by a cold and wet spring in 2011, pheasant counts were down considerably -- more than 80 percent, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Area Wildlife Supervisor Wendy Krueger.
As part of the DNR's measurement of habitat populations, Krueger said the agency takes a roadside pheasant count each year in August, traveling a 25-mile route of back roads in each of the four counties she supervises.
When they took the counts in southwest Minnesota last August, bird numbers were down 82 percent from the bird count made in August 2010. And the 2010 count was down 10 percent from 2009. Statewide, pheasant populations were also rather dismal, with a 64 percent decline of birds leading into the fall 2011 hunt.
While hunters may have had to spend all day in the field, walking not just one, but a handful of habitat parcels to spook up a bird, Krueger said the pheasant population has a good chance of rebounding quickly.
A lengthy delay in measurable snowfall this winter has certainly been advantageous for pheasants, and the hope is the spring season will be better for them as well.
"This winter is a good start -- it's mild," said Krueger. "(The birds) haven't been stressed out at all."
The key now is for the birds to have a good nesting season, without the cooler temperatures and heavy rains southwest Minnesota experienced last spring.
"Pheasant reproduction is truly one of the greatest miracles of nature," said local pheasant hunter and outdoors enthusiast Scott Rall. "If we can get good nesting, we can make a very dramatic recovery of pheasant populations in one year and possibly a complete recovery in two years."
Rall said it wasn't necessarily the large amounts of snow that devastated the region's pheasant population, it was predators. The winters of 2010 and 2011 forced the birds out into the open to forage, making them an easy target for fox and coyotes.
Those that did survive went on to build nests, only to have the rains come during the hatch period.
"The nesting season (last year) was terrible -- it was wet and cold, exactly what you don't want," said Krueger.
"They get rained on and they can't dry off," Rall added. "They die of exposure."
While traveling the gravel roads of Nobles, Rock, Pipestone and Murray counties last August, Krueger said she saw a lot of lone roosters -- a bad sign that the bird population had taken a significant hit by Mother Nature.
She knew then that it was going to be a dismal season for pheasant hunters. Although harvest data from the season, which ended Jan. 1, isn't yet available, the DNR estimated 250,000 roosters would be taken statewide during the 2 ½-month season.
That compares with harvests that have exceeded 500,000 roosters in five of the last eight years. The 2010 harvest was nearly 400,000 birds, Krueger said.
Minnesota wasn't the only state to see a significant drop in the pheasant population prior to the 2011 hunt. South Dakota, North Dakota and Iowa all marked a decline in the number of birds seen in their roadside counts.
Rall said it was rather telling how bad the prospects were when, on the second Saturday of the hunting season, some of the prime public hunting areas near Worthington were absent of hunters at 9 a.m.
"People came down and hunted the first weekend and did very poorly and couldn't justify the lodging expense to come down and hunt again," said Rall.
While he harvested about as many birds this last season as he typically does, Rall said he had to put a lot more effort into it -- walking more ground and spending all day to get his two-bird limit instead of just a couple of hours.
"I had probably 12 or 13 times where I went out and didn't even raise a pheasant," he said. "I probably only had two or three of those (in 2010)."
Rall was quick to point out that because of the milder weather, he also had about 40 more days to hunt during the 2011 season than he did in 2010.
"Pheasant hunting was virtually over with by December 3rd or 4th in 2010 -- the snow made it impossible and covered so much that you couldn't get close (to the birds)," Rall said. "The season in 2011 closed January 1st and the conditions allowed pheasant hunters to hunt the entire season."
While the milder winter has left both Krueger and Rall hopeful of a rebounding pheasant population this spring, they remain somewhat cautious about suggesting a better season for pheasant hunters this fall. The problem, they say, is that pheasant habitat is being lost in southwest Minnesota as farmers let their Conservation Reserve Program contracts expire and place marginal cropland back into production. High grain prices make it difficult for conservation payments to be competitive.
Kruger said roughly 550,000 acres in CRP contracts are set to expire within the next three years. With the federal Farm Bill still in limbo, there's no guarantee a general CRP sign-up will be conducted this year. Just since 2007, Krueger said 120,000 acres of grassland -- prime pheasant habitat -- have been lost in the state.
"One thing the DNR tries to do in their acquisitions is try to keep habitat on the ground," she said. "We're such a small landowner in Nobles County that it's really the private lands that make up a lot of the habitat."
The fear is those private landowners will plow up the grassland in favor of row crop production.
"The loss of current CRP acres will most likely result in pheasant numbers never reaching the peaks that we've had in the last five years," said Rall. He expects the same to occur in other states.
"South Dakota is probably never going to see the quality of pheasant hunting they had three years ago, for the foreseeable 30 years," he said. "They lost 700,000 to 1 million acres of grassland that were converted to crops last year.
"If you start taking out a million acres of undisturbed grasslands -- even in South Dakota -- the land of the ringneck pheasant is not going to have the number of pheasants."