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Low pheasant numbers raise questions as to why counts are down

Reid Brandborg, Evansville, Minn., with a ringneck pheasant from southeastern North Dakota in 2005. Just a few years ago, populations on the fringes of the ringneck's range were the highest they've been in decades. Now, weather and other factors have resulted in lower populations across the region. Nick Simonson

All signs point to a tougher pheasant season this year. Crowing counts and roadside observations show a general down trend in pheasant numbers throughout their range in the upper Midwest, particularly the northern fringes of that range.

In-the-field reports from many hunters during early upland and big game seasons also reflect the decline in bird numbers. While this setback will not discourage hunters across the region from taking to the field as the season opens this weekend, it does provide a reason to pause and look into the factors that have caused the drop in bird populations and address what is on the horizon.

The first strike against the ringneck in these northern climes is that it is an introduced species. First brought to the United States in the 1800s to supplement existing hunting options, the ringneck is native to the Asian continent and originates from a mild climate. The primary factor that limits the northern range of the ringneck is that it has evolved and adapted to survive in its home region, and unlike native sharptailed grouse, the pheasant is not equipped to handle the extremes of northern winters.

Once transplanted into the U. S., the ringneck became established in environments similar to its home range in China and Mongolia where the weather was not too hot, nor bitterly cold. As a result, the introduced birds fared well in the central plains, where summers were not too taxing and winters were moderate, at worst. As a result, the fringes of their population areas grew and shrank according to weather events, and so did the hunting opportunities.

The winter of 2008-2009 was the most severe in the past decade, with significant snowfall and extended cold snaps wholloping the northern regions of the pheasants' range from November into April. The harsh winter was followed by a generally cold and wet spring, which hindered the nesting and reproduction ability of pheasants in their northern reaches. This double-whammy resulted in winter mortality and decreased reproduction with smaller clutches being recruited into the population, if any hatch occurred at all. However, the inclement weather was not the only factor leading to a reduction in bird numbers this year.

The decrease in pheasant habitat in recent years also set the stage for this season's lower numbers. With the ethanol boom and the increased demand for corn, farmers in this recession have opted to turn over marginal lands for row-crop production. Areas that were held fallow under the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) were recently planted for the first time in many years. As a result, approximately 500,000 acres of wildlife habitat was changed over to farmland and significant areas of pheasant habitat were lost in North Dakota and Minnesota.

With the carrying capacity of the pheasant range reduced, numbers followed suit when the habitat vanished. With the next farm bill in flux in Washington, D.C., and the need for farmers in these economic times to make more money off of the land, the future of millions of acres of CRP still hangs in the balance, and with it pheasant and other wildlife populations.

With the advancement of farming technology and the continued draining of wetlands to expand production, even small habitats in the midst of corn, bean and wheat fields are beginning to disappear. A drive through the countryside last winter revealed plowed up low spots that were formerly pocket sloughs. Piles of old trees, ready to be burned, marked all that was left of shelterbelts. Both areas are examples of microenvironments, which helped produce pheasants. As the demand and price of corn and other crops rises, the ability to produce more bushels helps farm families. As a result, more and more marginal land is turned over in favor of row cropping, and pheasants along with other wildlife feel the impact.

The uncontrollable element of weather, along with basic economics, has contributed to the recent drop in pheasant populations, particularly in the northern reaches of the birds' range. As a result, the questions hunters may find themselves asking as they walk their favorite draw or field this fall are numerous.

Is this year's decrease the beginning of a downward trend, or an anomaly due to bad weather? Will continued removal of marginal lands reduce populations to the near-unhuntable levels of the 1960s and 1970s? Where do we go from here in hopes of maintaining opportunities to hunt these exciting birds and other game? And where does the ringneck fit in, when balancing the needs of seven billion people against the recreation of a few hundred thousand ... in our outdoors?