Published October 16, 2010, 12:00 AM

Bring on the pheasants

WILLMAR — Mild spring plus warm fall equal good pheasant numbers.

WILLMAR — Mild spring plus warm fall equal good pheasant numbers.

Not spectacular, record-breaking numbers, but decent nonetheless.

“Overall, it’s going to be similar to last year,” said Jeff Miller of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources’ wildlife office at Sibley State Park. “The population has shifted in some areas. It will be a decent season, but nothing spectacular.”

By the numbers released from the August Roadside Survey, ring-necked pheasant counts in central Minnesota, which include Kandiyohi County, were up 29 percent to 76 birds per 100 miles. In west-central Minnesota, encompassing Chippewa, Lac qui Parle, Swift and Yellow Medicine counties, the count improved just two percent to about 70 birds.

This year’s pheasant hunting season, which begins today and runs through Jan. 2, 2011, should really benefit from the balmier climate.

“With the dry weather, the farming community is getting out there to the fields. That will have a positive effect for people seeing birds,” Miller noted. “A few weeks ago that was a worry.”

Habitat is the key to success

Weather is just one factor in the success of a pheasant-hunting season. But having safe, relatively secure nesting ground is the key.

“When we have habitat on the ground, we have highs in the pheasant population. The only other factor is weather, which is responsible for those smaller highs and lows. Habitat is the base for solid numbers,” according to Eran Sandquist, a regional biologist for Pheasants Forever.

To that end, government agencies and conservation groups have focused their resources on adding and improving land where pheasants dwell.

Miller said the DNR is focusing on making better use of the land it manages. He said the trend toward restoration has started to hit the state’s wildlife management areas.

“We’re looking at removing the invasive trees and restoring the ground nesting habitat. That’s our main emphasis,” he said. “You really have to be diligent, making sure those trees aren’t coming back. Trees like cottonwoods grow really fast. One year, they’re not there and the next, there’s a three-foot tree growing.”

Pheasants Forever is chipping in, also. Sandquist said there are a number of projects in west-central Minnesota that will help restore native prairies and give wildlife better habitat.

“We’re working with the DNR, (U.S.) Fish and Wildlife Service and private landowners not only to increase habitat, but manage what we do have better,” he said. “It means upgrading poor grasslands to quality habitat.”

Prescribed burns are on the schedule for a number of area WMAs. Prescribed burns clear the land and allow native grasses a chance to re-establish dominance.

Sandquist also said Pheasants Forever is still active in land acquisitions across the state.

At Dalton Johnson WMA, which is three miles east of Lake Lillian on State Highway 7, the WMA’s size has been increased with a small land purchase. Dalton Johnson was the founder of the Kandiyohi chapter of Pheasants Forever.

In the future …

According to Miller, the DNR has been looking into a statewide walk-in program where landowners received a yearly payment to open up their land — usually lands enrolled in programs like the Conservation Reserve Program — to public hunting.

“It’s to give a bonus per acre to the landowner to allow the public to use those lands,” he said.

According to a DNR report released in 2008, 22 states have some type of a walk-in program established. The report surmised that “western states, where land values and rental rates are low, ownerships are vast and populations sparse, tend to have successful walk-in programs.”

This proposed program, the basis of which was set forth in Minnesota Session Law in 2007, would deal mainly with farmland access for small game and possibly deer hunting.

The program has not been submitted for legislative approval and no timetable for implementation has been established.

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