When Minnesota’s 70,000 or so pheasant hunters go afield beginning Saturday, they will find some improved wildlife habitat on the heavily hunted state wildlife management areas.
That’s good, because they’re also going to find considerably less ringneck habitat on private lands.
Over the past three years, three roving habitat crews funded by Legacy Amendment dollars have enhanced grasslands on state lands, doubling the acreage the Department of Natural Resources normally improves yearly. Totaling 22 people, the crews do controlled burns to stimulate growth, cut trees and woody cover that invade grasslands, and plant seed.
“We [the DNR] normally burn 15,000 to 20,000 acres yearly, and these crews are doing about that much alone,’’ said Bob Welsh, DNR wildlife habitat program manager.
The results should benefit pheasants and pheasant hunters. “Higher-quality grasslands will no doubt generate more birds,’’ Welsh said.
But this accelerated effort to improve grassland quality comes while the amount of private land enrolled in the federal Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) continues to drop. Those grasslands are being plowed and planted to corn and soybeans. In 2007, Minnesota hunters shot 655,000 pheasants — the highest tally in more than 40 years. Last year, after losing 93,000 acres (145 square miles) of grasslands over the years, hunters bagged just 169,000 ringnecks, the lowest in 28 years.
The decline in the number of pheasant hunters contributed to that harvest decline: Minnesota had an estimated 56,000 fewer pheasant hunters last fall than in 2007.
But the habitat situation could have been much worse. The state actually lost 224,000 acres (350 square miles) of CRP in the pheasant range in the past seven years, but it gained 130,000 acres of other habitat there, including 52,000 acres of new federal waterfowl production areas, refuges and easements and 35,000 acres of state wildlife areas.
Minnesota now has about 1.6 million acres of grassland habitat, down from 1.7 million acres in 2007.