For pheasant hunters, the news is as hard to swallow as an overcooked bird: Minnesota's ringneck population dropped 29 percent from last year, South Dakota's plunged 64 percent, and North Dakota's declined 30 percent.
Minnesota's August roadside survey, released this week, showed the pheasant index at 64 percent below the 10-year average and 72 percent below the long-term average.
While officials cited a long winter and a cold, wet spring as contributing factors for the decline, long-term habitat loss is an even bigger concern.
Minnesota has lost 63,700 acres — or about 100 square miles — of pheasant-range grasslands enrolled in the federal Conservation Reserve Program, and contracts for another 400,000 acres will expire in the next three years.
"Things aren't good," said Marrett Grund, who heads the DNR's farmland wildlife research office at Madelia, Minn. "The pheasant population trend has been down since 2005."
Even good weather won't help if habitat disappears, he said.
There is one possible bit of good news: Some hens produced an extremely late hatch, birds that likely weren't counted by observers last month.
"They saw some really, really small chicks," said Ken Varland, DNR regional wildlife manager at New Ulm, Minn.
"Those birds won't even have color by the time the season opens. The population is down, no doubt about it, but it might be mitigated by the late hatch."
Officials expect hunters to harvest about 246,000 roosters this fall, down 18,000 from last year's estimated 264,000-bird harvest.
Big muskies caught
Some 525 muskie anglers battled heat and wind last week in the largest and oldest Muskies Inc. tournament in the nation at 20 northern Minnesota lakes. Joe Anderson of Devils Lake, N.D., won the 46th Annual Frank Schneider Tournament with four muskies he caught on Cass Lake. Junior Division winner was Levi Brion of Monticello, Minn., who landed a 51-inch muskie. Forty-nine anglers caught a total of 57 muskies 40 inches or longer during the three-day event.
"Normally they'd catch 100 fish" that big, said Tom Keith, Twin Cities chapter president of Muskies Inc.