When Minnesota’s cornfields were “dirty” with weeds in the ’40s and ’50s and farms were cluttered with brushy fence rows, shelterbelts, livestock pastures and cattail sloughs, the state’s population of ringneck pheasants abounded.
In 1942, when hunters banged out a record harvest of 1.75 million birds in one season, pheasants were viewed primarily as farm game birds. They nested in the pastures, ate from foxtail weeds in the corn, took cover in fence rows and hunkered into cattails to survive winter.
The same lands today are drained and paved over with monoculture rows of corn and soybeans. Postwar mechanization cut into the birds’ habitat and President Nixon’s agriculture secretary, Earl Butz, accelerated the change by exhorting farmers in the 1970s to “plant fence row to fence row’’ and “get big or get out.’’
Now, Minnesota hunters see far fewer pheasants. The 2014 harvest fell below 200,000 birds for the first time in three decades and the state is coming off another down season in 2017. Prospects are marginally brighter for the 11-week season that opens Saturday, but rooster counts in the state remain intimately associated with agricultural practices that are hostile — by convention — to their habitat.
“Farms still provide some cover but not the diversity of cover they once did,’’ said Greg Hoch, prairie habitat team supervisor for the Department of Natural Resources (DNR).
Ninety-five percent of land in the state’s pheasant range is privately owned. Or put another way, publicly accessible habitat in the pheasant range often accounts for less than 2 percent of the landscape, the DNR has said.
That puts pheasant populations at the mercy of farm programs. And while favorable weather conditions during this year’s spring hatch helped produce a definite uptick in the annual pheasant index in all but one region, the long-term fate of ringnecks is largely tied to USDA’s massive Conservation Reserve Program (CRP).
Hoch said the DNR has documented how pheasants follow the ups and downs in CRP set-asides. The program pays farmers to idle lands that produce ecological benefits.
According to DNR calculations, the state’s CRP acreage peaked in 2007 at roughly 1.83 million acres. In that same year, hunters harvested more than 600,000 roosters.
“CRP continues to provide the largest source of grassland habitat required for nesting, brood rearing and winter cover,’’ the DNR wrote in 2015.
CRP in Minnesota has only plunged since 2007. Last year’s enrollments were in the range of 1.13 million acres and another 203,000 acres will expire this month, Hoch said. By 2021, additional losses are projected to gut the program to less than half of its recent peak.
Making matters worse, Congress hasn’t shown any inclination to significantly revitalize CRP in unresolved discussions on a new farm bill.
“It’s already the land of corn and soybeans,’’ Hoch said.
Jan Payne, a farmer and pheasant hunter who lives between Benson and Montevideo, said he remembers seeing farmland habitat as a kid in the late 1970s that was naturally friendly to hens and roosters. In particular, there were abandoned farm homes surrounded by tree groves.
As he grew up, the homes and trees got plowed aside — along with brushy fence rows that he removed himself to maximize corn and soybean plantings.
“Many of those things are not there as they used to be,’’ said Payne, former chairman of the Chippewa County chapter of Pheasants Forever.
Over the years, his family chose to install buffers of vegetation around drainage ditches on their land. Year after year, the strips are holding pheasants when hunting season rolls along.
In addition, the Paynes years ago placed a large parcel of under-productive land into a conservation program separate from CRP. It continues to provide valuable habitat for pheasants and deer.
“Some folks have found a way to work in those programs, and I enjoy hunting upland birds,” Payne said. “Other folks don’t, and they do what they need to do to pay their bills.’’
Always on the lookout for pheasant broods in his area, Payne said 2018 will be a good year. Chippewa County is one of five counties in the west-central region described by the DNR as “best bets.’’ The other “best bets’’ named in the report are Redwood, Cottonwood, Brown, Nicollet, Renville and Sibley counties.
But the prospects for hunting conquests come with a caveat. Payne and other sources throughout the pheasant range are reporting a late harvest of corn because of wet fields — a circumstance that gives extra cover to the birds as the season opens.
In Luverne, for example, the local Farm Service Agency office said Tuesday that 85 percent to 90 percent of the area’s corn crop will still be standing Saturday when Gov. Mark Dayton kicks off the season as part of his ceremonial pheasant opener.
Said Payne: “I personally think it’s going to be a good year … November might be the hot time to go.’’