Pheasants debuted in Minnesota in 1905, when state wildlife officials received 70 pairs from Illinois and Wisconsin. Quickly released, the birds also quickly perished. A sportsmen’s group, the Minnesota Game Protective League, set up a game farm on Lake Minnetonka’s Big Island in 1917, and lawmakers coughed up $17,000 to raise pheasants there, and also bobwhite quail and ruffed grouse. By 1922, pheasants had been released in 78 counties. Minnesota’s first hunting season followed in 1924 and lasted only four days. The hunt was limited to Hennepin and Carver counties and resulted in a harvest of 300 roosters. Aided by abundant habitat, including wetlands, brushy fence lines and far more pasture grass on the landscape than is currently the case, Minnesota’s pheasants proliferated wildly. In 1931, more than 1 million roosters were harvested by hunters in 41 counties during a 10-day season.
Compared to agriculture practices today, farming was primitive in the 1930s. Crop fields were smaller; tree lots were plentiful; and farm machinery was less efficient. Also, because most family farms at the time had livestock, far more acres were dedicated to grass, in which pheasants could nest successfully. In 1941, almost 1.8 million pheasants were killed by Minnesota hunters, an all-time high that included one hen daily in hunters’ three-bird bags. So abundant were pheasants in the mid- to late 1940s that when soldiers returned from World War II, their upland bird-hunting interests were confined nearly entirely to pheasants — while the previously popular mourning dove seasons were ended. The grandest Minnesota roosters-only harvest followed in 1958, when 1.56 million long-tails were bagged. Opening day of pheasant hunting during these times commanded nearly as much attention among Minnesotans as the first day of fishing.
As Minnesota’s farmland landscape changed, pheasant numbers plummeted. Between 1940 and the mid-1980s, Minnesota pasture acres fell from about 7.8 million acres to 3.2 million acres. Countering the loss between 1958 and 1964 was the federal Soil Bank farmland retirement program. A variation, the federal Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), was begun in 1985, backed by Pheasants Forever, founded in Minnesota in 1982. In the years since, as CRP acres have fluctuated, so have pheasant numbers. Minnesota CRP acres peaked at 1.83 million in 2007, corresponding with a rooster harvest of 655,000. By 2016, only about 1 million Minnesota acres were in CRP, and the state’s pheasant kill was 196,000. Compounding the ringneck’s challenges in recent years have been a series of wet nesting seasons. On the upside, the state’s 2008 Legacy Amendment, along with other conservation programs, are partially offsetting CRP and other habitat losses.