Better, but not great.
That's the prediction for this fall's Minnesota pheasant hunting season.
The ringneck population index is up 68 percent, boosted by a mild winter and decent spring nesting weather. But it's still only half of the 10-year average.
Translation: Hunters should find more birds this fall, but not nearly the numbers they saw from 2003 through 2008, when they shot an average of 550,000 birds.
"We're forecasting a harvest of 290,000 this year," said Kurt Haroldson, Department of Natural Resources wildlife biologist. That's considerably better than last year, when hunters killed only 204,000 birds -- the lowest in 25 years.
"We're moving in the right direction," Haroldson said.
The DNR's August roadside wildlife survey, released Tuesday, confirmed what some wildlife managers had been reporting: Pheasants are rebounding from two consecutive devastating winters in 2010 and 2011, and poor spring nesting weather.
Officials counted an average of nearly 39 pheasants per 100 miles this summer, compared to 23 birds per 100 miles last year. The highest counts were in the west-central region (58 birds per 100 miles), the east-central (55 birds per 100 miles), and the southwest (52 birds per 100 miles).
While habitat is key for pheasants, the recent boom and crash of the population was almost entirely caused by weather, Haroldson said. The amount of habitat in the pheasant range has remained fairly constant, though there are indications it will decline.
Some 300,000 acres of land enrolled in the federal Conservation Reserve Program is set to expire at the end of the month. A spring CRP signup enrolled about 100,000 acres -- leaving a potential 200,000-acre loss.
Also, biologists say the next federal Farm Bill, now being debated in Congress, likely will have a big impact on the future of pheasants because it could continue the CRP program -- or trim it.
"If we can maintain habitat -- which is a huge question -- and the weather stays good, the population could keep going up," Haroldson said. Good weather helped boost the pheasant population in the early 2000s, when harvest went from 267,000 in 2001 to 511,000 in 2003.
Haroldson is hopeful the better pheasant population will boost hunter numbers. The estimated number of pheasant hunters fell from 89,000 in 2010 to 78,000 last year -- the lowest in 25 years.
Last year's ringneck harvest could have been higher.
"I talked to a lot of hunters who quit because they weren't seeing enough birds," Haroldson said.
View the pheasant survey at www.startribune.com/a661.
Doug Smith • firstname.lastname@example.org.