Dear Gov. Dayton:
Minnesota pheasant hunters and other conservationists appreciate that you’ll preside over the Governor’s Pheasant Opener this weekend in Madelia, in Watonwan County, not too far from the Iowa border.
You’ll undoubtedly note while in Madelia that its slogan is “Pheasant Capital of Minnesota.” Being in politics yourself, you’ll forgive the boosterish hyperbole here, because the description is a stretch.
This is not to diminish the good people of Madelia and the grand party they are throwing. But consider these numbers:
A half-century ago, not far from Madelia, state game managers in their annual August roadside surveys counted as many as 800 pheasants per 100 miles driven.
That’s a lot of birds!
Especially when you consider that in 2011, the number of pheasants counted in the region per 100 miles driven was … wait for it … 11!
The state’s ringneck hunters, some 100,000 of them, believe this is an important fact for a governor to know, because such a spectacular falloff signals that very dramatic land-use changes have occurred in recent decades, and not just in Watonwan County, but across the state’s pheasant range.
Many of these changes would have happened in any event, and they have the important benefit of producing a lot of food relatively cheaply for a lot of people. That said, if an experiment were designed to eliminate pheasants, it could not have been more effectively constructed than the one that has played itself out in southern Minnesota.
Pheasants were first successfully introduced in Minnesota in 1916, and the following year the Legislature appropriated $17,000 for their propagation at the state game farm on Big Island, in Lake Minnetonka.
In the next two years, the state released some 4,000 pheasants and provided 6,000 pheasant eggs to sportsmen’s clubs. In 1924, the first pheasant hunt followed, as ringnecks found Minnesota to their liking — so much so that in 1941, hunters killed an incredible 1.8 million birds.
During that period, state game managers either believed that continuing to raise and release pheasants was boosting the population or — more likely — the politics of the day required them to remain in the business to satisfy sportsmen’s clubs and others who had been accustomed to receiving the birds.
But changes in game management theory were afoot, largely in the writings of Aldo Leopold, who promoted a holistic view of wildlife propagation. He argued (correctly) that optimum game and nongame numbers are achieved not by releasing domesticated stock, but by managing habitat.
Yet Minnesota was slow to catch on, and 160 acres were purchased near Madelia by the state in 1929 to raise and release pheasants — a practice that continued until 1955.
Meanwhile, another DNR bird-rearing operation at Carlos Avery just north of the Twin Cities remained in the same futile business until the early 1970s, with politics again accounting for the late closure.
Headquartered today at the old Madelia bird farm is the DNR’s Farmland Wildlife Populations and Research Group, whose biologists are highly educated and equally highly motivated.
But they aren’t magicians. They can’t change the fact that the six-year rotations among hay, corn, oats and similar crops that once dominated regional farmlands today are rotated mostly between corn and beans, if they’re rotated at all.