Last week, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources announced that pheasant hunters bagged 522,000 roosters during the 2008 season and a collective yawn echoed across the land of 10,000 lakes. Have we really become this spoiled as Minnesota pheasant hunters in such a short time? And, are we paying attention to how quickly these pheasant-filled autumns can disappear?
Despite urban sprawl, intensified farming practices, forestation of prairies, and all other forms of competition for habitat acres, Minnesota's pheasant numbers have spent the last six years on the rise. Against the odds, we've added more wildlife habitat to take advantage of favorable weather conditions to create the best pheasant hunting in Minnesota since the 1960's.
Let's consider how Minnesota pheasant hunting has stacked up against the rest of the country during the last six years. South Dakota is clearly the top pheasant producing state with an annual harvest approaching 2 million roosters. Kansas typically falls in around the second slot with an 800,000 rooster harvest. Iowa not so long ago held down second place with 1 million rooster harvests, but habitat losses, wet springs, and tough winters have knocked Iowa down to a record low of a 383,083 rooster harvest in 2008. That's right; Minnesotans harvested 138,000 more birds than our friends across the southern border last year. North Dakota has been riding a pheasant wave the last few years, but that's all going to come crashing down this fall as habitat losses were exacerbated by a tough winter and a really wet spring. Rounding out the top six pheasant producing states is Nebraska, but they rarely break the half million mark. So long story short, Minnesota has quietly climbed into being the 3rd biggest pheasant-producing state in the whole darn United States.
Unfortunately, the habitat creating those pheasant numbers is in danger of disappearing. Today, we have 1.7 million acres of Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) lands enrolled in Minnesota. Over the next four years, 686,000 of those CRP acres are set to expire. If even a fraction of those acres are left to expire, Minnesota's pheasant population will crash. The tragedy? The U.S. Department of Agriculture has no plans for a new CRP general sign-up to re-enroll or replace those acres.
We also have a new CRP practice - State Acres For wildlife Enhancement, known as SAFE or Conservation Practice 38 - which has reached its allotted acres for enrollment in the state. Our SAFE program was created specifically for pheasant habitat, and Minnesota's farmers responded with enthusiasm and swift enrollment. Here too, we desperately need the USDA to expand authority for SAFE with additional acres to meet demand and make up for other CRP losses.
As Minnesota pheasant hunters, we have been enjoying "the glory days," and I for one am not ready to let those days go with a yawn. Are you? Please join me in contacting the U.S. Department of Agriculture and urging them to offer a new CRP general sign-up. Also please contact our two U.S. Senators and your U.S. Representative and urge them to put pressure on the USDA to offer a new CRP general sign-up. And, if you haven't already, it's time to join Pheasants Forever.