Minnesota pheasant hunters will head afield on Saturday’s opener with the optimism of true believers — bird numbers are up from last year.
But they also likely will be pondering the future of ringnecks and ringneck hunters, given the precipitous recent decline of both. They also might be eyeing our South Dakota neighbors, who are dealing with the same issues: loss of habitat, a declining pheasant population and fewer hunters.
Both states have hatched plans to restore ringneck populations in hopes of maintaining their hunting traditions. But if the nation’s pheasant Capitol — long blessed with an abundance of habitat and near-perfect pheasant-producing weather — can’t right the ringneck ship, can Minnesota?
“If we can’t protect the best of the best, we should get out of business,’’ said Dave Nomsen, Pheasants Forever’s vice president of government affairs, who heads the conservation group’s new regional office in Brookings, S.D. PF opened the office specifically to address the dramatic decline in pheasant numbers, spurred by massive habitat losses.
But Minnesota has some major advantages over South Dakota, said Ed Boggess, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Fish and Wildlife Division director. And the question might be: Can South Dakota match Minnesota’s efforts to restore pheasants?
“Compared to the Dakotas, Minnesota is blessed with a very strong network of conservation organizations, a legacy funding program for habitat and clean water, and generally favorable state policies and laws toward habitat and wetlands,’’ he said. “They also don’t have the population or funding base Minnesota has.
“I’d say we’ve got the best chance of any state to turn this around.’’
Money is a key factor. Minnesota gets about $100 million yearly in Outdoor Heritage Fund dollars for wildlife habitat, which comes from the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment. The DNR’s recently released Pheasant Summit Action Plan depends heavily on those dollars.
Meanwhile, the South Dakota Wildlife Habitat Conservation Fund, established last year after Gov. Dennis Daugaard called a summit in response to the decline of pheasants and pheasant habitat, has received donations totaling about $800,000. Daugaard has said that if another $1 million can be raised the state will kick in an additional $1 million.
But neither state likely will have enough money to restore pheasants and pheasant hunting to their heyday.
The huge federal Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), which pays farmers to set aside marginal cropland, has long provided most of the grassland habitat for pheasants and other wildlife. But, spurred by high crop prices and budget cuts to the program, large amounts of CRP grasslands have been plowed and planted in recent years, altering the landscape.
Since 2007, South Dakota has lost 600,000 acres — 937 square miles — of grassland, and contracts on another 200,000 acres expired in September. Minnesota has lost 97,000 acres (151 square miles) in its pheasant range, and another 100,000 acres of CRP expired in September. Nationally, CRP peaked at 36 million acres, but Congress has reduced funding to 24 million acres by 2018. So grassland is expected to continue to disappear in both states.
The habitat loss has sent pheasants — and the number of pheasant hunters — into a tailspin:
• South Dakota counted 143,000 rooster hunters last year, including 80,000 nonresidents — one-fourth of those Minnesotans. That’s 40,000 fewer than hunted in 2007.
• Despite its reputation as a ringneck mecca, South Dakota counted just 58,000 resident pheasant hunters in 2013, the lowest since 1938. Last year, 63,000 residents hunted pheasants, still the second lowest in 75 years. The state had 80,000 resident ringneck hunters as recently as 2006, and routinely had more than 100,000 in the 1980s.
• Hunters in South Dakota harvested 1.2 million roosters last year, better than 2013 but still the second-lowest harvest in 16 years.
• Minnesota counted about 58,000 pheasant hunters last year, the fewest in nearly 40 years and 60,000 fewer than 2007.
• Hunters here killed 153,000 roosters last year, the lowest in 30 years and less than half the number killed just four years earlier. Hunters killed a half-million pheasants in 2008.
South Dakota has key geographic advantages over Minnesota when it comes to producing pheasants — most of the state is much drier than Minnesota, the winters aren’t as severe and central South Dakota has vast amounts of pasture, alfalfa and small grains, all of which benefit ringnecks. Good weather helped the ringneck population rebound 42 percent this year, but the counts are still 30 percent below the 10-year average.
“It’s still world-class pheasant hunting,’’ Nomsen said.
In Minnesota, the pheasant population is up 33 percent this year but still is down 39 percent from the 10-year average and 59 percent below the long-term average.
But despite the uphill habitat battle, many hunters and leaders in South Dakota and Minnesota haven’t given up.
“I don’t think we’ll ever see the amount of CRP acres that we had, so we need to make the acres we do have the most productive,’’ said Tom Kirschenmann of South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks. On Friday, South Dakota unveiled a “Habitat Pays’’ website (www.habitat.sd.gov) aimed at helping landowners develop and maintain wildlife habitat on their lands.
Nomsen said he remains optimistic.
“I’m feeling better than I was a year ago,’’ he said. “But there’s no question we have a hell of a challenge in front of us.’’
Boggess, too, believes the DNR’s 10-point action plan can be successful, and those Heritage Fund dollars could influence habitat on a large scale — something the state hasn’t had enough money to do before.
“I’m not saying it’s going to be easy, but I think there’s a good chance to turn it around,’’ he said.
But even if habitat and ringnecks rebound, will pheasant hunters return?
“We don’t know if they’ll come back,’’ Boggess said. “Because the hunting and fishing group tends to be an aging one, it will require getting more young people involved. We’re trying a variety of things to do that.’’