When Minnesota's 70,000 or so pheasant hunters go afield beginning Saturday, they will find some improved wildlife habitat on the heavily hunted state wildlife management areas.

That's good, because they're also going to find considerably less ringneck habitat on private lands.

Over the past three years, three roving habitat crews funded by Legacy Amendment dollars have enhanced grasslands on state lands, doubling the acreage the Department of Natural Resources normally improves yearly. Totaling 22 people, the crews do controlled burns to stimulate growth, cut trees and woody cover that invade grasslands, and plant seed.

"We [the DNR] normally burn 15,000 to 20,000 acres yearly, and these crews are doing about that much alone,'' said Bob Welsh, DNR wildlife habitat program manager.

The results should benefit pheasants and pheasant hunters. "Higher-quality grasslands will no doubt generate more birds,'' Welsh said.

But this accelerated effort to improve grassland quality comes while the amount of private land enrolled in the federal Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) continues to drop. Those grasslands are being plowed and planted to corn and soybeans. In 2007, Minnesota hunters shot 655,000 pheasants — the highest tally in more than 40 years. Last year, after losing 93,000 acres (145 square miles) of grasslands over the years, hunters bagged just 169,000 ringnecks, the lowest in 28 years.

The decline in the number of pheasant hunters contributed to that harvest decline: Minnesota had an estimated 56,000 fewer pheasant hunters last fall than in 2007.

But the habitat situation could have been much worse. The state actually lost 224,000 acres (350 square miles) of CRP in the pheasant range in the past seven years, but it gained 130,000 acres of other habitat there, including 52,000 acres of new federal waterfowl production areas, refuges and easements and 35,000 acres of state wildlife areas.

Minnesota now has about 1.6 million acres of grassland habitat, down from 1.7 million acres in 2007.

So can improving the quality of the state's existing grasslands offset the loss of habitat that is occurring?

"Quality can make a difference at a local level, and we're doing more to improve quality of our lands,'' said Dave Trauba, DNR area wildlife manager at Lac qui Parle in western Minnesota. That includes planting more diverse grasslands and burning fields to stimulate growth.

"But quality won't offset habitat loss,'' Trauba said. "Wildlife populations are driven by quantity of habitat. If you really want to drive pheasant populations over a landscape, you need quantity of habitat.''

Which is why CRP had a dramatic effect on the pheasant population, he said: "It put out a lot of habitat across the landscape.''

The DNR has applied to the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council for an additional $9 million for the roving habitat crews, which would extend their work to 2019. Welsh said improving the quality of habitat obviously is important. Grasslands deteriorate if not regularly disturbed.

But he acknowledges the loss of hundreds of square miles of grasslands spells trouble. "We can compensate for some of that, but the numbers [of lost acres] are overwhelming,'' he said.

Nicole Davros, DNR pheasant biologist, said improving the quality grassland habitat should help pheasants. "But is it going to be enough to offset what we are losing?" he asked. "I don't know. Given a choice, I'd rather have quantity.''

That hasn't been a choice. But with corn falling to the $3-a-bushel range — from a high of $8 a bushel — farmers could find CRP payments more attractive, and fewer acres might be pulled out of the program.

Dave Nomsen, vice president of governmental affairs for Pheasants Forever, said states and the federal government can't buy enough wildlife habitat, and programs like CRP involving private lands still are key to the future of pheasants and other wildlife that depend on grasslands.

And the quality of those grasslands is essential, he said.

"We've seen what low-quality grassland habitats do for us,'' he said. "Management has to be a key component of all of this.''

CRP has been capped at 24 million acres nationally, down from a peak of 39 million acres. Nomsen said in theory, higher-quality acres could help offset the loss.

Meanwhile, in Minnesota, the CRP issue remains a wild card. Minnesota still has 633,000 acres in the pheasant range enrolled in the program — acres that officials say would be impossible to replace through other efforts.

"There still is a lot of CRP that could be lost,'' Davros said.

Doug Smith • 612-673-7667