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A ringneck pheasant walks a rural Becker County road picking up gravel. DL NEWSPAPERS/Brian Basham

MN pheasants mostly escape northland’s harsh winter conditions

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Despite the harsh winter occurring over much of Minnesota, conditions have been more forgiving across the majority of the state’s pheasant range.

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“I think pheasants in the main part of the range are doing fine,” said Ken Varland, Department of Natural Resources regional wildlife manager at New Ulm, Minn. “The cattail sloughs are pretty much filled up with all the wind. We’re going to lose some (pheasants). But it’s winter in Minnesota.”

Some parts of southwestern Minnesota have had relatively little snow until recently, Varland said. Snow is deep near Owatonna and Faribault, but pheasant numbers there were low going into winter, he said.

“Winter has been relentless here in the Cities,” said Anthony Hauck, online editor for Pheasants Forever, “but in the stomping grounds I’ve visited in west-central Minnesota, (snow) hasn’t piled up as much out there. They missed the last snow event we had here.”

The wind that filled cattail sloughs with snow can benefit pheasants in other ways, he said.

“We often think wind is the worst thing, but it blows open parts of the fields, and that allows pheasants to find waste grains,” Hauck said. “All things considered, it hasn’t been the best winter, but where there’s food and adequate cover, they’re going to pull through.”

Hauck checks the state’s snow-depth map almost daily, he said.

“In Minnesota’s core pheasant range, there’s as little as 2 to 4 inches,” he said. “That certainly makes life easier if you’re a ringneck.”

How pheasants fare won’t be known for sure until the DNR does its annual roadside counts in August, Varland said.

“We need a good nesting season,” he said.

Last spring’s late snows and big rains hampered pheasant nesting attempts, Varland said. But many of the hens re-nested later.

“We had a very late hatch,” he said. “It was real apparent. When you have all these rains, they re-nest. That’s what happened. … It was a missed opportunity for many hunters. We did have a reduction in license sales. But late-season hunting was quite good.”

Underlying the annual impact of weather on pheasants is long-term habitat loss. Grasslands have been disappearing in Minnesota, the Dakotas and other states as farmers elect to plant corn and soybeans. As federal Conservation Reserve Program contracts expire, many farmers are not renewing them, and hundreds of thousands of acres have come out of grassland, replaced by row crops.

Research by the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department illustrates what hunters have seen firsthand, that the pheasant population peaks when grasslands are abundant on the landscape. Those periods occurred during World War II, the federal Soil Bank program in the 1960s and the Conservation Reserve Program from the mid-1980s through about 2007.

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