MINNEAPOLIS (AP) -- When Minnesota's pheasant hunters took to the field this month for the ringneck opener, they were missing someone:
Thousands of fellow hunters.
Forty years ago, 270,000 pheasant hunters chased roosters, bagging 1.3 million birds in only a 30-day season. That's South Dakota-style hunting right here in the Land of 10,000 Lakes.
Even 20 years ago, there were 173,000 pheasant hunters, and they harvested more than a half million roosters.
This year, fewer than 100,000 hunters are expected to hunt ringnecks in Minnesota, and they likely will bag around 275,000 birds over a 65-day season. If so, that would be the second-lowest harvest in the past 15 years.
The trend is clear as a crisp October morn: The number of pheasant hunters has declined over the years along with the pheasant population and the pheasant harvest.
What happened? Is Minnesota's pheasant hunting heritage fading like an old photograph?
State wildlife officials and groups such as Pheasants Forever don't think so. They believe that the pheasant population and hunter numbers likely have bottomed out. They note that both numbers have remained fairly stable in recent years.
The number of pheasant hunters last year -- 102,000 -- was the highest in eight years.
Still, those who live and breathe pheasants are concerned and say that major changes are needed if the state is to return to its pheasant hunting heydays.
''The world has changed a great deal,'' said Joe Duggan of Pheasants Forever, the Minnesota-based conservation group formed in 1982 to help boost pheasant numbers.
''The landscape has changed dramatically; access and opportunities to hunt are more difficult,'' Duggan said. ''We've become more urbanized and we've lost our connection to the land. It used to be everyone knew relatives who had farmland to hunt. And for kids, there's competition from other activities, like organized sports.''
Despite the social changes, Duggan and others say the root of the problem is the decline in pheasant habitat, which has resulted in lower pheasant numbers and fewer hunters. Intense farming practices and wetland drainage over the years has eliminated millions of acres of prime pheasant habitat. The federal Conservation Reserve Program, launched in 1985 to idle marginal farmland, boosted habitat and pheasant numbers. But since 1993, the state has lost 400,000 CRP acres in its pheasant range.
Minnesota pheasants always have been at the mercy of cold, snowy winters, but the decline in habitat has left them more vulnerable than ever.
That was evident last winter, when severe weather crippled the pheasant population. Then the cold, wet spring hindered reproduction. The result: a 50 percent decline in pheasant numbers and the third-lowest roadside index in 14 years.
Despite the current situation, Al Berner is among those who believe pheasants and hunters could have a brighter future. Berner, a pheasant hunter and retired Department of Natural Resources pheasant researcher, says it will take a change in farm policy.
And the winds of change might be blowing. Though the U.S. House recently passed a farm bill that eliminated several key conservation measures, the Senate and the Bush administration might push for a bill that would expand CRP and give farmers more incentive to restore wetlands and protect wildlife habitat.
''Let's pay them to manage the land in the public interest,'' Berner said. ''I'm optimistic there's going to be a major change.''
Other programs, such as the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, which will idle 100,000 acres in the Minnesota River watershed, are increasing wildlife habitat. Pheasant wintering areas must be improved and wetlands restored, Berner said. Pheasants Forever and other conservation groups are working to do that.
But it's difficult to counter the massive habitat loss that has occurred over the decades.
From the 1930s to the early 1960s, the state probably averaged 250,000 pheasant hunters, had a fall ringneck population of around 4 million and an annual harvest of about 1 million birds, said Berner. Since then, it has averaged about 100,000 pheasant hunters, fall pheasant numbers have hovered around 1 million, with a harvest of about 300,000.
''If we bring the pheasant population back to 4 million birds, we'll have 200,000 hunters,'' Berner said. Just look at the growing number of deer, bear and wild turkey hunters in the state, which corresponds to increases in those wildlife populations, he said.
Meanwhile, one of the prime issues planned for this winter's DNR hunting round-table is how the state can retain hunters and recruit new ones, said Tim Bremicker, DNR wildlife division manager. Though increasing pheasant numbers is crucial, so is hunter access, he said. The round-table will discuss whether the DNR should lease public hunting lands, as is done in other states.
Duggan said the DNR also should consider a special youth pheasant hunt, similar to the youth waterfowl hunt now offered.
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