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Pheasants won't be as plentiful this year

WILLMAR -- West-central Minnesota will again be a hotbed of activity when pheasant season opens Oct. 10.

Just don't expect it to reach the numbers experienced over the last few years.

The annual roadside survey by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources saw fewer birds statewide and the estimated harvest for 2009 will be under 500,000.

"Locally, it wasn't quite that bad, but it's still pretty down," said Jeff Miller of the DNR's Wildlife office at Sibley State Park. "But it's still a lot better than the '70s and '80s when we didn't have any birds."

He also noted the earlier start to the season will have some affect on early success.

"There are a lot of broods out there that are still with the hen. You can't tell on the young birds because they don't have enough color yet," he said.

The same things that have affected the waterfowl numbers also hurt pheasants, like weather. But mainly, it's the loss of habitat that is responsible for lower numbers.

"If we don't have undisturbed nesting cover, we won't have birds," said Matt Holland, field supervisor for Pheasant Forever in Minnesota. "Our 76 chapters have been trying to get more lands enrolled in CRP (Conservation Reserve Program), which helps improve habitat.

But since the start of this year, CRP lands have dwindled. Holland said 23,000 acres have been lost and will be hard to replace.

One way to get those lost acres back is through the SAFE program from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. SAFE (State Acres For wildlife Enhancement), works a lot like CRP, but is designated for high-priority areas. Land in those areas have to meet certain guidelines to be enrolled in the continuous program.