Dennis Anderson
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Seeking an answer to that question, Scott Rall, who lives in Worthington, drove about 500 miles of backroads during the past 10 days, looking for birds.

“I’ve yet to see a chick,’’ said Rall, the Worthington Globe outdoors columnist.

One reason might be the 5.8 inches of rain the Worthington area received Wednesday. But blame also is due at least in part to the late spring, said Nicole Davros, Department of Natural Resources wildlife researcher stationed in Madelia, Minn.

“The peak of the pheasant hatch typically occurs in Minnesota about June 10,’’ Davros said. “That’s delayed this year because of the late snows we had across the state and because we’ve had so much rain. May was bad, but June has been worse.’’

Water standing in fields is widespread in southwest Minnesota. “We have a lot of county roads washed out [near Worthington],’’ said Rall, a longtime leader of his local Pheasants Forever chapter. “Even if it doesn’t rain much again in coming days, I wouldn’t expect the creeks around here to subside substantially for a week or 10 days.’’

“Only a few’’ of the approximately 20 study hens Davros is following this spring via telemetry have hatched broods, she said. Others will do so in coming days, while those that lost their nests and eggs during the recent big rains will attempt to re-nest until they bring off broods.

“Pheasants have had a lot of bad luck in recent years,’’ Rall said. “Rain during nesting has been the biggest problem. Loss of habitat of course is a big issue. But wet, cool springs and early summers have been our biggest problem.’’

Though recently retired from the DNR as its pheasant action plan coordinator, Kevin Lines follows Minnesota ringneck prospects closely. He believes key aspects of the state’s multipoint pheasant recovery program are in place to yield higher bird numbers — provided Congress delivers a new farm bill that is at least moderately conservation-minded.

“The bottom line is you can’t have pheasants without grass,’’ Lines said. “And Minnesota, for the most part, doesn’t have grass except for what the farm ill provides.’’

The math is straightforward, Lines said. If Minnesota wants to return to an annual harvest of between 500,000 and 750,000 pheasants, the state will need about 2 million acres of grass.

“Right now we have 1 million at most, and we’ll be losing 200,000 acres of CRP in September,’’ Lines said. “Other programs, namely CREP (Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program) III, will make up some of the difference, but not all.’’

A key part of the pheasant action plan that has been accomplished, Lines said, is identification of potential 9-square-mile habitat blocks in each county of the state’s pheasant range.

Studies completed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at its Jamestown, N.D., research center indicate that contiguous areas of that size made up of at least 40 percent permanent habitat have the best chance of sustaining regional grassland wildlife, including pheasants.

“Forty percent is the goal, and those counties in which we could find 9-square-mile complexes with 25 to 30 percent in permanent habitat are the ones we’ve prioritized for land acquisition,’’ Lines said. “In the past few years, we’ve acquired 5,000 acres in 130 wildlife management areas to add to these complexes. That way, we keep our investments focused and targeted.’’

Targeted conservation also is the goal of Dave Nomsen and others working on a new farm bill in Washington, D.C. Nomsen is vice president of governmental affairs for Pheasants Forever, one of three PF staff whose primary focus in recent years has been the next farm bill.

Noting that the U.S. House just passed its version of the measure, and that the full Senate is expected to consider that chamber’s farm bill as soon as this week, Nomsen said that, with luck, differences between the two bills will be resolved before the current measure expires Sept. 30.

“CRP (Conservation Reserve Program) will probably come in at 24 or 25 million acres or a little more in the Senate, and that will be conferenced with the House’s 29 million acres,’’ said Nomsen, adding that other conservation provisions of the two bills hold promise for wildlife, including pheasants.

Meanwhile, in Worthington, Rall’s concerns, for the time being, are more local.

“We don’t need any more rain,’’ he said.

Dennis Anderson • danderson@startribune.com