Dennis Anderson
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Still only in its ninth month, 2020 already is considered one of the worst years — ever.

Granted, the period between 1347 and 1351, when the Black Death wiped some 200 million people off the face of the earth, was no picnic.

Also, smallpox killed 10 million Mexicans after the Spanish introduced the disease to them in 1520. The Holocaust cost 6 million Jews their lives between 1941 and 1945. And the Spanish flu beginning in 1918 reduced the world’s population by some 100 million.

So maybe with historical perspective 2020 isn’t as bad as we think — except that hurricane season hasn’t yet ended, the West Coast is very much on fire, the COVID-19 pandemic is still in play, and in 50 days we’ll have a no-holds-barred grudge match otherwise known as a presidential election.

Yet, amid this havoc, good news surfaced last week when the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources announced that the state’s pheasant population, measured by its August roadside counts, jumped some 42% from last year.

More impressive, ringneck numbers in the state’s southwest corner rocketed skyward 146% compared with a year ago.

Pessimists who believe such pretty-bird upticks are minor news weighed against everything else that has occurred this year should reconsider, because a consortium of positive environmental and weather factors had to align to boost pheasant (and other farmland wildlife) numbers — considerations that also benefited people.

Additionally, a retrospective dating to the 1920s suggests that in years when pheasant numbers jumped, the nation’s economy and political fortunes also rose.

So perhaps 2020 will yet end on an upbeat note. Or at least be better than the downer it’s been to date.

Consider first conditions that set the stage for this year’s pheasant bounce:

Weather: Blizzards and cold can kill pheasants by the thousands. But last winter’s temperatures statewide were above normal by about 2 degrees, and in southern Minnesota the upward departure was even higher.

During the critical pheasant breeding and egg-laying months of April and May, the news wasn’t quite as good. Temperatures were slightly lower than average. But the difference wasn’t a big deal. More important, rainfall was below normal, meaning hens’ nests weren’t washed away by torrential rains as they have been as in recent years.

June and July, meanwhile, when pheasant chicks hatch, were slightly warmer than normal while experiencing only average rainfall. All good news.

Brood sizes: DNR roadside counters throughout the state’s ringneck range reported higher pheasant numbers in all sex and age categories. Roosters were higher by 7% from a year ago and hens were up 18%.

Better still, the number of broods seen per 100 miles rose by 47%, the number of broods counted per 100 hens jumped by 2% (besting the 10-year and long-term averages), and the number of chicks per brood increased by 7%.

Habitat: Farmland regions of southern Minnesota continue to be habitat-challenged. Still, upland habitat on private lands in the region increased by almost 16,000 acres from 2019.

Credit for the increase is due the voluntary Conservation Reserve Program, which saw a net increase of 10,000 acres. Similarly, Minnesota’s Reinvest in Minnesota, or RIM, the Wetland Reserve Program and a combination of the two saw small increases of set-aside acres. Also, federal Waterfowl Production Areas, wildlife refuges and conservation easements accounted for 20,000 increased habitat acres.

Overall, protected habitat represents 6.1% of land within the Minnesota pheasant range, according to the DNR.

Walk-in Access (WIA): With continual increases in private land enrollments, this state program is becoming large enough to positively affect hunters’ experiences. This fall, hunters who contribute to the program via their state hunting licenses can access some 250 sites totaling about 30,000 acres in Minnesota’s 47 farmland counties.

And what of the nation’s economy during (admittedly cherry-picked) years when pheasant numbers rose significantly?

1958: The state’s largest ringneck harvest occurred this year, numbering ... wait for it ... 1,562,000 roosters. Also in 1958, the “Eisenhower” Recession, whose roots took hold two years earlier, stifled the economy early on, only to see, by the time pheasant hunting began, more than 1 million Americans back to work from the recession’s employment nadir.

1982: Though the state’s pheasant population was significantly lower than in 1958, it nevertheless was on the upswing. More important, the bummer years that had begun for the bird in 1969, when the state had no season, led to the formation in 1982 of Pheasants Forever, which today has some 135,000 members nationwide. Additionally, the U.S. economy began one of its longest periods of sustained growth since World War II.

2003: Before this year, Minnesota hunters had harvested more than a half-million birds in only two seasons (1981 and 1991) since 1964. Then an increase of Conservation Reserve Program acres in the state led to a kill of 511,400 roosters in 2003, a big jump from the 358,000 felled in 2002 and the 267,000 birds harvested in 2001. SARS also made an impact in 2002-03, and the world feared a pandemic. In part as a result, the stock market struggled early in 2003. But by year’s end, you couldn’t lose: The S&P was up more than 25% and the Nasdaq 50%.

Upshot: Don’t give up on 2020 yet.