Minnesota small game hunters enjoyed a higher rate of success for most species last year, including pheasants, according to the annual survey conducted by the Department of Natural Resources.
The agency published the survey’s results this week on the eve of what is expected to be a second consecutive season of increased bags for ringneck hunters. Starting at 9 a.m. Saturday, tens of thousands of Minnesotans will stalk roosters in grasslands scattered throughout farm country. Based on excellent conditions, they stand to improve on 2019’s mean harvest of six roosters per successful hunter. The 10-year average is 5.1 roosters.
“Things look really good for the opener,’’ said Nicole Davros, group leader of the DNR’s Farmland Wildlife Populations and Research team in Madelia. “The people who stuck with it last year did well.’’
Wet fields last year delayed farming, giving roosters an early-season refuge from hunters. But the opposite is true this year, and DNR’s roadside count of pheasants in August showed far more birds than the previous year. Collectively DNR crews counted 53.5 birds per 100 miles of road compared to the range-wide count of 37.6 birds per 100 miles in 2019 — a 42% increase.
The small game survey estimated last year’s turnout of pheasant hunters at 52,854, mildly below the participation level in 2018. Ideal weather conditions for this year’s opener could help boost overall participation beyond the 2018 mark of 55,861 hunters. Minnesota’s 10-year average is 68,250 pheasant hunters per season.
Davros said pheasant hunters who moved around last season and hunted past the opening weeks of the season were more apt to say they did well. Anecdotally, she said, there also seemed to be a group of hunters who had to work harder in 2018 for the same number of roosters they bagged in previous seasons.
According to the small game survey, last year’s grouse hunt contained similarities to the pheasant hunt. Harvest increased 15% from the 2018 estimate while the estimated number of grouse hunters fell to the lowest on record, 9% lower than in 2018.
The estimated harvest of 225,200 ruffed grouse provided for an average of 3.7 birds per active hunter, up from an estimated average of 2.9 birds in 2018. In the past 10 years, the ratio has been as high as five grouse per active hunter. The state’s grouse hunting success rate of 71% over the past 10 years was matched by hunters in 2019.
The annual small game survey probably delivered false estimates about the duck harvest, Davros said. The survey, mailed to 7,000 small game license-holders, elicited about 3,500 responses.
Wildlife officials believe the completed surveys overestimated the duck harvest. If the 2019 estimate of 950,000 birds taken were true, hunters would have shot 21% more birds than they did in 2012 — the best duck-hunting season in the past 10 years. The same survey estimated the 2019 goose harvest in Minnesota at 450,000 geese, or more than double the statewide harvest in the previous year.
“It was an outlier year for ducks and geese,’’ Davros said.
She believes the survey results for waterfowl were influenced by the DNR’s emphasis last fall on the long-term decline in small game hunter participation. A DNR news release one year ago said a 20-year downward trend in small game license sales created the fewest hunters on record.
“Every year that license sales go down means our challenges in maintaining healthy wildlife habitat go up,” the news release said.
Davros said the message may have prompted some hunters to buy a license out of concern for the decline, but then they didn’t hunt. The harvest estimates are based in part on total licenses sales.
“If you want to call that the sympathy bump, go ahead,’’ she said.
Steve Cordts, waterfowl specialist for the DNR, said the survey also showed a spike in respondents who said they hunted ducks. The inputs inflated waterfowl harvest estimates for 2019, he said. While the state survey estimated that hunters shot nearly 1 million ducks, the federal estimate was less than 500,000, Cordts said.
“It’s an outlier,’’ he said.
The survey also tracks hunting of mourning doves, woodcock, squirrels, rabbits and other game. Squirrel hunters did very well, bagging 101,000 gray squirrels compared to 72,000 in 2018, the survey estimated. The dove harvest also climbed, from 54,600 in 2018 to 90,000 last year. Upland hunters harvested an estimated 27,000 woodcocks last year, down 11.5% from the previous year.