Ring-necked pheasants will draw Minnesota hunters into the grass this weekend.
Gov. Mark Dayton, who says he's been hunting the birds for 60 years, started a new tradition in 2011 by hosting the "Governor's Pheasant Opener" in Montevideo. The festivities are returning to that western Minnesota town this year, with ceremonies planned on Friday and hunting season opening at 9 a.m. Saturday.
The bird that saw a big population drop in the last decade is slowly rebuilding its numbers in Minnesota and other states.
The Department of Natural Resources says pheasant numbers are up from last year but still far short of what they used to be.
Specifically, the Minnesota's annual roadside survey in August found a 29 percent increase in ring-necked pheasants compared to 2015 but said the population is still 14 percent below the 10-year average and 48 percent below the long-term average.
Why the drop and rebound in population?
Both the quick decline and the gradual recovery seem tied to how much grassland is available.
The DNR says two straight mild winters have helped and there were good breeding conditions last spring. But habitat is the key factor.
Minnesota's grassland acreage increased this year – the first time since 2011 that's happened. State officials say a big chunk of the increase came from farmers enrolling more land in the federal Conservation Reserve Program. That reimburses growers for not planting crops on some of their land and letting it become habitat for wildlife.
The steep drop in the pheasant numbers was not just a Minnesota thing. Pheasants Forever says in its national 2016 outlook: "Pheasant populations continue to rebuild in the aftermath of a decade of historic habitat loss."
Nearly two years ago, Dayton organized a Pheasant Summit to figure out how to help the birds recover. Expanding habitat is the idea behind all 10 items in their action plan.
On Friday Dayton will help dedicate a new gun range in Montevideo in the afternoon, then head to a sold out banquet at the American Legion hall in the evening.
Angie Steinbach, assistant city manager for Montevideo, tells Tom Cherveny of the West Central Tribune the attention surrounding the first Governor's Pheasant Opener had a "big reverberating effect" on raising the town's profile among hunters.