The bad news for Minnesota pheasant hunters came down early this past week. The pheasant population index, based on August roadside surveys, was down 26 percent from last year.

And last year was not a great year for Minnesota pheasant hunters.

For broader perspective, the counts this year were 32 percent below the 10-year average and 62 percent below the long-term average, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources officials said.

These are not the good ol’ days of pheasant hunting in Minnesota. A few days earlier, South Dakota’s Game, Fish and Parks Department announced that roadside surveys showed a 45 percent decline in that state’s pheasant population from last year.

This year’s statewide pheasant index in Minnesota was 38.1 birds per 100 miles of roads driven. The highest pheasant counts were in the west-central, southwest and south-central regions, where observers reported 43 to 55 birds per 100 miles driven.

The root of the problem? It’s declining acreage in grassland habitat that’s important for pheasants, songbirds and pollinators, DNR officials say.

"There has been a steady decline in undisturbed nesting cover since the mid-2000s, and our pheasant population has declined as a result," said Nicole Davros, DNR research scientist.

"Although it appeared mild winter weather and dry summer weather might boost our numbers, that wasn’t the case."

Minnesota has lost about 686,800 acres of Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) acres statewide since 2007, according to the DNR. The program pays farmers to remove environmentally sensitive land from agricultural production and restore vegetation that provides habitat for wildlife. CRP in Minnesota peaked in 2007 at 1.83 million acres.

"In a lot of ways, the pheasant range, including Minnesota’s, is at a point where average weather conditions just aren’t enough to support a pheasant population increase with the amount of grassland we’ve lost in the last 10 years," said Jared Wiklund, public relations manager with Pheasants Forever, a Minnesota-based conservation group. "We saw the highest pheasant harvest in decades in 2007 when CRP was at its highest level (in Minnesota). As CRP has declined, so has the annual pheasant harvest."

Hunters in Minnesota shot 655,000 pheasants in 2007. By last fall, the harvest had declined to 243,000.

Weather and habitat are the two main factors that drive Minnesota’s pheasant population trends, DNR officials say. Although weather causes annual fluctuations in pheasant numbers, nesting habitat is more important for long-term trends.

The 2012 version of the federal Farm Bill, still currently in effect, called for reduced spending on CRP and a cap of 24 million acres nationwide. The Farm Bill is due to be renewed in 2018, and many conservation groups are asking for enough funding to support 40 million acres of CRP. Leaders in the House of Representatives have said they hope to take up the Farm Bill discussion this fall.

"The 2018 Farm Bill will be critical for sustaining pheasant populations in Minnesota," Wiklund said. "A 40-million-acre cap is warranted from our perspective."

Minnesota’s Clean Water, Land and Legacy fund has provided funding for restoring wildlife habitat statewide, including grasslands, Wiklund said. The constitutional amendment was passed in 2008 by voters, adding three-eighths of 1 percent to the state’s sales tax.

"But even the habitat work carried out by the amendment and by Pheasants Forever and its partners is not enough to offset the huge grassland acres we’ve lost in the last 10 years," Wiklund said.

Warm winters usually lead to good hen survival and therefore more nests in the spring, the DNR’s Davros said. However, the 2017 hen index, at 5.8 hens per 100 miles, was also down 26 percent from last year.

"It’s surprising to see our hen index down this year," Davros said. "We experienced a pretty mild winter, so hen survival should have been good."

Another key indicator of annual reproduction is the number of broods observed during roadside surveys. The 2017 brood index decreased 34 percent from last year, and the number of broods per 100 hens declined 10 percent from 2016.

Minnesota’s 2017 pheasant season runs from Oct. 14 through Jan. 1.