The return of winter weather in recent weeks has placed a temporary hold on the arrival of spring throughout much of the pheasant belt, but wildlife officials remain largely optimistic regarding the upcoming nesting and brood-rearing seasons. Read on to find a preview of habitat conditions and pheasant population trends in the state where you plan to chase ringnecks this fall.
Spring is a time of transition for habitat in Colorado, and a mild winter is allowing winter wheat to get an early jump on the growing season. This is good news for pheasants, says Ed Gorman, small game manager for the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, as winter wheat is the primary nesting cover utilized by hens in the core pheasant range.
Winter wheat conditions are looking good, Gorman says, but that can change in a hurry based on the amount of moisture that falls during the next 30-40 days. In 2012 and 2013, the lack of precipitation brought a pheasant boom to a screeching halt, as habitat struggled to rejuvenate and nesting hens found little in the way of cover, but Gorman says that conditions began to improve in 2014 and 2015.
“We’re on the long path back from tough conditions, but we’re certainly heading the right direction,” says Gorman. “Our crowing counts are way back up and hunter reports are way back up. Precipitation is the key factor to how pheasants and other upland birds respond.”
Improved pheasant production in Idaho last year should continue into 2016, according to Jeff Knetter, upland game coordinator with the Idaho Department of Fish & Game. “We had better pheasant production in 2015, and hunters in general were seeing more pheasants during the fall,” says Knetter. “Our winter produced adequate moisture levels in many areas, and I think our overwinter survival should be pretty good.”
Knetter explains that habitat in Idaho is largely linked to riparian and agricultural areas, and at the intersection of those areas one is likely to find the best cover for pheasants. A transition to more efficient agricultural practices has erased the odd field corners and weedy field edges that once provided so much habitat in the state. But even though Idaho doesn’t have the habitat it once did (nor the bird harvest, which topped 750,000 roosters at one point), the state still belongs in the conversation for upland bird destinations.
“Pheasants are just 1 of 10 species of upland birds here in Idaho,” says Knetter. “We have strong bird populations and a tremendous amount of public access.”
Pheasant numbers are holding strong in those areas of Illinois with good habitat, says Aaron Kuehl, Pheasants Forever’s conservation director for Illinois. A fairly mild winter had little impact on pheasants in the state, Kuehl says, but habitat loss remains a chief concern in the Land of Lincoln.
“Beginning in 2008, habitat loss began to accelerate across Illinois, but the pendulum is starting to swing the other way as commodity prices soften and conservation payments remain competitive,” says Kuehl. “Interest in conservation programs is certainly up.”
This includes the CP42 pollinator habitat initiative, Kuehl says, and those projects implemented last year will start to pay dividends this summer. “Any time you have an influx of acres enrolled in a program, it takes two to three years before you start to see the birds respond, and I think that will be the case here in Illinois,” says Kuehl. “The introduction of that habitat will most certainly begin to help localized pheasant populations this summer during the nesting and brood-rearing seasons.”
The winter of 2015-16 across Iowa was one of extremes, with a pattern of heavy snow and cold in the northwest corner of the state moderating to mild temperatures and little to no snow cover in the southeast. Todd Bogenschutz, upland game biologist with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, says that the impact of winter on pheasant mortality will vary just as much.
“We may have had some above-normal overwinter hen loss in those areas hit with snow, but in areas where there was virtually no snow cover, the hen survival should be fantastic,” says Bogenschutz. “We are forecasted to have a warm spring with normal precipitation, and if that happens, we should see a bump in birds.”
Bogenschutz estimates that hunters in Iowa harvested around 400,000 roosters last fall, marking a vast improvement from just five years ago when the harvest dipped to just above 100,000. The return of favorable weather conditions triggered the recovery, but the presence of habitat made the tremendous response from pheasants possible. “We have 1.6 million acres of CRP in Iowa, and there is a lot of interest in the Pheasant SAFE and pollinator programs,” says Bogenschutz. “With Mother Nature helping us out a bit, the habitat we have is producing some birds.”
The table is set for a year of strong pheasant production in Kansas, according to Jeff Prendergast, upland game biologist with the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks. “We just need some rainfall,” says Prendergast. “We had fairly good overwinter precipitation, not a lot of snow, a few good rainfall events, but things are dry so far this spring.”
More than boosting the growth of grass on Kansas’s 1.4 million acres of CRP, Prendergast says the moisture is needed to support the state’s 8 million-acre winter wheat crop. “Winter wheat is the primary nesting cover used by hen pheasants,” explains Prendergast. “There’s a saying that to pull off a good wheat harvest you want ‘15 inches of wheat by April 15’, but we need some moisture to get to that point this year.”
Outside of the weather, Prendergast says the other major limiting factor to pheasant nesting success is brooding cover, and that once again comes back to winter wheat. “The peak of the pheasant hatch in Kansas comes during that first week of June, and wheat harvest is typically not too far behind,” says Prendergast. “A delayed wheat harvest would help provide brood habitat that is so important.”
Michigan may not receive billing as a top pheasant destination, but the state ranks in the top 10 for pheasant harvest in the country. Al Stewart, upland game bird specialist and program leader for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, says the conditions are right for the state to remain in that position. “We had strong production in Michigan in 2015 and those birds are now coming out of the winter in good shape thanks to mild weather conditions,” Stewart says.
The past decade has been tough on Michigan’s pheasants, Stewart explains, based on habitat availability and weather. There isn’t much the Michigan DNR can do about Mother Nature, but Stewart says the state’s Pheasant Restoration Initiative is helping put habitat on the ground through the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) and State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement (SAFE).
“Over the course of the last five years we’re starting to see a slow recovery, and so much of the improvement is generating from the additional acres of habitat,” says Stewart. “We’re pretty optimistic about where we’re at right now.”
Minnesota’s pheasant hunters were happy to receive last summer’s roadside pheasant surveys, which indicated a 33-percent increase across the state, and the good news continued to roll in over the winter and into spring. Nicole Davros, upland game project leader with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, says mild weather helped boost overwinter survival throughout much of the state’s traditional pheasant range.
“We really only had a two-week window where deep snow and cold temperatures started to create situations where pheasants were desperate for food,” says Davros. “Surprisingly, there was little wind to blow open fields, too, but while I’m sure we lost some birds through the winter, we’re coming into spring in pretty good shape.”
In recent weeks, Davros has been leading crews from the DNR to outfit hen pheasants with radio transmitters as a part of a research project, and she has been happy with the rooster-to-hen ratio encountered while in the field. The big question now is what the weather will do in the coming weeks. “We’ve been a little wet so far this spring with rain and snow, so a drying trend would help,” says Davros. “But overall there are a lot of reasons to be optimistic in Minnesota.”
In 2015, an abundance of fallow acres created nearly ideal brood-rearing cover throughout much of Missouri’s pheasant range in the northern three tiers of counties, as well as the Missouri River lowlands in the southeastern corner of the state. The resulting strong pheasant production should carryover into this year’s nesting season, says Dave Hoover, small game coordinator with the Missouri Department of Conservation. “We experienced a mild winter with little snowfall and few periods of extremely cold temperatures,” says Hoover. “Our hen pheasants should be in fairly good shape.”
Habitat conditions vary across the state, Hoover says, as a pattern of dry weather has settled across some areas. Hoover says the quality of habitat varies, too, because there has been a lot of disturbance on ground enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program, either through work required due to reenrollment, enhancements or management.
“But where you find good habitat, you’ll find populations of pheasants that are stabilizing or growing,” says Hoover. “It is too early to tell exactly what this year’s nesting season will bring, but we hope to see those bird numbers continue to improve. If we stay in a dry pattern, it won’t be as good as if we get some precipitation.”
The winter of 2015-16 did little to slow down an upward trend in Montana’s pheasant population, according Ken Plourde, a habitat specialist with the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks. In the northeast corner of the state, Plourde says the winter was quite a bit warmer than average with very little snow accumulation, and he expects low winter mortality.
“It continues a trend from last year, when spring surveys were well above the long-term average, fall bird numbers were up, and we consistently received good reports from hunters throughout the season,” Plourde says. “The main factors that could slow this progress down would be heavy precipitation and cool temperatures this spring.”
Plourde says that habitat in Montana could see a boost, as there was ample interest in the general CRP sign-up earlier this year. “I think that the changes in haying and grazing allowances found in the new general CRP made the program more attractive,” says Plourde. “It’s a common-sense change that seems to be resonating with producers.”
Adequate moisture has helped provide a jumpstart to cool season grasses this spring in Nebraska, and the quality of habitat conditions could help the state’s pheasant population continue to rebound. Jeff Lusk with the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission says that statewide pheasant numbers increased 55 percent in 2015 largely because of a precipitation pattern that created ideal habitat conditions, including the southwest corner of the state, which boasted an 83 percent improvement over the prior year.
“As we continue to lose habitat in the eastern part of the state, the heart of our pheasant range continues to move further west,” says Lusk. “This is an area which has a much drier climate and is much more dependent upon early precipitation, but conditions look favorable right now.”
Lusk believes that heavy snowfall events over the winter likely impacted pheasant mortality, but he remains optimistic about the coming season. “I think our pheasant population should continue to trend upward,” Lusk says.
A mild winter across much of North Dakota should help continue an improving trend in the state’s pheasant population, according to Rachel Bush, Pheasants Forever’s state coordinator. Last summer’s roadside pheasant counts showed a 30 percent increase across North Dakota, and Bush believes that overwinter mortality should be average to below-average in the state’s primary pheasant areas.
“There were more birds heading into winter and more birds coming out of winter than normal, so I think the outlook is pretty favorable,” says Bush. “Bird numbers in the southwest corner of the state were particularly good last fall, and I expect the pheasant population in that area to continue to be very strong, minus any significant weather events this spring and summer.”
Habitat loss remains a chief concern in North Dakota, though Bush says the state’s landowners showed a renewed interest in the Conservation Reserve Program during the recent general sign-up. “There should be some grass going into the ground this year, which will benefit nesting and brood-rearing habitat in the coming years,” says Bush. “And there are still areas of good habitat remaining in the state, so if we can get some cooperation from Mother Nature we should be looking at another strong year of pheasant production in North Dakota.”
Although Ohio’s pheasant population has been on a gradual decline, there are reasons to be optimistic for 2016, according to Seth Rankin, a Pheasants Forever Farm Bill biologist in the state. Heading into spring, Rankin says that overwinter mortality had little impact on pheasant numbers, thanks to little in the way of severe winter weather, and there appears to be adequate moisture to help generate growth of nesting cover.
Rankin also credits the state’s nine Pheasants Forever Farm Bill biologists for helping build momentum in several vitally important conservation programs like the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) and State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement (SAFE). Not only do the programs help improve soil and water quality, but they are also creating new opportunities for Ohio landowners to put habitat back on the ground.
“Where you find habitat here in Ohio, you can find good localized pockets of pheasants,” Rankin says. “It’s no stretch to say that CRP has kept the Ohio pheasant population afloat.”
Drought conditions have severely impacted pheasant production throughout Oregon in recent years, but Dave Budeau with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife believes the state has finally turned a corner in 2016. “There really is reason to be optimistic, because we have better moisture levels this spring than we have had for a number of years,” says Budeau. “With the moisture comes better cover, more forbs, more insects – all those things that are important for nesting hen pheasants and chicks.”
In 2014, hunters in Oregon recorded the lowest pheasant harvest on record, Budeau says, but that number nearly doubled last year. “Harvest numbers are still below average, but with the moisture we’ve received, I think we’ll see this trend continue in an upward direction,” says Budeau. “Habitat conditions are greatly improved heading into spring.”
Fire, rather than snow or ice, is the main concern across the pheasant range in Oklahoma, which is limited to a 13-county area along the state’s border with Kansas. Drought conditions have fueled a number of large fires, explains Scott Cox, senior upland game biologist with the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation, which have burned hundreds of thousands of acres of grassland habitat in the northwest part of the state.
“We obviously need some rain to help remove some of the fire danger, and we also need the rain to help generate some cover for nesting hen pheasants,” Cox says.
Spring crowing counts in 2015 showed a slight improvement, but Cox says hunter numbers and harvest numbers were both down. “We’ll start this year’s crowing counts in mid- to late April, but at this point it is too early to say what those numbers may look like,” says Cox. “A lot of this depends on whether or not we get some rain.”
A third consecutive winter of mild temperatures and below-normal snowfall over most of the primary pheasant range in South Dakota is helping bird numbers rebound from recent lows. Travis Runia, senior upland game biologist for the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks, expects the overwinter survival rate for hen pheasants to be above normal, and should Mother Nature continue to cooperate with favorable weather conditions during the spring nesting season, the response from pheasants should be positive.
“I think seeing an increase in the pheasant population could happen, but cool temperatures and heavy rain during the nesting season would certainly change that outlook,” Runia says.
Runia says there is sufficient moisture to spur the growth of those cool season grasses utilized by nesting hen pheasants, including the cover found on the 940,000 acres enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program. “Our CRP numbers are holding steady, and the loss of non-CRP grasslands in the state appears to be slowing as well,” says Runia. “Overall, I think we’re sitting in a good place right now.”
Timely rains this spring have helped spur new growth for cover needed by nesting hen pheasants in Washington, and the state is poised to see another year of improving bird numbers. Joey McCanna, game bird specialist with the Washington State Department of Natural Resources, explains that the early moisture is a much-needed change for the state’s pheasant population. “Over the past few years, we have been seeing too much rain during the peak of the hatch,” says McCanna, “and then things would really start to dry out, impacting forb growth, insects, and brood survival.”
McCanna says that Washington’s pheasant population started to rebound last year, when the state experienced the first good hatch in several years. Where hunters found pockets of good habitat last fall, they found pheasants in good numbers, McCanna says, and overwinter conditions were very mild, meaning little in the way of winter mortality.
Crowing surveys will begin on April 15, and McCanna is optimistic about what those numbers will show for 2016. “With a little more help from Mother Nature, I think the stage is set for Washington to see another year of improved pheasant numbers,” says McCanna. “Things are looking really good right now.”
Spring arrived early in Wisconsin, where habitat conditions in southern and western regions of the state appear to be good, says Mark Witecha, an upland wildlife ecologist with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. Habitat loss seems to have leveled off throughout Wisconsin’s pheasant range, Witecha says, and landowner interest in federal conservation programs remains.
“The mild temperatures and moderate snow levels we experienced should help boost pheasant overwinter survival in those areas with suitable habitat,” says Witecha. “Coming out of winter there is reason for optimism, especially if we can avoid cool, rain weather during the nesting season.”
Written by John Pollmann
Photo Credit: Steven Earley