Habitat & Conservation,Hunting & Heritage  |  04/21/2017

Pheasants Forever 2017 Winter Habitat Report

Several states received ample amounts of snowfall and endured cold temperatures across their pheasant ranges this past winter. While some biologists in states like Oregon and Washington are expecting lower than normal overwinter survival, they are quick to note that, with the right spring weather, all that excess moisture could serve as a boon to upland bird populations by stimulating forb growth and insect production – critical elements for nesting and brood-rearing.
Still, the loss of quality habitat and CRP continues to adversely affect states such as North Dakota and Montana, among others, resulting in overall lower population densities. States that continue to partner with Farm Bill biologists and increase their collaborative effort with Pheasants Forever and private landowners, like Minnesota and Iowa, have noticed a difference in populations and hunter harvests. Below is a state-by-state list reporting how pheasant populations are faring following this past winter.


California witnessed a very wet winter, with precipitation well above the average. Portions of the Great Valley, which provide habitat for pheasant, were flooded in January. “Fortunately, this rain also stimulated the growth of grass and forb species,” said upland game bird biologist Katherine Miller, “which should provide plenty of cover as we enter the breeding season.”
Occasional rain showers through March and April could vastly improve vegetation growth for food, cover, and an abundance of insects, critical to the diet of females and young birds.


Though Colorado experienced no serious winter weather patterns worthy of concern, habitat conditions remain dry, which could affect nesting cover development. “Ideal conditions are spring snow or rain that recharges soil moisture,” said small game manager Ed Gorman, “which is key to development of nesting and early brood cover. Regular rainfall in summer maintains brood habitat and results in good winter security cover.”
Colorado Parks and Wildlife partnered with Pheasants Forever chapters to initiate “Corners for Conservation” in 2016. The program continues through 2017 and will create habitat on sprinkler “pivot” corners, which opens them to public hunting access through Colorado’s Walk-In Access Program. Eight-four corners were seeded in 2016, and 120 are on tap for 2017.
“Our [pheasant] outlook is good, but precipitation will be necessary as we move into nesting and brooding season,” Gorman said.


Last year’s abundant pheasant population in Idaho produced excellent hunting opportunities, and, for the most part, hunters were pleased with what they were seeing afield. Anecdotal reports for the 2016-2017 season suggest pheasant populations were similar to or above 2015-16.
However, winter conditions across the state were quite severe with cold temperatures and above average snow. Eastern Idaho was hit particularly hard with well above average snowfall. “Extended periods of cold temperatures and deep snow likely negatively impacted pheasant and quail populations, particularly in eastern Idaho,” said upland game and migratory bird coordinator Jeff Knetter. “However, snow levels likely pushed birds to lower elevations where food was more abundant. Additionally, snow depths limited hunter access to birds. Those birds that made it through January should fare pretty well this spring.”
Given the winter precipitation levels received, Knetter expects abundant vegetative growth, which he hopes will translate to excellent nesting and brood-rearing conditions. “Ideally, spring temperatures and consistent precipitation will occur without persistent drying and increased temperatures as we enter spring and summer conditions,” he said. “Cool, wet weather during the hatching period—mid-May to mid-June—is extremely detrimental to game bird populations in Idaho.”
Idaho had a 36-percent acceptance rate during the last general CRP sign-up (49). “Due to this low acceptance rate, we are seeing an increased interest by landowners in our two SAFE projects (Columbian sharp-tailed grouse and western game birds),” Knetter said. “Staff biologists continue to work with landowners to find options to keep habitat on the ground.”


The overall pheasant harvest numbers and population have declined dramatically in Illinois over the last 50 years. During the 2015-16 season, fewer than 14,000 hunters harvested 24,700 roosters. According to agriculture and grassland program manager Stan McTaggart, to stop the decline and begin increasing the number of pheasant across the state, land use would need to shift away from corn and soybeans to incorporate more grasslands and small grains like wheat and oats. “The use of cover crops, enrollment of marginal acres into the Conservation Reserve Program and delayed mowing of roadsides, waterways and idle areas can also help the outlook for pheasant in Illinois,” he said.
Illinois’s winter was warmer and drier than average. Temperatures across the state were 5 degrees above normal from November through February. The state received 3.4 inches below normal precipitation, meaning pheasant should have fared pretty well. “There was some freezing rain and ice accumulation across central Illinois in late December,” McTaggart said, “but it didn’t last very long and should not have hurt populations.
“I’d like to see ‘average’ conditions with seasonal temperatures and normal precipitation,” McTaggart said. “If we can avoid the extremes for temperature and precipitation, it will be beneficial for pheasant and other species of grassland birds and wildlife.”
Illinois was allocated an additional 15,000 acres for the State Acres for Wildlife (SAFE – CP38) practice. This practice targets grassland birds like the ring-necked pheasant in priority areas of the Grand Prairie Natural Division. In December 2016, Illinois also had over 85,000 acres enrolled in USDA’s Pollinator Habitat (CP42) practice. These acres provide good habitat for pollinators, as well as pheasant, quail and many other species of wildlife. Illinois residents can contact their local FSA/NRCS Office for more information on areas eligible for the Pollinator Habitat or SAFE practices of CRP.


Iowa harvest figures were a 6-year high for pheasant in 2015. The number of hunters afield increased and so did the amount of bagged birds. Though no official data will be available until late May, upland wildlife research biologist Todd Bogenschutz expects that 2016 figures will even likely surpass the exceptional numbers seen the previous year.
The northwest and north-central regions of the state received above-average snowfall through the end of February. The northeast and west-central saw normal amounts of snow, while snowfall for the remainder of the state was well below normal. As a result, Bogenshutz anticipates above-normal overwinter survival in the central and east-central portions of the state and normal to perhaps slightly below normal in other regions. 
A warm and dry spring would be ideal to continue the increase we've seen in both pheasant and quail populations the last several years,” Bogenshutz said. “Barring no severe late spring blizzards and a good nesting season, pheasant and quail populations should continue to rebound in Iowa.”
The state’s new Iowa Habitat and Access Program (IHAP)  www.iowadnr.gov/ihap was very successful in 2016 with all grant funds obligated. Approximately 23,000-plus acres of private land CRP are being managed for wildlife and open to public hunting. Iowa recently received an extra allocation of CRP (115,000 acres) for State Acres For wildlife Enhancement (SAFE - CP38) in January and all acres were enrolled last week. “There is a lot of demand for CRP in Iowa,” Bogenshutz said.


Wildfires swept across much of Kansas in March, burning nearly 1 million acres. Upland birds can overcome losses from such fires. Also, removal of invasive trees can be a positive to birds in the long-term; however, according to small game specialist Jeff Prendergast, recovery from the wildfire this year will be reliant on adequate rainfall to stimulate regrowth and establish cover going into the spring.
Hunter surveys are still in progress but preliminary numbers indicate there were more pheasant and quail hunters, as well as higher harvest figures, this year compared to last. Additionally, spring counts of pheasants are expected to increase given the good production last year with no major winter storms to cause range wide mortality.
Kansas is far enough south that winter weather rarely impacts their pheasant populations, although long-lasting heavy snow or ice has been known to impact quail. Kansas had a relatively mild winter with almost no measurable snowfall across the state. The western half of the state would greatly benefit from spring precipitation over the next two months to recharge soil moisture and produce the needed vegetation for production. Currently, nearly 70 percent of the state is registering on the drought monitor as abnormally dry or worse. This includes areas of southwest Kansas that had some of the greatest densities of both pheasants and quail.
Kansas’ pheasant initiative kicked off last year and includes two focus areas including portions of Norton, Mitchell, and Osborne counties. The program has received large interest from surrounding landowners.


Minnesota experienced a fairly mild winter and, as a result, upland game project leader Nicole Davros expects overwinter pheasant survival should be above average. “We had a very wet late summer and fall 2016, which resulted in some corn not being harvested before winter,” she said. “Therefore, there should have been plenty of food to get birds through winter in many areas.”
A lack of deep, persistent snow means most grassland habitat should remain in relatively good condition going into spring. Dry, warm conditions in April and May will be beneficial for first nesting attempts, which typically have the largest clutch sizes and therefore the best potential for helping populations grow. “Our peak hatch typically occurs during the first half of June so we’d also like to see warm, dry conditions during this time to aid chick survival in the first few weeks post-hatching,” Davros said.
Minnesota DNR released its second report card for the Pheasant Summit Action Plan in January. The plan outlines an aggressive set of short- and long-term steps to increase and improve habitat for pheasants and opportunities for hunting. The Walk-in Access Program continues to provide public hunting opportunities on private land. In 2016, nearly 21,000 acres of land across 212 sites were enrolled in the program. The program continues to seek permanent funding to continue beyond 2018.


The northern-most two tiers of counties in Missouri continue to hold the best pheasant populations, according to small game coordinator Dave Hoover. Mild winter weather conditions prevailed throughout the state, with only a little snow and a couple weeks of very cold temperatures. Such conditions should provide for good carryover in pheasant populations in areas of quality habitat. 
“Average spring and summer precipitation with seasonable temperatures should enable pheasant reproduction to sustain current population numbers in areas with quality habitat,” Hoover said. “Diverse native grass fields with a mixture of cropland and little tree cover should experience the best reproduction.”


This past Montana winter seemed rather typical compared to the previous two years of mild winters, according to north-central Montana habitat specialist Jake Doggett. “December and January were below average temperature-wise across most of north-central Montana and as much as 10 degrees colder than average in certain parts of the region. These average temperatures were due to several week-long cold spells where temperatures remained below freezing for up to two weeks at a time. Each cold spell was accompanied by several inches of snow which raised concerns over food availability for pheasants.”
Pheasants likely suffered some losses but no more than normal over the course of an average winter, Doggett believes. Due to acceptable amounts of precipitation over the winter months, soil moisture is likely ideal for growing season. “So far, warmer March temperatures, good precipitation over the winter months, and also numerous light spring rains expected for late spring suggest things are looking as good as we can hope for this year in this part of the state,” Doggett said. “We are hoping for and expecting a good warm spring for all upland game bird species this year in north-central Montana. If all continues to goes well, we should see good nesting efforts.”
In the northeast corner of Montana, winter conditions have fluctuated considerably over the past three-and-a-half months according to northeast habitat specialist Ken Plourde. “Fall was much milder than average right up until early December, when significant snowfall and below zero temperatures set in,” he said. Those conditions remained until mid-January. In February, temperatures were above average and the region saw much of the snow melt early. “Overall most of February was a significant reprieve from the challenging winter conditions earlier in the season,” Plourde said.
Last year, Montana’s Upland Game Bird Enhancement Program (UGBEP) began offering Habitat Management Leases to private landowners who had existing high quality game bird habitat on their properties. “With 400,000 acres of CRP set to expire in Montana this year, many landowners are interested in the program,” Plourde said, “and we may be able to conserve some good habitat that is currently threatened with conversion back to cropland. As always, we also offer a number of other habitat enhancement and conservation opportunities to landowners through the UGBEP, and all projects we do are open to some public hunting in the fall.”


Winter in Nebraska was mild with below average snowfall in most parts of the state according to upland game program manager Dr. Jeffrey Lusk. “There were a few locally severe snow storms, but these were usually short lived,” he said. “Given weather over the winter and no spring data available yet, and depending on spring and summer conditions, I expect a strong breeding population and hope for a good production year.”
The Berggren Pheasant Plan was approved by the Board of Commissioners last year in Nebraska and a new program manager was hired to push implementation forward.  The plan can be viewed at: http://outdoornebraska.gov/pheasantplan/

North Dakota

North Dakota experienced a snowy and cold December and January throughout much of the state, though the worst weather occurred in the central portion. “Our traditional pheasant hotspot in the southwest was not hit so hard with snow,” said upland game management biologist Rodney Gross, Jr. “Some loss in the population has occurred, but with good weather this spring, birds could rebound nicely.
“We hope for [spring] conditions that promote strong vegetation growth for nesting and brood rearing cover. A spring that has enough precipitation and warmer temperatures not only promotes vegetation growth, it creates a good insect hatch, which is vital to newly hatched chicks in their first two weeks of life,” Gross said. “We do not want a spring that is too wet, too cold, or too dry. Those conditions do not bode well for pheasant reproductive success.”
Pheasant numbers will more than likely be down coming out of this winter, according to Gross. “However, if we have a successful spring and summer for nesting and brood rearing,” he said, “our numbers should be similar to last year. We are still losing habitat at a fast rate, which is the biggest threat to pheasants in North Dakota.”


Hunter effort, days hunted and success in Ohio has remained steady since the 2013-2014 season, according to wildlife biologist Mark Wiley, though the overall number of pheasant hunters has declined. In areas of the state where wild pheasants persist, fair to good bird numbers will continue to be found within suitable habitat, Wiley believes. “Much depends on a successful nesting season in 2017,” he said.
Ohio experienced a fairly mild winter, which should benefit pheasant populations. “I hope for uneventful weather this spring and summer,” Wiley said. “Inclement spring and summer weather can be detrimental to pheasant reproduction. June flooding likely destroyed many nests and broods in both 2015 and 2016.”
Pheasant SAFE (State Acres For wildlife Enhancement) remains popular across the pheasant range in Ohio. The state’s larger CREP (Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program) areas (Scioto River Watershed, Lake Erie Watershed) continue to support relatively strong pheasant populations in some counties.


Winter conditions in Oklahoma winter were fairly mild, though one ice storm likely claimed a few birds according to upland game biologist Derek Wiley. Ice did not cover the ground long enough to cause severe damage to pheasant populations. However, fires across northwestern Oklahoma have the state concerned for quail, pheasants and prairie chickens. “With a little rainfall, bird populations up there should bounce back nicely,” Wiley said. 
“A cool wet spring and summer, similar to what we have had the last couple of years, would be ideal for production,” Wiley said. “Provided a little moisture, we should see excellent population numbers heading into breeding season and, provided an average to above-average hatch, we should have good recruitment for the fall.”


Winter temperatures in Oregon varied from normal to colder than average with normal or above normal precipitation. Northeast Oregon experienced deep snow, which persisted all winter, so upland game bird coordinator Dave Budeau expects overwinter survival will likely be lower than average in that region. However, there is some good news: “Above average precipitation and snow pack throughout eastern Oregon should result in some of the best habitat conditions in many years,” he said.
Ample snowfall limited hunter access during the late season, according to Budeau, which contributed to lower harvest rates—overall an approximate 34 percent decrease from the previous season for pheasant.
Still, normal precipitation through most of April in Oregon, with warmer temperatures and a lack of significant cold precipitation during peak hatch in May and early June, could result in optimum reproductive conditions, according to Budeau. “With increased winter precipitation and snow pack, increased grass and forb growth and insect abundance is expected,” he said, “which should benefit nesting and brood survival.”

South Dakota

Harsh winter conditions in north-central South Dakota may have a noticeable negative impact on the pheasant population next fall, according to upland game biologist Travis Runia. “A severe winter storm on Christmas day brought heavy icing and direct mortality to pheasants was observed,” he said. “Fortunately, even in north-central South Dakota where a substantial snow pack accumulated, unseasonably warm temperatures in late February did ease the stressful situation for pheasants. For the rest of the state, more snowfall occurred than the last 3 years, but overall conditions were not severe enough to have a major influence on the pheasant population.”
Normal temperatures and precipitation from April through early June are ideal for pheasant production in South Dakota.  Adequate moisture is needed to grow vegetation, which pheasants use for nesting and brood-rearing. However, too much moisture can result in reduced nest success and lower chick survival. In central and western portions of the state, where the climate is drier, above normal precipitation is beneficial by growing taller than normal cover for nesting and brood-rearing activities. In the far eastern portion of the state, where the climate is much wetter, slightly below average precipitation is ideal.


Texas experienced a record-low in pheasant populations in 2013 following 3 years of historical consecutive drought throughout the panhandle region, where the majority of pheasants are located. In 2013, during roadside surveys, biologists estimated .37 birds per route. “The crops weren’t there, said upland game bird program leader Robert Perez. “CRP available in agricultural areas in pheasant region was emergency grazed.” In 2014, populations started to increase and have continued to fare well. “This past November and early December, we saw 6.3 per route,” Perez said. “In 2013, they were virtually gone in those counties. We kept saying they were going to come back.”
Diligent pheasant hunters did find success this past year in northern Texas. “We think each year we will get better and birds will increase the population,” Perez said. “It has been a struggle but we are on an upward track.”
Texas never received any detrimental winter weather events, and nothing to slow recovery trends. In fact, according to Perez, staff in the field believe 6.3 pheasant per route was an underestimate, and that numbers were actually higher. “Since the survey started in 1977,” Perez said, “nearly 30 birds per route was the high. In regard to the 10-year average, it is 11.8 birds, so we are not far from average.
“We had great winter with ample moisture,” Perez said. “Weather experts are saying we will receive a neutral spring—regular spring and regular summer—so we will take that. Climatologists say that, and I expect we will get reproduction and we will continue to see pheasant numbers climb.”


Washington was inundated by snow and cold temperatures this winter, which negatively affected bird populations. “We have had deep snow in some areas, and now we are receiving a lot of rain,” said small game section manager Angelique Curtis. “We don’t know how spring will hold up. We are hoping landscapes will dry out and the weather will stay warm. Right now, pheasants are having to do a lot of work to get some food.”
Even at lower elevations, where birds typically find ample cover from predators, snowpack remains or, during earlier growth stages, cover was weighted down, so it remains bent over and not ideal for nesting. However, there is a positive side to this situation: should spring remain warm and fairly dry, ample moisture will increase grass and forb growth and produce insects for feeding during nesting and brood-rearing seasons.
After severe wildfires in summer 2015, Washington saw an increase this past season from the previous two. “There was an upswing in population,” Curtis said. “Also, most wildfires didn’t touch habitat, so we had a great bumper year this year, indicated by harvest trends, which were higher than last two years.”


Wisconsin DNR maintains a state game farm that produces approximately 75,000 pheasants per year, which are released and hunted on public land and remain a large percentage of harvested birds in the state. In terms of wild birds, last year’s brood-rearing season in Wisconsin fell victim to some fairly extreme rain events, and their subsequent pheasant brood surveys indicated low production.
Still, Wisconsin experienced its third consecutive mild winter, both in terms of snow depth and temperature. “Where wild population and adequate winter cover still exist, both quail and pheasants should have fared well this winter,” Witecha said.
Pheasant have seen significant declines in recent years due to loss of habitat and are restricted to southern and western portions of the state. However, in light of the past three mild winters, Witecha predicts a positive growth trend, assuming nesting conditions remain conducive for breeding.


Annual harvest in southeast Wyoming has steadily increased since 2012, and crow counts have increased since 2014 according to Wheatland wildlife biologist Martin Hicks. Timely precipitation in the spring has helped with production since 2013, and opening weekend harvest data also indicates the wild population experienced a significant increase following that period.
Winter in southeast Wyoming, for the most part, was average. “There was one major snow storm that hit at the end of February that possibly resulted in some mortality to the population,” Hicks said, “but the storm was followed by high winds that blew the snow away helping to open fields within one week of the storm, which helped to reduce further mortalities to the pheasant population.”
The outlook is good for wild pheasants in southeast Wyoming, Hicks believes. “By no means is this the pheasant capital of the western United States,” Hicks said, “but with the Wyoming Fish and Game Department’s Access Yes program, there is some opportunity to hunt wild birds on accessible lands.”

Story by Jack Hennessy. Hennessy is a freelance outdoors journalist based out of Minneapolis and the author of the blog “Braising the Wild.” Follow him on Twitter and Instagram: @WildGameJack or on Facebook at Facebook.com/BraisingtheWild.