Summer Pheasant Report

d9392d2d-fd64-4db8-8c85-756ffcde6abe By Tom Carpenter

As summer reaches its midpoint, every pheasant hunter’s thoughts start turning to autumn’s prospects. The sun hangs just a titch lower in the sky. Dog work intensifies a smidge. Shooting takes on a notch more significance.

While it may be too early for a full-fledged hunting prediction (Pheasant’s Forever’s Fall Hunt Forecast, out in early September, will take care of that), it is a good time to take a pre-season look at conditions and habitat on the ground, and maybe get a little look at what might be coming this autumn.

We talked to wildlife managers across pheasant range and pulled together this comprehensive summer report. As with every year, the news varies from region to region and state by state. But this rundown will give you a little summer pheasant fix … and help you keep dreaming and start planning.


California

“Many areas of California experienced 200% of average annual precipitation last winter,” says Matt Meshriy, Environmental Scientist with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Upland Game Program. “That effectively ended five consecutive years of drought conditions in the state.  All that rainfall benefited pheasant habitat for spring cover, which also benefits foraging and brood rearing. The rainfall also ensures that water transfers to agricultural growing areas around the state will be greatly improved over 2016-17.”

“Spring conditions were favorable for nesting and brood rearing,” he adds. “Temperatures were seasonal to mild, and intermittent rain events persisted late -- well into April and May.”

“While the pheasant hatch in California may be somewhat limited by low population densities, habitat conditions are much improved from last year, and brood success rates are expected to be much higher than that of 2016-17,” says Meshriy.

For hunters starting to plan for fall 2017, Meshriy offers some additional insights: “The Great California Valley has traditionally been tops for pheasants. But in recent years, some of the best pheasant hunting in our state has been near the California/Oregon border as populations on and adjacent to the Klamath National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) have been stable to expanding.”


Colorado

“Generally speaking, the 2016-17 pheasant season was good in Colorado” reports Ed Gorman, Small Game Manager with Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW). “Bird populations were high, but early in the season conditions were very dry and difficult for hunting.  Yet by the end, a harvest of 51,336 pheasants reflected an increase of 15.2% over 2015-16.”

A good hunt was followed by an unremarkable winter. “It was mostly dry with no severe winter storms that had an impact of pheasant populations,” says Gorman. 

Regarding the overall outlook on pheasants and pheasant habitat in Colorado, Gorman says, “As of today – it’s good. Our crowing counts were second highest on record, but production and recruitment will ultimately determine fall pheasant population levels.  At this point it looks good, but it’s too early to say much beyond that.” By the time Pheasants Forever’s Fall Hunt Forecast rolls around, we’ll know much more.
 
Recruitment is still a question, and there is a chance for a good hatch, but time will tell. “Until late March Colorado was very dry, which can be concerning because it slows down the development of our most productive nesting habitat, green wheat,” says Gorman. “However, April and May turned extremely wet, resulting in extremely good nesting and early brood cover.  June dried out but habitat has not been impacted yet.”

For pheasant hunters in or coming to Colorado, Gorman has a few insights. “Colorado's core pheasant range includes the counties of Sedgwick, Logan, Phillips, Yuma and Kit Carson.  Depending on the year, portions of Washington, Morgan and Baca can be sleeper spots that tend to attract fewer hunters than the more traditional areas.”

Colorado has some good habit initiatives on the ground and in the works. “CPW and Pheasants Forever recently completed year 2 of the Corners for Conservation Initiative,” says Gorman, “which combines habitat creation with hunting access.  To date, 200 sprinkler corners have been enrolled and seeded with highly diverse wildlife cover.  All properties will be published in the 2017 Late Cropland Walk-In Access.”

“Colorado also recently completed its inaugural Upland SAFE Acres for Wildlife Enhancement (SAFE) signup through the USDA's Conservation Reserve Program,” adds Gorman. “Across the project area, Colorado landowners enrolled over 20,000 acres into the SAFE in roughly 6 days.  On many of these enrollments, habitat establishment will begin this winter and next spring.”


Idaho

“In general, we had an above average winter for snowfall, and spring was wet here too,” reports Jeff Knetter, Upland Game and Waterfowl Staff Biologist with the Idaho Department of Fish & Game (IDFG). “Moisture on our landscape typically translates to good hatches and above- average upland game bird populations. I am very optimistic about fall game bird populations,” including ring-necked pheasants.

“But it is important to note,” he adds, “that pheasant populations are down from historic levels in Idaho. That being said, they remain one of the most popular game birds in the state. The best hunting occurs on private land.”

With the moisture. “habitat conditions for all game birds throughout the state should be fantastic this year,” is the way Knetter sums things up. ‘That is, provided we do not get hit with large wildfires on rangelands.” 

Regarding habitat initiatives in Idaho, Sal Palazzo, Private Lands / Farm Bill Program Coordinator with IDFG, says: “We are seeing significant landowner interest in our two SAFE initiatives.  Our eastern SAFE, which is focused on Columbian sharp-tailed grouse, will reach its acreage cap this fall, at 147,300 acres.  Our western Idaho SAFE (State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement), which is focused on pheasants and other gamebirds, is nearing 5,000 acres enrolled, with several more applications in-process.”


Illinois

“We do not have statewide estimates of last year’s hunting effort or harvest at this time,” says Stan McTaggart, Agriculture and Grassland Program Manager for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR). “But data from IDNR Pheasant Habitat Areas and Free Upland Permit sites show a small decrease in the number of pheasant harvested and birds/hunter.”

Looking ahead, “the winter of 2016-17 was relatively mild in Illinois, with very little prolonged snow-cover,” says McTaggart. “Winter weather should not have adversely affected pheasant populations.”

“Precipitation in the spring of 2017 (March, April and May) was above-average statewide, with some local areas experiencing heavy rain events,” reports McTaggart. “Some nests and broods were likely lost due to heavy rains and flooding. Temperature in 2017 has been above average every month except May. It is likely that some birds initiated nesting a little earlier than normal this year.”

“Although we have not analyzed this year’s call-count/survey data (the survey window just ended on July 10), the long-term trend in Illinois shows decreasing pheasant abundance (-4%/year since 1966 and -9.3%/year in 2003 – 2013),” says McTaggart. “Land use in the state continues to convert pasture, hayfields and small grains to more corn and soybeans.” 

“On the positive side,” he points out, “Illinois is number two in the country for the number of Pollinator Habitat (CP42) acres enrolled through the USDA, with 96,446 acres as of May 2017. And we have just under 900,000 acres of CRP overall.”

“East-central Illinois generally has the best pheasant populations,” says McTaggart, “but wild pheasant can be found in the northern two-thirds of the state where quality grassland is found. CRP acres that have been enrolled in the last 3-5 years are generally good places to start if you can gain access to private land. This is especially true for areas seeded to native grasses and forbs that can provide excellent brood cover and habitat diversity.”
 
“We were also recently allocated an additional 15,000 acres for the State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement (SAFE or CP38), that targets priority areas for grassland restoration,” says McTaggart. “There are currently over 20,000 acres of SAFE already established in Illinois.”


Iowa

“We don’t have the final harvest count yet, but all preliminary and anecdotal evidence from last fall’s pheasant season was good,” reports Todd Bogenschutz, Upland Game Biologist/Farmbill Coordinator with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR). “Harvest, and hunter numbers, should be slightly up. 2015 was the best in 7 or 8 years, and I think 2016 will come in a little better.”

“And then, generally, we did pretty well last winter,” Bogenschutz continues. “Snowfall was normal or below normal for most of the state – up to a foot less. That was good for both pheasant and quail survival. The northwest and north-central parts of the state received more snow – about the normal level. Overall we came into nesting season in good shape, with decent numbers of birds on the ground.”

That brings us to nesting. Says Bogenshutz: “I typically start by looking at nesting in April and May. But we came into a March that was like April this year, from some brood reports I have seen and heard. Then May got cool and rainy, but June came back sunny and warm. That’s when a lot of the hatch is occurring anyway, and that should bode well. There was good anecdotal evidence of a decent pheasant hatch.”

But post-winter bird counts were still decent in that harder-hit northwest/north-central zone, so with a good hatch, bird numbers could be strong there too.

“We will know more about the hatch after August roadside count,” says Bogenschutz. That will tell more of the tale of what to expect for Hawkeye ringneck hunting this fall. Pheasants Forever is going to make trip down to go on a count survey route in August, so stay tuned for that report.

Where to hunt pheasants in Iowa? “Generally the best pheasant country is a band venturing from the northwest corner, and somewhat the north-central, diagonally across the state southeastwards to Sigourney,” describes Bogenschutz. “Pheasant populations are lower in the northeast, southwest and south-central,” but there are pockets with birds.

As for habitat, “The farm bill is key in Iowa,” says Bogenschutz. “That’s what drives our grassland. Not many farmers do small grains such as oats anymore. There is little hay ground. We were at 2 million acres of CRP, it went down to 1.5 million, and now it is back up at about 1.7 million. That’s more fortunate than places like North Dakota and Montana. Coupled with mild winters as of late, bird numbers are good.”


Kansas

“Upland hunters in Kansas harvested about 422,000 roosters in the 2016-17 season, up from 2015-16 season,” reports Jeff Prendergast, Small Game Specialist with the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism. “Hunter success was relatively high, and hunter numbers remain below average.”

Winter wasn’t a factor. “Winter weather in Kansas is rarely severe enough to cause any major population effects, and this winter there were no severe events of concern,” says Prendergast. 

That brings us to nesting and production. “Rainfall throughout spring was heavy, providing ample cover for nesting and brood rearing,” says Prendergast. “A heavy snowstorm did occur the first weekend in May in far western Kansas, and that may have caused nest abandonment for hens in areas impacted.”

“Habitat across the state is generally good to great,” adds Prendergast. “However, extreme weather events that have been occurring this spring and early summer, for example that May snowstorm, and we may have localized to regional impacts on fall bird densities.” 

For the traveling hunter, Prendergast provide the following insights: “Northwest and Southwest traditionally have the highest pheasant densities, but Southwest had the highest crow survey this year. The Northwest appears to be still recovering from losses during the drought.”

Related to that recovery, “the statewide pheasant crow index has returned above pre-drought averages, and North-Central and South-Central are both relatively above the long-term average,” says Prendergast. “The Kansas pheasant initiative is ongoing in focus areas in Northwest and North-Central Kansas. The recovery from drought conditions is currently the largest factor influencing our rapidly increasing pheasant populations.”

 

Michigan

“Michigan’s most recent small game hunter survey indicates that approximately 23,000 people hunt pheasants and spend about 100,000 days afield each year and harvest nearly 22,000 wild roosters,” says Al Stewart, Wildlife Biologist and Upland Game Bird Specialist with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

“Winter weather conditions showed similar to intermittent conditions from the previous year,” says Stewart. “The winter weather during 2016-17 was not as severe as the 2015-16 season, and conditions for pheasants were not considered to be harsh.  Temperatures were normal for much of the winter with less deep snow than in 2014.  Generally, pheasant numbers in Michigan increase with mild winters (less than 19 inches snowfall) and decline with snowy winters (30+ inches snowfall).”

“Weather during the nesting and brood rearing period has shown average conditions with above normal precipitation,” says Stewart. “While temperatures were not cold during this period, the above-normal rainfall may impact brood survival and size.  Pheasant numbers increase with warm, dry springs (less than 6 inches rainfall) and decline with cold wet springs (8+ inches rainfall).”

As with other states, more news will be available after late-summer surveys are complete. “Mail-carrier brood surveys will be conducted in August and more information will be available at that time,” confirms Stewart.

As with anywhere, habitat equals birds in Michigan. “Statewide bird numbers are projected to be similar to last year,” Stewart says. “Based on current information, hunters should expect similar pheasant numbers as in 2016 or slightly better. While pheasant numbers are far below the historical high levels of the 1950s and 1960s, pheasants still are widely distributed in southern Lower Michigan and in some areas of the Upper Peninsula.”

“Some of the best pheasant habitat is located on private lands and public lands within the Michigan Pheasant Restoration Initiative (MPRI) areas,” says Stewart. “Funding from the Wildlife Habitat Grant Program (WHGP), with a portion of hunter dollars, have provided resources to conservation organizations such has Pheasants Forever and Michigan Association of Conservation Districts to assist the DNR-Wildlife Division with development and improvements of quality habitat and food plots for upland game birds in prominent pheasant territory.” 

“Some of the highest pheasant numbers in Michigan are reported in the central, south-central and thumb regions of the state,” says Stewart. “Our Hunting Access Program (HAP) enrollment currently has 135 properties, totaling 15,710 acres. “Bringing back quality pheasant hunting to Michigan is one way the DNR plans to create world-class recreational opportunities with funding from hunting and trapping license sales.” 

“The Michigan Department of Natural Resources, along with many conservation partners such as Pheasants Forever, continues to expand our pheasant restoration initiative (MPRI),” says Stewart. “During the last five years, the activities associated with this initiative have expanded small game hunting opportunities on both public and private lands, increased wildlife populations, improved hunter satisfaction and helped Michigan's economy.”

Landowners are encouraged to get involved with the MPRI, in which Pheasants Forever is a partner. Through this initiative, property owners can get technical and financial assistance, plus help in forming local cooperatives to create and enhance pheasant habitat.


Minnesota

“We don’t have our official harvest numbers for last season yet,” reports Nicole Davros, Wildlife Research Scientist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Farmland Wildlife Group in Madelia, Minnesota. “We sold just over 77,000 pheasant stamps, which was similar to the 2015-16 hunting season. It’s hard to know what our harvest estimate will be. But our hunters were generally happy with the season in terms of weather and the number of birds they saw. Yet, reported success rates were quite mixed.”

“We had yet another fairly mild winter by Minnesota standards,” adds Davros. “Pheasant survival was good, so we had had lots of hens available for nesting this year.” 

“Our general outlook for this reproductive season is looking very good so far,” says Davros, “mostly due to the weather. Many of our wildlife managers are reporting seeing more adults this early summer than they have in the past several years, thanks to the mild winter. We have had enough rain in most areas early on to produce lush vegetation and lots of bugs for chicks to feed on.”

“Air temperatures have fluctuated quite a bit but,” she adds, “but luckily, we didn’t have cold weather mixed with rain at the same time. That combination (cold and rain) can really hurt chick survival so it’s something we worry about but things have been good so far.”

“One important note” Davros says, “is that some areas have had hail storms which may have impacted nesting or early brood rearing. But these types of storms tend to be very localized and aren’t concerning from an overall population standpoint.” 

Spring and summer reproduction drives fall hunting success. “So far, so good,” says Davros in this respect, “but everything so far is just based on anecdotal observations. There’s still plenty of time left in the nesting season too, so hopefully the weather continues to cooperate. Our annual August roadside surveys will give us a better idea of the timing of our hatch and overall reproduction this year.” Watch for that news in Pheasants Forever’s Fall Hunt Forecast.

“On a larger scale,” says Davros, “our number one issue in Minnesota’s farmland region remains the availability of quality nesting habitat. Grassland habitat loss in the form of reduced CRP acres is the leading contributor to this issue over the last decade, but the loss of prairie has been occurring for even longer due to agriculture and development.”

Where to go? “Our western and southwestern regions are traditional destinations simply because that is where the core of our grassland habitat is based,” says Davros, “and where you have grass, you have pheasants. However, other regions should not be overlooked. Opportunities to chase roosters often exist in the central, south central, and even the metro area. Many people are often surprised by the opportunities they can find closer to home – especially in a good weather year like this one, when nesting and brood-rearing success tends to be higher.” The Minnesota DNR has many good maps and resources available online to find public hunting lands.

“Our primary concern remains the availability of grassland habitat,” says Davros. “Pheasants and other grassland birds need undisturbed nesting cover to reproduce successfully. In Minnesota, Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) acres are the number one source of undisturbed nesting cover for our birds, and those acres have been declining steadily over the past several years. Our trend of habitat loss over the past decade has reduced our pheasant population overall, and we need more habitat on the landscape to help our pheasant and other grassland wildlife populations. A renewed Farm Bill with more funding for CRP is needed.”


Missouri

“Missouri’s Small Game Post-Season Harvest Survey is conducted every other year,” says Dave Hoover, Small Game Coordinator with the Missouri Department of Conservation. “Hunt results from the 2016-17 season will not be available until late summer.”

But as a summary of Missouri pheasant hunting in general as of late, “data from the 2014 survey shows that the average daily bag for pheasants was up slightly over 2012. However, total harvest in 2014 was slightly under that of 2012.  Given somewhat favorable brood rearing conditions in 2016 and mild weather during the winter of 2016-17 winter, survival should have been good for 2017 in areas of suitable habitat.” 

“The winter of 2016-17 was very mild, with little or no snowfall and only brief periods of extremely cold temperatures,” says Hoover. That’s a good start.

“As always, pheasant numbers will be better in locations were enough good habitat exists,” says Hoover. “We will have to wait and see how early heavy spring rains (10+ inches over 3 days) in southwest and central Missouri impacted pheasant nesting success. Unfortunately, northwest Missouri also saw untimely heavy rains.  In mid-June (as reports of early broods were starting to surface), much of NW and NC Missouri received anywhere from 7-13 inches of rain in 48 hours, causing significant flooding.”

Where to go? “The regions of the state that were historically prairie and currently still are relatively open with a mixture of grassland, crop land and some shrubby cover are still the pheasant strongholds in Missouri,” says Hoover. 

“The best locations will likely be in the northern 2 tiers of counties,” he concludes. “Despite some of the spring rains, the potential is still there to have a good hatch in these regions. Mother Nature will just have to cooperate a little better than she has so far.”


Montana

Montana’s so big and varied, it needs dual reports.

EAST 

“Data on last year’s pheasant harvest numbers is not yet available,” reports Ken Plourde, Habitat Specialist, with the Upland Game Bird Enhancement Program for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) Region 6. “However, reports from hunters during and after the season indicated mixed results. Some folks struggled while others did quite well.”

“Changes in habitat distribution – CRP – seem especially to have affected many long-time hunters,” says Plourde, “as some traditional pheasant hunting areas are not as good as in the past.”

“Early winter (December and January) in the northeast corner of Montana was moderate and had more snow and cold days than several of the past years,” says Plourde. “These conditions lifted by February and the remainder of winter was mild. We transitioned to an early spring by March. Pheasant populations largely made it through in good shape due to improving conditions by mid-winter.”

“While early spring had good conditions for nesting, rainfall in many areas of eastern Montana has been at or near record lows each of the last several months,” says Plourde. “Moisture last fall and from winter snowmelt provided good early nesting conditions. Nesting may have started well, but the drought effects have grown more severe since early spring and will affect brood production.”

“Good brood rearing habitat, particularly wet riparian areas, are more critical this year than normal,” says Plourde. “Given that these good habitats are limited, pheasant production this year is expected to be lower than the past few years, at least in the eastern portions of the state.”

“Bird populations in this half of Montana have been good the last several years, and came through winter fairly well,” says Plourde. “Although breeding populations looked good, the drought will undoubtedly have some negative effects on brood rearing success. Given the conditions, bird population outlooks this fall are fair in many areas, and may be poor in others.” 

Pheasants Forever’s Fall Hunt Forecast, out in mid-September, will shed more detail when available.

Where to go? “Traditionally the northeastern and central parts of the state (FWP Regions 4 and 6) are the most popular areas for pheasants,” says Plourde, “with many of the best areas along river corridors. Given the drought in eastern Montana this year, hunters may want to look harder at central Montana or other areas where there have been more normal weather conditions.”

“It goes without saying that CRP is the most important program that affects pheasant habitat,” says Plourde, “and the decline in acreage in Montana this fall will likely have significant negative effects on pheasant populations in many areas of the state.”

“Montana is slated to lose about 400,000 acres of CRP this year, roughly 30% of the total CRP left in the state,” concludes Plourde. “There will be some limited new or reenrollments through continuous CRP, as well as some programs aimed at helping producers transfer expiring CRP into grazing land instead of breaking it back into cropland. While these programs will help offset the habitat lost in some local areas, the decline in CRP across the state is going to be tough on bird populations.”

NORTH CENTRAL

“Data on last year’s harvest numbers is not yet available for North Central Montana,” reports Jake Doggett, Upland Game Bird Biologist with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) Region 4. “Anecdotal evidence suggests hunter success was comparable to 2015 and higher than the previous two years. Hunters likely bagged good numbers of pheasants, as well as sharp-tailed grouse and Hungarian partridge, in 2016.”

“Winter 2016-2017 (November through March) seemed rather typical compared to the previous two years of mild winters here’” says 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,” says Doggett. “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 and expected winter mortality rates.”

“Since harsh weather was restricted to realistically short duration weather patterns, winter survival rates are likely normal across much of the region,” he adds. “Warmer, average temperatures in November, February and March, plus warm chinook winds throughout the entire winter and between cold spells, likely mitigated any extreme negative consequences of extremely cold temperatures in December and January.”

“In North Central Montana, habitat conditions overall are looking good,” says Doggett. “Potential for drought-like conditions looms for late summer and early fall, but spring moisture was adequate through most of June. It was another good grass year for upland birds.”

“April through June weather conditions have been somewhat favorable for upland bird production this spring in North Central Montana,” he says. “Temperatures were slightly higher than normal for April, May and June across most of the region; April received slightly more precipitation.”

“Precipitation all spring long came in the form of numerous light showers with the most rainfall occurring during the time many birds were attempting to lay their first nests. The numerous rainfall events were thought to be impacting nesting efforts at the time. However, coupled with warmer temperatures and the fact that most rainfall events were not severe, the weather overall likely had insignificant impacts on nest success” says Doggett. 

“Anecdotal reports suggest peak hatching was a little later than normal in June this spring,” he adds, “with isolated weather events creating irregular outlooks in some areas, as normally occurs in this part of Montana. The month of July has been excessively hot and dry. Time will tell how such weather will impact the hunting outlook early this fall.”

Pheasants Forever’s Fall Hunt Forecast, due out after Labor Day, will dive into those details.


Nebraska

“2016-17’s pheasant hunt produced a harvest of 170,600 roosters by 39,600 hunters,” reports Jeff Lusk, Upland Game Program Manager with the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission. “These numbers represent an increase in harvest of 3%, and hunters by 9%, compared to 2015-16.”

“Our winter was generally mild,” says Lusk. “Cold periods were interspersed with unseasonably warm spells.  There were a few isolated severe snow events. But the snow was short-lived and likely had minimal impact on regional populations.”

As for spring and the first half of summer, “We’ve had adequate rainfall and variable temperatures,” says Lusk. “High temperatures have been in the mid-90s, and there have been few days, if any, of temperatures in the upper 90s, low 100s.” 

“Habitat conditions look fairly good so far,” adds Lusk. “We’ve had adequate early moisture to stimulate growth for nesting and brood-rearing.” 

“For the traveling wingshooter,” Lusk says, “the Southwest and Panhandle regions of Nebraska have the highest relative abundance and reported harvest of pheasants.” 

“The Berggren Plan for Pheasants and the Open Fields and Waters (OFW) program are the most important initiatives in Nebraska,” says Lusk. “The Berggren Plan is a comprehensive management plan for pheasants, with specific goals for habitat and hunting access acres.  As such, it is closely allied with the OFW program, which is our private-lands access program.”


North Dakota

North Dakota has no harvest data from the 2016 season yet, according to Rodney Gross Jr., Upland Game Management Biologist with the North Dakota Game and Fish Department.
“We had record snowfall and cold temperatures in December and January,” reports Gross.

“However, we did get a warm-up in February that opened up some areas where pheasants could find food. Our spring crowing counts were down 14%. This was expected, with below-average production last year and the bad winter.”

“Habitat conditions are poor as of now,” says Gross. “Most of the state is in a severe drought. Pheasant chicks need insects to survive, especially in the first 10 days of life, and without much moisture there will be little to no insect hatch. Outlook on the pheasant hatch is poor. It’s very dry in much of the state. Production will more than likely be below average.”

Habitat is the key. “That means our traditional area that is tops for pheasants is still best – the southwestern part of the state,” says Gross.

The challenges in North Dakota are all about CRP. “At our peak we had over 3 million acres. Now have around 1 million. Pheasant numbers have declined right along with them.”


Ohio


“Pheasant hunter and harvest surveys were not conducted last season,” says Mark Wiley, Wildlife Biologist at the Olentangy Wildlife Research Station, Ohio Department of Natural Resources (DNR). “But hunter anecdotes suggested bird numbers were comparable to recent years.”

“Ohio experienced a mild winter,” adds Wiley, “which should have benefitted the pheasant population. I expect surviving hens were in very good body condition at the start of the breeding season.”

“Spring seemed to come very early in 2017,” says Wiley, “which probably benefitted any early pheasant nests. Unfortunately, heavy rainfall and flooding in much of Ohio’s pheasant range surely caused some nest failure and loss of young broods in June. This is the third year in a row that Ohio’s pheasant range has had heavy rains and flooding in the heart of the nesting season.” 

“Habitat conditions are good within Ohio’s primary wild pheasant range,” says Wiley. “But loss of CRP acres remains a major concern.”

“Ohio’s best regions for wild pheasants are west-central and extreme northwest counties,” says Wiley. “Deer Creek Wildlife Area and Big Island Wildlife Area are good spots. La Su An Wildlife Area in northwest Ohio is also good. Any privately-owned pheasant cover in the Scioto River watershed has the potential to hold wild pheasants.” Hunters must obtain landowner permission to hunt private land. 
  
“Outside of large tracts of publicly owned and managed grasslands (such as State Wildlife Areas), the Scioto River Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) and Lake Erie Watershed CREP have created very good pheasant habitat in Ohio. Scioto River CREP has added approximately 70,000 acres of habitat to the core of Ohio’s pheasant range, while Lake Erie CREP contributes around 50,000 acres. In addition to CREP, approximately 20,000 acres are enrolled in Ohio Pheasant SAFE (State Acres For Wildlife Enhancement) which remains a popular practice with landowners.”


Oklahoma

“We have not yet released the hunter harvest data for 2016-17 for Oklahoma,” says Derek Wiley, Upland Game Biologist with the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation.

“But last year was very good for pheasants, particularly on private land,” adds Wiley. “We do have some public land that holds pheasants. However, the best places to hunt are privately owned.”

“Our winter was warm and dry in most areas,” says Wiley. “We did have a few storms come through. But the precipitation did not stick around very long.  Overall it seemed to be a fairly mild winter. I feel that hunting in Oklahoma will be steady for the majority of the state this year.”

“Early spring brought decent rainfall to much of Oklahoma,” he adds. “However, it has dried up considerably.  Temperatures have soared in some areas.  We are hoping for good production but will not know more until our August/October surveys.  We will know more and our season outlook will come out at the end of October or beginning of November.”

“There are 13 counties open for pheasant hunting in Oklahoma, and they run from Kay county in the East to Cimarron county in the West” says Wiley.

  

“Outside of large tracts of publicly owned and managed grasslands (such as State Wildlife Areas), the Scioto River Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) and Lake Erie Watershed CREP have created very good pheasant habitat in Ohio. Scioto River CREP has added approximately 70,000 acres of habitat to the core of Ohio’s pheasant range, while Lake Erie CREP contributes around 50,000 acres. In addition to CREP, approximately 20,000 acres are enrolled in Ohio Pheasant SAFE (State Acres For Wildlife Enhancement) which remains a popular practice with landowners.”


Oregon

“Pheasant populations in Oregon remain below average,” reports Dave Budeau, Upland Game Bird Coordinator with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. “Pheasant harvest for the 2016 season was estimated 18,583 roosters, which was about 33% below the 2015 harvest and remains below the long-term average.”

“Then came winter. Oregon had much more snow and cold weather that has been experienced for many years.  In some areas, like northeast Oregon, snow persisted for many weeks with extremely cold weather.  We anticipate that pheasants, and other upland game birds, suffered higher than average winter mortality in areas with deep, persistent snow cover,” says Budeau.

But there is some silver lining to all that, according to Budeau. “Above average precipitation and snowpack over the past year should result in good habitat conditions for the eastern two-thirds of the state, where water can be a limiting factor for plant growth and insect abundance.” Some good production should result.

“However, we’re not expecting populations to increase in a huge way due the favorable habitat conditions, because of the low population that entered spring,” says Budeau.

“Still, spring weather conditions were fair to good for nesting and early brood rearing,” adds Budeau. “We have not yet experienced any widespread, significant weather events that would negatively affect nest or brood survival.”

Where to go? “The Columbia Basin and northern Malheur County typically account for over half of the pheasant harvest in the state,” says Budeau. “Malheur County saw a much-reduced harvest in 2016 over the previous year, though.” 

“Farm Bill programs, such as CRP, and in some cases WRP and CREP, have provided the most significant habitat at a landscape scale for birds in Oregon.” Says Budeau. “In some cases, the CRP ground is not as productive as could be (it may lack plant diversity, especially on more arid sites), but it is still likely better than alternatives.”


Pennsylvania

“The Pennsylvania Game Commission continued to raise and release pheasants for hunter harvest last year, as well as maintained wild populations of non-hunted birds within Wild Pheasant Recovery Areas (WPRAs) as in past years,” reports Tom Keller, Wildlife Biologist with the Pennsylvania Game Commission.

But wild birds will be hunted in Pennsylvania this year.

“2017 marks the first year that pheasants will be hunted within a WPRA,” says Keller. “The Central Susquehanna WPRA, which spans Northumberland, Montour, and Columbia counties, will be holding a special youth hunt.  There will be 48 permits available, most of which will be issued through a random drawing.”

“This WPRA youth hunt is an important milestone demonstrating success, in at least one area, of a huntable wild pheasant population being restored,” adds Ian Gregg, Game Management Division Chief with the Pennsylvania Game Commission.

For more information on this special youth hunt, click here

“Most of Pennsylvania experienced a very mild winter in 2016-17” says Keller.  “This was our second year in a row with only one or two significant snow events within the range of our WRPAs, and abnormally warm temperatures, during the winter months.  These events were short, and most birds had easy access to the ground without snow or ice buildup.”

“The 2017 spring in Pennsylvania brought consistent mixes of rain and sun as well as warm temperatures early on,” says Keller. “This has allowed for a phenomenal growing season to date which should provide excellent cover and food for both broods and adults as they head into the fall and winter.”

“Within our Wild Pheasant Recovery Areas we have seen a steady loss of habitat, which means Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) acres.” Says Keller. “We’re currently in the process of analyzing population estimates, but looking at raw data from flushing surveys and spring crowing counts, we have some WPRAs that show strong wild populations, while others have seen declines. As a biologist you always have to have an optimistic outlook though.”

“Historically the southeast and southcentral regions have been the stronghold of wild pheasants in Pennsylvania,” says Keller. “With the agency raise and release program, pheasants can be found throughout the state and available to sportsmen.”

“The CREP program has shown to be one of the most crucial initiatives benefiting both wild pheasants as well as other important grassland bird species in Pennsylvania,” concludes Keller. “Biologists with Pheasants Forever have played a key role in getting habitat established through their tireless effort with dedicated landowners who care about the wildlife resource. Pheasants Forever continues to pursue new CREP contracts within WPRAs in order to sustain and enhance Pennsylvania wild populations of pheasants.”

“In response to the budgetary issues, a $26.90 pheasant hunting permit was instituted to help defray the costs of the remaining pheasant propagation program in Pennsylvania,” adds Gregg. “Junior hunters are exempt but adults planning to hunt pheasants in Pennsylvania this year should be aware of this new requirement.”


South Dakota

Last year, pheasant hunters shot 1,170,000 ringneck roosters in South Dakota. That figure was just down from 2015’s harvest of 1.25 million birds, but close to 2014’s take of 1.19 million roosters.  

Almost 143,000 pheasant hunters walked South Dakota ground in 2016, with about 80,000 of them hailing from out-of-state. Nonresident hunter numbers have dropped in South Dakota since the recent heydays of the mid- to late- 2000s, when upwards of 100,000 visitors hunted annually. 

Traveling hunters should take note of that data point: There’s more room to roam than ever, less competition for space … and 1+ million is still a lot of birds.

As summer takes shape, South Dakota’s fall pheasant prospects are still developing. I asked Travis Runia, Upland Game Biologist with South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks, what he thought looking ahead to this fall. It was too early to tell. “I shouldn’t speculate on this topic until our brood report is released around Labor Day,” he said.

In that regard, hunters should hope for figures better than the 5.91 to 6.17 average brood sizes seen in 2016 and 2015, respectively. Can it happen?

“Most of the primary pheasant range received 30-40 inches of snow, which is near normal,” said Runia. “An early thaw starting in mid-February melted most of the snow pack well before normal.  The exception was the upper Missouri River Valley, which received much above normal snowfall. Some areas received 60 inches or more.”

“Overall, the pheasant population was probably not negatively impacted by winter, except for that north-central part of the state,” said Runia.

Nesting success is going to be key to this fall’s hunt, and Runia ventured some insights. 

“Precipitation during the nesting and early brood-rearing period of April and May was 80% of normal state-wide, but only 40-60% of normal in central and north-central South Dakota,” said Runia. “North-central South Dakota had the fourth driest April-May on record.  The lack of moisture in central and north-central South Dakota has resulted in poor vegetation growth which could reduce concealment cover for nesting pheasants and broods.”

“Many wheat fields failed due to drought conditions,” added Runia. “This will reduce the amount of nesting cover provide by this cereal crop.  As of late June, 57% of South Dakota was under moderate drought or worse, with 31% suffering from severe drought or worse.  The drought is intensifying during the brood-rearing period which can cause reduced chick survival.”

“The August roadside survey is the best gauge of the pheasant population,” said Runia. “Results of the survey will be available by Labor Day,” and will be included in Pheasant Forever’s Fall Hunt Forecast.

If you’re starting to think about a South Dakota hunt this fall, Runia offered some general guidelines. 

“Pheasant harvest was highest in central South Dakota in the Missouri River Valley last year, followed by the James River Valley,” he said. “These areas traditionally boast the highest pheasant abundance. But far eastern counties and portions of western South Dakota also have locally good populations.” 

“Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) grasslands are the most important pheasant production habitat in South Dakota,” concluded Runia. “Current acreage is slightly less than 1 million acres, about 500,000 acres lower than a decade ago.  It is hopeful that the next Farm Bill will contain provisions to improve opportunity for South Dakota producers to enroll in this highly effective and popular conservation program.”


Texas

Texas may be better known for longhorns, whitetails and quail, but it’s got roosters too.

“We have 37 counties’ worth of pheasant range,” says Robert Perez, Upland Game Bird Program Leader with Texas Parks and Wildlife. “Dallam County (starting in the Dalhart area) is the center of our best pheasant range. Heading down that western half of the panhandle puts you in the best 12 counties of that 37-county range. It’s the agricultural area of the panhandle.”  

Looking toward this year’s hunt, it starts with analyzing last winter. “There was not a lot of snow,” reports Perez, “but we did get some decent moisture for the habitat. Birds already on the ground came through strong.”

As for nesting conditions. “spring and summer moisture has been hit or miss,” says Perez. “Spring seemed warm enough in Texas’s pheasant range. In fact, the past three springs have been good generally. Where we had good rains, pheasant populations should be good.”

Drought has been an issue, though. “The drought leading up to 2013 was the worst since the 1950s, and the 37 counties of pheasant range in the Texas panhandle saw severe drops in pheasant populations, to .4 birds per route. But after three great years of weather, this year the count was 6.3 birds per route. That’s not the long-term average of 11 per route, but it sure makes for much better pheasant hunting.”

Regarding pheasant habitat, Perez says that “particularly exciting is the CP33 habitat buffer initiative on the corners of irrigation route circles. We’ve been trying to get those pivot corners enrolled. In 2015 it happened. The more we can get, the better. Four corners together make for a nice chunk of pheasant habitat.”

“After that hard crash with the drought,” concludes Perez, “pheasant populations are still building, and we’re optimistic. We are expecting about 20,000 pheasant hunters this year, and they should be pretty happy with what they find.”


Utah

As of mid-summer, the data was not yet available from Utah’s 2016-17 pheasant hunt. “Indication are, it was about average,” says Jason Robinson, Upland Game Coordinator with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources.

“Utah did experience near record snow fall last winter, though, and it was very wet,” says Robinson. “That may have had some negative effects on populations.”

“Yet, our very wet spring might offset some of the damage done over winter, with good habitat regeneration. We are having a very hot dry summer so far, though. Bottom line is, we’re not yet sure at this point how all this will affect pheasant populations.”

In general, Robinson says Utah habitat is looking good. It’s all coming down to weather events and this year’s hatch.
 
“Our top pheasant areas are around the Great Salt Lake and Cache Valley,” says Robinson. “The Uinta Basin is also good.”

“The Utah Watershed Restoration Initiative (WRI) and the Utah Habitat Council are essential habitat programs here,” says Robinson. “Between the two, Utah improves over 50,000 acres per year.  Pheasant projects are done each year, usually at the clip of a few hundred to thousand acres per year.”


Washington

“In Washington, variations in harvest closely mirror hunter participation,” reports Angelique Curtis, Small Game Section Manager with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW). “Over the past five years, eastern Washington pheasant hunters spent an average of 5.5 days afield and averaged 3.1 birds per hunter at a harvest rate between 0.5 and 0.6 birds per day.” 2016 saw similar results. 

“Winter saw deep snow that accumulated on pheasant habitat in much of eastern Washington,” says Curtis, “but not for prolonged periods of time. Any negative effects to pheasant populations should be minimal.”

As for spring, “there were periods of cool temperatures with intermittent precipitation. This likely delayed pheasant nesting. Delayed nesting and hatching has been observed in grouse, quail and turkey already this year.”

“Habitat conditions continue to be a forefront topic of discussion at local working group meetings between the general public, WDFW, Conservation Districts, Farm Service Agency (FSA) and the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS),” says Curtis. “The goal is to develop criteria and standards to be implemented and/or adopted practices in targeting cover including brood and nesting habitat for pheasants. Over the past 10 years, pheasant habitat in Washington has been improving due to programs like the Farm Bill.”

“CRP is the driving force behind all contiguous pheasant habitat. WDFW has received grants through NRCS’s Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Improvement Program. Portions of this grant have been directed at improving pheasant habitat and hunting access within the pheasant focus area of southeastern Washington. The focus involves planting unfarmed irrigation circle corners with grasses, forbs, and/or shrubs.”
 
“The five-county Snake River Basin (Asotin, Garfield, Columbia, Walla Walla, and Whitman Counties) typically make up a large percentage of the state’s pheasant harvest,” concludes Curtis. “These areas have the majority of the states CRP enrolled lands, this area is ideal pheasant habitat.”


Wisconsin

“Wild pheasant populations in Wisconsin have been declining due to habitat loss and fragmentation,” says Jaqi Christopher, Wildlife Biologist with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources “While the DNR manages some lands specifically for pheasants and other upland game birds, much of Wisconsin is privately owned which can make it challenging to create enough habitat to support a dense population of pheasants.” 

That said, “the mild winter of 2016-17 likely benefited Wisconsin’s pheasants,” says Christopher.  It was then a wet spring, though. Early and frequent rains could have had a negative effect on nesting, but pheasants typically re-nest if their first nest fails. “ 

“Our best pheasant populations are mostly in the southeastern part of the state, with some pheasants in the west central region too,” says Christopher. 

“Wisconsin’s pheasant stamp program raises thousands of dollars each year for pheasant management in the state,” she adds, “including habitat management and restoration. Since 1993, $9.7 million dollars have gone to fund 459 projects which have affected over 520,000 acres of pheasant habitat.” 


Wyoming

Hunters in Wyoming harvested about 17,000 pheasants in 2016, and that’s on par with 2014 and 2015. In fact, the past three years have been Wyoming’s best for pheasants over the last decade.

“Winter in southeastern Wyoming was average,” says Martin Hicks, Wildlife Biologist with Wyoming Game and Fish. “Based on springtime crow count surveys, pheasants on all our pheasant range made it through the winter just fine.”

“Habitat conditions here look good. Great spring moisture helped the habitat. Typically hot, dry conditions now may affect chick survival, though. We will have to wait and see.”

“Southeast and North-central Wyoming are by far the best areas for wild bird production,” says Hicks. “Hunters in Wyoming should take advantage of the WGFD's Access Yes program where we release pen raised birds in Walk-In Areas in Southeast Wyoming, along with our Springer and Glendo pheasant hunts (permitted hunts in late October on the Department's Springer Wildlife Habitat Management Area and Glendo State Park).”

Of concern: “Wyoming is still at a standstill for additional CRP acres and or CRP enhancements,” says Hicks.


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Tom Carpenter is Digital Content Manager at Pheasants Forever.

Photo Credit: Steven Earley.