By Tori J. McCormick
Imagine a golden stand of prairie grass and pheasants flushing from it hither and yon.
Imagine feeling the prickly rush of adrenaline course through your body as a gaudy ringneck explodes at your feet, perhaps even at the nose of your favorite gun dog. Imagine, too, shouldering your shotgun and slapping the trigger as a rooster cackles in mid-air before finally crumpling to the ground.
For upland hunters, such time-honored moments afield—snapshots in time, if you will—are burned into our psyches as indelibly as the most vivid dream. They keep us coming back for more, autumn after autumn, year after year.
But it is through the rigors of winter and the travails of spring where these dreams afield are (literally) hatched and realized. Pheasants don’t grow on trees, and like all wildlife, they have certain needs and requirements. Indeed, biologists have long known that three things affect pheasant populations above all else: severe winters (heavy snow and cold), poor weather conditions during spring reproduction (cold and rainy), and a lack of suitable habitat (nesting and winter cover).
But when conditions are right, pheasant populations—even those in dire straits—have an amazing capacity to recover and/or grow. It begins with hens making it through winter in what biologists call “good body condition.” Healthy hens, they say, are more physically equipped to deliver larger clutches of eggs, which in turn could mean more chicks and young-of-year roosters come autumn.
In most locations across the U.S., the winter of 2014-15 was milder and less severe than last year’s—good news as hens enter the spring reproductive season. Occasional snowfalls in the Midwest and elsewhere were periodically offset by warm temperatures and melting snow, keeping food available for hungry birds throughout most of the winter. Some areas—particularly in mid- and western-latitude states—had very little snow or precipitation, compounding drought conditions from previous years that could lead to poor spring habitat conditions. Across the board, in state after state, biologists are most worried about the continued loss of grassland habitat (Conservation Reserve Program acres, native prairie, field edges, buffers, etc.)—that pheasants need to thrive over the long term. If such habitat losses continue unabated, they say, pheasant populations will likely decline, affecting the fortunes of untold pheasant hunters across the U.S. in the years ahead.
Here’s a state-by-state breakdown:
After two years of extreme drought, habitat conditions are better for Colorado’s pheasants as they enter the spring nesting season, according to Ed Gorman, small game manager with the Colorado Division of Wildlife. In the state’s pheasant range—a tier of counties in the eastern quarter of the state—winter precipitation has improved soil moisture and may also have improved nesting and brood cover. “Some areas are drier than they should be, but across the range habitat conditions are average to above average right now,” he said. Gorman said additional spring moisture would be welcome to improve habitat—particularly nesting cover like winter wheat and CRP acres. “This is an arid part of the world, and we need all the moisture we can get,” he said.
Compared to last year’s epic winter of snow, ice and cold temperatures, Illinois is coming into the spring breeding season is decent shape, according to Stan McTaggart, agriculture and grassland program manager for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. “I think the birds weathered the winter fairly well,” he said. “The harvest was kept low because crops didn’t come out until December, which may carryover some birds into spring.” Though parts of the state’s pheasant range got snow and some cold, McTaggart is fairly optimistic. “I don’t think we’ve had any significant mortality due to weather,” he said. Long term, however, McTaggart is concerned about the loss of quality pheasant habitat and how that affects hunter participation. The state has about 15,000 pheasant hunters, according to the latest data from the 2013-14 hunting season. That number, as well as overall pheasant harvest, continues to drop as more and more habitat is lost. “Like other states, we have lost a lot of CRP in recent years and that seems to be affecting hunter participation and hunter harvest,” he said.
With last year’s severe winter in the review mirror, pheasants in Indiana likely faired better throughout the state’s pheasant range, which is roughly the northern third of the state. “I’m hoping for a little bounce back in some areas, because we didn’t get the cold and snow like last winter,” said N. Budd Vevkerka, farmland game research biologist for the Indiana Division of Fish and Wildlife. “I think winter morality will be less significant than last year, too. Last year we had significant mortality.” Veverka said, however, he won’t have hard data on how the birds weathered the winter until the agency conducts its spring crowing counts, which will eventually be released on the agency’s website.
Compared to last year’s winter, in which Iowa experienced a nearly unprecedented snow fall total, this past winter has been far better. “Overall, it’s generally been a pretty good winter for pheasants,” said Todd Bogenschutz, upland research biologist with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. “We’ve had some snow and cold, but in most areas with snow we had relatively warm weather and wind that exposed fields for feeding.” Iowa, however, is notorious for getting heavy late-March snowfalls, which can cause pheasant mortality. “If we don’t get any major snow storms, we should be in okay shape,” he said. “We’ll see what happens when we get into spring.” The long-term future of pheasant hunting in Iowa, Bogenschutz said, rests on keeping a strong habitat base. Currently, Iowa has 1.4 million CRP acres, with roughly half enrolled in the continuous program. Bogenschutz also said preliminary numbers indicate a decent 2014-15 hunting season. “Hunters were pleasantly surprised,” he said. “I expect harvest and hunter numbers to jump up. We haven’t seen that in a while here.”
A lack of moisture is still an issue in Kansas. Drought in recent years has hurt pheasant habitat and production. And while late spring rains improved soil moisture last year, boosting overall pheasant numbers, more precipitation is needed this spring. “It’s not as bad as it was, but we definitely need more moisture in March and April to improve habitat conditions,” said Jeff Prendergast, small game specialist with the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism. “We got a good bump in the population last year, but the population was pretty low to begin with. But it could have set the table with more hens coming into this spring. Now we just need some more moisture, especially for winter wheat, which is important nesting cover for pheasants in Kansas.”
Winter conditions have been “fairly average” for Michigan’s pheasants. While the state has experienced periodic snow falls and cold weather, Michigan—particularly in the southern half of the Lower Peninsula, the state’s primary pheasant range—hasn’t experienced the heavy snowfalls like it did last year. “I’m seeing adult birds in places coming out to the roads to get grit,” said Bill Vander Zouwen, Pheasant Forever’s regional representative in Michigan. “If we don’t get dumped on in March, it could be a really good spring for pheasants here. But time will tell.”
Unlike last year, Minnesota is experiencing a mild winter, which bodes well for pheasants heading into the spring nesting season, according to Nicole Davros, upland game project leader for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. “It’s been a relatively easy winter, with lots of natural food available for pheasants,” she said. “Hens haven’t been pushed all that hard. They should have good fat reserves going into spring. During her field work this winter, Davros said she’s routinely flushed birds, as many ten to 20 at a time, from food plots and other habitat. “We’re right around a mild to average winter in terms of snow depth,” she said. “We’ve been seeing a lot of birds.” But overall habitat conditions “have seen better days,” she said. “The loss of CRP is major concern for the long term,” said Davros. “There are a lot of things on the landscape right now that are taking away habitat, which isn’t good for pheasants or other wildlife.” Another cautionary note: Pheasant hunter numbers have dropped 40 percent in the last eight years. Wildlife officials blame the drop in hunters primarily on declining populations spurred by habitat loss. One way our Minnesota members can help today is by contacting their elected state officials and voicing their support for Governor Dayton’s riparian buffer plan.
Pheasants likely faired quite well in Missouri after this year’s mild winter, according to Beth Emmerich, resource scientist with the Missouri Department of Conservation. “Temperatures were a little bit above normal in December and January, but below normal in February, though not by much,” she said. “We really only had one snow storm. It came in February, about 10 to 15 inches in northern Missouri, and it melted off fairly quickly, so pheasants had access to food. We should be carrying over quite a few hens from last year. If the weather this spring is normal, we should have pretty decent reproduction.”
Montana had a relatively mild winter. Temperatures were generally average to above average and precipitation was normal. “It was mild here compared to historical winters,” said Ken Plourde, upland game bird habitat specialist (Region 6) for the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks. “We didn’t have any prolonged periods of frozen, crusted snow that would prohibit winter feeding in crop fields. All things considered, I think most game, including pheasants, faired pretty well this winter.” While Plourde is optimistic about spring nesting, he wouldn’t make any hard and fast predictions. “That all depends on the weather, but we should have a good carry-over of hens from last year,” he said. “But we also could get a snow storm in late March that could delay nesting. You just never know. It’s all wait and see.” Plourde is most concerned about the loss of CRP acreage throughout the state’s pheasant range. Montana, he said, has lost more than a million acres since 2010. “We’re slated to lose more in the coming years, too,” he said. “That’s a lot of nesting cover. We have to do something to make conservation more economically viable for producers.”
Although Nebraska had “a few significant weather events” of snow and cold this winter, the state’s pheasants likely faired pretty well, according to Jeff Lusk, upland game bird program manager with the Nebraska Game & Parks Commission. “Any weather we had was short-lived,” he said. “We had a number of warm-weather spells that probably helped pheasants. There were very few energy demands of them this winter.” Nebraska’s pheasant population is still bouncing back from prolonged drought and habitat loss in recent years. CRP acreage is down as contracts have expired, and emergency and haying grazing during the drought has hurt existing CRP habitat. “We’ve lost a lot of habitat, and habitat is hard to get back once you’ve lost it,” said Lusk. Lusk also said his agency is still working with farmers on a wheat-stubble incentive program in southwest Nebraska. The program has funding for two more years, Lusk said, and pheasants are using the “taller” wheat stubble primarily as winter cover. “It seems to be providing good escape cover as well,” he said.
Winter weather conditions have been favorable throughout North Dakota, according to Stan Kohn, upland game management supervisor for the North Dakota Game & Fish Department. “In the primary pheasant range south Interstate 94, we’ve had some cold weather and snow, but nothing compared to other winters. It’s isn’t the cold that kills pheasants; it’s the deep snow, and we haven’t had any. I expect a better breeding population going into spring than last year.” What troubles Kohn is the massive loss of CRP acres (from the historical high of 3.6 million acres to today’s 1.8 million) throughout the state. “The habitat picture is bleak and will likely only get worse,” said Kohn. “You can’t lose that amount of cover and expect pheasant numbers to respond year after year.” If weather is favorable this spring, Kohn said he expects spring reproduction to be good.
Ohio was one of the few states that had a severe winter of snow and cold. As a result, pheasant numbers were likely hurt. “We don’t do any scientific monitoring of pheasants during the winter, but this winter won’t be beneficial to our wild birds at all,” said Mark Wiley, wildlife biologist with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources Division of Wildlife. Wiley said Ohio doesn’t have the habitat base for its pheasant population to recover quickly. Ohio has roughly 272,000 CRP acres, with contracts expiring on an additional 27,371 acres this September. In addition, roughly 12,000 acres in Ohio Pheasant Acres for Wildlife Enhancement (SAFE) have been enrolled, with a goal of 28,700 acres. “It’s hard to build a stable population of pheasants when you don’t have the nesting cover,” he said.
Oregon had “an exceptionally mild and warm winter,” with near-normal precipitation, said Dave Budeau, upland bird game coordinator for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. “With the warm weather, there’s virtually no snow pack in the mountains and there’s certainly concerns about drought and how that will impact habitat and cover for pheasants.” In recent years in some areas, Budeau said drought conditions have hurt nesting cover and pheasant production. “We continue to have dry conditions in some areas where spring rains would be welcomed,” he said. Budeau said pheasants are one of 10 upland bird species hunted in Oregon. “Pheasants are a popular upland game bird to pursue for Oregon hunters,” he said. “Pheasants were first introduced here, so there’s a little bit of nostalgia tied to them.”
Drought conditions in recent years continue to plague nesting habitat in Oklahoma, according to Scott Cox, upland game biologist for the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation. The state has 13 counties in the northwest, the Panhandle and in north-central Oklahoma where pheasants can be legally hunted. A persistent drought beginning in 2011 has hurt habitat conditions and pheasant production throughout the pheasant range, Cox said. “Pheasant numbers are down, that’s for sure,” he said. “But conditions seem more favorable going into spring nesting this year.” The hope, he said, is for spring rains to improve nesting habitat. “We definitely could use the moisture in this part of the world,” he said.
The nation’s premiere pheasant-hunting state had a “very mild winter,” according to Travis Runia, lead pheasant biologist for the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks. Most of the state’s primary pheasant range, he said, received less than 20 inches of snow through mid-March. Where snow accumulated, “several thawing events” prevented a substantial snow pack from developing. “Typically, mild winters result in increased over-winter survival of pheasants, which can result in a population increase the following year if production is average or better,” he said. “Ideal spring weather for pheasant reproduction includes average or above-average temperatures and normal precipitation patterns.” South Dakota’s pheasant population has declined in recent years as Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) acres—premiere pheasant-nesting habitat—have been lost. South Dakota currently has 918,000 CRP acres, down from 1.5 million in 2007. “The future of CRP in South Dakota is uncertain,” he said. “With a reduced national acreage cap for the program, it’s unlikely that CRP will exceed a million acres in the next five years.” Interest in CRP, he said, has increased in recent years as crop prices have declined, making the federal program more competitive—and attractive. But with the tight cap limits, Runia said “not all producers will be able to enroll their desired amount of land in CRP.” In an effort to reverse the habitat losses in South Dakota, Pheasants Forever opened its first regional headquarters in Brookings in 2014. We encourage people interested in helping to join a local South Dakota chapter of Pheasants Forever and get involved with our local grassroots efforts in the state. If there isn’t currently a chapter in your community, help us organize the conservation leaders in your community.
In Wisconsin’s primary pheasant range—roughly the southern two-thirds of the state—a mild winter has set the table for what could be a decent spring nesting season. “Compared to last year when we had deep snow and a lot of cold across most of the state, this year’s winter was fairly mild for all upland game, including pheasants,” said Scott Walter, upland wildlife ecologist and farm bill coordinator for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. “I don’t think we experienced much winter morality and we’re hoping for significant carryover going into the spring reproductive cycle. With any luck we’ll have good weather, because spring reproduction is what drives the population.” Like other states, Wisconsin is losing CRP and other grassland habitat important to pheasants, though farmers have shown strong interest in continuous CRP acres. Wisconsin, Walter said, has five continuous CRP project areas, totaling 11,500 acres.