State-by-state reports from across the core pheasant range
June is go-time for ring-necked pheasants.
Winter is way, way back in the rear-view mirror, and despite the season’s brutality across the northern parts of the pheasant range, pheasants were not obliterated from the landscape. Such is the toughness of our favorite gamebird.
And so nesting has begun. As nesting, hatching and raising broods goes, so go fall hunting prospects. Here is our state-by-state report from the core pheasant states. We’ll report again on hunting prospects, as always, at the end of summer, but wanted to give an early peak at what’s happening.
The news is generally good. But one thing to keep an eye on will be summer moisture. While generally dry springtime conditions can be favorable to good incubating and brood rearing, continued and prolonged dry conditions can limit insect life, which is essential to feed and grow chicks. It can also affect habitat.
Here’s where we’re at state-by-state:
Click on a state to jump ahead to that report, or scroll down to view all.
By Tanner Bruse, Minnesota State Coordinator
Much of the state experienced above-average snowfall and was far from an ideal situation for resident wildlife. We lost birds, there’s no doubt, but most of the rumblings we are hearing this spring are that our feathered friends fared better than expected. Good news, with a hopeful eye towards this year’s production; winter mortality is only one factor in a population. Pheasant populations can rebound remarkably quickly if we have quality nesting habitat and good spring weather conditions.
Conditions across Minnesota vary from wet in south central to mild drought in portions. Overall habitat conditions are looking great, and the moisture received this winter and early spring should help the habitat quality and be good for overall nest success. It is notable that the weather is staying abnormally dry in June thus far, so something to keep an eye on.
Different parts of the state fared red worse than others when looking at both winter survival and spring weather events. The biggest thing I have seen so far is parts of southern Minnesota received heavy rains in May which could have affected early nesting success. The good news is pheasants are persistent and will re-nest. Overall the window for peak nesting in Minnesota has received favorable weather conditions.
Overall conditions are going to be regionally variable depending upon overall rainfall, severe storms and drought. In general, quality grassland habitat tends to be very resilient and grow well in most conditions, providing the necessary cover for nesting birds. The number one thing that we can impact is the quantity and quality of grassland nesting cover which tends to be the top predictor of pheasant populations, after weather.
As of the first week of June I hadn’t heard of any broods observed, but that isn’t a surprise as winter persisted much longer than anyone wanted. As the nesting season progresses, we will look towards brood rearing and the necessary moisture to get quality forb and insect production as that will be the diet pheasants will be looking for.
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From Todd Bogenschutz, Upland Research Biologist with Iowa DNR, as told to Josh Divan, Iowa State Coordinator for PF
Winter snowfall was 30 to 50 percent above normal in the northwestern and north-central regions, but about normal to below normal in other regions. Over-winter survival of hens should have been normal to above normal in all regions, except NW and NC.
Iowa has lost CRP like many other states, but overall our acres should be similar to last year. The cover looks great thus far this spring.
Regional notes are always of high interest. Hunting was exceptional in the northwestern and north-central regions last fall, so hopefully this past winter didn’t knock us down in those regions; nesting success will be the key. Bird numbers should improve in all other regions if we have favorable weather during nesting. Best hunting this coming fall will likely be across the north, and on the center of the state.
So far so good for nesting. It has been a cool spring but on the dry side statewide. Need to watch that.
I had my first broods reported May 24 and 25 in southern Iowa. Indications are of a good start to the nesting season. But am a bit concerned that more and more of Iowa is slipping into drought already, with almost the entire state “abnormally dry” at a minimum. If that continues and conditions stay dry, it could open up virtually all the state to emergency haying.
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By Emily Spolyar, North Dakota State Coordinator
We had an extremely tough winter this year in North Dakota, and it lasted from November to April. Some parts of the state came within less than half an inch of tying all-time snowfall records. It took a toll on pheasants, just as it did the rest of the wildlife and people in the state.
This winter underscored the need for quality habitat. Birds and other wildlife need places to help shelter them during these hard winters, as well as places to feed. Many farmers and landowners ended up with large groups of wildlife in their farmyards seeking food and shelter. This, of course, isn’t something we like to see. We want them to have their needs met on the landscape!
”Luckily we did get some warmer temps and breaks in between snowstorms that look to have led to decent survival of pheasants,” adds RJ Gross, upland game biologist with North Dakota Game & Fish.
Coupled with all the moisture from last winter’s snow, we have had rainfall events across the state that have the habitat conditions looking favorable. If we continue to receive some regular moisture, hopefully our birds will have a successful nesting and brood rearing season.
So far, there seems to be good nesting conditions in most of the state. Pheasants appear to have had a relatively good survival rate, despite the long winter.
“The southeastern and central parts of the state had worse winter conditions than others,” adds Gross. “The northwest and southwest didn’t get as much snow as the rest of the state.” That could have an effect on nest creation and brood production, in places where significant numbers of birds were lost.
The extended winter weather conditions weren't conducive to an early hatch, but we are expecting to start seeing broods relatively soon and are looking forward to it.
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By Kelsi Wehrman, Nebraska State Coordinator
Nebraska weather has seen many extremes this year including ongoing drought, heavy snowfall, and flooding in various parts of the state. The Southwest, Panhandle and Northern regions had significant and prolonged snowfall. The long winter pushed the growing season back, and both pheasants and quail nesting activity seems later as well.
The same area that was impacted by heavy snows had also been impacted by prolonged drought prior to the winter. Even with snowfall, the areas were still considered in extreme drought throughout the spring. Unfortunately, CRP and other quality nesting cover has been regularly hayed or grazed in many of the regions for the last three years during the extreme drought conditions.
Rural mail carrier surveys indicate much of the same as last year for pheasant and quail numbers. The Northeast, Central and Southeast regions continue to see gains though.
The drought continues to be problematic for Nebraska’s pheasants and quail. Areas near wetlands would have the best chance of brood success. Areas that have received early spring moisture have reports of good numbers of insects.
The Panhandle, Southwest and Sandhills areas are showing declines, and nesting cover was very short due to the ongoing drought. Wildfires were also problematic due to the drought with major fires occurring in the Sandhills region.
Few broods have been observed yet, likely due to the late spring. Pastures have been grazed more heavily with little to no grass regrowth in the Southwest, Panhandle, and Northern Regions.
Keep tabs on conditions in Nebraska as summer goes on, to see which areas may (fingers crossed) see some timely rains to help the habitat and the birds.
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By Hunter VanDonsel, Montana State Coordinator
Winter was severe to extreme across much of Montana, with cold weather starting early and lasting late into the spring. Impacts to pheasants were variable across the state, and some impacts to survival are expected.
Crow counts are remaining fairly steady though, and range from slightly below average to slightly above average.
Much snowfall was received, replenishing much-needed moisture in wetlands, reservoirs and watersheds. With impacts from severe droughts over the past several years, that shot of moisture may net out to be a positive. Time and the hatch will tell.
From Josh Hobbs, PF Coordinating Wildlife Biologist in Winnett - Winter in Fergus, Petroleum and Garfield counties was long and snow-covered for 3 or more months. With drought over the past 3 years, there was little excess food and what was left was not easily accessed due to snow cover. From my personal experience and observations of harvested birds this past season, several were nearing starvation. Winter and continued drought has been very tough on pheasants.
That above-average snowfall helped ameliorate drought conditions across much of the state. Ample spring moisture across much of the state has also helped put vegetative conditions in a much better place.
Last year more than 90 percent of the state was rated as abnormally dry in early June. This year, 45 percent of the state was rated as abnormally dry in the same week. Much of the state is looking to provide quality nesting conditions with ample vegetative response to the much-needed moisture.
Nesting season seems to be delayed by a week or so in the northern portion of the state due to a later spring than normal. Yet, spring moisture and snowpack have set up good nesting conditions and weather during May was conducive to nesting conditions. Things are looking pretty good.
Notable though, is that continued loss of CRP and conversion of native grasslands have reduced overall nesting potential in the state. Montana PF and our partners are working through all tools and programs to stop grassland loss and add grassland cover across the state.
From Josh Hobbs, PF Coordinating Wildlife Biologist in Winnett - Spring rain has helped nesting cover and should help overall health. I have not found any pheasant broods or nests so far this spring. Several localized heavy hailstorms in Fergus and Musselshell counties in the past week will certainly have set back bird numbers and broods.
Sage Grouse numbers were also down 5+% and down more than that in localized areas. Mostly drought and heavy snow cover has caused lower sage grouse numbers as well.
Sharptailed grouse and Huns may be down in some areas but overall faired considerably better than others.
From Ken Plourde, Montana FWP Region 6 - Despite the good weather experienced in May, the western part of the region remains rated as abnormally dry to moderate drought, with the rest of the region only being removed from abnormally dry conditions. Continuation of the existing warm and wet weather pattern will be important for habitat conditions to remain conducive to brood rearing over the next two months. A change back to a drier pattern could quickly shift the region back into drought conditions and negatively impact the critical brood rearing period.
The combination of a later start to nesting and the improved rapid growth of vegetation could result in a greater overlap of peak haying and peak hatching/early brood rearing periods than is usual for our region, where typically peak hatching is completed before the peak in haying. In certain areas of the region that have lost a significant amount of CRP, a fair proportion has been retained as hayfields. An untimelier overlap in haying and hatching periods could impact bird production in those areas more than usual as often those hayfields are the most substantial nesting cover around.
From Justin Hughes, Montana FWP Region 7 - Winter was long and wet across Region 7. The eastern half of the region experienced many large blizzards and deep snow conditions. The crusting of snow was minimal and strong winds blew off ridge tops which aided birds in reaching waste grains in crop fields.
Nesting conditions for the most part have been fair to good across the region. There are good amounts of grass and forbs for birds to initiate nests. Some areas received large amounts of rain and also hail in the last two weeks, which could have an effect on nesting hens and hatching chicks.
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Coordinated By Matt Gottlob, South Dakota State Coordinator
Editor’s Note: Due to its extra in-depth nature, we placed the update for the number one pheasant state last for your perusal.
Aberdeen - Winter was pretty tough up this way this year. Reports of bird fatalities in large numbers on certain tracts of land where people had walked late season hunting or shed hunting this spring.
Bon Homme, Charles Mix, Hutchinson, Yankton Counties - The winter was cold with heavy snow falls resulting in higher amounts of pheasant mortality. However, survival appears to anecdotally higher than expected with surviving pockets of adult birds being observed frequently.
Brule, Buffalo, Aurora and into Eastern Lyman Counties - The area had a long tough winter, starting with heavy snowfall and cold temperatures earlier than usual and continuing well into spring months. Luckily the pheasant population in the area was up from previous years to begin with and they seemed to find shelter belts and cattail sloughs to bring them through the winter much better than expected. Didn’t get the reports of dead pheasants in shelter belts around here as from other parts of the state and have seen quite a few roosters and hens this spring.
Brookings - The winter in the Brookings area was much like other portions of the state, with a lot of snow, wind, and ice. This combination created a challenge for all wildlife. Snow drifts filled in the small cattail sloughs, narrow tree belts and food plots, but the larger cattail sloughs and other larger blocks of winter cover provided thermal cover that was paramount for pheasant survival in a winter like we had. We had birds get through the winter.
Kennebec - Winter was tough in the South-Central part of the state with multiple day-long blizzards that resulted in around 60 inches of total snowfall. Not seeing as many pheasants this spring as in the fall, but they’re still out there where the habitat was able to get them through the winter.
Watertown - In the Northeast the winter was pretty tough a couple of ice storms and the abundance of snow we had definitely had an effect on the birds. However with all the winter cover primarily the big cattail sloughs provided good cover and there was enough wind with the storms it seemed to keep a few spots in fields open for birds to forage.
Woonsocket - Many landowners in the area assumed the winter was hard on pheasants but they made it through fairly well. Actually did not have a significant amount of snow; the drifting made it seem worse than it was. Most importantly, hen survival seemed very high.
Aberdeen - Up to this point in the growing season the habitat is in pretty good shape, carrying lots of moisture over from winter. Although it has been very hot and dry the last 2 weeks and if that continues, will enter into a drought pretty quickly.
Bon Homme, Charles Mix, Hutchinson, Yankton Counties - With conditions being as dry as they are, new CRP plantings aren't growing well enough to provide habitat in adequate amounts. This being the case, the birds will need to rely on habitat zones that were left undisturbed the last year.
Brule, Buffalo, Aurora and into Eastern Lyman Counties - The lack of a lot of spring rain has the nesting habitat off to a slower start than we would like but grass is coming, and hens are initiating nesting.
Brookings - Habitat conditions are off to a great start this spring. There are two sides to the winter we had. Because we had such dry conditions over the past 2 years, we needed the moisture. With the snowcover we had, habitat conditions are off to a good start, it is pretty dry in this area. Have noticed good insect and pollinator numbers, which will be crucial for chicks when broods begin hatching.
Kennebec - Habitat started out the spring growing well with some timely rains, but the rains have slowed now, and the grass seems to be stunted. But many winter wheat fields look spectacular and are growing quite well. We’re lucky in this area to have many acres of winter wheat so are hopeful that the birds will find those fields to nest in for the time being. The southern reaches of my coverage area were hit was emergency haying of CRP last August and there wasn’t much regrowth throughout the rest of the fall.
Woonsocket - Most of the habitat that is in CRP or like programs look to be ok even though the drought is taking its toll on other grasslands like pasture and hay ground. The safe nesting areas of CRP should still produce quality habitat as the native grasses and forbs can handle the stress of drought better than introduced species that make up most pasture and hay ground in this area.
Aberdeen - Nesting conditions are good, but we are at the point where we need to start getting some moisture. There were bugs flying around everywhere right away but have noticed a sharp decline in those since it started drying up.
Bon Homme, Charles Mix, Hutchinson, Yankton Counties - With the dry conditions, alfalfa (which can serve as a nesting source) is getting cut early because it's drying out early. This coupled with the limited new growth may make suitable nesting conditions sparse this year.
Brookings - Have yet to see any broods or hear of many broods on the ground so far, but nesting conditions are favorable for pheasants. Conditions have been pretty dry but grasslands in this area are really looking good. Everything seems to be just a little behind this year, so expect to really start seeing broods in the next week or two. There should be some good insect forage for chicks when they hit the ground.
Kennebec - Without rain, still faring well in terms of nesting conditions. Winter wheat is growing well, and Lyman County is one of the top producers of winter wheat in the state so we have that to fall back on even though our grasses may not be coming through as well.
Watertown - Spring conditions are looking really good now, but we do need to catch a nice rain sometime soon.
Aberdeen - Have not seen a brood yet in my area but am hearing reports of people seeing them. Overall, had a lot of birds up here this past year and there were plenty of birds that made it through the winter. Seeing birds everywhere (good or bad) over the winter and spring, still seeing them out and about now. Spring conditions had been favorable up until the last couple weeks. If we can catch some moisture and lose some of the heat, should be sitting good going into fall 2023.
Bon Homme, Charles Mix, Hutchinson, Yankton Counties - Dry weather overall isn't necessarily a bad thing as long as there is nesting habitat present and dew/moisture from arthropods for broods to survive since pheasants don't need a lot of moisture (generally speaking). In contrast, a cold wet spring can often lead to nest failure and low brood survival due to the inability to properly thermoregulate at a young age. With this in mind, there is hope for demographic maintenance if not a population increase for this upcoming year.
Brule, Buffalo, Aurora and into Eastern Lyman Counties - Haven’t seen any broods yet. Have bumped some hens off nests in the field. Temps in the area are high and could use some rain to keep the grasses coming.
Brookings - Have not seen any broods yet, but weather conditions have been good for nesting so far. Have had a few pop-up storms with a little bit of hail but nothing major.
Kennebec - Have not observed any early hatch broods yet, but have seen some nests while out in the field. Haven’t gotten much rain at all this spring, but on the plus side that can also mean that nests are not drowning out. Last spring, the dryness helped a lot of broods hatch and brought on a great hunting season filling the sky with birds. Hopefully we can see that again this fall!
Woonsocket - The adult winter survival rate has definitely helped numbers given the drought’s impact on brood success, but worried as the drought’s severity has increased over the last few weeks. Was worried last year though, and it turned out to be a successful year. The cold did linger this year but not into prime nesting season.
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On to summer! Look for Pheasants Forever's Annual Fall Hunting Forecast about a week after Labor Day. We will keep you updated until then.