PF takes a state-by-state midsummer look at habitat conditions and hatch potential across the primary pheasant range
By Tom Carpenter, Editor - Pheasants Forever
No matter how you measure summer, it starts to wane somewhere, sometime, in early August.
Maybe the weather doesn’t quite say autumn is on the way, but the upland hunter’s mind begins to turn just a bit toward autumn – getting the dog out more, shooting a few rounds, patching up those boots and brush pants, placing that ammo order … and dreaming about splendid roosters erupting into a blue autumn sky.
It’s never too early to dream. Or to start planning autumn’s excursions and adventures. That’s why I surveyed key wildlife managers in the ten of the top pheasant states to see what was going on with the birds right now. While the biologists are careful to hold predictions close to their vests until official roadside surveys and the like are in, it’s also far enough along to take an early look.
Read on. Dream on. Start getting ready.
“Weather has been fair to good in the northeast part of the state,” reports Ed Gorman, Small Game Manager with Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW). “The area was mostly dry over the winter, but did receive decent rainfall through May and early June. Late June and July have dried out to some degree. Pheasant survival and hatch should be close to average for the area.”
“In southeast Colorado, the weather has been very dry since roughly September of 2017, with severe drought in many locations,” Gorman says. “It is very likely that dry conditions impacted the hatch and certainly chick survival in the southeast.”
“Pheasant habitat is in fair to good shape in the northeast portion of Colorado,” says Gorman, “and as one would expect, habitat quality is reduced in southeast Colorado due to dry conditions.”
“Colorado Pheasants Forever chapters and CPW have completed year 3 of the Corners for Conservation initiative,” says Gorman. “Approximately 310 corners have been seeded to high diversity warm season grass and wildflower mixes. The 2016 and 2017 plantings are largely established, providing excellent nesting and brood rearing cover, while 2018 corners are in various states of establishment across the project range.”
“All corners are required to be enrolled in CPW's Walk-In Access Program,” adds Gorman. “Some acres of Upland SAFE CRP were planted last fall and this spring, and are providing excellent brood habitat currently.”
“It’s very difficult to predict the hunting season right now,” says Gorman. “Wheat harvest is largely complete, although a few fields are still in progress. Reports have been mixed in terms of brood observations, with landowners reporting a fair number of broods but possibly smaller than normal broods.”
“April was the coldest in state history, while May had above normal temps,” reports Todd Bogenschutz, Upland Game Biologist/Farmbill Coordinator with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR). “April and May were both wetter than normal as well.”
“Our weather model is predicting a decline in bird counts based on winter and spring data,” says Bogenschutz. “June rainfall is not a part of our model, but the month was record-setting –
about 70 to 90 percent above normal precipitation – similar to the flood year of 1993 in northern half of the state.”
“So it’s not looking like a good pheasant nesting year for a large share of Iowa,” Bogenschutz says. “On a brighter upland note, the southern third of Iowa has not experienced such intense rains, so quail in that region could be abundant this fall.”
“Habitat condition remain stable compared to last year.” Says Bogenschutz. “We have 1.8 million acres of CRP, which is similar to last year, but we've lost a lot of hay and small grains over the last 10 to 20 years, so our total habitat continues to decline.”
“The graphic following shows is acres by habitat type (1,000),” says Bogenschutz. “In 2007 we had about 3.6 million acres of potential pheasant habitat that by 2017 was about ~2.9M acres.” Pheasants Forever members and chapters will keep doing their part to add back to Iowa’s upland habitat.
“A strong and robust CRP is what keeps pheasants distributed across Iowa,” says Bogenschutz. “We are holding our own in CRP acres, but fields have gotten smaller over the years as Iowa has not done well in general CRP signups, which are bigger fields.”
“Iowa landowners have been more successful enrolling smaller fields like filter strips,” he explains. “Our IHAP walk-in hunting program <www.iowadnr.gov/ihap> has over 20,000 acres and remains popular with hunters, as is our new online hunting atlas which shows public lands available statewide for hunting. https://programs.iowadnr.gov/maps/huntingatlas/default.html
“Right now our weather model is predicting likely lower pheasant numbers compared to last year,” says Bogenschutz, “but our roadside counts will be the definitive answer. We usually post those our survey results in early September.” < www.iowadnr.gov/pheasantsurvey >
Also, Pheasants Forever will explore Iowa in-depth in the Iowa Fall Pheasant Hunting Forecast 2018, in early September.
“Kansas had very little winter precipitation (October to April) and as such, wheat was relatively short and overall nesting conditions were poor at the start of the season,” reports Jeff Prendergast, Small Game Specialist with the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism (KDWPT).
“Late April precipitation picked up and has been relatively heavy across much of the pheasant range” he adds. “This heavy rainfall events has impacted brood survival in certain areas but has greatly improved nesting cover in late spring / early summer, as well as provided excellent brood cover. Some localized flash flood events across western Kansas will likely affect bird numbers in impacted areas.”
“That lack of winter precipitation had nesting conditions looking grim at the start of the nesting season,” says Prendergast, “but heavy precipitation starting in late April greatly improved conditions in later spring.”
“Summer precipitation delayed wheat harvest this year and increased weedy cover providing excellent brood cover across pheasant range,” he adds.
“KDWPT recently more than tripled the amount of money in the statewide private lands habitat program under the new Habitat First program,” says Prendergast. “In combination with this program KDWPT has recently entered into a partnership with Habitat Forever to hire 3 habitat specialists in key locations to complete projects on private lands. These projects are on properties where s KDWPT biologist has developed a management plan and the landowner has the interest but doesn't have the ability to complete the project on their own.”
“While the program is not restricted to Walk-in hunting properties,” he says, “properties enrolled in the program receive priority. The program has been so popular in the first few months that some landowners have been offering to sign multiyear WIHA contracts to increase the priority of their projects.”
“Crow surveys were slightly decreased this year, but remained near average,” says Prendergast. “The decline was expected due to a late snowstorm in western Kansas, impacting production of young last year.”
“Conditions at the beginning of nesting season were concerning,” he concludes, “but have greatly improved, and brood reports have started to trickle in. With current conditions we're optimistic that we should be able to remain similar to last year in bird numbers, with potential to see some areas of improvement. Summer brood surveys will provide more information on realized potential for the upcoming season.”
In other word, fingers crossed and stay tuned, particularly by looking for PF’s Kansas Fall Pheasant Hunting Forecast 2018, in early September.
“Mother Nature is not doing us any favors so far this year,” reports Nicole Davros, Wildlife Research Scientist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Farmland Wildlife Group. “Above-normal precipitation has occurred across a large portion of the pheasant range, starting with April snowstorms and continuing with heavy rains in June that coincided with what is typically the peak hatch.”
“Many parts of the pheasant range, especially southern Minnesota, have had precipitation amounts well above normal up to mid-July,” she adds. “Despite all the rain, temperatures have been warm (including a July-like heat wave in May) which may be helping young chicks survive the rain.”
“The good news,” she says, “is that reports of pheasant broods are starting to trickle in from the field. Some broods have fewer chicks than expected, but some large broods have been seen as well. The other good news is that we aren’t seeing too many solo hens at this point, which likely means that hens are still on nests. There’s still time to turn things around and have a decent hatch. Time will tell what the fall will look like.”
“From a big picture perspective, the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) is by far the most important tool we have to protect grassland habitat for pheasants and other birds in Minnesota,” says Davros. “Minnesota has lost more than 675,000 acres of CRP since 2007, and we are set to lose at least another 200,000 acres in fall 2018 due to contract expirations.”
Pheasants Forever members have been active in pushing for a strong conservation element to the 2018 Farm Bill, and that advocacy needs to continue to put habitat and pheasants back on the ground.
“From a more immediate perspective, the 2018 nesting season has been tough so far,” says Davros. “On-the-ground habitat conditions are pretty wet, particularly in the southwestern and south-central regions. Low-lying areas in some regions have standing water and the habitat has been flattened in these areas. Other more upland areas are looking excellent and food is plentiful.”
“Minnesota’s Prairie Conservation Plan and Minnesota’s Wildlife Action Plan, two partnership-based conservation plans, were each recently revised and updated,” says Davros. “Both plans focus on maximizing strategic investments in grassland habitat development and management to benefit pheasants and other grassland-dependent species.”
“Additionally, Minnesota’s Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (MN CREP) continues to be implemented with a goal of permanently protecting 60,000 acres across a 54-county area,” says Davros. “MN CREP is a voluntary, private-lands retirement program that uses a science-based approach to target environmentally sensitive land (e.g., riparian areas and marginal croplands). These lands are enrolled into a perpetual conservation easement that will benefit water quality and wildlife habitat for the long-term.”
“Finally, Minnesota’s Walk-In Access (WIA) program continues to provide additional public hunting opportunities on nearly 27,000 acres of private land across 46 south-central and western Minnesota counties,” concludes Davros. “Outside of the hunting season, these acres also provide additional high-quality natural cover for breeding birds and other wildlife.”
Minnesota’s and highly-anticipated roadside pheasant survey in August will begin to tell more of the tale for 2018’s pheasant hunt prospects. Right now it’s a mixed bag across the state.
There are going to be birds, there is no doubt, for hunters and dogs willing to work. Quite likely, though, nesting success will be localized. Try some late summer scouting to start locating birds to hunt come fall.
Also, never count out pheasant hens for pulling off a smaller but successful late brood if all that rain produces some spare corners of habitat here in late summer.
Stay tuned for Pheasants Forever’s Fall Hunt Forecast, due out after Labor Day.
“The weather has been generally good for upland bird hatching and chick survival,” reports Ken Plourde, Habitat Specialist with the Upland Game Bird Enhancement Program for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) Region 6. “Temperatures have been average with no cold spells, and we have been receiving regular precipitation throughout the spring and early summer.”
“Overall the region is still in a slight drought, though,” he adds, “and the precipitation we have received has not been quite enough to fully ameliorate that. However, the moisture we have received has been consistent enough to create conditions favorable to brood rearing so far.”
“Habitats in northeastern Montana are looking good at this point in the year,” says Plourde. “With the drought last year, some areas that had been extensively hayed last summer were a bit low on cover in the early nesting season, but the consistent rainfall we've been receiving all spring and early summer has really made the habitat pop across the region.”
“There were some very limited places where CRP was newly seeded in the last year or two, and those fields have come in excellent this year,” he adds. “It is important to mention that we did lose a lot of CRP last year, and some of it did get converted back to cropland. While the habitat is in good condition where it is sufficient, there are also areas where habitat loss will reduce any benefits to birds.”
“We had another good Open Fields for Game Bird Hunters enrollment this year in Montana,” says Plourde. “The northeastern part of the state will have a number of new properties that should provide great hunting in addition to all the existing access opportunities available through our Block Management Program and Upland Game Bird Enhancement Program.”
“Several of the new properties, and some that we've enrolled in the previous two years, have recently planted new CRP. Due to the moisture we've received, those fields have been coming in excellent and should raise plenty of birds this summer, so they should also provide some great hunting opportunities this fall.”
“The drought last year did knock pheasant populations back from near-record highs we had seen the previous few years, back to just below our long-term average,” says Plourde. “As long as the weather conditions continue to be conducive to brood rearing another few weeks, I expect bird numbers will improve a fair bit over what we saw last fall.”
“Between CRP loss and the drought last year, hunters should still be prepared for variable bird populations, but in areas of good habitat the hunting should be average to a bit above average in northeastern Montana,” he concludes.
“The weather has been quite good this spring/early summer,” reports Justin Hughes, Upland Gamebird Habitat Specialist with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) Region 7. “Temperatures have been mild and we have been receiving precipitation on a regular basis for the past couple months, which has kept our vegetation green and growing well.”
“While some areas of the region have received more precipitation than others,” he says, “the region as a whole looks really good in comparison to the previous two years at this time.”
“The native range and agricultural lands of southeast Montana are doing very well so far this year,” says Hughes. “The mild temperatures and precipitation that the region has been experiencing are not only good for producing grass in the uplands, but also creating very favorable conditions in our riparian areas for hens to raise their broods.”
“The drought conditions in previous years have had a negative impact on many areas of habitat due to lack of vegetation growth and change in intensity of land use because of the pressure farmers and ranchers were experiencing at that time on their operations,” he points out. “While things are looking good now, it is always helpful to note that this is Montana; conditions can change at the drop of a hat.”
“We had another good Open Fields for Game Bird Hunters enrollment this year in Montana,” says Hughes. “Here in the southeast corner of Montana, many landowners have expressed a lot of interest in habitat improvements through our Upland Game Bird Enhancement Program after seeing the conditions that birds experienced as of late due to the drought. Landowners are using the program for a variety of habitat projects that include nest cover seeding, food plots, shelterbelts, and idling important areas of habitat through our Habitat Management Lease program.”
“Drought conditions across the region had a heavy impact on pheasants and partridge this past year,” says Hughes. “Weather and habitat conditions have been quite favorable for birds this spring and early summer. Late July/August brood rearing habitat conditions will dictate how those bird populations will respond.”
“Hunters who come to southeast Montana should find success in bagging birds if they do their homework on access opportunities and habitat conditions prior to arriving in Montana.” He says. “I also urge hunters to have their hunting boots broke in and dogs conditioned; there is a lot of access opportunity in southeast Montana, and hunters who are willing to cover more ground will increase their harvest opportunities.”
“In North-Central Montana, spring and early summer weather has been unique as always,”: says Jake Doggett, Region 4 Upland Game Bird Habitat Specialist with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP). “Above average temperatures began just in time for peak breeding season activities. Southern portions of the region received higher than normal precipitation; and there were no widespread reports of damaging hail as often occurs.”
“More precipitation is generally welcome in pheasant country as it translates into better late summer-fall conditions,” says Doggett. “Besides a cool and wet April, things have been looking better for pheasants this year.”
“Habitat is looking very good,” says Doggett. “While last fall ended up becoming very dry, the extra winter snowfall and cold-wet spring replenished soil moisture, allowing vegetation to rebound nicely. Areas with alfalfa look exceptionally well this year, suggesting habitat in the fall will look comparably better than last year.”
“The Upland Game Bird Enhancement Program, which includes Open Fields for Game Bird Hunters, continues to grow in popularity,” says Doggett. <https://myfwp.mt.gov/fwpPub/planahunt>
“Where good year-around habitat occurs, the pheasant outlook is good,” says Doggett. “In areas with lower quality habitat, the outlook is only fair. 2017’s drought, followed by a harsh winter, negatively impacted local populations outside of core areas. The presence of year-around habitat will be key to successful pheasant hunting in North-Central Montana this year.”
“The weather early on in the spring was ideal for promoting vegetation growth over much of the state, but there was a late April snowstorm that dumped large amounts of snow in western parts of the state,” reports Jeff Lusk, Upland Game Program Manager with the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission. “Further, although moisture was plentiful early on, temperatures were cool. Indications are that this might have delayed the onset of the nesting season.”
“We also had a rather severe rain event during the nesting and early hatching season that might have impacted production,” adds Lusk, “but the timing and locality probably hit quail harder than pheasants.”
“Summer temperatures so far have been hot,” he says. “We seemed to go from abnormally cool to abnormally hot within the span of a few days. Whether it has been hot enough to affect chick survival is uncertain.”
“As indicated, early spring moisture was good over much of the state,” says Lusk. “However, as spring progressed, things started drying out in the southern portion of the state, which might have stunted growth. Since then, rain has lifted most of the state out of ‘Abnormally Dry’ drought conditions, and only the extreme southeastern corner of the state remains in that ‘Abnormally Dry’ drought condition.”
“Given that I haven’t had reports of concern from field staff about habitat conditions, I’d say habitat is looking good at this point,” says Lusk.
“On the public land side of things, we have the Early Successional Habitat program that seeks to reset early successional conditions beneficial to many upland game birds,” says Lusk. “On private land, we have farm bill biologists across the state helping landowners navigate the available federal and state conservation programs.”
“The Berggren Plan for Pheasants identifies areas across the state where pheasant management efforts should be focused,” says Lusk, “and outlines targets for both public and private land management. More on the Berggren Plan can be found at http://outdoornebraska.gov/pheasantplan/.
“Further, to increase the amount of land open to public hunting, we offer the Open Fields and Waters program to pay private landowners for hunting and fishing access where the best opportunities exist,” says Lusk.
Like any good biologist in the middle of nesting season, Lusk is holding his cards tight for now, until he knows what’s really in them.
“I can’t venture a hunting prediction yet,” he says. “Early spring surveys were down compared to 2017, but that might have been due to the late onset of spring this year. I’m currently waiting on the July Rural Mail Carrier Survey cards so that I can begin entering the data and processing it. Then we’ll have a better picture of what the fall might look like.”
Weather has been good … so far,” reports R.J. Gross Jr., Upland Game Management Biologist with the North Dakota Game and Fish Department. “We had a bit of a late start to spring. However, we have been getting adequate rains to promote nesting vegetation growth.”
“Preliminary reports of broods have been good,” he says. “Many reports of large broods (10+ young) have been coming in.”
“There have been a few severe weather events that undoubtedly will have an effect on some brood survival,” he cautions. “All signs point to a good hatch though, and chick survivability should be high. However, there is a lot that can happen between now and hunting season. We will have a better idea of how the hatch was when we start our brood surveys July 20th.”
“We are still losing grasslands to agriculture conversion,” says Gross. That means your advocacy efforts to your representative and senators for a strong conservation component to the 2018 Farm Bill will continue to be critical.
When asked what upland programs are doing well in North Dakota, Gross says the PLOTS programs (Private Lands Open to Sportsmen) is going strong. How strong? It looks like the acre count will approach 750,000 this fall. That’s a few lifetimes’ worth of upland hunting and exploring.
“All signs are pointing to an uptick in pheasant numbers,” says Gross. Stay tuned. North Dakota’s brood surveys will tell more of the story.
“The spring and summer have featured some active weather,” reports Travis Runia, Senior Upland Game Biologist with South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks. “April brought record cold temperatures statewide and 20 to 30 inches of snow in central and eastern portions of the state.”
“The powerful blizzard that impacted the state in mid-April likely caused some direct mortality to pheasants,” he says. “Although late April represents the very beginning of the nesting season, the cold and snowy month probably delayed hen dispersal, growth of nesting cover, and subsequently delayed the beginning of the nesting season.”
“May and June weather patterns were highly variable in the state,” says Runia. “Portions of northeastern South Dakota have been under moderate drought while farther to the south detrimental amounts of rain have fallen, particularly in the far Southeast, where June precipitation was double normal. Excessive rainfall during the brood-rearing season of May and June can reduce chick survival.”
“Overall, environmental conditions have been most favorable in the Northeast, where June precipitation has not been excessive,” he says, “and this same area was mostly spared by the historic mid-April blizzard.”
“Severe drought in 2017 left less than average residual cover on the landscape going into the 2018 growing season,” says Runia. “Many Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) were hayed as drought resulted in emergency declarations. Residual cover is important for early nesting attempts before new growth provides concealment.”
“Fortunately, most of the state has received adequate precipitation to provide concealment cover for nesting and brooding hens as the growing season progressed,” Runia adds. “Acreage of the most important pheasant habitat, CRP, has been steady at approximately 1 million acres for the past few years.”
“The South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks continues to aggressively seek enrollments in its voluntary private land access program known as the Walk-In Area program,” says Runia. “Over 6,000 new acres of CRP or CRP-like habitat have been added to the already existing 200,000 acres. More pheasant habitat on private land will be available for public hunting through the walk-in area program in 2018 than ever before. Total enrollment in the walk-in area will be over 1.2 million acres. The walk-in area program has been an incredibly successful partnership among our agency, our hunters, and most importantly private landowners.”
Runia must be a poker player, because he is the hardest of all the state biologists to pin down before he has all the data in. There are just too many variables – some of them good ones, such as ideal late summer weather, brood success and unsuccessful hens re-nesting – to say pheasant counts are going to be better or not this year.
“The results of South Dakota’s highly anticipated August roadside pheasant survey will be available by Labor Day,” is all he would give me. “The robust survey is a consistent predictor of pheasant population change.”
“This will be the 100th pheasant season in South Dakota,” Runia concludes. Let’s hope for a good end to summer to help the birds and help celebrate that century mark in South Dakota. Stay tuned, and PF will report back after Labor Day.
“Wisconsin had some unexpected weather in spring, with most of the state covered in snow in mid-April and then record high temperatures in May,” reports Jaqi Christopher, Wildlife Biologist with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR). “This weather could have had an impact on pheasants as well as other upland birds. With fairly normal summer weather for the rest of summer, I think the pheasants can rebound from any setback that may have happened due to the spring weather.”
“Wisconsin’s strongest pheasant population is in the west-central part of the state, as well as in the Southwest, mainly where we do extensive grassland management.” Says Christopher. “With the pheasant stamp and the Farm Bill Biologist program, we are able to create and maintain grasslands on both DNR managed land and private land, which is great for the wild pheasant population.”
“The DNR has been working hard to manage and maintain grasslands needed for a variety of species including pheasant,” says Christopher. “With the revenue from the annual Pheasant Stamp, the DNR is funding 28 projects this year, including the Farm Bill Biologist partnership with Pheasants Forever.”
“Despite the spring weather, I think this could be a great year for pheasant hunting in Wisconsin,” says Christopher. “The DNR spring pheasant crow counts show an upward trend in the abundance of wild pheasant over the last 5 years.” There is meaningful habitat on the ground. With a good end of summer and successful broods pulled off, there should be birds to hunt.