Pheasant Forecast 2015
The Traveling Wingshooter 2015: Pheasant Forecast
by Dave Smith
The final 2014 pheasant production scorecard was far better than projected last year in mid-summer, as reported in Pheasants: The Reports Are In (February/March 2015). Tantalizingly good, in fact. It provided evidence that with good fortune from Mother Nature, pheasant populations can bounce back relatively quickly.
However, the reports also left hunters with the sinking realization that one year of rebound does not constitute recovery, given the free-fall of recent years, and that we were probably closer to the cellar than the pinnacle. Further, habitat loss was still an issue in that Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) enrollment declined by 1.7 million acres in the last year, half of which came from the key pheasant states of the Dakotas, Kansas, Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska, Illinois, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Montana. Best not to get one’s hopes too high just yet.
A year later, optimism is now officially running amok.
In South Dakota, pheasant populations increased by 76 percent from 2013 to 2014, yielding a harvest of 1.23 million pheasants last fall. The spike put the #1 pheasant state back on the good side of a million-bird harvest after a one-year hiatus in 2013.
Travis Runia, South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks (GFP) Senior Upland Game Biologist, expects another uptick this year: “We had favorable weather last winter and excellent moisture in May and June. The only problem was some extreme weather events in high-population centers during the nesting season that might have caused localized impacts. Overall, I’m optimistic that we’ll see a good increase again this year.”
The relationship between CRP and South Dakota pheasant populations is well-chronicled, almost legendary, and a topic covered in these pages in an ongoing manner, hence the deep concern over high commodity prices and declining CRP enrollment in recent years. There’s finally a bit of good news on this front: CRP enrollment dipped by only two percent in South Dakota over the last year and still stands at about 912,000 acres. South Dakota GFP, Pheasants Forever, and private landowners have successfully used the CRP State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement (SAFE) initiative to restore high quality grassland habitat and are poised to tack on additional SAFE projects.
“If we can hold steady at 900,000 acres of CRP, I’d be happy,” said Runia, noting that this year’s favorable weather may tell the story of South Dakota’s pheasant production capacity with current amounts of CRP. “We’ll see the true potential of the habitat to raise pheasants this year.”
The Iowa pheasant rebound is on a similar track, says Todd Bogenshutz, Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Upland Wildlife Research Biologist. Iowa’s pheasant numbers had seemingly hit a current-day low in 2013 but then exhibited a remarkable 151 percent increase last year. Turns out the 2013 population wasn’t as low as estimated due to poor dew conditions that affected the August roadside survey counts. However, the 2014 spike was meaningful, and last year’s harvest exceeded 200,000 roosters. Last winter was mild so winter carryover was excellent. This spring’s rainfall was within the bounds of what Iowa DNR’s pheasant model predicts as at least a stable population. However, Bogenshutz says it may be even better due to the favorable winter and warm spring temperatures.
“We had a nice March with no snow and a clean landscape, and good weather conditions through the peak of hatch in mid-May,” said Bogenshutz. “People have been reporting seeing roosters everywhere.”
Minnesota pheasants are trending up, thanks in part to a moderate winter in which periods of heavy snow didn’t last long. According to Nicole Davros, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Upland Game Project Leader, pheasants had good access to food throughout much of the winter, hen survival rates were high, and habitat conditions were good going into the nesting season. Subsequently, spring conditions were very conducive to nesting.
“We had good amounts of rain in May and June but the precipitation was spread out and we mostly avoided extended periods of cool, wet weather,” said Davros. “My observations from the field suggest that nesting and brood-rearing success has been relatively high this year. I think there will be a lot of birds this fall compared to our previous one to two years.”
Substantial progress is being made on the pheasant habitat front in Minnesota, including an Action Plan stemming from the Governor’s Pheasant Summit (see sidebar), an expansion of the Minnesota Walk-In Access program, and continued use of funding from the Legacy Amendment to restore, protect, and enhance wildlife habitat.
Pheasant populations in the Southern High Plains are also poised for an increase for the second consecutive year, according to Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks & Tourism (KDWPT) and Colorado Parks & Wildlife (CPW). Both states suffered mightily from the epic drought of 2012-2013 but experienced big increases last year and expect more of the same in 2015.
Spring weather in Kansas was generally conducive to good pheasant recruitment (the number of chicks surviving to adulthood), according to Jeffrey Prendergast, KDWPT. Kansas pheasant crowing surveys increased from a statewide average of 5.5 per stop in 2014 to 8.5 per stop this spring. Cold and wet conditions in May could have impacted recruitment in some areas but June weather was ideal. Populations are on the upswing in the northwest, albeit still much lower than the recent peak (e.g., the 2010 survey revealed an average of 42 crows per stop; in 2015 it was 10 crows per stop). Prendergast reports conditions in south-central Kansas were outstanding this spring so he expects good production in that region.
In Colorado, the spring crowing surveys showed a staggering 60 percent increase from last year in the northeast, according to CPW’s Ed Gorman. The northeastern plains were exceedingly wet this spring so excellent brood habitat will exist this summer. Gorman notes that the pheasant rebound will take longer in south-central and southwest Colorado.
Nebraska’s April Rural Mail Carrier Surveys revealed a 143 percent pheasant increase statewide from 2014, significant in all regions of the state except northeastern Nebraska. The 2015 results are six percent above the 10-year average. Dr. Jeff Lusk, Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, says that barring any adverse weather conditions during the nesting and brood-rearing seasons and similar suitable habitat availability, populations appear poised for a good production year.
North Dakota and Montana should offer above-average pheasant hunting this fall thanks to a mild winter and a warmer spring than in past years. Stan Kohn, North Dakota Game & Fish Department, reports an 11 percent increase in the number of roosters heard crowing statewide compared to 2014 with the biggest jumps in the prime pheasant country of the southwest and southeast regions. Ryan Williamson and Jake Dogget, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, reported good winter survival and generally promising spring conditions in key portions of northeastern and north-central Montana, respectively.
Wisconsin pheasant populations came into the spring in good shape and should benefit from favorable conditions. According to Krista McGinley, Wisconsin DNR, the 2015 crowing surveys averaged 0.45 in the first three minutes of the stop, compared to 0.30 in 2014. A mild winter and good weather during the nesting season should contribute to another population increase. The only bit of bad news comes from Illinois which experienced the wettest June on record and poor nesting conditions, according to Stan McTaggart, Illinois DNR.
In South Dakota, the statewide pheasants per mile index for the 2015 pheasant brood survey increased 42% (2.68 to 3.80) compared to 2014. This population index is lower than the 10-year average but nearly double that of 2013 when hunters harvested just under a million pheasants. It marks a second straight year of substantial gains.
Iowa is back in the discussion of top pheasant states with a 37% increase from last year and its highest population index since 2007 at 24.0 birds/route. Significant increases were reported in all northern regions and the Central and Southeast region. Likewise, summer brood counts in Kansas revealed a statewide 51% increase, attributed to increased rainfall this spring and summer. Nebraska pheasant hunters should see much better numbers this fall as numbers were up 83% and 132%, respectively, in the state’s best two regions for pheasants – the Southwest and Panhandle. Finally, in Minnesota, the 2015 pheasant population index increased 33% from 2014 as a result of a mild winter and relatively favorable spring and summer weather.