Pheasants Forever’s 2016 Nesting & Habitat Conditions Report

b68d65a7-dd1e-4c32-9977-af99279b3169 Each year, increases in fall pheasant populations depend on winter and spring weather conditions and the availability of quality habitat. With winter behind us, attention turns to field reports of pheasant nesting and spring habitat conditions for updated predictions on this year’s pheasant hunting season.
 
Similar to the winter pheasant and habitat conditions report, spring weather and available habitat have fluctuated across the United States. Overall, the outlook is good and pheasant numbers, collectively, continue to rebound, especially in areas with quality winter habitat and undisturbed nesting habitat. Read on for what each state’s upland experts have observed and how they intend to continue their missions toward bolstering pheasant numbers nationwide.
 

California

Reports from California pheasant check stations indicated that last season pheasant hunter numbers, as well as pheasant harvest numbers, were down from the previous year. The average daily birds per hunter was 0.57 for the 2015 season.
 
Winter brought mild temperatures to California. Most areas saw a shift between 1 to 4 degrees above normal. Rainfall was normal or slightly above normal in the northern half of California but remained below normal in southern California where “extreme” to “exceptional” drought conditions persist.
 
Overall, habitat conditions for pheasants remain fair given ongoing drought in California, according to Matt Meshriy, environmental scientist for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife, in collaboration with Pheasants Forever and the U.S. Geological Survey, is engaged in a multi-year effort to improve the state’s understanding of the causal factors for the decline of California’s wild pheasant populations and to determine what management actions might reverse observed trends.
 

Colorado

Colorado’s pheasant population continues to increase as weather has greatly improved in 2015 and early 2016 from the drought period experienced in 2012-2014, according to Ed Gorman, small game manager for Colorado Parks and Wildlife. “Overwinter survival in Colorado is much more a function of night-roosting habitat quality than anything else,” explained Gorman, “and in this case, we are currently doing okay but that may change as thousands of acres of high quality CRP are set to expire in September.”
 
Spring conditions have been very good in 2016 with significant precipitation creating nesting habitat development and good early brood habitat. “There’s potential to have a very good pheasant year in Colorado,” Gorman said. “Much of that is to be determined and will be dependent on the nesting season which is ongoing presently, and by brood survival.”
 

Idaho

Spring precipitation was at or above average throughout the state, which should lead to good nesting and brood rearing habitat, according to Jeffrey Knetter, Idaho Department of Fish and Game's upland game and migratory bird coordinator.
 
“Ideal (summer) conditions would include average precipitation levels and average temperatures,” Knetter said. “Continued moisture would lead to continued forb growth, which leads to brood success, and therefore good hunting in fall.”
 
Idaho has been holding steady at around 680,000 acres enrolled in CRP/SAFE. The state continues to show landowner interest in Eastern Idaho SAFE, which is focused on Columbian Sharp-tailed grouse. “We expect to have nearly 112,000 acres enrolled by this fall,” Knetter said. Idaho continues to promote the CP33 buffers practice as well as a new SAFE program in western Idaho focused on upland game birds. USDA and the Idaho Department of Fish and Game are putting a renewed effort into promoting mid-contract management, which should result in better game bird habitat on these acres, according to Knetter.
 

Illinois

Illinois overall pheasant harvest on state-owned Pheasant Habitat Areas was up in 2015-16. According to the state’s agriculture and grassland program manager Stan McTaggart, anecdotal reports have indicated good overwinter survival numbers due to the mild winter conditions.
 
The majority of Illinois was fairly wet with slightly above average temperatures for most of the spring, though a few early pheasant nests hatched at the end of May. “Based on current research in east-central Illinois, chick survival at several research sites has been pretty high unless there is a heavy rain during the first two days after hatching,” McTaggart said.
 
Roadside mowing continues to be a problem for nesting pheasant and other grassland birds and wildlife in Illinois. “Not only are the nests and eggs lost to mowers, the hens are often killed as they try to hunker down to protect their eggs or newly hatched chicks,” McTaggart said. “If non-essential roadside and waterway mowing was stopped from May 1 through August 1, there would be more birds and other wildlife around in the fall.”
 
During the last General CRP sign-up, 1.8 million acres were offered for CRP and only 411,000 acres were accepted (23 percent). Illinois enrolled only four percent of the acres offered by producers in this sign-up (2,157 acres accepted of 49,330 offered). One option for these unsuccessful applicants is the CP42 Pollinator Habitat practice offered under the Continuous CRP sign-up by the Farm Service Agency.
 

Iowa

Iowa pheasant harvest was the highest it has been since 2009. “Lots of positive reports from hunters last season about improved bird numbers,” said Todd Bogenschutz, upland game biologist and farmland coordinator for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. “Numerous comments from staff, landowners, and hunters—they are seeing lots of crowing pheasant and bobwhites this spring, especially in southern and eastern Iowa.”
 
“It looks like we have good potential to see increases in pheasant and quail numbers across the southeast half of Iowa,” Bogenschutz said. “Pheasant numbers in the northwest, which was the best area in 2015, may have been impacted by winter snowfall and rainfall this spring. I’ll just have to wait and see what the roadside counts shows for that region, same is true for north-central and west-central regions.
 
“All in all looks like it could be a good year for upland birds in Iowa. Tremendous reports across our quail range on calling males this spring and same for crowing roosters across the southeast half of the state.”
 
Iowa’s new online hunting atlas continues to be popular with hunters by providing an interactive map that shows all lands open to public hunting in the state, totaling over 600,000 acres. The state has also expanded their habitat and hunter access program to over 26,000 acres.
 

Kansas

Harvest numbers this past season in Kansas increased by nearly 30 percent with average daily bag counts reaching the highest levels they have been in four years, according to the state’s small game specialist, Jeff Prendergast. Additionally, the spring crow survey also increased by 30 percent from 2015.
 
“Overwinter survival is rarely a population limiting factor in Kansas, and we had no winter weather severe enough to be of concern this year,” Prendergast said. “Spring precipitation has been good to this point and vegetation is in very good condition going into the nesting season.”
 
High temperatures in early spring put wheat ahead and could result in early harvest. However, cool late spring temperatures have slowed progress. Wheat remains a very important nesting cover in Kansas, and early harvest can have negative impacts on pheasant numbers. “Although with the height of wheat and the quality of additional nesting, cover conditions overall are still good,” Prendergast said.
 
Kansas began a 5-year pheasant initiative in 2016 that will focus on two areas in Norton County and in Mitchell and Osborne counties.
 

Michigan

Pheasant harvest numbers improved slightly in Michigan from the 2014 to the 2015 season. Overwinter survival numbers have also improved since this past winter was milder compared to the very harsh winter of 2014-2015. Though Michigan saw cold spring temperatures and snow storms in April and May, Al Stewart, upland game bird specialist for Michigan Department of Natural Resources, anticipates good nesting and brood rearing conditions this summer.
 
During the spring turkey season, turkey hunters reported hearing a healthy amount of crowing pheasant roosters at sunrise. Combined with these and other anecdotal reports, as well as observations afield, Stewart expects the fall 2016 season in Michigan to be better than the 2015 hunting season. 
 
The Michigan Pheasant Restoration Initiative continues to go well. Now, halfway through the 10-year restoration project, the Coalition Midpoint Accomplishments Report (PDF) provides key information on the Initiative’s progress.
 

Minnesota

Despite major habitat losses, primarily due to reductions in CRP, Minnesota has seen an increase in its roadside index over the past two years, according to Dr. Nicole Davros, upland game project leader for the Department of Natural Resources. “Weather conducive to overwinter survival and spring nesting has been the main reason for these increases,” she said.
 
Spring weather has varied considerably across Minnesota’s pheasant range. While the southwest region has been especially wet, forcing many hens to re-nest, the west-central, central and southeast regions have been drier. “The good news is that, regardless of region, temperatures have been average to above-average which will help with chick survival,” Davros said. “Additionally, the wet spring conditions will lead to more lush vegetation and therefore more insects during brood rearing. This is important because protein-rich insects are the most important food source for young pheasants.”
 
Due to excessive rain, nesting has been delayed, so Davros continues to advise landowners to delay roadside mowing until at least August 1st to give hens and their young broods a chance at escaping the mowers.
 
“Despite the wet start in some areas this year, many hens survived the winter and were available for nesting, which should help our pheasant population continue to trend upwards,” Davros said. “However, the long-term concern remains the loss of undisturbed nesting cover, such as CRP, on private lands.”
 
Minnesota continues to expand its Walk-In Access (WIA) program after receiving a 3-year grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Currently, 22,000 acres of land across 200 sites are enrolled in the WIA program and an additional 8,000 acres will be added over the next three years.
 

Missouri

The winter of 2015-16 was relatively mild with below average snowfall in the northern part of Missouri—the primary pheasant range in the state. “Based on anecdotal reports, overwinter survival was good,” said David Hoover, small game coordinator for the Missouri Department of Conservation.
 
Overall, nesting conditions have been good, Hoover believes. Conditions have included frequent rain during nest initiation and early incubation, but drier and warmer weather has prevailed since early June. Still, Hoover has received reports of broods this summer, which is a good indication that early nesting conditions have been generally productive.
 
In February 2016, the “Strategic Guidance for Northern Bobwhite Recovery 2015-2025” plan was approved. This plan builds upon the previous 10-year recovery plan and focuses on developing quality habitat, which benefits other species including pheasants.
 

Montana

Spring pheasant crow counts for the last two years in north-central and northeast Montana have been at or higher than the 10-year average for many areas. Both regions experienced a mild winter and biologists anticipate high overwinter survival.
 
Spring arrived early in the eastern half of the state, which seemed to prompt breeding activity ahead of schedule for some species, particularly sharp-tailed grouse and sage grouse. “Pheasants seemed to be gathering into harems a little early as well,” said Ken Plourde, Region 6 upland game bird program habitat specialist for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. Well-timed April moisture initiated habitat greening. “A few very isolated areas received damaging hail and thunderstorms in May and early June,” explained north-central region upland game bird habitat specialist Jacob Doggett, “which had the potential to destroy a few nests or young broods. However, except for cooler temperatures in the second week in June, our observations would suggest nest success and brood survival wouldn’t be anything less than normal over the course of the breeding season.”
 
Both habitat specialists agree current conditions indicate good bird production and could make for good hunting opportunities this fall, though Plourde noted with habitat changes over the last few years, hunters should be prepared to explore different habitats and cover more ground if they expect to find success during pheasant season.
 
Montana’s Upland Game Bird Enhancement Program (UGBEP) continues to help conserve and enhance valuable upland game bird habitats across the state. The program has several hundred thousand acres enrolled in various habitat projects, and all project areas are open to public game bird hunting.
 

Nebraska

Nebraska pheasant harvest numbers were up 26 percent in 2015, compared to 2014, according to Dr. Jeffrey Lusk, upland game program manager for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission. April Rural Mail Carrier Surveys indicated an abundance similar to slightly lower than 2015, but survey conditions were not ideal and likely affected wildlife observation during the survey period.
 
Spring conditions featured some locally severe weather, including large hail and rainfall events. “Whereas these events might have impacted local populations, it is unlikely to have affected abundance over the larger landscape.” Lusk also suspects spring rains produced abundant nesting and brood rearing cover.    
 
The Nebraska Game and Parks Commission recently approved a comprehensive pheasant management plan for the state, titled “The Berggren Plan: Nebraska’s Mega Plan for Improving Pheasant Hunting.” The plan was named and dedicated to late-Commissioner Berggren, who was instrumental in developing the plan. 
 

New Jersey

New Jersey lost the majority of its wild pheasant population some time ago, but remnant populations persist in the Hackensack Meadowlands and possibly along the Delaware River in the southwestern portion of the state, according to Andrew Burnett, principal biologist at the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. Hunter harvest is largely confined to the release of pen-raised birds.
 

North Dakota

Anecdotal reports are promising in North Dakota, as people observed pheasants coming through the winter in good health and numbers. Spring weather was very good with a mix of warm weather and some precipitation, which allowed cool-season grasses to grow as hens were nesting. “We are still losing grassland acres, which is still a cause for concern,” explained Rodney Gross Jr., upland game biologist for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department. “Still, pheasant outlook is positive as of now.” The number of pheasant roosters heard during the state’s spring crowing count survey was up just about 2 percent statewide. Numbers in the southeast were down from last year, while the other regions from west to central were up slightly, but not enough to say there’s a big increase from last year.
 

Ohio

Ohio had a mild winter, which typically benefits both pheasants and quail in the state, explained Mark Wiley, wildlife biologist at Olentangy Wildlife Research Station. “Though we are not currently monitoring populations closely enough to estimate survival rates, we presume winter survival for these species was better than average,” he said.
 
April and May were quite cool throughout the state. “We tied record low temperatures in some parts of the state during mid-May, when most pheasant hens should be incubating if not tending an early brood,” Wiley said. “Our hope is that hens came through the mild winter in good condition and they were able to carry their eggs or young though this cold snap.”
 
Wiley expects hunters will continue to find fair numbers of wild birds in areas of the state with suitable pheasant habitat. Ohio Pheasant SAFE remains very popular with landowners. Habitat work continues at the Fallsville Quail Heritage Area in Highland County, and the first series of roadside whistle-counts was completed in the focus area this summer.
 

Oklahoma

Although the downward harvest trend that was experienced during the 2015-16 season in Oklahoma may not be too encouraging, the 2016 spring survey data provides a level of optimism for a better upcoming season, according to Kyle Johnson, quail restoration biologist for the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation.
 
The counties within Oklahoma’s pheasant range experienced average-to-slightly above average rainfall this spring, despite below average precipitation during the winter months. “We are optimistic that the good nesting habitat conditions within native grass habitats will minimize the need for pheasants to nest in wheat and hay fields and result in a better than average hatch,” Johnson said. The 2016 spring crow count survey data increased compared to 2015 with the number of crows and crows per mile up by 41.5 percent. According to the spring survey data, the highest increases occurred in Beaver and Major counties. 
 
The Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation is currently working to establish a private land walk-in access hunting program, which may increase pheasant hunting opportunities in the future, but this program is just underway and additional hunting acres for pheasant are not anticipated during the 2016-17 pheasant hunting season.
 

Oregon

Since 2011, drought conditions across much of Oregon have resulted in below average upland game bird numbers, according to David Budeau, upland game bird coordinator for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. “We saw some improvement in populations and harvest during the 2015-16 season and expect that trend to continue in 2016-17,” he said.
 
Oregon received average to above average precipitation and snow pack across most of the state during the winter months, but did not experience any conditions expected to have caused significant overwinter mortality. “For most species in most areas, overwinter survival was likely good,” Budeau said. “The increased moisture from winter and a warm spring have resulted in generally favorable conditions for plant growth. The increased grass and forb growth should result in more cover and greater insect abundance, both of which should create favorable conditions for successful upland game bird production.”
 
Oregon experienced an all-time low pheasant harvest in 2014, and despite a more than 90 percent increase in harvest during the season last year, pheasant harvest in 2015 was still below the recent 10-year average. “Habitat conditions are expected to be favorable for production this spring and summer; consequently, harvest is expected increase again in 2016,” Budeau said.
 

South Dakota

South Dakota’s total pheasant harvest was 1.26 million in 2015, up from 1.20 million in 2014, according to Travis Runia, upland game biologist for the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department. Additionally, the estimated pre-season population was 7.7 million, up from 7.5 million in 2014.
 
“We had field reports of pheasant broods being observed in the first half of May, which is early,” Runia said. “This could suggest pheasants got an early start on nesting in response to warm March and April temperatures. When spring temperatures are above normal there is the potential for a longer nesting season, which is good news for pheasant production potential.”
 
Still, of much greater concern in South Dakota is the future expected loss of CRP grassland—the most important pheasant habitat in the state. “Results of the 49th general CRP sign-up showed strong interest in the program with 727 offers of which only two were accepted for 101 acres,” Runia said. “Under current policy, CRP expirations will continue to outpace limited enrollment opportunities. Total acreage could be less than 800,000 by 2018, a far cry from the state’s goal of 1.5 million acres. Hunters harvested over 2.1 million pheasants in 2007 when CRP acreage exceeded 1.5 million acres.
 
During the past year, The South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks and the South Dakota Department of Agriculture launched Habitat Pays, a joint campaign to connect landowners with conservation resources. Visit the Habitat Pays website for a comprehensive list of resources, along with a list of habitat advisors who are experts in conservation programs and habitat planning.
 

Texas

Main pheasant populations in Texas lie in the West Panhandle, made up of 34 counties. This area has been the hardest hit by long-term drought. Pheasant are still in recovery, though the state saw a little bit of a boost last year. Pheasants continue to rely on crops and CRP, though landscapes are taking a long time to recover from the drought. “We are looking this spring at finally seeing some good production,” explained the state’s upland game bird program leader, Robert Perez. “We are hoping we are finally going to be getting into some hunting opportunities this season. Numbers are low, but conditions are good and we are expecting a boost—maybe double or triple numbers.”
 

Utah

Utah experienced an average winter in regard to precipitation length and duration. Jason Robinson, upland game coordinator for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, expects there was good overwinter survival for both quail and pheasant. The state has experienced a hotter than average June. “We had some leks 10 degrees above normal,” Robinson said. “That may dry things out a little sooner, which could slightly affect production. If it continues with this trend we are having now, it shouldn’t affect chicks too much since we had so much precipitation in spring. At this point, things look optimistic.”
 

Washington

Hunter participation in Washington has decreased 25 percent over the past five years, and the harvest trend follows a similar trend decreasing at a slower rate, according to Joey McCanna, private land and wildlife conflict supervisor for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. “This past year, Washington had a mild winter so overwinter survival was good,” he said. “This compares to previous years, as the majority of counties with pheasants had mild winters. Timely rains in Washington made great habitat conditions this spring for nesting and brood rearing.”
 
Washington received another Voluntary Public Access grant to add, and/or extend current hunting access contracts for public hunting. Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife continues to work with private landowners interested in inter-seeding forbs into existing grass stands or improving habitats by seeding a diverse grass and forb mixture. 
 

Wisconsin

Overall winter conditions in Wisconsin seemed to be average-to-mild with little to no extreme cold temperatures or prolonged heavy snow cover, which led to a spring that brought earlier-than-usual warm temperatures and only a few rainy days, reports Krista Pham, assistant upland ecologist for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources' Bureau of Wildlife Management. Wisconsin’s annual fall forecast, available late this summer, will provide more information, including results from this spring’s rural mail carrier pheasant survey and spring crowing count.
 

Wyoming

Winters have been mild with most likely average to below average mortality is southeast Wyoming, where a small pheasant population resides. “Based on crow count data, numbers appear to be increasing,” said Wheatland based wildlife biologist Martin Hicks with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. “Southeast Wyoming has experienced above average spring precipitation that has helped increase the pheasant population. Hicks also attributes recent increases to the value of CRP. Still, he said, “existing stands need major renovation; until then the population will not increase to desired levels.”
 
 
Report by Jack Hennessy. Jack is the author of the blog “Braising the Wild.” Follow him on Twitter @WildGameJack or on Facebook at Facebook.com/BraisingtheWild.
 
Photo credit: USFWS Mountain-Prairie via flickr / CC BY 2.0