Drought conditions impacting Colorado’s pheasant numbers, habitat heading into fall
By Andrew Johnson
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Roughly 44,000 pheasants were harvested in Colorado last year, according to Ed Gorman, small game manager for Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
“Pheasant hunting was fair last year, but it was also certainly below the long-term average,” he says.
Heading into fall, Gorman says the defining factor for Colorado pheasant populations this year is undoubtedly severe drought, which has likely reduced nesting habitat and certainly brood survival.
Colorado didn’t have much of a winter, but Gorman says that presented a Catch-22 for spring nesting conditions, as the lack of snowfall and other precipitation did little to bolster the habitat base.
“Very few, if any, winter storms had the potential to impact pheasant populations across the core range, and the population experienced normal winter mortality,” Gorman reports. “However, winter was so dry that spring nesting cover was slower in development than normal.”
Throughout the summer, Gorman notes that mortality was reported after hail events swept through parts of the state, especially in the northeast corner.
“Severe hailstorms are normal in Colorado; however, the summer of 2020 was somewhat unusual in the severity of a few storms, which impacted both late nesting and adult survival,” he says. “For example, farmers reported numerous instances of hail-killed adult pheasants across a very large portion of Logan County.”
BROODS AND HABITAT
Due to the abnormally dry winter and spring, Gorman says brood habitat was very poor across most of Colorado’s primary pheasant range. Conditions improved slightly in isolated instances when parts of the state received shots of rain here and there, but Gorman says brood habitat across the board was negatively impacted by drought conditions.
Conditions didn’t improve throughout the summer, either, and as a result, CRP and wheat stubble — the preferred habitat of pheasants in Colorado — are lacking as fall approaches.
“Wheat stubble is very short and thin for the most part, while CRP fields are also drought-impacted and/or being hayed or grazed through emergency provisions of the CRP program,” Gorman reports. “It is likely to be a difficult year for pheasant hunters in Colorado. I expect populations to be reduced from recent years, which were already impacted by loss of CRP in critical areas. In some areas, hunters may find decent numbers of adult birds but few juvenile pheasants.”
Although this year’s weather hasn’t been kind to Colorado’s birds and habitat, the real story affecting upland populations is the substantial, continuing loss of grassland habitat, says Trent Verquer, CPW grassland habitat coordinator.
“We are experiencing significant habitat loss both in quantity and quality, and current haying and grazing allowances within CRP, which may not be a big deal in wetter states further east, are certainly going to cause an impact here,” he notes. “In some cases, it may result in the conversion of desirable, taller grasses in CRP stands to shorter vegetation that may not provide suitable nesting and roosting cover.”
Verquer also says changes in rental rates have had a negative impact in re-enrollment or new enrollment interest in CRP across Colorado’s core pheasant country in the northeastern part of the state.
“Our habitat base is down substantially from previous years when we supported a more robust pheasant population and harvest,” he says. “We are unlikely to see harvest totals similar to what we saw as recently as five to 10 years ago, as we lost the habitat base that supported our most recent high pheasant harvest years.”
“I would focus on the areas where center pivot irrigation is prevalent simply due to the fact that irrigated fields can mitigate the impacts of drought to some degree,” Gorman advises. “Hunters will not find populations in these areas to be on par with recent years, but these areas should be better than surrounding areas in 2020. Yuma, Phillips and Kit Carson counties have extensive irrigated areas.”
In addition, Gorman says pheasant hunters should explore the expanding opportunities associated with a Pheasants Forever-initiated program called Corners for Conservation (C4C), a habitat project agreement that targets the outlying corners of square crop fields irrigated by center-pivot irrigation. Over 400 projects totaling more than 3,300 acres have been completed through this partnership, with more planned for future seasons.
According to the CPW website, the program is designed to create excellent habitat by establishing highly diverse cover, such as tall, native grasses and flowering forbs, on sprinkler corners. All C4C projects are enrolled in the Walk-In Access Program and will provide year-round habitat for many species of wildlife. C4C properties are posted in the state’s hunting atlas, and they’re identified in the field by WIA boundary signs and C4C habitat signs.
“Colorado can offer a fun opportunity to incorporate other species into your hunt plan,” Gorman says. “If you hunt in southeast Colorado, you can also hunt bobwhite and scaled quail in the same general area or within a short trip. In the northeast, hunters can find bobwhite quail in some areas and also greater prairie chickens close by. Hunters must pay attention to take advantage of these opportunities and to remain legal, because season dates for different upland species are not completely concurrent.”
Colorado’s pheasant season opens Nov. 14 and closes Jan. 3 west of I-25, while on the east side of I-25 the season remains open until Jan. 31. The daily limit is three roosters, with a possession limit of nine. Shooting hours are a half-hour before sunrise to sunset.
“In a year like this, you are going to find fewer birds in the fields, so the focus should be on capitalizing on those opportunities as you find them,” he advises. “Tough seasons are not to be spent wishing you had taken more time to brush up shotguning skills, or to learn that slamming vehicle doors is a bad idea when hunting wary pheasants.