Pheasants: Winter Habitat Conditions Report
Two factors are of critical importance to maintaining healthy pheasant populations: weather and available habitat. While these elements affect pheasants year-round, they’re highlighted every year as the harshest season comes to an end and pheasants begin their next reproductive cycle. The following report examines these factors in various regions across pheasant country*.
*Additional state reports may be added as they become available.
Colorado - In southeast Colorado, the winter has been fairly mild with minimal snowfall or rain. This lack of precipitation has done little to help relieve the state of the severe drought that has a hold on the area. So while bird survival rates may have benefitted from this winter, the two-year drought has left few adult birds remaining. If current conditions persist, reproduction for the year will again be low, as drought will continue to hamper nesting and brood-rearing success. In east-central and northeastern Colorado, the winter has also been mild, with some key snow accumulations mixed in. If the precipitation continues, there may be enough moisture to produce adequate nesting conditions this spring. However, the survival of successful nests and broods will still depend on additional spring and summer moisture. – Compiled from PF Farm Bill Biologists in Colorado
Illinois – So far, winter weather has been benign in Illinois, reports Mike Wefer, Field Operations Section Head/ Acting Ag and Grassland Wildlife Program Manager with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. It’s been the 11th wettest winter on record, but temperatures were above average in December, January and February. “I wouldn’t expect it to have much effect on pheasant nesting,” Wefer says. What is taking a toll on pheasants in Illinois is the shrinking grassland habitat base. “Illinois experienced a net loss of 33,899 Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) acres last year,” Wefer says, “And an additional 186,549 acres of CRP land is due to expire at the end of September. It is uncertain how many acres will be re-enrolled.” One bit of good news is landowners will have the opportunity to enroll in some new SAFE/Grassland Wildlife Focus Areas that will be available when the signup re-opens.
Indiana – The Hoosier State’s wild pheasant population remains near a record low, but stabilized in the last year and even increased in some areas 2011/2012’s “non-winter.” Budd Veverka, the Farmland Game Research Biologist with the Indiana Division of Fish and Wildlife, reports this winter has brought periods of snow and cold, but intermittent warm ups have kept things on the mild side. “I think this winter does not particularly hurt or help the pheasant population. Everything this year will depend on the spring,” Veverka says. Unfortunately, Indiana’s primary pheasant range continues to shed habitat, particularly linear cover strips. Veverka says the habitat spotlight could soon shine on the state’s game bird areas, where creating early successional habitat has been made a top priority.
Iowa – Coming off the first pheasant population increase in seven years, Iowa pheasant hunters would love nothing more than to see that trend continue. It’s been an average winter, according to Todd Bogenschutz, Upland Wildlife Research Biologist with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. Looking at historical trends, Bogenshutz says if the coming spring is on the dry side, his statewide prediction is counts will increase, and if spring rains are normal or wetter than normal, he expects counts wouldn’t increase. Northeast, central and south-central Iowa have had the most snow this winter, and these are unfortunately areas where habitat conditions are the worst. Iowa is the recipient of a new pheasant CRP SAFE initiative, to the tune of 50,000 acres, and Bogenshutz says he hopes that signup can begin in April.
Kansas – Two years of extreme drought has put Kansas at record lows, with very little pheasant production the last two breeding seasons, reports Dave Dahlgren, Small Game Specialist with the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism. The 2012-2013 winter was very mild up until late February, when most of Kansas experienced extreme winter storms. “The extreme weather events could have slightly reduced pheasant populations, especially with degradation of habitat due to drought,” Dahlgren said, “However, pheasants can withstand these storms relatively easily when they are not frequent and snow does not stay on the landscape for multiple weeks in a row.” On the upland habitat front, Dahlgren reports his department, along with Pheasants Forever and other partners are working on a pheasant initiative that includes focus areas in north-central and north-west Kansas.
Minnesota - Winter weather has been quite different for the southern and northern areas of Minnesota’s pheasant range, according to Nicole Davros, Upland Game Project Leader with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. “Although the southern half of the range has seen some snow on the ground since January and a few days of extreme cold, fields have opened up at times and birds have been able to forage for food. On the other hand, pheasants in the northern half of the range have had a tougher time. Consistent snow since December and January in many areas and strong winds have led to some cattail basins being filled, and birds have headed to woody cover for night roosting. Recent ice storms have also forced birds to the roadsides in search of food and grit.” Pheasants are also searching for better habitat trends in Minnesota. “Long-term habitat trends in Minnesota’s pheasant range continue to decline, primarily as a result of agricultural intensification and sprawl. “The loss of CRP is expected to continue with more than 620,000 acres in Minnesota scheduled to expire in the next three years. Competing economic opportunities (e.g., high commodity prices and land rental rates, ethanol production) continue to threaten the future of farmland conservation programs.” Davros says.
Nebraska – “Although our summer surveys indicated the pheasant population was holding up well under the exceptional drought conditions across the state, encounters with hunters during opening weekend indicated fewer birds encountered compared to past years,” reports Jeff Lusk, Upland Game Program Manager with the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission. In fact, winter conditions aren’t the issue. “More of a concern is the ongoing drought and the lack of suitable nesting cover that resulted from the drought-induced stunted growing season in 2012 and the emergency haying and grazing of Conservation Reserve Program land statewide.”
North Dakota – Much of North Dakota’s prime pheasant range (south-central and southwest) has not been affected by winter, with snow covering just a few inches across landscape, according to Stan Kohn, Upland Game Management Supervisor with the North Dakota Game & Fish Department. Kohn says the remainder of the state, however, has received appreciable amounts of snow (snow depth 12”-plus). “Much of this area is devoid of good winter cover so it may have some negative effect on the population going into spring.” And spring could still be a long ways off for this northern state. “March and the first part of April can be very unpredictable regarding weather with early spring snow storms being very detrimental to breeding pheasants,” Kohn said, “We always like to see an early warm spring.” North Dakota upland hunters and conservationists would also like to see the pendulum swing in habitat’s direction. The new CRP signup is a start, and North Dakota also received an additional 30,000 acres to enroll in as CRP State Acres For wildlife Enhancement (SAFE) projects. Until now, these programs had been fully subscribed.
Ohio – Winter in Ohio, which has been mild, shouldn’t have much impact on the pheasant population, reports Charlie Payne, Pheasants Forever’s Regional Wildlife Biologist in the state. Where habitat exists, Payne says a decent spring could help spur quality habitat conditions. But in Ohio, like all of pheasant country these days, it’s the quantity of habitat that’s the true limiting factor.
Oregon -Much of Oregon encountered above average precipitation during fall, but below average precipitation during February, with no abnormally long or unusually cold weather events. At the beginning of the March, snow pack was at, or slightly below, average for most of the state. Dave Budeau, Upland Game Bird Coordinator with Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, says pheasant reproductive success will be contingent on amount and timing of spring precipitation.
South Dakota - Winter pheasant cover is at a premium in the Dakotas, but Travis Runia, Senior Upland Game Biologist with the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks, says winter conditions this year haven’t been severe enough to cause substantial losses to the ringneck population, except in the northeast corner of the state. “Periods of thawing winter temperatures have minimized snow pack accumulation, except in northeastern South Dakota,” Runia said, “So far, March has been cold with measurable snow and freezing rain events over much of the primary pheasant range.” Even in that northeast corner, Runia points out conditions are far less severe this year than the extremely harsh winters of 1996-1997 and 2010-2011, when pheasant abundance declined by 50 percent. While the winter has been mild, the habitat loss in “The Pheasant Capital” has not. “For the first time since the late 1980’s, less than 1 million acres of CRP grassland will be available to nesting pheasants this spring,” Runia says, “Acreage of this premier nesting habitat has declined by 33 percent since 2007 when pheasant populations were at 20-year highs.” Following one of the most severe droughts in recent memory, Runia says April rains would be welcomed to help encourage the growth of cool-season grasses, the preferred nesting cover of pheasants.
Wisconsin – The winter of 2012-2013 has provided some challenges for pheasants and other upland game birds across Wisconsin, but conditions were likely not severe enough to significantly impact survival or bird numbers. “This was essentially a typical winter across much of Wisconsin’s pheasant range, with snow covering the ground from December through March, though in comparison to last winter it may have seemed severe,” said Scott Walter, Wisconsin DNR Upland Wildlife Ecologist. “Snow depth affects the availability of winter cover for pheasants, and as snow accumulates in one area they need to look elsewhere. Fairly heavy snows and windy conditions during January and February likely pushed birds out of grassland habitats and into cattail marshes, but most of the marshes I saw provided good protective cover throughout the winter. In some areas, however, wind-driven snow may have buried these basins and forced pheasants into nearby patches of woody cover.” The prolonged snow cover may also have made it a bit more difficult for pheasants to locate food, but this should not have had any serious impacts. “Pheasants are able to locate seed heads, buds, and other available foods above the snow even when they’re not able to glean grain off the ground,” Walter said. “This is important, as the thaw-freeze events we experienced in March would have made foods on the ground very difficult to access. Long-term, though, the critical issue for pheasants in Wisconsin and elsewhere is the loss of CRP and other grassland habitat, as high crop prices are steering these acres back into production. We know from our survey data that pheasant abundance in Wisconsin is closely tied to the amount of CRP on the landscape. Figuring out how to provide adequate pheasant habitat within the production systems of today’s farming community is the challenge we currently face.”
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