For more than a year, reports from around the Pheasant Belt have offered hope that hunters might be seeing the beginning of a ringneck revival. Various crowing counts, roadside surveys and harvest figures have all pointed to an upswing in the numbers of this beloved upland game bird.
From Colorado to Kansas on north into the Canadian border states, biologists with natural resources agencies and organizations such as Pheasants Forever have noted a variety of positive signs.
It’s no secret that weather has a major impact on pheasant numbers, especially during the spring hatch and lean season of winter. From late 2013 to early 2016, winter conditions were generally favorable to pheasant survival. Despite localized snowstorms and periods of extreme cold, winter weather has largely trended on the mild side, allowing hens to head into the breeding season in excellent health for nesting duties.
News has been much the same during the hatch. While there were cool temps and heavy rains, worse in some areas than others, many areas enjoyed early green-ups and warm spells prior to the peak of the hatch—boosting a number of states’ roadside brood counts to double-digit increases.
Drought can be a killer, of course. In Colorado, for example, a lack of precipitation decimated cover and brought the pheasant boom to a halt in 2012 and 2013. Conditions improved in 2014 and 2015, however, and 2016 was off to a strong start as well.
“We’re on the long path back from tough conditions, but certainly heading the right direction,” says Ed Gorman, small game manager for the Colorado Department of Natural Resources. “Our crowing counts are way back up, as are and hunter reports. Precipitation is the key factor to how pheasants and other upland birds respond.”
Kansas, hit hard by drought from 2011 to 2014, is also bouncing back. Brood counts rose 51 percent in 2015 and spring crowing counts jumped 30 percent in 2016. Some areas of the state have been particularly quick to recover, recording increases of more than 300 percent in a single year.
If the proof is in the pudding, then fall harvest numbers are the most reliable indicator of the nation’s pheasant population. Fortunately, these figures, too, have trended upward in many areas.
In Iowa, for example, more than 56,000 hunters harvested nearly 270,000 roosters in 2015. The kill was up 24 percent over 2014, and was the highest pheasant harvest since 2009. It was also the fifth straight year the take has been higher than the previous season.
Flash In The Pan?
Whether pheasant fans will actually see a long-term resurgence or short-term flash in the pan is up for debate. Against the rosy backdrop of a rising tide, more than a few experts are cautioning hunters to manage their expectations unless more is done to protect and enhance critical habitat.
Fair weather can only go so far. Habitat remains a cornerstone of stable and increasing pheasant populations. Weather causes annual fluctuations in roadside counts, but undisturbed grassland and other prime habitat for nesting, brood-rearing and winter survival drives the longer-term pattern.
In Minnesota, for example, favorable weather conditions helped trigger a 33 percent increase in pheasant numbers in 2015. Yet the pheasant index remained 39 percent below the 10-year average and 59 percent below the long-term average.
“Habitat loss still poses serious threats to pheasant populations,” warns Minnesota DNR research scientist Nicole Davros.
In fact, Davros says the loss of nesting habitat, especially Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) acres, is the primary reason there has been a steady decline in Minnesota’s pheasant harvest since the mid-2000s. She notes that Minnesota lost 153,492 acres of CRP from 2014 to 2015, and greater than 247,000 acres of CRP since 2007. Many more acres–likely more than 495,000 acres–could expire by 2018 if contracts are not renewed or new acres are not enrolled into the program.
“The future trend for pheasants, and all grassland-dependent wildlife, does not look good unless we can find ways to keep habitat on the ground,” Davros cautions.
The prognosis is rosier elsewhere, including Iowa, where the state has enrolled all available acres in Gaining Ground and Pheasant Recovery Continuous CRP programs, with the potential for more acres becoming available. The Iowa DNR has also expanded its popular Iowa Habitat and Access Program–IHAP for short–which provides cost-share funding to help landowners with pheasant habitat in exchange for allowing hunter access.
In Illinois, Aaron Kuehl, state conservation director for Pheasants Forever, acknowledges that habitat loss accelerated in 2008. But he says the trend is reversing as commodity prices soften and conservation payments remain competitive. “Interest in conservation programs is up,” he reports.
That includes the CP42 pollinator habitat initiative. Kuehl believes projects related to that program, implemented in 2015, will pay dividends well into the foreseeable future. “Any time you have an influx of acres enrolled in a program, it takes two to three years before you start to see the birds respond, and I think that will be the case here in Illinois,” he explains.
Hope For A Comeback
Realizing the ringneck’s amazing ability to capitalize on favorable habitat—especially when coupled with conducive weather conditions—experts like Pheasants Forever’s Bob St. Pierre are flush with optimism.
“We may have lost 20 million-plus acres of habitat in the last eight years,” he says. “But the good news is farmers, ranchers and other landowners came out in droves to try to enroll in the last CRP signup. I believe the pendulum is swinging back to an embrace of conservation.”
Indeed, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that a record 26,000 property owners applied for CRP in 2016, offering to enroll more than 1.8 million acres for habitat. Because of the program’s 24 million-acre cap, the USDA could only accept 23 percent of the requests. So, while the net result was 800,000 acres being enrolled in three different CRP components, the potential for additional habitat acres is considerable.
St. Pierre points to increasing public concern over degraded water quality and pollinator and monarch declines, along with a desire for a higher quality of life associated with a healthier environment. Such sentiments, he believes, will fuel support for an expansion in CRP.
“In the end, CRP remains America’s best tool for delivering a wide array of wildlife and natural resource benefits, as well as an increase in pheasant and quail habitat to boot,” he says.
In the wake of the recent CRP signup, USDA secretary Tom Vilsack commented on the need for a larger CRP cap to meet landowner demand and natural resources benefits. St. Pierre believes that if a coalition of conservationists including farmers and hunters rallies Congress for additional CRP acreage and other habitat incentives, the fortunes of pheasants and hunters could be brighter than ever.
Which also means that, ultimately, the fate of the ringneck revival rests squarely in all of our hands.