2018 Forecasts

by Dave Smith

It’s been a shade over 10 years since the epic peak of modern-day upland gamebird hunting. Now, as the dog days of summer linger and the excitement begins to build for upcoming days afield over fine bird dogs, it’s a good time for reflection: The boom, the bust, the recovery in fits and starts, and the general acceptance that American upland bird hunting may look different than it did in 2008.

The pheasant explosion and subsequent downturn tracks extremely tightly with the trajectory of enrollment in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). In the Rolling Plains of Texas, the bobwhite quail super-boom of 2016 conclusively demonstrated that the region contains quail habitat sufficient to produce dizzying numbers of quail given adequate moisture. It was the same story in Kansas and Oklahoma, with bobwhites hitting or approaching 20-year peaks. On the flipside, long-term trends in habitat loss or degradation – e.g., forest maturation in Pennsylvania, inadequate forest management in the Deep South – have resulted in continued population declines despite bouts of favorable weather conditions.

So, here we are in 2018 with adequate habitat in some regions. What happened with the weather over the last year and how will it chart this hunting season?

Last winter was reasonably mild and didn’t cause major mortality. The timing of rainfall during the spring and summer was good in some regions and less so in others. The highlights: The northern Great Plains, coming off a horrendous drought that torpedoed the 2017 pheasant and prairie grouse recruitment (the number of chicks that grow to adulthood), was wet this spring and summer and looks promising for pheasants, grouse, and Huns. Ruffs in the Northeast caught a break with better spring weather. Bobwhite production looks good in Kansas, Nebraska, southern Iowa, and maybe Texas. In the West, it is shaping up to be a good year for chukars and quail in portions of Nevada and Idaho. On the other hand, it remains to be seen how freak April weather throughout the Great Plains and Lake States – record cold and snowfall in many places – will impact ruffed grouse, woodcock that had already returned for breeding, and pheasants. In many cases, the weather that followed in May and June is the determining factor in how the recruitment will fare.

This outlook will crystallize when the states release the results of their summer brood surveys. We’ll follow up in early September with on an online Upland Gamebird Forecast e-blast and an updated set of predictions.

2018 Ruffed Grouse

The buzz in the upland gamebird world is coming out of one of the Lake States, and it has to do with a buzzing insect. Turns out the much-anticipated increase in the ruffed grouse cycle didn’t materialize as expected in the Lake States.

2018 Chukar

The last few years have offered some of the finest chukar hunting in the last three decades. The 2016 chukar harvest in Nevada was the sixth best since 1992, Utah boasted stellar numbers for several years, Idaho was predictably good, and there were some incredible localized spikes – e.g., Malheur County of Oregon in 2016, Pine Forest Range of Nevada in 2017.

2018 Sharptails, Huns, & Prairie Chickens

he big news for prairie grouse is the breaking of the drought in the northern Great Plains. The drought resulted in lower populations coming into the spring of 2018, but the weather has been favorable from Kansas all the way to northeastern Montana.

2018 Desert Quail

The bullseye of the U.S. Drought Monitor this summer covered some of New Mexico and Arizona’s better scaled, Mearns’, and, Gambel’s quail country. At first glance, it looks like a tough year for quail in the Southwest. But leave it to the always insightful desert quail expert, Jonathan O’Dell of the Arizona Game & Fish Department, to give the issue some color…

2018 Bobwhite Quail

The last three years have collectively provided the best bobwhite quail hunting of a generation in the states that account for the bulk of the wild bobwhite harvest, including Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, and Iowa. The peak was staggered a bit, but the hunting was absolutely phenomenal in a couple of those states from the 2015-’16 season through last year.

2018 Woodcock

The Northeast and parts of the Lake States were hit with the aforementioned major storm this spring, so the woodcock breeding population will likely be similar to 2017. In Maine, nearly two feet of snow fell in March, and the typical bare ground patches were covered, resulting in some mortality.

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