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.