By Dave Smith
This update to our 2017 Upland Gamebird Hunting Forecast incorporates the results of late summer upland bird population surveys. These surveys measure the recruitment of young birds that made it into the fall population, allowing us to provide a more finely tuned forecast of what hunters will experience in the field this season than was possible at press time for the print magazine in mid-July.
PEASANTS * BOBWHITE QUAIL * PRAIRIE BIRDS * CHUKARS
The mid-summer prognosis of a pretty good upland gamebird hunting season may have been a bit optimistic for some species but was certainly in the ballpark, according to roadside and brood surveys conducted by state wildlife agencies during July and August.
The surveys confirmed stable populations for many species in many regions, which following a good to excellent 2016-’17 hunting season, equates to a reasonably bright upland gamebird outlook. The pheasant recovery that has been underway for several years stalled a bit this year; but hunters can still expect good populations in Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, and several other states. As for bobwhite quail, Kansas, Nebraska, and Iowa should be excellent this year.
However, the epic drought that gripped the northern Great Plains all summer is now officially cause for serious alarm among traveling wingshooters. Pheasant and grouse populations plummeted across a massive drought-stricken swath of the Dakotas and Montana. The red blob on the summer 2017 U.S. Drought Index map – which fit precisely over some of the best pheasant country of those three states – is a game-changer and may necessitate re-thinking of some hunting plans. Pheasant populations declined by a staggering 61 percent in North Dakota, 46 percent in South Dakota, and likely similar levels in Montana. The forecast for sharptails, prairie chickens, and Huns across the regions is also similarly bleak.
Nevertheless, there was some encouraging news from some states. Here are the results of late summer brood surveys from the respective state wildlife agencies.
In Kansas, pheasant numbers were higher than last year coming into the spring and benefitted from heavy spring precipitation that produced excellent nesting and brood-rearing conditions. A massive May snowstorm hampered early nesting attempts across a large area of western Kansas, but those losses were overcome by good brood habitat conditions. The survey results indicate that pheasant populations will be about the same as in 2016, which, with more hunting participation, would have produced an above-average harvest.
Nebraska’s statewide population is four percent above the five-year average, according to the July Rural Mail Carrier Survey. Pheasant populations in the Sandhills increased dramatically, coming in at 189 percent above the 2012-2016 average! The southwest region experienced a modest 11-percent decline from last year, but numbers are still five percent above the five-year average.
In Iowa, the 2017 August Roadside Survey results, which indicated a 30 percent decline statewide, didn’t line up with the long-term weather models that have been highly accurate in predicting pheasant populations over 50 years. Iowa experienced a mid-summer drought, which created poor dew conditions during the survey, resulting in birds spending less time along roads during the survey period and, likely, inaccurate survey results. According to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, pheasant populations should be like or slightly better than 2016. Hunters reported very good success last year, and with similar bird numbers Iowa DNR expects a harvest of 300,000 roosters this fall.
Minnesota’s range-wide estimate of 38.1 pheasants per 100 miles represents a 26 percent decrease from 2016. According to Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, the decline is likely linked to grassland habitat, including the loss in the last year of another 25,428 acres of Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) lands within the pheasant range. The synopsis by Minnesota DNR is that mild winters and good spring conditions have stabilized pheasant numbers a bit in recent years; but habitat loss is at the heart of populations being 32 percent below the 10-year average and 62 percent below the long-term average.
In South Dakota, the statewide index of 1.68 pheasants per mile represented a steep decline from the 3.05 index recorded in 2016. The decrease was attributed to extremely poor brood survival, a function of temperatures that commonly exceeded 95 degrees and limited insect availability for pheasant chicks. South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks reported that this year’s average brood size was the lowest ever recorded on their pheasant survey, dating back to 1949. The only silver lining is that the population estimate is similar to 2013 when hunters harvested a respectable 980,000 roosters.
North Dakota was the epicenter of the drought and the pheasant brood surveys confirmed the fears of pheasant biologists and managers. Brood observations were down by 63 percent, and average brood size dwindled by 19 percent statewide. The surveys in the prime pheasant country of the southwest revealed only eight broods and 68 pheasants per 100 square miles.
Kansas will be the bobwhite destination state this year based on the highest whistle surveys in 20 years being recorded this spring, and good production in several regions, led by the Smoky Hills.
In Nebraska, bobwhite numbers increased in all regions except the northeast and southeast; populations are above the five-year average in all regions except the northeast. Southeastern Nebraska should offer the highest abundance of quail in the state this year, and populations are up 15 percent from 2016.
In Texas, the two-year run of spectacular bobwhite hunting will ebb back to a more normal situation this season. In the Rolling Plains region, quail populations dropped from the staggering 50.24 quail per route in 2016 to 23.16 per rout this year. However, this year’s abundance is still above the long-term average.
Iowa’s statewide bobwhite quail index was 1.13 birds/route, which was lower than last year’s index of 1.47 birds/route, but the state will still offer some very good quail hunting. The best quail counts in 2017 came from Adams, Appanoose, Cass, Davis, Lucas, Montgomery, Ringgold, and Wayne counties.
This is probably not the year to make an epic journey to chase prairie grouse or Huns in the northern Great Plains, according to projections of very poor production in South Dakota, North Dakota, and Montana. Further, the sharptail counts were down throughout the core range of Nebraska this year.
As for Huns, I can personally attest from a Labor Day run to eastern Montana that there were dramatically fewer partridge in the country than last year. In fact, a landowner aptly described the May-August scenario for us: The hatch started out good and then the broods got smaller and smaller all summer. Albeit place-based on one large ranch, it was likely a very telling account of what happened to Huns throughout the drought-stricken region.
The bright light might be prairie chickens in Kansas, particularly in the Smoky Hills region that experienced good moisture conditions. Surveys aside, there surely will be pockets of good habitat or areas less impacted by the drought, so the only way to know for sure is to load up the dogs and go hunting!
The question of mid-summer was simple: Did the heavy snow accumulation of the 2016-’17 winter hammer chukar populations? The rosy view was that, if not, chukar numbers could be on the rise due to good conditions this spring. Unfortunately, this year’s surveys confirmed that the hard winter resulted in significant mortality across the good chukar country and that populations will be lower this year.
In Nevada, the 2017 helicopter surveys showed a 27 percent decline statewide. The bright spots were the Pine Forest range of northwest Nevada with a count of 145 chukars per square mile, the second highest count since 1992, and the Sonoma range south of Winnemucca. However, chukar numbers in the Santa Rosa mountains and Jackson range were 10 to 25 percent of what they have been in past peak years.
In Oregon, steep declines were reported for northern Malheur and Harney counties and in northeastern Oregon but populations increased in the Columbia Basin.
In Idaho, chukar numbers are expected to be stable and above the long-term average in the Clearwater region but down in the Southwest and Salmon regions.