For the 2012 season, pheasant hunters should expect one of those good news/bad news years. First, the good: The winter across most of our prime pheasant range was mild, a very positive change after a succession of harsh winters. And the spring and early summer nesting season was generally warm and dry. Result: Pheasant numbers increased almost everywhere over last year. But to put that into some perspective, last season was below average in many of the top pheasant states, and significantly below long-term averages in some.
The bad news is habitat loss, which explains why—even with increased bird numbers this year—some states are down in comparison to long-term averages. And it does not bode well for the longer term future of pheasant hunting. Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) acres are declining everywhere. And that critical habitat loss will impact both nesting success and winter survival.
For this season, a severe drought across the Midwest has resulted in CRP acres from Kansas up to central South Dakota being opened for emergency haying and grazing. If you’re hunting on private land, you should contact landowners in advance to see how that will impact cover conditions where you’re planning to hunt.
SOUTH DAKOTA remains in a class all by itself when it comes to pheasant harvest. The state’s 2011 harvest of 1.55 million birds, although a significant decline from the 1.83 million taken in 2010, is over twice as high as any other state. This year, hunters should see some improvement over last season. The summer brood survey showed an increase of 18 percent in the number of pheasants observed per mile. Greatest increases over last year were in the eastern part of the state: Aberdeen, Huron, Mitchell, Sioux Falls, Brookings, and Watertown areas. However, overall numbers remain highest farther west: Chamberlain, Pierre, Winner, and Mobridge areas. In the latter three areas, bird numbers are at or slightly above the 10-year average, while numbers elsewhere in the state remain below the long-term average. About 20 percent of South Dakota’s 1.1 million CRP acres are scheduled to expire this fall. If most of those acres are planted in row crops—and grain prices are currently at or near historic highs—continued prospects for 1.5-2 million bird harvests in South Dakota will be less likely.
NORTH DAKOTA claimed number two status last season, with a harvest estimated at 683,000 birds. That represented a healthy increase of about 130,000 over 2010. Part of that is due to an unusually mild winter, which allowed hunting to continue right up to the end of the season. That same mild winter, coupled with good nesting habitat and weather, put North Dakota on track for a season very similar to last year. In particular, virtually all of the state south of I-94 should offer good hunting for pheasants this season. Long term, North Dakota faces the same habitat issues as its neighbor to the south—but without the emergency haying and grazing situation for this season. CRP losses to this point have resulted in the state’s Private Lands Open To Sportsmen (PLOTS) acres decreasing from over a million to about 800,000. Hunters heading to western North Dakota, especially from Dickinson on west, need to make sure they can find lodging. The oil boom in that region means a lot of motels are full to capacity, year round.
NEBRASKA’s harvest of 218,000 birds last year was down slightly from the 2010 total (252,000). This year, rural mail carrier counts show numbers that are either comparable to last year, or up somewhat. Best areas should be the southwest and the Panhandle, although parts of those areas may have been impacted somewhat by the heat and drought. In the eastern part of the state, habitat loss—both temporary, in the form of emergency haying and grazing, and longer term as CRP acres expire and leave the program—will impact bird numbers and hunter success.