As they have for decades, dozens of biologists, public land managers, game wardens and rural mail carriers spent much of this summer keeping a tally of upland gamebirds seen while out on their daily duties. The numbers are in, and here’s what Kansas hunters can expect this fall.
This fall’s pheasant season should really appeal to a certain kind of hunter.
“This will be the year for the die-hard, the guys who like to work for their birds,” said Dave Dahlgren, Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism small-game biologist. “If they work, they will get birds because there are enough birds out there to hunt.”
But there aren’t enough birds out for easy hunting, such as two seasons ago when hunters shot about 900,000 pheasants — the most in about 25 years. Dahlgren said he’d be happy if hunters shoot 300,000 roosters during the upcoming Nov. 10 to Jan. 31 season.
A two-year drought is the villain that’s zapped reproduction, and adult bird survival, across most of Kansas. The numbers of spring birds available for breeding dropped more than 70 percent in some areas from 2011, and few of those raised young pheasants.
“It’s going to be a pretty stark change, especially compared to two years ago,” Dahlgren said. “Man oh man, is it different.”
Generally the longer the drought in a region, the worse Dahlgren’s prediction for the coming season.
With decent rains in some places last year, he rated northwest Kansas as the best place in the state for the coming season.
“You have certain counties, like Graham, Decatur and Rawlins, where they had some production but it wasn’t phenomenal,” Dahlgren said. “Everywhere is going to be below the 10-year average.”
North-central and central Kansas should be “mediocre,” with Mitchell County’s summer survey numbers better than others in the region.
Overall south-central Kansas ranks next, with parts of Pratt and Reno counties showing some scattered reproduction.
The biologist offered little optimism for southwest Kansas, saying, “If you’re just seeing some, count your lucky stars because you’ll have something to chase.”
Haskell and Seward counties had the best, though low numbers.
He also added the following observations for pheasant hunters:
• Hunters are encouraged to hunt as often as they want. Only rooster pheasants may be shot, and one rooster can breed a dozen or more hens next spring, so hunting will not impede the birds’ ability to improve populations.
Some of his best reports came from around milo fields, where young pheasants could find shade and a few insects for food.
Huge amounts of Conservation Reserve Program grasses have been grazed or hayed when ranchers were given federal permission to use the fields to feed cattle. Some of the fields are enrolled in Kansas’ Walk-In Hunting Program, so there could be less huntable habitat this fall.
• The CRP practices and the drought will make thick cover a premium, so cold and snow could concentrate pheasants in the few areas of exceptional habitat this winter.
• Dahlgren expects fewer hunters afield, especially after opening weekend, so competition for hunting spots could be much lower than in past seasons.
Quail and others
Dahlgren is confident quail hunting could be improved in the northern Flint Hills, particularly from parts of Greenwood to Osage counties.
“The whole Flint Hills region has been seeing a steady increase for several years. Both our data, and reports coming from landowners, say they’re seeing a lot more quail than what’s normal for the last 10 years,” he said. “People just can’t expect what it was 25 or 30 years ago.”
He also said numbers are up in southeast Kansas, but the area is still largely depressed from when it was some of the best hunting in the nation in the early 1980s. South-central Kansas had quail production similar to last year, which is down from the long-term average, but some areas have decent populations.
Reports from southwest Kansas indicate the drought has taken a toll on quail. There are some good quail populations in some thin strands of habitat in north-central Kansas.
One benefit to the drought, according to Dahlgren, is that few Flint Hills landowners burned pastures in the spring. That’s led to more reports of prairie chicken broods than in recent years.
Though he hasn’t analyzed the data on wild turkeys, Dahlgren expects to learn of fair to good production over most of Kansas.