Kansas pheasant season brings big bucks to small towns

Up to 50,000 hunters are expected to be afield when pheasant season opens this weekend.
Up to 50,000 hunters are expected to be afield when pheasant season opens this weekend. The Wichita Eagle

Jim Millensifer expects the two hotels and seven restaurants he manages in Colby to be packed this weekend.

“They’ll be about double what they are in a normal weekend,” said Millensifer, of the businesses that employee about 320 people in northwest Kansas.

In southwest Kansas, someone in need should soon get help with overwhelming medical bills.

“We should raise around $60,000 at the dinner on Friday,” said Brad Musgrove, one of many from Hugoton to host a Friday fundraiser. “Our main purpose is to help raise funds for those with catastrophic medical needs and our (college) scholarship program.”

The hundreds of full businesses and philanthropy will be benefiting from this weekend’s opening of pheasant season. Native to China, the colorful birds with tail feathers sometimes up to two feet long were first released in Kansas in 1906. They should be in good supply for the season that runs through Jan. 31.

“Pheasant season, especially opening weekend, can be an important economic boost over about all of the western half of Kansas,” said Mike Miller, Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism information chief. “We figure hunting adds about $400 million to the Kansas economy. A lot of that will come this weekend.”

Up to 50,000 hunters are expected to hunt this weekend, Miller said. Most states will be represented, as will several countries.

Miller said his department figures traveling hunters spend a minimum of $150 per night for rooms, meals and gasoline. Some come and stay with family and friends they’ve hunted with for years, and often decades.

“It’s one of longest-running hunting traditions we have in Kansas and a lot of these people have been coming for years,” said Miller, who hopes to again hunt some of the fields he first hunted as a boy in Greensburg. “A lot of it is they want to reacquaint themselves with the land they’ve hunted so long. They want to go to the one field where they all killed a limit five years ago. A lot of it is just getting to see the birds. For most that’s more important than actually killing a lot of birds. If they see a lot, they’re happy.”

Many should go home giddy after this weekend.

After the 2010 season, probably the best in 30 years, Kansas pheasant numbers dropped rapidly because of long-lasting drought. With the rains of 2014 and more-recent rains, the birds rebounded.

“Habitat conditions, because of the precipitation, have improved drastically about ever year. In some places is was totally ideal,” said Miller, speaking of the bird’s need for cover for nesting and insects to feed growing chicks. “I think it’s going to be a refreshing change for guys who toughed it out the last four years.”

This year, the state’s best pheasant populations seem to be in southwest Kansas, but most biologists and farmers report improved populations over most of central and western Kansas. It will also be the opening of quail season across the state. Again, the news is good.

“Judging from surveys and anecdotal reports, we should have some of our best quail populations, in south-central and southwest Kansas, that we’ve seen in decades,” said Miller. “It has a lot of people pretty excited.”

That includes those in the tourism industry.

Jan Stevens, of the Dodge City Convention and Visitors Bureau director, expects most of the town’s 1,200 hotel rooms to be filled this weekend, as well as restaurants and convenience stores.

To attract more hunters, and hopefully add to their fun, Stevens said Dodge City and several small towns in five area counties are sponsoring a “Rooster Round-Up” contest. They’ve released 50 pheasants per county, each with a numbered band on their leg. Hunters who shoot a banded bird win a hunting cap and are registered to be drawn for a $500 prize good at local businesses.

Dodge City is holding a “Bounty Bird” contest during December with about $10,000 in prizes.

Up to 2,000 people, many of them visiting pheasant hunters, were expected Friday evening for a beef and pork dinner in Hugoton, sponsored by Pheasant Heaven Charities.

“That’s not bad for a town of about 3,200,” said Musgrove, who started the not-for-profit project with a few friends in 2004 to raise money for those facing catastrophic medical bills and to award $1,000 college scholarships.

The meal is by donation. Funds are also raised by auction and raffles on prizes.

“We’re approaching $2.75 million that we’ve raised. We’ve given out 197 of those $1,000 scholarships. They’re renewable for up to four years,” said Musgrove. “The last five years, the pheasant numbers have been terrible, but they’re back. That should help bring in more hunters, and they can help us out and come enjoy our community spirit.”