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Drought saps pheasant numbers

11/8/2013

By MIKE CORN

mcorn@dailynews.net

No surprise, but drought has taken its toll on the state's pheasant population.

In some areas, markedly so.

It's all just a continuation of the drought that settled in on the area more than a year ago, although there's been a bit of reprieve thanks to heavy rain -- at least in some areas of northwest Kansas -- in mid-September.

That's beent he focus of the pheasant forecast after Robin Jennison, the secretary of the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism, took the opportunity to preview the pheasant forecast before it was released to the public.

Still, it was a pretty dismal report.

"Due to continued drought during the reproductive season, Kansas will experience a below average upland game season this fall," the report states. "However, for those willing to hunt there will still be birds available."

The report points to the northern reaches of the Flint Hill, areas of north-central Kansas and then northwest Kansas.

Because the drought didn't move into northwest Kansas until last winter, it was considered a stronghold for pheasants a year ago.

Carryover is the name of the game for the region this year.

"This region maintained the highest spring densities in the state but still showed a decline of almost 40 percent from 2012 to 2013," the report, authored by KDWP&T small game biologist Jeff Prendergast, states. "Wheat harvest was delayed in the region to late June, which allowed for more successful nesting in wheat fields in the region. However, drought conditions through the summer and emergency use of CRP acreage reduced cover and insects needed to support broods. As a result, the summer brood survey showed densities decreased nearly 75 percent in the region compared to 2012. Hunting opportunities will be limited, but counties in the central portion of the region maintained the highest densities of pheasants as identified by summer brood surveys."

"It hit pretty hard," Prendergast said of the drought on the northwest region.

So that leaves the Smoky Hill area, a region that includes Osborne and Smith counties.

"This region shows the highest density of birds from the summer brood survey despite a 40 percent annual decline," he reported. "The best areas in the region will likely be the counties in northeastern portion of the region, however relatively good brood production was reported across several other counties scattered within the region. Bird numbers will be below average across the region."

It's won't be a total bust though, Prendergast said, at least for hunters willing to get out and work for the birds.

"They should see some birds," he said.

But it's going to take work, perhaps a good dog and finding places where there is any cover.

KDWP&T hasn't offered any sort of suggestion on how many birds might be shot this year.

"We expect the harvest to be similar to last year," he said.

And last year was a struggle.

Hunters going afield last year killed a paltry 234,000 birds, an average daily bag of less than a bird a day.

Hunter numbers were down sharply as well, with slightly more than 67,000 hunters going afield, and for a fewer number of days.

The numbers are so stark because it's been a hard fall from 2010 when nearly 900,000 birds were killed by almost 124,000 hunters. The biggest harvest was in 1982, when 1.6 million roosters were killed.

It's also the poorest season since 1957, when the first hunter success survey was taken.

"That was with a three-day season with a limit of three," Prendergast said.

Last year's harvest came during an 81-day season.

"But we always see the majority of our hunters in the first weekend," he said.

Despite the troubles, Prendergast and KDWP&T are hoping conditions will be better next year, thanks to improved nesting conditions.

He's also not expecting this year's pheasant season to hurt the state's pheasant population or its chances for rebounding.

"We only hunt roosters," he said of the brightly colored males as the only legal quarry.

That's important because a single rooster can breed 10 to 12 hens.

"We'd have to harvest up to 90 percent of our roosters to have a negative impact," Prendergast said.

Poor hunting conditions make the season almost self-limiting.

"As numbers get lower, hunters don't go out," he said. "It's self-regulating in a sense."