Great Plains Ringneck Roundup

Great Plains Ringneck Roundup

Are you ready for some pheasant hunting? Opening day is not far away, so here's what to expect when it's "game time"!

By R.A. Simpson

It's that time of year again -- time for the Great Plains' pheasant-hunting faithful to get into full swing. Opening day is just around the corner, and this season, like other seasons gone by, will surely greet hunters with many twists and surprises,

Although Mother Nature remains the dominant force in determining our overall pheasant numbers, all is not doom and gloom. The Great Plains states still offer the best pheasant shooting in the nation, and another reprieve from Old Man Winter again was great news. Our pheasants entered the spring nesting season healthy and wise.

While weather conditions annually test our pheasants' resiliency, the importance of quality habitat has quickly come to the forefront once again. Last summer's partial release of Conservation Reserve Program acres to mowing and grazing may create some short-term habitat loss, but those acres can rebound quickly, given the right conditions.

Huge gains in private lands habitat and access projects in each state are also paying valuable dividends in increased pheasant numbers, as well as providing hunters with productive areas to chase fall ringnecks. These acres, along with established state and federal public lands, provide great habitat and allow birds to flourish. Even in areas that have been plagued with low bird numbers, quality habitat allows the population to rebound under the right conditions.

Here is a look at what each state has to offer its pheasant hunters, along with our analysis of what Great Plains shotgunners can expect when they hit the fields this fall.

The author admires an early-season longtail bagged at a South Dakota Walk-In Area in Hand County. All four Great Plains states have similar programs that open private lands to hunters. Photo by R.A. Simpson

Known for its wide-open spaces and solitude, North Dakota stands on the northern fringe of what is considered optimal pheasant habitat. The major factors dictating pheasant numbers are the nature of the preceding winter's weather and the availability of undisturbed, high-quality nesting habitat.

In a normal year, weather can send populations on a roller coaster ride - but then, who said the past few years have been "normal"? North Dakota is the lone state in the plains that has seen its pheasant populations increase the past few years, and recent harvests have been the best in decades.

"We had another good winter for pheasants," said Lowell Tripp, upland game biologist with the North Dakota Game and Fish Department. "The winter was problem-free and we saw a slight increase in the number of birds that entered the breeding season."

A smooth winter is great news for North Dakota shotgunners, and bodes well for a pheasant population that has been on the rise since 1997. In 2001, North Dakota hunters bagged nearly 422,000 pheasants, an increase of 49 percent over the previous year, and that number was predicted to have held steady or slightly increased last year. Not since 1963, when nearly a half-million birds were taken, has hunting been this good!

The increase was due not only to expanding pheasant numbers but also to an increase in hunters, according to Tripp. Last year, over 75,000 hunters took to the fields in search of the elusive ringneck. And while the majority of those hunters were residents, a 65 percent increase in non-resident license sales has some residents feeling a bit crowded.

Last year, North Dakota shotgunners were very pleased with their success afield. "Hunters pretty much saw what they thought they would," said Tripp. "We were predicting a good season, and they had one."

Hunters reported some of their best success in traditional areas located along the Missouri River and in the southwest part of the state. "Those areas will be strong again this fall," said Tripp. "The central counties along the river and the southern third of the state should hold good numbers of birds."

Hettinger County led the state in total harvest last year, followed by Stark, Burleigh, Morton, McLean, Grant, and Emmons counties.

Last year, 50 of North Dakota's 53 counties produced pheasants. The only fly in the ointment lay with the drought and the subsequent habitat loss associated with it. The lack of rainfall was particularly troubling in the west and southwest, in the heart of the state's pheasant belt. As a result, some of the CRP acres were released for haying and grazing.

"The CRP situation wasn't all that bad," said Tripp. "We didn't lose all that much, and depending on moisture, it can come back quickly. Naturally we hate to lose any habitat, but at this point we are still in good shape,"

A very popular option for hunters chasing North Dakota ringnecks is the Private Land Open To Sportsmen program - "PLOTS" - under which acres of private land are leased for public hunting. According to Tripp, the state is seeing more PLOTS acres every year, and another increase is slated for this year. This is great news for pheasant hunters who have seen thousands of acres of good hunting opened up to them each season.

Bag limits this season in North Dakota will once again hold at three roosters, with 12 in possession. The early season is slated to open Oct. 11, with the late-season opener following two weeks later. Both seasons run into January. However, the late season runs in a specified area in western North Dakota.

An increase in license fees and further changes have been introduced in the legislature, so please refer to the hunting regulations for details.

Billing itself as the "Pheasant Capital of the World," South Dakota once again led the nation in number of birds produced. Last year, hunters bagged 1.26 million roosters from the state's fields. Believe it or not, that was a drop from the 1.36 million pheasants harvested in 2001. Once again, dry conditions were to blame.

Like its neighbor to the north, South Dakota depends heavily on mild winter weather and good nesting success to bolster its pheasant population.

"Winter was a non-factor," said Tony Leif, upland game biologist with the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks. "We had a very mild winter and, because of warm temperatures, experienced better-than-average winter survival."

South Dakota attracted 146,000 hunters to its pheasant fields last year, and for

the first time ever, the number of out-of-state hunters exceeded resident hunters. While non-resident hunters increased by 3 percent to 75,000 hunters, resident numbers actually dropped 8 percent, to just under 71,000.

An abundance of public hunting ground lures many hunters to the state, and while public lands get a lot of attention, especially early in the season, additional gains in the popular Walk-In program help alleviate the congestion.

This popular program where the state leases private acres for public use continues to expand. While public access acres seem to expand each season, Leif said that quality habitat is still the main goal. As the drought progressed last year, CRP acres were opened to grazing and haying, which affected the state's pheasants. Grasses also went dormant, which reduced food and water sources for broods.

"The drought directly impacted the hatch and survival of young birds," said Leif. "We had poor reproduction in the central part of the state, but areas in the northeast and far east saw some pretty good increases last season." That's good news for birds in those areas, which have battled tough winter and spring conditions the past few years.

Hunting this fall will hold best in traditional areas. The top 10 pheasant-hunting counties last year (by harvest figures) were Beadle, Brown, Aurora, Brookings, Lyman, Hand, Edmunds, Spink, Tripp, and Brule.

Holding true to tradition, the season will open at noon on Oct. 18 and run through Dec. 31. The daily bag limit will hold at three roosters, the possession limit at 15. License fees will remain at $27 for an annual resident license, and $100 for non-resident adults, (those are good for two five-day periods, or 10 straight days).

While Nebraska is not generally as greatly affected by wild, weather-related bird population swings as are the Dakotas, a combination of events has left the state's pheasant population less than ideal. First, the harsh winter of 2000-01 caused higher mortality rates on pheasants, especially in the northeast. And of perhaps more importance, the drought that has plagued the southwest and other pockets of the state for the past two years continues to cripple habitat and lower pheasant populations.

"We came through last winter with no prolonged losses," said Scott Taylor, upland program manager for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, "which was good news. But unfortunately, we entered the spring breeding season with a reduced number of birds."

According to Taylor, last season was nothing to get excited about. "Hunters knew going into the season that the drought would impact pheasant numbers, and there were no surprises. As with any year, there were good pockets of pheasants around, especially in the eastern part of the state and the Panhandle region, and hunters did pretty well in those areas."

Overall, last season showed a 17 percent decline in numbers from 2001, according to the brood count survey, with the southeast and the southwest as the areas hardest hit. The Panhandle and Sandhills regions were the only two areas to show increases in bird population.

With the reduction of habitat caused by the drought, including loss of lowland vegetation and the release of CRP acres, pheasants had fewer quality areas in which to nest. "We need to get maximum production out of our available habitat to move forward, and it hurts when broods don't survive," said Taylor. "We can bounce back fairly quickly in many areas if Mother Nature would give us a break, but the drought really made a mess of habitat conditions in the southwest, and that area is going to take some time to recover."

As for this fall, hunters will do best to look to the northeastern part of the state to get their birds. This area typically receives more moisture and pheasant numbers are strong in certain pockets. Of course, the area sees more pressure also, making the solitude of the Sandhills and Panhandle better options. Taylor, whose fingers are crossed for this season, looks to the sky for relief to Nebraska's current pheasant decline.

Along with reduced numbers of pheasants, Taylor reported a reduction in hunter numbers as well. "A lot of people come for the tradition and fellowship and they are here every year," he explained. "But others follow bird trends and look to other alternatives."

Nebraska also has a program for leasing private acres for public use, and the program is thriving. "Over the past five years we have enrolled a ton of acres," said Taylor. "Our CRP Management and Access Program is holding steady, and I am confident we will get more acres enrolled to provide ample opportunities for hunters across the state."

Nebraska fielded just under 90,000 hunters last fall, and the only major change for this season is that opening day will be Nov. 1, unlike the traditional last Saturday of October. The season will run through January, and hunters will have a bag limit of three roosters, 12 in possession. License fees increased slightly last year, and will cost residents $24, and non-residents $67.

Reports from the Kansas pheasant fields were very disappointing once again last fall. Record-breaking drought in the western four tiers of Kansas counties and many north-central counties reduced the state's pheasant populations to their lowest levels in decades.

The drought, which began late in 1999, has offered little reprieve, and last year's harvest is showing those effects. "There is little doubt that the past couple of years will go down as the worst pheasant seasons on record," said Randy Rogers, small-game biologist with the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks. "Our 2002 harvest was very similar to or slightly higher than 2001's, and those numbers are not what Kansas hunters are accustomed to. There is just a dramatic difference between where we are and where we want to be, and it all circles around the drought."

Timely spring rains across the state provided some relief as the birds entered nesting season, and though conditions were not great going into nesting, they were improved. "Our wheat crop really needed those rains," explained Rogers. "Kansas has always lived by the motto 'As goes our wheat crop, so goes our pheasant crop,' and those fields need timely rains to ensure a healthy harvest and hatch."

The only state with a four-bird-per-day bag limit has seen its pheasant population go from boom to bust the last few years, and hunters going into last season knew what to expect. "The season pretty much followed our forecast and went as expected," said Rogers. "The south-central was our one bright spot, as they received some timely rains and saw some good hunting. It wasn't a huge area, but a couple of counties did pretty well."

Last fall, hunters hit the fields in a traditional manner on opening weekend, but the number of days hunted and the effort put forth quickly faded. "Many hunters simply hung up their guns after a trip or two," said Rogers.

Kansas' program that enrolls private lan

ds for public use has hit over 900,000 acres. The popular Walk-In Hunting Area program has a goal of 1 million acres, which should be reached in the next year or two.

CRP acres in the state are also holding steady, and continuous sign-ups are paying great rewards. Continuous sign-ups involve small parcels of land instead of huge tracts. These buffer areas usually consist of 5 to 10 percent of the field being planted to grass. He also states that many of the enrolled public acres, along with the CRP acres, were heavily affected by the drought and haying.

"About 60 percent of those acres were impacted. Out west they provided very little opportunities this year, but they will be vital when favorable weather conditions return and should really help jump-start our recovery.

"It is going to take some time to recover out west - two or three years at least, and that's with good conditions. But in the central part of the state things are not that bad, and could change in a hurry. We just need a break."

It's hoped that hunters will see some improvements this fall. The best opportunities will lie in the south-central and portions of the north-central regions of the state. Pheasant populations in the southwest will again struggle, but there will be isolated pockets across the state that will hold birds. Kansas hunters need to hold on; better days are on the way. This season is set to open Nov. 8 and run into January 2004. A resident license costs $18.50, while a non-resident's goes for $70.50. The daily bag limit will remain 4 roosters, with 16 in possession.

* * *
Another pheasant season is just around the corner. Some hunters will see easy limits, while others will struggle for an opportunity or two. But one thing is for sure: When opening day rolls around, generations of us ringneck hunters will take to the fields just as we have for decades.

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