Due to unfavorable weather, pheasant populations -- which vary from year to year -- are forecast to be way down in the major pheasant states this season.
Iowa is supposed to be at an all-time low. Nebraska is down about 20 percent, Minnesota is down a whopping 64 percent and Kansas will be down significantly because of the drought conditions in much of the state. Not least, the pheasant capitol of the world, South Dakota, is down 46 percent.
"Down" means fewer birds than last year, mostly because of harsh winters and wet springs. The bad winters kill mature pheasants and the wet springs kill chicks. Put both of them together one year, and it's bad. If it happens for several years in a row, it's real bad, like in Iowa.
"The last five years have been really frustrating for Iowa hunters and for the department," said Todd Bogenschutz, state upland wildlife research biologist. "Plain and simple, we've lost hens and nests consecutively each of the last five years because of unprecedented weather patterns for Iowa."
Odd weather patterns are becoming more normal than rare, and that plus a short bird lifespan and constricting habitat mean gamebird populations suffer.
Take Minnesota: Two severe winters in a row resulted in hen counts 72 percent below the 10-year average, and this year's cold and wet conditions during the April-June nesting period resulted in brood counts 75 percent below the 10-year average.
Not good, but not bad either. As Pheasants Forever PR man Anthony Hauck noted.
"Few states can top 100,000 mark in total pheasant harvest, and fewer still – only about seven states because of habitat availability – are capable of topping a 200,000 statewide harvest,” he said. “When the going was good at various times in the last decade, South Dakota was close to 2 million birds harvested., North Dakota and Kansas were inching toward 1 million, and Nebraska and Minnesota hovered in the 400,000 range.
Dips are expected in each of these states this year, Hauck said, but South Dakota is expected to check in around 1.2 million birds harvested. Minnesota is way down but is expected to be around 250,000 birds, and Iowa is projected to have its worst year ever but will probably harvest around 200,000 birds.
"I'm not trying to paint the picture that things are better in Iowa than they are – the state has lost an awful lot of grassland, which we're very concerned about – but that overall harvest will still be better than all but five or six states," he said.
In other words, the percentages aren't as bad as they seem. But do they affect hunter travel to these states?
Wanda Goodman, PR manager for South Dakota Tourism, didn't have any hard numbers about the pheasant forecast and its effect, if any, on tourism. But she said that in a 2010 survey of hunters, the No. 1 influence when choosing a hunting destination was "plentiful game."
She added that it's a challenge communicating the fact that even in its worst year, South Dakota's pheasant hunting is still way better than other states.
"In 2009 South Dakota's harvest was 1.6 million roosters," she said. "Kansas was next best with 746,000, so there's a huge difference" between the No. 1 and 2 pheasant states that year. "But not all the hunters know that. So it's a challenge to communicate that in South Dakota it's good hunting no matter what the forecast is."
Hauck's reaction was "absolutely" travel is affected by forecasts.
"Sad as it is to say, plenty of bandwagon bird hunters will pack it in completely or find a new quarry if the bird outlook is not to their liking," he said. "The state of Iowa is a prime example. A decade ago, with better bird numbers, Iowa had more than 100,000 pheasant hunters. Last year, that number dropped to 74,000 hunters. But even with poor bird numbers by its standards, Iowa is still one of the top half-dozen pheasant hunting states in the nation.
"Another measure is Pheasants Forever's annual Pheasant Hunting Forecast. This is our most highly anticipated and well-read article year after year" because many hunters want to see if a particular destination is "worth the drive. Any time you have a chance to go pheasant hunting, it's worth the drive."
Hauck noted that a bad forecast can feed on itself and vice versa.
"The more interest in pheasant hunting, the more interest in improving pheasant habitat. More-improved pheasant habitat helps bird numbers, and then we get to put out a nice, rosy Pheasant Hunting Forecast," he said.