2014 Upland Bird Forecast

 2014 KANSAS UPLAND BIRD HUNTING FORECAST

GENERAL INFORMATION

When forecasting upland game populations, two important factors influence availability of game during the fall hunting season. First is the number of viable breeding adults that are available for spring production. The second is the reproductive success of this breeding population, which consists of nest success (the number of nests successfully hatched) and chick survival (the number of chicks recruited into the fall population). For pheasant and quail, annual population turnover is relatively high; therefore the fall population is more dependent on reproductive success than breeding population levels. For grouse (prairie chickens), annual population turnover is not as high, although reproductive success is still the major population regulator and important for good hunting opportunities. Breeding populations and reproductive success of pheasants, quail, and prairie chickens will be discussed in this forecast. Breeding population data were gathered during spring breeding surveys for pheasants (crow counts), quail (whistle counts), and prairie chickens (lek counts). Data for reproductive success were collected during late-summer roadside surveys for pheasants and quail. Reproductive success of prairie chickens cannot be easily assessed using the same methods because they generally do not associate with roads.

Heavy precipitation fell over much of the state during late summer and early fall of 2013, giving hopes that the long-term drought was subsiding. However, precipitation through the reminder of the fall and winter was very sparse, negatively affecting the condition of winter wheat, which is a major pheasant nesting habitat. Precipitation returned to many areas of the state beginning in mid-May and continued through the summer. This precipitation delayed wheat harvest, stimulated the growth of annual weeds, and promoted insect emergence, creating better nesting conditions and excellent brooding conditions throughout much of the state. As a result nest success and chick survival were higher than observed in several years.

While precipitation has improved cover and conditions for upland birds, much of the western portion of the state remains several inches behind in soil moisture and remains under emergency drought conditions. In response, USDA opened 44 counties to emergency haying and grazing of Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) grasslands. CRP emergency haying requires fields that are hayed to leave at least 50 percent of the field in standing grass cover. CRP emergency grazing requires 25 percent of the field (or contiguous fields) to be left ungrazed or grazing can occur at 75 percent of normal stocking rates across the entire field. In addition to these requirements, much of the CRP lands located within the Lesser Prairie Chicken Range (southwest) are only eligible for emergency haying or grazing one out of three years. For many of the counties, this is the fourth consecutive year where CRP has been released for emergency haying or grazing. The 44 counties released this year are, however, fewer than the 66 counties released in 2013 and the statewide release in 2012. In contrast to previous years, the precipitation that we have received should have created favorable conditions for growth of grasses and annual weeds on the previously hayed/grazed CRP. Thus CRP fields that have been hayed/grazed over the past four years should have improved cover this year and this will include many of the Walk-In Hunting Access areas (WIHA). WIHA property is privately-owned land open to the public for hunting access. Kansas has over a million acres of WIHA (atlases are available at www.kdwpt.state.ks.us or at any license vendor). Often older stands of CRP grass are in need of disturbance, which can be provided by haying or grazing, to improve habitat conditions for the upcoming breeding season. With the precipitation across many regions of the state this spring and summer, the vegetative composition has improved in these previously disturbed CRP fields. If climate conditions continue to improve, these disturbed CRP fields should provide excellent habitat for production in the coming years too.

Given the increased production for upland birds, Kansas should have improved upland bird hunting this fall. However, due to the limited breeding population in most areas resulting from the extended drought, harvest will remain below average this season. Kansas has more than 1.5 million acres open to public hunting (state wildlife areas and WIHA combined). The regular opening date for the pheasant and quail seasons will be November 8 for the entire state. The previous weekend will be designated for the special youth season. Youth participating in the special season must be 16 or younger and accompanied by an adult 18 or older who may not hunt. All public wildlife areas and WIHA tracts will be open for public access during the special youth season. Please consider taking a young person hunting this fall so they might have the opportunity to develop a passion for the outdoors.

STATEWIDE SUMMARIES

PHEASANT – After three consecutive years of statewide declines, the spring breeding populations stabilized in 2014. The only region showing a significant decrease was the Northern High Plains. Late summer rains that fell across much of the state in 2013 improved vegetative cover. However, the remainder of the fall and winter produced little precipitation and a majority of the winter wheat was in poor to very poor condition coming into the nesting season, creating less than optimal nesting conditions. Precipitation returned in mid-May and continued through most of the summer. Despite the tardiness of the rainfall, conditions still improved greatly. And precipitation delayed wheat harvest, stimulated the growth of annual weeds, and promoted insect emergence, creating better nesting conditions and excellent brooding conditions throughout much of the state. These factors all had a positive impact on production, and combined for a statewide increase in the summer brood counts by 70 percent when compared to 2013. This increase should offer an improved hunting opportunities this fall although given that the population was at a modern day low, a few good years will be required for full recovery. Kansas will again have a below-average pheasant harvest this fall. Kansas still contains one of the best pheasant populations and the fall harvest will again be among the best in the country. The best areas this year will likely be in the Smoky Hills region.

QUAIL – In 2014, the statewide breeding population of bobwhite quail unexpectedly inproved by 32 percent. Estimates from the summer brood survey in 2013 showed little production for quail, so the breeding population was expected to remain fairly static. However, the tenacious re-nesting behavior of this species allowed them to take advantage of the improved conditions resulting from late summer rains in 2013. Production from these late nests was after the completion of the 2013 brood survey, so they were not detected. With the later nesting chronology of quail compared to pheasant, summer precipitation in 2014 created excellent conditions for production this year. Roadside surveys showed a statewide increase of 50 percent compared to 2013. However, statewide populations are still below historic averages and Kansas will likely have a below average quail harvest this fall. Populations in much of the central and western portions of the state have not fully recovered from the drought. While opportunities will be better throughout most of the state this year, the best opportunities will likely remain in the eastern thrid of the state, particularly in the Flint Hills region.

PRAIRIE CHICKEN – Kansas is home to greater and lesser prairie chickens. Both species require a landscape of predominately native grass. Lesser prairie chickens are found in west-central and southwestern Kansas in native prairie and nearby stands of native grass established through the CRP. Greater prairie chickens are found primarily in the tallgrass and mixed-grass prairies that occur in the eastern third and northern half of the state.

In March, the lesser prairie chicken was listed under the endangered species act by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service and is now protected and cannot be legally harvested or possessed. In response to that decision, new prairie chicken units have been established to close prairie chicken hunting in areas containing only lesser prairie chickens and areas where the two species overlap. Greater prairie chicken may be harvested during early prairie chicken season (Sept. 15 – Oct. 15) and the regular season with a two-bird bag limit in the greater prairie chicken unit. Since 2012, all prairie chicken hunters have been required to purchase a $2.50 prairie chicken permit. This permit allows KDWPT to better track hunters and harvest, which will improve management activities.

Prairie chicken populations were generally up where the appropriate habitat exists. Hunting opportunities should be improved throughout the greater prairie chicken hunting unit; however, the best opportunities this fall will be in the Smoky Hills Region.

Northern High Plains

This northwest region has 11,809 acres of public land, and 332,887 acres of WIHA open to hunters this fall.

Pheasant–This region maintained the highest spring densities of pheasants. As a result of delayed wheat harvest and improved weedy cover in this region, production improved, indicated by a nearly 50 percent increase in the brood survey compared to 2013. Despite this increase, the dramatic decline of pheasant populations over the last several years limited the breeding population preventing large-scale recovery. Hunting opportunities should be improved throughout most of this region but the highest densities will be found in the northern half of the region.

Quail– Populations in this region had been increasing prior to the drought; however, the deteriorated habitat conditions associated with the drought resulted in significant declines in production. This area is at the extreme northwestern edge of bobwhite range in Kansas, and densities are relatively low compared to central Kansas. Hunting opportunities in this region will be limited this year but the best areas will be in the eastern and southeastern counties where adequate cover is present.

Prairie chicken– Prairie chicken populations have expanded in both numbers and range within the region over the past 20 years. Lesser prairie chickens occur in southern and central portion of the region and these areas will be closed to prairie chicken hunting this year (see map for unit boundaries). Within the area that is still open to prairie chicken harvest, the better hunting opportunities will be found in the northeastern portion of the region in native prairie and nearby CRP grasslands.

Smoky Hills

This northcentral region has 75,576 acres of public land, and 293,344 acres of WIHA open to hunters this fall.

Pheasant– The Smoky Hills showed a modest increase in the spring breeding population index compared to 2013. Annual weed growth in wheat fields and delayed wheat harvest within portions of this region created excellent brood cover this summer. This resulted in a 76 percent increase in the summer brood survey compared to 2013. The Smoky Hills had the highest regional pheasant index on the brood survey this year. While densities improved in nearly all areas surveyed in this region, the highest densities were found in the northcentral portion and southern tier of counties in the region.

Quail– The spring breeding population increased in the region again this year, with the population index increasing by nearly 90 percent. Following excellent production conditions this summer, the brood survey also increased by 100 precent compared to 2013. Quail populations in northcentral Kansas are always spotty due to a corresponding distribution of habitat. Areas within the northeastern portion of this region appear to hold the best densities for hunting this fall. There are reports of fair to good quail numbers in several other areas throughout the region, as well, and given the habitat conditions, quail hunting should be improved across most of the region this year.

Prairie Chicken– Greater prairie chickens occur throughout the Smoky Hills where large areas of native rangeland are intermixed with CRP. This region includes some of the highest densities and greatest hunting opportunities in the state for greater prairie chickens. Improved rangeland condition resulting from a combination of precipitation and cattle reduction caused by the long-term drought should have positive impacts on densities this fall. The best hunting in the region will likely be found in the central portion of the region, but several other counties also hold relatively high densities of birds. Lesser prairie chickens occur in a few counties in the southwestern portion of the region, and these areas will be closed to prairie chicken hunting this year.

Glaciated Plains

This northeast region has 60,559 acres of public land, and 53,996 of WIHA open to hunters this fall.

Pheasant– Spring crow counts this year indicated breeding populations of pheasants remained similar to last year. Pheasant densities across the region are low, especially compared to other areas in western Kansas. Good hunting opportunities will exist only in pockets of habitat, primarily in the northwestern portion of the region.

Quail– Breeding populations stayed relatively the same as last year. While the brood survey indicated a decrease in the regional quail index, several routes that were not used in the annual comparison indicated relatively good densities for quail. Hunting opportunities in the region are expected to be similar to last year and best areas should be in the north and northwest counties in the region.

Prairie Chickens– Very little prairie chicken range occurs in this region, and opportunities are limited. The best areas are in the western edges of the region along the Flint Hills, where large areas of native rangeland still exist.

Osage Cuestas

This southeast region has 80,759 acres of public land, and 30,731 acres of WIHA open to hunters this fall.

Pheasant– This region is outside the primary pheasant range, and very limited hunting opportunity is available. Pheasants are occasionally found in northwestern portion of the region in very low densities.

Quail– Though long-term trends have been declining, breeding populations had been steadily increasing over the last five years and remained fairly stable this year. Rainfall last summer was extremely heavy in portions of this region and may have negatively impacted production in those areas. Spring population indices are above the 15-year average but remain far below historic levels across the bulk of the region due to extreme habitat degradation. Production this summer appears to have been good in the region with brood survey indices that are similar to 2013. Several areas throughout this region should offer fair to good hunting with the best opportunities found in western counties along the Flint Hills and in counties in the southcentral portion of the region where appropriate cover exists

Prairie Chicken– Greater prairie chickens occur in the central and northwest parts of this region in large areas of native rangeland. Populations have been in consistent decline over the long term. Infrequent fire has resulted in woody encroachment of native grasslands in the area, gradually reducing the amount of suitable habitat. The best hunting opportunities will be in large blocks of native rangeland, primarily located along the edge of the Flint Hills region.

Flint Hills

This east-central region has 128,371 acres of public land, and 67,777 acres of WIHA open to hunters this fall.

Pheasant –This region is on the eastern edge of pheasant range in Kansas and well outside the primary range. Pheasant densities have always been relatively low throughout the Flint Hills and highest densities are typically found on the western edge of the region. The spring breeding population index did increase by nearly 50 precent this year and the summer brood survey increased by over 100 percent. The best opportunities will be found in the northwest most area of the region.

Quail– There was a slight increase in the index to breeding bobwhites this spring, and the Flint Hills region had the highest breeding bobwhite density in the state in 2014. Brood survey results indicated a 127 percent increase in the quail index, producing the highest densities in the state this summer. Quail densities will likely be limited in the core of the Flint Hills were large scale annual burning and chemical control of shrubs have removed key components of quail habitat. However the remainder of the Flint Hills should offer good hunting opportunities this fall.

Prairie chickens– The Flint Hills is the largest intact tallgrass prairie left in North America, and it has served as a core habitat for greater prairie chickens for many years. Since the early 1980s, inadequate range burning frequencies have gradually degraded habitat, and prairie chicken numbers have been declining as a result. The core of the Flint Hills is typically burned annually and after several years of being unable to burn due to drought, the improved range conditions this year allowed for wide spread burning to return, limiting available nesting habitat in this area. The region as a whole, however, should be slightly better considering the improved cover on the fringes of the region where burning is less common. There are some reports of prairie chicken broods, and hunting opportunities will likely be improved over last year throughout the region.

Southcentral Prairies

This southcentral region has 19,534 acres of public land, and 86,133 acres of WIHA open to hunters this fall.

Pheasant– The spring pheasant crow survey index indicated a nearly 40 percent increase from 2013. The summer brood survey also showed an increase of 173 percent, the greatest improvement of any of the regions this year. CRP was released for emergency haying/grazing again in 2014, which is the fourth consecutive year for most of these counties. While the whole field is not eligible for emergency use each year, fields utilized in consecutive years may or may not provide adequate cover for hunting depending on moisture available for plant production. The best hunting opportunities will be in the northeast and central counties within this region.

Quail– This region generally has some of the highest quail densities in Kansas; however, prolonged drought and resulting vegetation conditions have caused significant declines in recent years. The breeding population index increased this year by nearly 50 precent and the brood survey indicated that there was nearly a 100 percent increase in quail density in the region. Despite these increases, densities in the region as a whole are still relatively limited with the best densities being found in the center of the region. Hunting opportunities for this species will also likely be good in patches throughout the region where adequate habitat exists for quick recovery.

Prairie chicken– This region is almost entirely occupied by lesser prairie chickens and areas included in their range will be closed to prairie chicken hunting this year (see map for unit boundaries). Greater prairie chickens are possible in very limited areas in the remainder of this region. Prairie chickens within the open unit in this region would occur in very low densities within the limited remaining large rangeland tracts in the northeast portion of the region.

Southern High Plains

This southwest region has 111,079 acres of public land, and 185,730 acres of WIHA open to hunters this fall.

Pheasant–After record lows last year, the breeding population somewhat stabilized this year, indicating only slight decreases from 2013. Precipitation in this region over the last year has greatly improved vegetative cover. The summer brood survey indicated that densities in the region improved by 71 percent. While the regional improvement was encouraging, densities in many areas of the region remain low despite the improved conditions, due to the limited breeding populations. Multiple years of good conditions will be required for recovery to pre-drought population levels. Hunting opportunities should be relatively good in the southeastern counties but limited throughout the rest of the region.

Quail– The breeding population in this region tends to be highly variable depending on available moisture and resulting vegetative conditions. Quail densities from the spring whistle surveys were greatly improved compared to 2013. Birds in the region were likely able to take advantage of the rains received across the area late summer in 2013 resulting in the observed increase. Timing for precipitation in the area created good conditions for production this year. Brood survey results indicated a large increase in quail but still comparatively low densities across the region. Hunting opportunities should be good in the few areas where appropriate cover exists.

Prairie chicken – This region is entirely occupied by lesser prairie chickens. Prairie chicken hunting will be closed in this area this fall.