2013 Upland Bird Regional Forecast

KANSAS UPLAND BIRD HUNTING OUTLOOK 2013

GENERAL INFORMATION

When considering upland game population levels during the fall hunting season, two important factors impact population change. First is the number of adult birds that survived the previous fall and winter to become viable breeders in the spring. The second is the reproductive success of this breeding population. Reproductive success consists of nest success (the number of nests that 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 rapid, although reproductive success is still the major population regulator and important for good hunting opportunities. In the following forecast, breeding population and reproductive success of pheasants, quail, and prairie chickens will be discussed. 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 like the other game birds.

Extreme drought conditions persisted in most of Kansas again this year. While several late winter and early spring storms brought much needed precipitation across the state, levels were not high enough to recover vegetation conditions going into the breeding season. Nesting conditions were somewhat better for pheasants than our other game birds due to a later-than-average wheat harvest. Pheasants utilize green wheat for nesting more than other game birds, and a later harvest provides more opportunity for nests to hatch and young to fledge. However, the lack of precipitation in June and most of July did not improve vegetative conditions enough to provide for good brood rearing cover or sufficient insect abundance. The combination of these two deficiencies led to lower than average chick survival for all upland game birds across most regions of the state. As precipitation fell across much of the state in late summer, vegetation conditions improved, signaling improved conditions and a potential for better production in the near future.

Because of drought conditions occurring during mid-summer, 66 counties in Kansas were opened 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 normal stocking rates across the entire field. For many of these counties, this is the third consecutive year where CRP has been released for emergency haying or grazing. In the previous two years approximately 43 percent of CRP acres in Kansas had been utilized for emergency haying or grazing. The emergency use over the last three years has created a cumulative negative effect within areas where the ongoing drought has resulted in little regrowth within fields that have been utilized over that time period. Thus, a portion of the CRP will only provide fair to poor cover this fall including many Walk-In Hunting 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.ksoutdoors.com or at any license vendor). Often older stands of CRP grass are in need of disturbance, and haying and grazing can improve habitat conditions for the upcoming breeding season. With the late summer precipitation across many regions of the state, we have already had a great improvement in the vegetative composition within those disturbed CRP fields. If climate conditions continue to improve, these disturbed CRP fields should provide excellent habitat for production next summer.

Due to continued drought during the reproductive season, Kansas will experience a below average upland game season this fall. However, for those willing to hunt there will still be birds available, especially in the northern Flint Hills, and northcentral and northwestern parts of Kansas. Kansas has 1.5 million acres open to public hunting (Wildlife Areas and WIHA combined). For regulations, season dates and bag limits, see “When To Hunt” under the “Hunting” menu. Don’t forget that Nov. 2-3 is designated for the youth pheasant and quail season, open to youth 16 or younger and accompanied by a nonhunting adult who is 18 or older. 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 that we all enjoy.

STATEWIDE SUMMARIES

PHEASANT – Pheasant populations in Kansas continue to suffer from the extended drought. Pheasant breeding populations dropped over 35 percent across their range from 2012 to 2013 resulting in less adult hens in the population to start the 2013 nesting season. Winter wheat serves as a major nesting habitat for pheasants in western Kansas. While a cooler spring led to a later than average wheat harvest this summer, the lack of precipitation resulted in less cover and insects needed for good pheasant production. Late summer rains improved vegetation conditions across much of the state; however the rain came after the primary nesting and brood rearing period. Given most of the Kansas pheasant range did not receive adequate precipitation in time to improve habitat and associated insects, production was limited again this year. However, opportunities will still exist to harvest roosters in the sunflower state, especially for those willing to work for their birds. Though the drought has taken its toll, 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 pockets in northwest and northcentral Kansas.

QUAIL – The statewide bobwhite breeding population decreased significantly in 2013 compared to 2012 but there is some variation across the state. Areas east of the Flint Hills showed improved productivity this year. Populations have rebounded over the last 2 years in eastern Kansas, but overall populations are still below historic averages. The best quail hunting will likely be found within the Flint Hills and Osage Cuestas (southeast) regions. Drought has negatively impacted production and abundance in central and western Kansas over the last few years.

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 CRP. Greater prairie chickens are found primarily in the tallgrass and mixed grass prairies that occur in the eastern one-third and northern half of the state.

The spring prairie chicken lek survey indicated that most populations remained stable or declined slightly from last year. Areas within the Flint Hills and Southcentral Prairies fared the best, while areas in the Northern and Southern High Plains (western region), where the drought was most severe, experienced the sharpest declines. Many areas in the Flint Hills were not burned this spring due to drought conditions. This resulted in slightly more residual grass cover for nesting compared to recent years. There have been some reports of prairie chickens broods in these areas, and hunting will likely be somewhat improved compared to recent years.

Regulations were liberalized somewhat for northwest Kansas in 2012 because of long-term increases to the occupied prairie chicken range (both species). The early prairie chicken season (Sept. 15 – Oct. 15) and two bird bag limit was extended into northwest Kansas. The Northwest Unit boundary was also revised to include areas north of Hwy 96 and west of Hwy 281. Additionally, all prairie chicken hunters are now required to purchase a $2.50 prairie chicken permit. This permit allows KDWPT to better track hunters and harvest, which will improve management activities.

REGIONAL SUMMARIES

Northern High Plains (northwest)

This region has 11,809 acres of public land, and 330,994 acres of WIHA open to hunters this fall.

Pheasant – This region maintained the highest spring densities in the state but still showed a decline of almost 40 percent from 2012 to 2013. 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.

Quail – Populations in this region had been increasing prior to the drought, which has 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 extremely 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. The better hunting opportunities will be found in the central and southeastern portions of the region in native prairies and nearby CRP grasslands. Spring lek counts in that portion of the region were slightly depressed from last year and nesting conditions were only fair this year. Extreme drought likely negatively impacted chick survival again. Thus, hunting will be fairly tough but the region still contains some areas of relatively high densities compared to other areas of the state. The best hunting will be in the eastern most portion of the region.

Smoky Hills (northcentral)

This region has 75,576 acres of public land, and 288,654 acres of WIHA open to hunters this fall.

Pheasant – The Smoky Hills breeding population dropped about 50 percent from 2012 to 2013, reducing overall fall population potential. While nesting conditions were good due to good winter wheat growth and delayed harvest, the drought continued to limit vegetative cover following wheat harvest and thus limited the number of young recruited into the fall population. This region shows the highest density of birds from the summer brood survey despite a 40 percent annual decline. 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.

Quail – Breeding populations increased over 60 percent from 2012 to 2013, increasing fall population potential. However, drought conditions persisted and impacted nesting and brood success. There are reports of fair to good quail numbers in certain areas throughout the region, which is likely attributed to late re-nesting attempts benefiting from late summer rains. Quail populations in northcentral Kansas are always spotty due to a corresponding distribution of habitat. Areas within the northern and northeastern portion of this region appear to hold the best hunting prospects for this fall.

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. Lesser prairie chickens occur in a few counties in the southwestern portion of the region. Spring counts indicated that numbers were slightly reduced over most of the region from last year. Much of the rangeland cover is significantly reduced due to drought, which had negative impacts on production resulting in reduced fall hunting opportunities. The best hunting in the region will likely be found in the northeastern portions of the region with several other scattered counties holding relatively high densities of birds.

Glaciated Plains (northeast)

This region has 60,559 acres of public land, and 53,604 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 in only a few pockets of good habitat primarily in the northwestern portion of the region.

Quail – Breeding populations stayed relatively the same as last year and some quail were detected during the summer brood survey. The long-term trend for this region has been declining due to unfavorable weather conditions and degrading habitat. Hunting opportunities will be similar to last year with the best areas likely in the western portion of this region near the Smoky Hills and Flint Hills.

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, where large areas of native rangeland still exist.

Osage Cuestas (southeast)

This region has 80,759 acres of public land, and 29,088 acres of WIHA open to hunters this fall.

Pheasant – This region is outside the primary pheasant range, and very limited hunting opportunity is available. A few birds can be found in the northwestern portion of the region.

Quail –Though long-term trends have been declining, breeding populations have been steadily increasing over the last five years. The southern half of this region held some of the highest densities in the state this past spring and again during the late summer brood survey. Heavy rainfall in late summer could have negatively impacted production in some portions of this region. Population levels are above the 15-year average but remain far below historic levels across the bulk of the region due to extreme habitat degradation.

Prairie Chicken – Greater prairie chickens occur in the central and northwest parts of this region in large areas of native rangeland. After a sharp increase last year, breeding population densities declined this past spring. Populations have been in consistent decline over the long-term. Infrequent fire has resulted in woody encroachment of native grasslands in the region, gradually reducing the amount of suitable habitat. The best hunting opportunities will be in large blocks of native rangeland, primarily located along the Flint Hills.

Flint Hills

This region has 128,371 acres of public land, and 60,625 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. Spring breeding populations were down over 25 percent, and reproduction was limited this summer. The best pheasant hunting will be in the northwestern edge of this region.

Quail – This region as a whole contained the highest breeding densities of bobwhite in Kansas in 2013. The breeding population in this region remained relatively stable compared to 2012, and the long term (since 1998) trend has been stable with little annual variation over the last several years. The number of birds detected during the fall brood survey declined by 50 percent compared to 2012. This is likely due to heavy rainfall that fell across the region in late summer. Some areas in this region should still offer quality hunting opportunities, particularly in the northern and southern counties in the region.

Prairie Chickens – The Flint Hills is the largest intact tallgrass prairie left in North America. 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 continued drought has again left many areas that are normally burned annually, unburned this year. While the drought still impacted the vegetative conditions in the area, the reduced burning meant more residual grass cover for nesting compared to most years. There are some reports of prairie chicken broods, and hunting opportunities will likely be improved over last year throughout the region.

Southcentral Prairies

This region has 19,534 acres of public land, and 67,688 acres of WIHA open to hunters this fall.

Pheasant – The breeding population declined over 25 percent from 2012 to 2013. Prolonged drought over the last 3 years and very poor vegetation conditions resulted in poor reproductive success this year. CRP was opened to emergency haying or grazing in all counties in the region for the third consecutive year. Summer indices showed a depressed pheasant population in all counties within this region. There will be limited hunting opportunities in this region this fall, but the best areas will likely be in the northern portion of the region.

Quail – The breeding population dropped over 35% from 2012 and the summer brood survey indicated over a 50% decline for this region. 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. Extended periods of heavy rainfall that occurred throughout this region in late summer may have further depressed brood survival this year. However, the precipitation did improve vegetative conditions that will likely lead to improved survival over the winter and improved productivity next summer. With significant declines in this region, hunting opportunities will likely be limited. Areas in the northcentral portion of this region will likely have the best opportunities.

Prairie Chicken – This region is almost entirely occupied by lesser prairie chickens. After a sharp decline last year, the breeding population remained stable in the region this year. Nesting cover has been limited due to the drought over the last three years. Densities from spring lek counts in some counties were improved and the counties in the sand prairies south of the Arkansas River will offer the best hunting opportunities this year.

Southern High Plains (southwest)

This region has 2,904 acres of public land, and 172,020 acres of WIHA open to hunters this fall.

Pheasant – After record lows last year, the breeding population fell another 40 percent in this region from 2012 to 2013. While late summer precipitation improved vegetation cover, extensive drought conditions during the bulk of the nesting and brood rearing season combined with extremely low breeding populations, significantly reduced bird numbers again. The summer survey indicated that densities in the region declined over 40 percent from last year. Additionally, CRP was opened to emergency haying or grazing in all counties in the region for the third consecutive year. Hunting opportunities will be limited, but counties in the southeastern portion of this region should provide the best chances for success.

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 survey were stable compared to last year but well below the 10-year-average. The drought continued to limit the available nesting and brood rearing cover, but late summer rains improved conditions across the area which provided higher potential for success for renesting attempts. Hunting opportunities in the region will be limited this season but the best hunting will likely be found in the southwest portion of the region where some limited production occurred.

Prairie Chicken – This region experienced a 35 percent decline in the breeding index from last year. While late-summer precipitation slightly improved vegetation, drought conditions remained extreme in this region during most of the nesting and brooding season, and reproductive success was very low. Hunting opportunities in this region will be extremely limited this fall but the best hunting will likely be found in far southeastern portion of this region.