Last week, Pheasants Forever reported about the deadly winter for pheasants in the Upper Midwest (Winter Hammering Pheasant Country…Again). Moving southward, have winter's snow and ice had similar damaging effects on pheasant populations? Let's find out:
A better winter than last year, "better" being a relative term, says Todd Bogenschutz, Upland Wildlife Research Biologist with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. Iowa is looking at its 5th consecutive year with above average snowfall. "Normal snowfall for Iowa (Dec – Mar) is 25.3″, and we've had a winter's worth of snowfall – 22.6″ in the first two months of this current season," Bogenschutz says, adding this recent total does not include the early February blizzard that caused several county disaster declarations. And that's not good news for Iowa pheasants. "If Iowa sees ‘normal' snowfall in February and March, our total for this winter would be 34″. In 50 years of roadside counts, our pheasant numbers have never increased following winters with more than 31″ of snowfall statewide," Bogenschutz says. Since pheasant counts are done in August, he points out the results take into consideration the following spring weather as well. "Even with a great spring the likelihood of any big recovery in Iowa this coming year is likely very low."
As this graph illustrates, Iowa pheasant counts have never increased following winters with more than 31" of snow.
Southern Iowa has been the recipient of normal snowfall this year, but pheasant populations in that region are so low – due to previous winters and habitat destruction – that Bogenschutz levels optimism. "Even if counts increased 100% in that region this year, it would mean our counts would increase from the mean of 5 birds per route to 10 birds per route – still well below Iowa standards."
Still, any improvement this year would be better than the past half decade. "We are experiencing a thaw right now and virtually all of Iowa is snow free right now except perhaps the very northern third of Iowa," Bogenschutz says, "It would not bother me if we received no more snow the remainder of the winter. I'll take even a 10% increase in counts this year."
Several moderate snows melted away in a matter of days, leading Jim Pitman, Small Game Coordinator with the Kansas Department of Wildlife & Parks, to believe Kansas pheasants are faring well. "We had a mild winter last year too, but we had even less snow cover this year. Thus, I speculate that pheasants came through the winter in really good shape across the bulk of our pheasant range. Of course, we still have a few more weeks of winter so that could change." Pitman says the one area of concern may be northeast Kansas. "We did have one big snow event (12"+) there for the second consecutive year," he says, "Our pheasant numbers were down there this past spring and could be again this spring too. The deep snow cover didn't last nearly as long this winter, so I'm not expecting to see as big of a drop. This area isn't one of our better pheasant areas but does provide some fair hunting opportunities in good years."
Compared to last winter, this one has been mild according to Jeff Lusk, Upland Game Program Manager with the Nebraska Game & Parks Commission. "We had snow, but it arrived later and melted sooner than last year," he said, "We've also had some bitterly cold temperatures, but the duration was also relatively short and came after a partial melt. Given this information, I'd say that this winter's weather has had a minimal effect on Nebraska's pheasants. There were likely localized areas where conditions caused mortalities, but such conditions were not widespread. Now I'm just keeping my fingers crossed for a warm and dry spring!"
Ed Gorman, Small Game Manager with the Colorado Division of Wildlife, reports that Colorado hasn't had any winter weather events that would impact pheasant populations. In fact, it's a lack of moisture that has him concerned. "We really need some winter moisture between now and May to get our nesting and brood rearing habitat growing. In this part of pheasant country, drought is much more likely to reduce pheasant populations than winter mortality is."