Nesting Habitat Key to Pheasant Numbers

The Bigger Picture

Even the pheasant capital is experiencing problems.

Published on: November 27, 2013

The farm my wife and her siblings own has been in the Conservation Reserve Program for many, many years. In the early years we had fairly decent numbers of pheasants on the farm in east central Iowa.

As the years progressed, the grass "matt" became thicker and thicker and the pheasant population declined. Of course, there are many factors involved such as weather, but just because it is CRP doesn't mean it is good habitat for pheasants.

Wildlife biologists will tell you chicks such as pheasant and quail need to be able to move in, around, and between the plants in order to feed on insects.

Two years ago we did a mid-contract management burn. That seems to have helped. We are seeing more pheasants again. This year, unfortunately for livestock farmers, but fortunately for us, USDA allowed emergency haying of CRP acres. A neighboring livestock farmer baled the legal amount of grass off our CRP. I'm confident that will help improve the habitat for young chicks as well. (I saw a few more pheasants during the fall muzzleloader hunt than I expected to see.) Still, the pheasant population is way down in many areas – due in many cases to the reduction in CRP acres.

DECLINING HABITAT: As more and more land is taken out of conservation programs, pheasant numbers are declining as well. Photo Courtesy of Pheasants Forever
DECLINING HABITAT: As more and more land is taken out of conservation programs, pheasant numbers are declining as well. Photo Courtesy of Pheasants Forever

Nesting habitat critical

Let's take South Dakota – often called the pheasant capital – as an example. For the first time in two decades, South Dakota has less than 1 million acres enrolled in the CRP.

Even though South Dakota pheasant hunters are expected to harvest a lot of birds again this year, the overall population is down. The 2013 Game, Fish and Parks pheasant brood survey showed a 64% decrease compared to 2012. The report cites habitat loss and unfavorable weather as factors. "The overriding factor is the loss of habitat. Birds just don’t have the cover they need," says K.C. Jensen, SDSU associate professor of natural resources management. "Weather and predators are factors, but if there is good habitat, the pheasant population will rebound," he adds. 

CRP LAND: Plenty of cover and room for chicks to roam and feed.
CRP LAND: Plenty of cover and room for chicks to roam and feed.

Taking action

South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugarrd is hosting a Pheasant Habitat Summit in Huron on Dec. 6. The summit is designed to provide a forum to learn about the current state of pheasant habitat in South Dakota, including panel discussions and public input as a means to explore ways to maintain and enhance pheasant habitat in South Dakota.

"With the drastic changes taking place in the Dakotas, (grassland conversion, draining of wetlands, plowing of native prairie, etc.), this is a pivotal time for conservation and wildlife not just in the Midwest, but the nation as a whole," says Rehan Nana, Pheasants Forever.

I plan to cover the summit and will report on it later.

You can find information on pheasant numbers for your state at www.pheasantsforever.org. Click on "hunting