Quail, pheasant and squirrel numbers are increasing from recent lows in most areas, and rabbits are likely to follow this general upward trend, according to resource scientists with the Missouri Department of Conservation.
Field observations play an important role in the conservation department’s annual evaluation of game populations. The MDC also pays close attention to weather throughout the year, looking for insights about winter survival, nesting conditions and factors affecting the availability of food, shelter and water for young, growing game animals. This year’s weather news is mostly good.
MDC Resource Scientist Beth Emmerich said that while the winter of 2013-’14 was colder than normal, and spring arrived late, quail and pheasants seem to have coped with it surprisingly well.
“Precipitation was close to normal this winter,” Emmerich said. “We had one notable snow event on Feb. 4 and 5 that dumped 4 to 12 inches of snow across the northern half of the state. Quail began nesting later than usual this year, with the peak of the hatch in July. But we got a break from the cycle of floods, drought and heat that we have seen in recent years, and wildlife took advantage of relatively normal conditions during the brood-rearing period of early summer.”
Emmerich said quail numbers are up statewide this year, and higher than they have been since 2010. Northwest, north-central, and northeastern Missouri all recorded increases in quail numbers. So did west-central Missouri. Pheasants, which share many of the same habitat as quail, showed good production in those pockets of northern Missouri where significant pheasant populations persist. Covey surveys conducted on Quail Emphasis Areas in October will reveal more about this year’s production. Field reports also indicate an increase in cottontail rabbit numbers across the state.
“I don’t want to paint an overly rosy picture,” Emmerich said. “It’s very encouraging to see survey numbers come up substantially. But it is important to remember that these increases come on the heels of all-time lows. Scarcity of suitable habitat for upland game remains the biggest challenge to increasing quail, pheasant, and rabbit populations. Good brood-rearing habitat is most limiting statewide. Quail chicks need bare ground to be able to forage effectively, with weedy plant species providing food as well as overhead protective cover. We still have a long way to go.”
Resource Scientist Lonnie Hansen says squirrel numbers still are depressed in some areas, due to reduced acorn production during the droughts of 2012 and 2013.
“Squirrel numbers have even been down in northern Missouri, which is unusual,” Hansen said. “I expect numbers to rebuild over the next couple of years, but the truth is that squirrels are still abundant in some areas. I have squirrel hunted a couple of times, and most of the squirrels I shot were young, which is a good sign. Even during relatively lean periods like this, there are great squirrel hunting opportunities on public land all over Missouri if you look for them.”
MDC resource scientist Jeff Beringer said the outlook for trappers is a mixed bag. On one hand, beavers, raccoons and other furbearers remain plentiful. But on the other hand, he says he expects a decrease in trapping activity, due to market conditions.
“Fur prices dropped dramatically last season, and they are predicted to be way off again this fall,” Beringer said. “Probably no fur will go to Russia and China – the world’s biggest fur-buying countries – which cut back on purchases last year. Most dealers are still holding fur from last year, and sales on the national market have been slow.”
He said prices paid for even the most sought-after furbearer species, such as river otter, are likely to be lower again this year, reducing trappers’ incentive to pursue them.
“We will probably see fewer folks participating this fall, but for those who do, the competition will be reduced,” Beringer said.