By MIKE CORN

mcorn@dailynews.net

It's not hard falling from a 30-year high.

"We're down from last year," small game biologist Dave Dahlgren said of the state's pheasant population. "But last year, we were at an all-time high in the last 30 years."

You can read that two ways, of course, and pheasant hunters going afield Saturday will be faced with that dilemma.

Drought is behind the situation facing the state's pheasant population, or rather its relative reduction.

What that means, however, is there are birds out there, but not as many as Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism biologists had hoped for, what with an abundant population going into the nesting season.

That's where the struggles began, when drought hampered nesting in general and reduced the sheer number of insects for the chicks to survive on.

As a result, the nesting success was less than stellar.

But there is something of a good news, bad news scenario playing out this year.

The bad news is pheasants in the drought-affected counties have struggled.

The good news is they've struggled less so in the eight counties making up northwest Kansas, and likely will see some of the best hunter success in the state.

Southwest Kansas was probably the hardest hit by the drought, with its effects stretching into south-central Kansas, Dahlgren said.

"Northwest and north-central Kansas are the only areas where we got decent production," he said.

He quickly modified that statement, making it "some production."

The best production -- and as a result the best outlook for pheasant hunting -- was in the northwest eight counties.

That's where the best weather was found, making for good wheat.

Wheat is crucial to nesting success for pheasants.

About two-thirds of the pheasant nests are in wheat fields, and throughout previously top pheasant areas, wheat crops struggled.

Before the drought settled in, wildlife officials were hoping this year could bring with it the best season ever.

"We had incredible potential because we had so many adult birds survive the winter," Dahlgren said.

But it was a struggle for the chicks that hatched.

That's because anywhere from 60 percent to 80 percent of a chick's diet is insects during the first few weeks of life.

The drought made it difficult for insects to survive.

While talking about pheasant populations, Dahlgren frequently points to a vegetation condition map that shows a distinct lack of it in the southern two-thirds of the state.

"That's not an exact science," he said.

But it's a good indicator of where the problem areas might be.

All that's going to mean a smaller pheasant harvest.

Last year, Dahlgren said, hunters bagged just shy of 900,000 birds.

"That's probably our best harvest since the mid-'80s, early '80s," Dahlgren said. "I thought we were going to go past that million mark, but we didn't."

The kill won't be anywhere close to that this year, even though there are birds left in the field -- those that made it through what was a relatively mild winter.

"They will be extremely hard to get in the bag," he said.

Overall, Dahlgren is thinking the southwest part of the state had "very little production."

Northwest Kansas, on the other hand, could have about 80 percent of last year's population.

"Overall, we may be down in the half-million range," Dahlgren said. "I'm not projecting an absolute bust of a season, but it's going to be a tough year.

"I would say if you're willing to work hard, you may not shoot your limit every day, but you're going to get into birds."