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Leier: We'll soon know if numbers of pheasants down

The past few years, North Dakota Game and Fish Department biologists have continued to stress that the loss of Conservation Reserve Program grasslands, combined with a tough winter, would accelerate a reduction in pheasant numbers that hunters wo...

Taking a pheasant
This year the number of pheasants observed per 100 miles statewide in the Department's late summer brood survey was down 43 percent. Photo courtesy North Dakota Game and Fish Department

The past few years, North Dakota Game and Fish Department biologists have continued to stress that the loss of Conservation Reserve Program grasslands, combined with a tough winter, would accelerate a reduction in pheasant numbers that hunters would notice within a year.

By now, a week or so after the pheasant opener, we'll find out if hunter observations in the field corroborate what Game and Fish surveys have been telling us this spring and summer: that pheasant numbers are down, but still similar to a pretty good year that occurred in 2002, when the final harvest was just over 500,000 roosters.

That's seven years ago, which at this stage of my life doesn't really seem like too much time, but a short glance over my shoulder and seven years ago my oldest child was months away from turning one. Now he's knocking on the door of eight, with two young sisters to boot.

Seven years ago Daunte Culpepper was taking snaps for the Vikings and Brett Favre was wearing green.

Since then, our perspective on pheasant hunting has changed. This year the number of pheasants observed per 100 miles statewide in the Department's late summer brood survey was down 43 percent.

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By region, the northwest was down 60 percent, the northeast down 48 percent, the southwest down 35 percent and the southeast down 55 percent.

Coming off an annual rooster harvest of 907,000 in 2007, and just under 900,000 birds last year, the recent survey numbers are disappointing. While North Dakota still has lots of pheasants, hunters will probably notice a difference this fall.

Back in 2002, we were excited to have this many pheasants. Game and Fish's fall survey news release that year was full of optimism, with a headline that declared "Pheasant Outlook Promising," and noting that "An unusually mild winter is the main reason why North Dakota's pre-hunt pheasant population is higher than the past few years ..." and "the 2002 pre-hunt pheasant population is up 37 percent from 2001."

Eventually, the 2002 harvest was tallied at 518,000, up from 422,000 in 2001. The difference in perspective is that now we may have to reluctantly adjust our expectations over the long term.

Seven years ago we saw potential for the pheasant population to continue to expand. Now we are beginning to see a pattern of fewer pheasants in the fall population.

Now that we're into the season, my e-mail and phone will be peppered with anecdotal reports.

No matter what Game and Fish numbers indicate, if you push the same field you did last fall and get your birds up and into the bag, then you'll be sporting a smile, while others may not be as fortunate.

My reply will be, "That's why they call it hunting."

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And just a bit of reference. Our neighbors in South Dakota are predicting pheasants to be down statewide about 30 percent from 2008. They believe the loss of CRP is a driving force for their lower numbers this year as well.

We should all understand that the loss of habitat and birds may also cause hunters to migrate toward known hot spots, possibly increasing the competition for pheasants and even hunting land as well.

So while Favre and Culpepper are still playing in the NFL, the circumstances have changed. The same is true for pheasants in North Dakota. Historically, we're looking at a good season. We'll find out just where it fits in over the next couple of months.

Leier is a biologist for the Game and Fish Department. He can be reached by email: dleier@nd.gov . Read his blog daily at www.areavoices.com/dougleier

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