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Doug Leier: Habitat is the key to North Dakota wildlife populations

Today, with just roughly 1 million CRP acres on the landscape in North Dakota, the number of pheasants and deer have declined, as well.

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Open enrollment for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Conservation Reserve Program continues through April 7, 2023.
Ashley Peterson/North Dakota Game and Fish Department
Doug Leier is an outreach biologist for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department. Reach him at dleier@nd.gov.

WEST FARGO – You don’t need to be a biologist to understand how a delayed start and a kinder winter would have helped the pheasant and deer populations this year. While it’s too early to statistically understand the impact of winter, there’s no doubt early November storms did more harm than good.

The heavy snow plugged sloughs, and ice created even more problems for both man and beast. Not much we can do about the elements. The key for wildlife surviving winter is having cover from the elements; a little food helps, too. Not to mention quality nesting habitat for upland game birds and fawning cover for deer once winter retreats.

The older I get, the more I need to intentionally put context into my writing. When I talk about hunters enjoying an abundance of pheasants and multiple deer tags, I need to take into account those people who experienced firsthand bountiful populations 15 years ago, when there were 3-plus-million Conservation Reserve Program acres on the landscape.

Today, with just roughly 1 million CRP acres on the landscape, the number of pheasants and deer have declined, as well.

It’s a pretty straightforward formula of habitat creating, maintaining and expanding wildlife populations. While there’s more to wildlife habitat than grassland, it’s certainly a key component, and without the habitat base, there’s not much an open winter or timely rains can do to produce the birds and big game that hunters desire.


The purpose of the spring conservation season is to reduce light goose (snow goose) populations during spring as the birds migrate north to their nesting grounds.
As amended and passed, HB 1151 would allow baiting on private property from Aug. 25 through Jan. 7, among other stipulations.
Elk, moose and bighorn sheep applications are available on the Game and Fish website at gf.nd.gov. The application deadline for the “Big Three” once-in-a-lifetime licenses is March 29.

Without question, CRP is one of the biggest conservation boosters our generation has known.

Understanding this, when it’s announced the U.S. Department of Agriculture is accepting applications for its voluntary CRP program, we need to raise awareness. Landowners interested in the program can apply at their local U.S. Department of Agriculture Farm Service Agency office through April 7.

A couple of key points is that cropland not currently enrolled in CRP may be offered during this general enrollment period. In addition, producers with CRP contracts expiring Sept. 30, 2023, may also be eligible.

USDA has implemented changes in recent years to make CRP offers more appealing to landowners. Improved rental rates and new incentives have been added to encourage more land enrollment. CRP can provide haying or grazing opportunities when certain drought conditions are met, and many practices now allow grazing to occur every other year.

“The habitat created by CRP makes it a great fit for the Game and Fish Department’s Private Land Open To Sportsmen program,” said Kevin Kading, private land section leader for Game and Fish in Bismarck.

Producers interested in enrolling their CRP into the PLOTS program for additional financial incentives should contact a department private land biologist in their area.

I can also put hunting in North Dakota in the early 1980s before CRP into personal context. Others would recall programs such as Soil Bank, and some would point out having a million acres of CRP now compared with none is looking at the glass half full, but we also need to advocate for what hunters would like in terms of more deer and pheasants.

While a nice winter can help, more habitat would be even better.

Doug Leier is an outreach biologist for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department. Reach him at dleier@nd.gov.
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