By Nick Simonson
As drought conditions continue to grip the heart of North Dakota’s pheasant region, agents of the North Dakota Game and Fish Department, employees of Pheasants Forever and area hunters report that the dry weather has been having a negative impact on the number of young birds they have been seeing.
“Anecdotally, I’ve talked to a couple of guys and they’re not seeing what they normally see this time of year,” said Rachel Bush, Pheasants Forever State Coordinator for North Dakota, based out of Dickinson, “one has about a 30-mile drive to his farm each day, and he usually sees a lot of broods; he’s seen about two birds that look like chicks,” she concluded.
Currently, much of that portion of North Dakota located south and west of the Missouri River basin is in an extreme or exceptional drought, and has crossed the six-month threshold by which long-term drought is determined by the National Drought Mitigation Center. Stark and Hettinger counties, both popular destinations for pheasant hunters each fall, are at the heart of the state’s drought, and the impact on upland bird populations is notable in these areas going through an exceptional lack of moisture this summer.
“Southwest production does not appear good, but it will be hard to say until the Game and Fish Department completes their surveys,” Bush concluded.
The North Dakota Game & Fish Department (NDG&F) has started its annual summer brood surveys for pheasants and other upland birds, providing the official take on their status in September when the efforts are complete and the results are tabulated. The drier conditions will almost certainly impact what observers see in terms of broods on their routes, and early observations do not provide much optimism on upland bird numbers.
According to NDG&F Upland Game Management Supervisor Aaron Robinson in Dickinson, brood surveys have been underway since July 16 and early estimates from volunteer roadside surveyors and agents of the department are not good in the drought-stricken southwestern portion of the state.
“Some of our best routes in the Mott region, where we normally observe 30 to 40 broods a day, we’ve had three; I’ve run that route and observed 50 broods before, so the drought is making an impact,” he related, explaining that the moisture-dependent insect population which chicks feed on during the first two months of life is very low this year, and without that early protein source, young birds do not get the nutrients they need to survive.
Compounding the drought’s effect this spring was lowered fitness of hens coming out of a challenging winter, which may have prevented many of them from carrying off a successful hatch, or even nesting at all.
“This year is a double-whammy, because even though we had winter clear up after January, a lot of the hens lost a lot of their body weight,” said Robinson, “we were trapping birds around Dickinson in January that had lost a lot of weight, and a lot of them probably didn’t nest this spring as a result,” he concluded.
Robinson expects, based on unofficial and preliminary observations and reports he’s received, that hunters in North Dakota will harvest around 300,000 to 400,000 pheasants this year, down 20 to 40 percent from the over 500,000 rooster pheasants taken last year. The NDG&F roadside brood surveys will be finished on Aug. 31, results will be tabulated the following week and released by the agency in early September, but just 10 days into the efforts, Robinson isn’t sugar-coating what’s coming in.
“A lot of the birds that people will be hunting will be carry-over adults from last season, and having been hunted already, they’ll be a challenge,” Robinson advised, “people will still get their birds this fall, but they’re going to have to walk all day to do it,” he concluded.
(Featured Photo: An adult rooster makes its way to cover. Agents of the NDG&F expect most huntable roosters this fall to be carry-over adults from previous seasons, due to the impact the state’s drought has had on recruitment of young birds. Simonson Photo)