By Nick Simonson
Is now the time to panic? If you were privy to the numbers behind the recent pheasant brood count survey press release and took a Statistics 101 course in high school or college, you might say yes, as tallies dipped to 10-year lows and approached recent records. This year, total roadside count numbers for ringneck pheasants in the Peace Garden State dropped to an astonishingly low 37.1 birds per every 100 miles on the 279 routes driven by agents of the North Dakota Game & Fish Dept. (NDG&F) and its volunteer surveyors throughout the state.
What is perhaps most startling is how sharp the decline in numbers is over last year, or any other previous year in the last decade for that matter. Despite declining CRP and other grassland habitat acres on the state’s landscape since 2007, pheasant numbers on the summer brood survey have more or less been steady, even following difficult winters, with not one of the previous nine years falling below one standard deviation of that nine-year average (90.2 birds/100 mi). This year, the number of total birds seen was nearly two standard deviations below the average, and was 60 percent less than last year (93.9 birds/100 mi to 37.1 birds/100 mi).
Albeit, the sample size provided over the last decade isn’t ideal for making such calculations, it is an important spitball indicator and all we have to go on right now until we can set foot in the field on opening day. This year’s average of 37.1 birds/100 mi, is one of the lowest outcomes since the summer of 1997, when the brutally cold and snowy winter of 1996-97 laid waste to upland and big game populations in the state, CRP acres were low, while high water conditions in the spring impacted some upland breeding areas.
This year, another triple-whammy of sorts including a challenging winter (though not as bad as 96-97), half as much CRP in the ground in comparison to the height in 2008 (1.53M to 2.97M Acres), and the worst drought in the last decade combined to reduce bird numbers on the annual survey to recent-record lows, and possibly the lowest since the fall of 1997, when hunters harvested just 136,000 rooster pheasants. Though, based on this year’s route numbers, RJ Gross, Upland Game Biologist with the NDG&F still estimates a harvest around 300,000 birds in the state. According to NDG&F records, this year’s averages of 37.1 birds/100 mi and 4.4 broods/100 mi compare somewhat favorably to the summer results of 1997, where 26.3 birds/100 mi and 2.9 broods/100 mi were observed. Additionally, Gross cautions that conditions were not ideal on many days for this year’s roadside count, but those facts should not skew the dismal results much.
“This survey is based on conditions that bring birds to the road; dew was hard to come by, and lots of grass was already mowed or hayed because of the drought [and] birds may not have had to come to roadsides to dry off from the morning dew and escape thick cover,” Gross stated, “however, the broods – or lack thereof – we saw on the roads were far too small, basically they couldn’t survive with the lack of insects caused by the drought,” he concluded, lending his experience with the reported numbers to the accuracy of what was seen day-to-day, to avoid any false optimism for what will be a challenging autumn for pheasant hunters in North Dakota.
So while the numbers may turn some pheasant hunters away from a few extra days in the field this year, and the casual sportsman will keep track of fantasy football stats instead of the miles logged by his pheasant dog on weekend afternoons, with a little work, the season will be worth it and definitely not the worst in the past generation. In the meantime, efforts to increase CRP acres in an era of waning crop prices and expansion of state habitat programs will be vital to bringing things back to average in the coming years.
(A pair of pheasant chicks forage in the grass of a hayfield north of Bismarck, N.D. Simonson Photo)