Winter Spares ND Wildlife Thus Far

By Nick Simonson

Halfway through winter, sportsmen are keeping their fingers crossed that the relatively temperate conditions and low snow totals will continue into spring after a 2017 that taxed many species of game in the state both with a cold, snowy winter and a drought-stricken summer.  With very little snow cover coming into February, the agents of the North Dakota Game and Fish Department (NDG&F) are optimistic about the conditions they are seeing, but find that lack of traditional winter circumstances hinder some of their indexing activities and habitat still remains a concern.

A Good Start for Upland

According to RJ Gross, NDG&F Upland Game Biologist, this winter has been a vast improvement over the previous one, with survival of pheasants and other upland game being good so far.

“It’s been cold, but we haven’t had a big blizzard and food has been easy to get to, the birds haven’t had to claw their way through,” Gross related.

From January to mid-March, when pheasants are grouped up and dealing with winter’s elements, the NDG&F conducts a winter sex-count ratio survey for pheasants that survived the hunting season.  This helps provide insight as to the ratio between roosters and hens on the landscape.  With the lack of snow cover, an accurate count can sometimes be difficult as the buff female birds blend in with the beige landscape, where they would normally stand out better against a white background.

“I take what’s been coming in with a grain of salt, I see pheasants out on my daily drives and I’ve been happy with the amount of hens that I have seen,” Gross stated, “you want about one cock to five or six hens; the last few years it’s been one-to-two, this year it’s been one-to-three or four,” he advised.

In challenging winter conditions, the more dominant roosters will compete with, and even force hen pheasants out of desirable cover and away from food sources.  Gross hopes for a late winter stretch with no “wildlife killers” – big, heavy snow events out into March or even April, and a spring with some moisture that will get cover up for nesting and chick rearing in May and June.

Flying Blind for Big Game

NDG&F Big Game Biologist Bill Jensen believes things are going well for the state’s deer herds and healthy animals have a good chance of making it through the year.  However, the lack of snow is a double-edged sword for the agency, which requires 12 inches of ground cover to fly its annual winter deer surveys to get a better idea of populations.

“Normally we do our aerial surveys January through mid-March of each year when there’s snow available, but it’s snow-dependent and there’s not enough in most places,” Jensen elaborated, adding that the NDG&F flies blocks ranging in size from 500 to 1,200 square miles over the 38 hunting units, and up to 15,000 square miles are surveyed every year.

Without any snow, the department will forego aerial surveys and rely on last year’s harvest numbers, hunter surveys, reports from NDG&F agents and the general public in assessing the approximate number of whitetail and mule deer in the state and in setting the corresponding deer tag numbers for the following season. Jensen advised if they can’t fly due to lack of ground cover needed to get a head count, that usually means things are good for deer and the state’s herd numbers should remain stable or even improve going into spring.

On the recent results of the NDG&F survey of harvested deer for Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) Jensen expressed concern that the disease was still found in two deer, but found relief in the fact that it had not spread from the area where it has been historically encountered in southwest North Dakota.

Snow geese have been arriving earlier and earlier in ND over the decades, and if conditions remain the same – low snow cover, warmer temperatures – they’ll move out just as quickly as they arrive this spring. Simonson Photo

Concerns Grow for Wetland Species

For waterfowl, the lack of snow compounds the effects of last summer’s drought, and Andy Dinges, NDG&F Migratory Game Bird Biologist, forecasts a need for water in one form or another to recharge the area’s wetlands for the spring nesting season.

“The semi-permanent basins are still intact with current water levels and they’re good for roosting habitat, but the ducks need the seasonal and temporary wetlands to get better production, and those get established through spring snow melt and spring rains,” Dinges related, “if [those places] aren’t out there, the ducks will keep flying north until they find suitable habitat,” he concluded.

Dinges predicts a quick-moving spring if there isn’t much for snow on the ground, and it is possible that early arriving waterfowl like Canada geese will start migrating up the river corridors into the state by late this month and other species’ travels will be hastened.

“Without the snow, and depending on cold for open water and roosting, snow geese will push north quicker than ever,” Dinges projected, “mallards, pintails and early migrants will be up in early March and their numbers will peak out in early April,” he added.
Dinges’ concerns for next spring, remain focused on habitat as more and more native prairie, CRP and pocket sloughs are converted to cropland.  In addition to getting water into these areas, having the cover around them for successful rearing of ducklings is at the top of his wish list for the coming season, but he recognizes that fulfillment of that need ultimately rests with the landowners of the state.
(Featured Photo: A rooster pheasant makes its way through open grass.  With a lack of snow cover, the winter has been fairly easy on upland bird species in the state. Simonson Photo)

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