Dakota Uplander: Winter Recap

By Nick Simonson

Beyond a few cold stretches, the winter of 2017-18 was looking good for North Dakota’s upland game populations, including ringneck pheasants.  That is until March showed up, roaring in like a lion and leaving a season’s worth of snow on the landscape in a matter of weeks.  With cooler-than-average temperatures, the extension of what was a relatively accommodating winter for the state’s upland populations became a bit more of a challenge.
“We’re just starting to assess the impact winter had on upland game, but it was an open winter,” said Jesse Kolar, Upland Game Management Supervisor with the North Dakota Game & Fish Department (NDG&F), “the latter part has seemed to drag on and the cold temperatures in February and late storms in March may have lowered survival,” he concluded.
Kolar advised that anecdotal reports are coming in of rooster pheasants emerging from cover and starting to display as the calendar turns to April, and that the NDG&F will have a better handle on populations and over-winter mortality of upland game when spring surveys start in the coming weeks. While the March snow storms are concerning to Kolar, now is a time of transition and of generally warming conditions, which will bring birds out into the open for showing and mating.
“My concerns [now] are more toward what we will see in May and June during the nesting period,” Kolar related to the chilly forecast for April.
Typically with pheasants the nesting period will begin in May and run through June, with chicks being seen, on the average, at the end of that month and into July.  Nesting and brood rearing is typically dictated by photoperiod – or length of daylight – that triggers hormonal and reproductive responses in the state’s pheasant, grouse and partridge populations.  While late springs will drive a later nesting period, and early ones bringing earlier activity, the average calendar for pheasant reproduction is generally consistent in the Peace Garden State.  For Kolar, another big concern for the state’s pheasant populations remains the availability of habitat on the landscape for chick-rearing.
“Having lost a lot of CRP on the landscape, we’re constantly seeing habitat disappear,” said Kolar, “we have some working land programs with our private lands initiative which will help replace some of that habitat, but in general grassland is decreasing across North Dakota; more so in the east,” he continued, adding that without a major overhaul to the Conservation Reserve Program in the upcoming Farm Bill, that habitat loss may continue.
That habitat may get the boost it needs, as currently the Farm Bill is taking shape in the U.S. Congress, with a push for an increase in enrollable acres from 24 million to 30 million by a number of conservation groups, including Pheasants Forever, under debate among elected officials in committee.  Such a jump would bring enrollable acres closer to the recent height of the program in the mid-2000s, where 32 million acres were available for set-aside and wildlife populations reflected the increase of habitat. Like a warm spell, the increase would be a welcome occurrence for hunters and wildlife this year.

(Featured Photo: Looking for Spring? The state’s upland populations had a reasonable winter, up until March arrived with snow and below-average temperatures which have continued into April. Simonson Photo)

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