By Nick Simonson
With a mild winter, spring with well-timed rains, and generally calm and temperate summer, the hope of a rebound in pheasant numbers for this fall buoyed many hunters and conservationists into September, despite the continued observation that habitat was severely lacking on the landscape of North Dakota. Those hopes were dampened with the recent release of this summer’s roadside survey results by the North Dakota Game & Fish Department (NDG&F).
Lower Numbers Reflect Habitat Loss
The survey numbers showed a continued decrease statewide in pheasants by 1.9 percent on the average with the birds’ primary range in the southwest corner of the state losing another 32 percent over last year when totals fell from 167 birds/100 mi to 66 birds/100 mi to this summer’s average of 45 birds/100 mi. The statewide total average of 35.4 birds/100 mi, now slips to within ten birds of the lowest tallies in recent memory from the summer of 1997, following the disastrous winter of 1996-97 when totals were just 26.3 birds/100 mi. However, unlike that year, the weather is not to blame for the losses.
“These results show the evident need for quality habitat, and the more we can provide and create will help drive numbers; this shows that we need to keep fighting for habitat, creating it and protecting it giving birds what they need,” said Pheasants Forever ND Regional Representative Renee McKeehen, stressing that weather only does so much to help bird numbers rebound from a tough year like 2017.
Without available grasslands and other cover for pheasants and wildlife in general, things come back slower following a year of challenging conditions.
“Pheasants Forever will see more calls to action,” McKeehen commented on what the continued low numbers mean to the organization and its members, “we’ve been working hard to make sure the Farm Bill and its proceedings are wildlife conscientious and putting conservation at the forefront,” she remarked.
Farm Bill at Critical Juncture
The long-term future of habitat for pheasants and other wildlife hangs in the balance, not just in the Midwest, but in the halls and meeting rooms of Congress in Washington D.C., as legislators mull over the reconciliation of the latest versions of the Farm Bill. They find themselves up against a shrinking window of time to merge conflicting terms in the legislation between the House and Senate versions and bring the measure forward for a vote with a mid-term election looming large in November.
“There are some remaining challenging issues, including SNAP, that need to be resolved [in the Farm Bill], and there’s only 10 days left where both the House and Senate are together,” said Pheasants Forever VP of Governmental Affairs, Dave Nomsen, “this is really going to be tight to get this done in time,” he concluded.
Two challenges pending on the conservation side of the Farm Bill – legislation that covers many programs, from farm subsidies to food stamps – are the reconciliation of the suggested cap on Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) acres nationwide, and the allocation of contract acres to the areas of the pheasant range that need it most. Currently, the House version of the bill sets the cap at 29 million acres, while the Senate version proposes a more modest one million acre increase to 25 million acres as a cap.
“I’d like to think it was one of those split-the-difference situations, which would be a nice move considering the climate; that would be good,” Nomsen commented, suggesting that a cap of 27 million would be a win for conservation and farmers, as demand for set-aside acres is at its highest in recent years; “the climate is completely different than when the last Farm Bill was written – we’ve got strong interest from a larger sector, and economics and income security are drivers,” he concluded.
Nomsen stressed that a majority of those acres in any CRP cap increase should be targeted toward the Midwest, to the benefit of the nation’s traditional pheasant range, noting that only two contracts in all of South Dakota were approved in the last general sign-up, resulting in an approximately 99.8 percent rejection rate of all of that state’s applications in 2016. North Dakota’s numbers were similar, with only around six percent of all applications accepted in 2016. Meanwhile, the state of Washington had a 50 percent acceptance rate in the 2016 CRP sign-up.
While the front half of September has already been telling for the near future of pheasant hunting in North Dakota with the roadside survey results, the back half of the month and the decisions coming out of Washington D.C. during that time will provide a clearer picture of what is to come in the long-term future of habitat and upland populations in the Peace Garden State.
Featured Photo: Diverse CRP plantings help re-establish nesting and brood-rearing areas and increase carrying capacity for pheasants and other wildlife. The acres of set-aside land in federal programs will be determined by Congress, hopefully in the next few weeks. Simonson Photo.