By Nick Simonson
In recent years, the upper Midwest has faced its challenges impacting the populations of upland game species such as Hungarian partridge, sharptailed grouse and ringneck pheasants. From the drought of 2017 hitting both North Dakota and South Dakota hard, to a long, snowy winter and equally wet spring and summer for southern Minnesota and Northern Iowa this year, these areas of the region’s pheasant belt have taken their lumps. Pairing those setbacks with about half of the habitat from a decade ago, it’s no surprise that even this season’s roadside survey results are down in most of those states, and well below their recent and historical averages.
The one bright spot in the upper Midwest this autumn, however, is North Dakota, where after the severe dry conditions in 2017 wiped out a large portion of that year’s hatch, and a 2018 which had little residual cover to help jumpstart a recovery, this year’s summer roadside survey results show a tick upward in most regions of the state. Unfortunately, the southwest corner – typically lauded as the state’s best pheasant hunting – saw continued declines in its pheasant population to just 41 birds per 100 miles, down from a recent height of 212 birds per 100 miles surveyed in 2015.
“From ’15 to ’16 [the southwest] lost a good portion of CRP, and as the grass goes, so do the upland birds,” said RJ Gross, Upland Game Biologist for the North Dakota Game & Fish Department (NDG&F), “and from ’16 to ’17 was obviously the drought and there was nearly zero chick survival down there,” he continued adding that hail storms in certain areas of the southwest in the spring and summer of 2018 did some severe damage to local populations of birds.
Gross said that while much of the rest of the state may be experiencing the second year of a pheasant rebound, the southwest is still looking for its first. He is optimistic that what the aggregate numbers don’t show for the region is the isolated areas that can be very good for bird populations against other stretches which may be devoid of pheasants and the two average out on the NDG&F spreadsheets. It will be a matter of time with a little help from mother nature for those pocketed strong populations to spread out and re-establish themselves in the surrounding, lesser-populated areas. His concern rests with the approximately 100,000 acres of CRP set to expire in the region in the next year, and estimates that the normal recovery time after an event like the 2017 drought without that habitat could take as long as a decade.
“If that all comes out, the southwest isn’t going to respond like the rest of the state is going to,” Gross cautioned, “typically we’ve seen the rebound [from a drought] take three to five years for upland birds, because they’re a grassland bird and they need grass and we don’t have as much as we used to – it could be a ten year recovery, and in North Dakota, we’re not going to get ten good years in a row,” he concluded.
Southeast and Northwest Rebounding
Where habitat has been disappearing in the southwestern corner of the state, those producers in the southeast section have been successful in enrolling and re-enrolling parcels in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) in recent years. Sustaining the grassland, marginal lands, and pocket sloughs are what Gross points to in preventing a downturn this year after what was a long and snowy winter for the southeastern stretch of the state, including late blizzards in March and April which each dumped more than a foot of snow, prolonging challenging conditions. At 51 birds observed per 100 miles driven during this summer’s survey, the southeast’s upward trend highlights the need for habitat.
“It’s just simply we’re getting more grass on the landscape down there” Gross commented, adding, “I would say that 50-bird mark is probably pretty realistic expectation people can have, because 2009-10 wasn’t a long time ago, and the landscape is now different, there were more sloughs then.”
A notable increase in brood size in the southeast (6 birds per brood, on average) was a surprise to Gross, as he expected hens to be in worse shape after the spring blizzards in the region and the resulting stress would impact their reproduction. While winter lingered on, he suggested that it perhaps wasn’t as harsh until late in the season and early spring, and the birds were able to find enough cover to make it through until nesting began. The numbers in the northwestern corner of the state showed a similar jump, with a brood size of 6 chicks per hen and 39 total birds per 100 miles observed over last season’s 26.
While the recent release of summer survey results show sharptailed grouse populations up 113 percent across the state, the improvement is based on a 2018 survey number of 6.8 birds per 100 miles driven. While this year’s average of 13.6 sharpies is a marked increase over that statistic, the population estimate remains around half of what it was in 2012 through 2015.
“You have to look deeper into the numbers, and I don’t like doing the percentages in certain areas,” Gross said with a laugh, continuing, “[sharptails] are not an edge species and we’re doing an edge survey; it’s an increase, but don’t get caught up in the numbers,” he stated, adding that early reports from hunters in the field are showing better results for these early-season upland birds.
Sharptailed grouse rely on shortgrass prairie in conjunction with alfalfa fields and both habitat and hay crops have had a great year, making things better for the state’s sharptail population. Wetter conditions have kept grassland areas verdant and thick throughout summer and alfalfa crops have been some of the best in recent years. The north central portion of the state, from the Wing, Denhoff and Robinson areas on up into the northwest near Crosby should be good for grouse, and the wide-open grasslands of the southwest should still hold birds, according to Gross.
The Rush Is On
This year, Minnesota’s statewide survey of pheasants fell to 37.4 birds per 100 miles, down 17 percent across the state’s southern range. In Iowa, counts fell to 17 birds per 30 miles driven, for the same 17 percent decrease. South Dakota mirrored that with 2.04 birds per mile driven statewide, for another 17 percent dip this season. But with the report of better numbers and the certainly more-appealing headline percentages across all three species of upland game in North Dakota, Gross expects to see more resident hunters on the landscape, and more from out of state as well.
“In my job I do a lot of talking with non-residents and residents about the surveys and the numbers, and overwhelmingly the calls this year have been ‘Oh, we heard it’s up, is that true?’ and I’d go over the results with them and they’d say, ‘Okay, I guess we’ll come back this year,’ so my prediction is we’ll have a good increase in hunter participation,” Gross stated, adding that a harvest of 400,000 rooster pheasants is not out of the realm of possibility this fall, following last season’s take of approximately 327,000.
North Dakota’s pheasant season opens Oct. 12, and grouse and partridge hunting has been open since Sept. 14.
Featured Photo: A Mix of Chicks. An older and more developed pheasant chick moves with a pair of smaller birds, evidencing that both early and late hatches produced birds this spring and summer.