An Autumn Preview

By Doug Leier

Doug Leier

While 2020 has been an unusual year, to say the least, there is some good news in the outdoors as many of North Dakota’s bird and big game populations are on the rise.


The spring population index for ring-necked pheasants in North Dakota was up 15% from 2019. In the primary regions holding pheasants, the number of roosters heard crowing in spring was up statewide, with increases ranging from 1-18%.


North Dakota’s turkey population has been trending in the direction hunters like to see. For the fall turkey season, 3,785 licenses are available, 125 more than last year.


Sharp-tailed grouse continue to rebound after the 2017 drought. The 2020 spring census indicated a 22% increase in bird numbers from 2019.


The number of broods observed during the Department’s July brood survey was similar to last year’s count, and 52%

above the 1965-2019 average. The average brood size was 6.75 ducklings, nearly identical to last year’s estimate.

The fall flight forecast of ducks from North Dakota this year is up 9% from last year and is the 13th highest fall flight on record.


Numbers of resident Canada geese, Western Prairie Canada geese and arctic nesting Tallgrass Prairie Canada geese, snow geese and Ross’s geese all remain high.


The three-year average population index used for guiding hunting season regulations has been stable to slightly increasing for several years.

Wetland conditions throughout much of North Dakota have improved over the last year or so, which will provide plenty of options for roosting sandhill cranes during fall migration.


Game and Fish made available 69,050 licenses for the 2020 hunting season, an increase of 3,550 from 2019.

Population and harvest data indicate the state’s deer population is stable to increasing, but still below management goals in most eastern hunting units. Consequently, there was a moderate increase in deer licenses allocated in 2020 to increase hunting opportunities while continuing to encourage population growth.

Mule deer in North Dakota’s badlands continue to show signs of recovery following the severe winters of 2008-10.

The mule deer population increase can be attributed to prohibiting the harvest of antlerless mule deer in the badlands during the 2012-16 hunting seasons, more moderate winter conditions, and improved fawn production in 2013-19. Fawn production was highest in 2014 and 2016 with fawn-to-doe ratios of 95 and 90 fawns per 100 does, respectively.

A stable to increasing population will mean good hunting opportunities again this fall. There were 3,050 buck licenses and 2,150 doe licenses available in 2020, the same as 2019.


North Dakota hunters will have more pronghorn hunting opportunities in 2020 due to a slight population increase. Summer aerial surveys indicated that the number of pronghorn in the state increased by 6% from last year. The pronghorn population increased to just over 10,400 animals, which is the highest estimate since 2009.


Spring surveys indicated trappers and hunters can expect coyote numbers similar to last year in most regions of the state. Fox numbers remain low throughout the state, and muskrat numbers increased slightly in most regions of the state compared to last year.

The full 2020 fall preview is available free on the Game and Fish Department website:

Featured Photo: Opportunities to hunt pronghorn have increased as populations have rebounded in North Dakota. NDG&F Photo.

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