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NORTH DAKOTA OUTDOORS/ Doug Leier: Pheasant numbers reflect difficult conditions

In 1996, North Dakota hunters shot 311,000 pheasants. In fall 1997, only 136,000 roosters were taken. (N.D. Game and Fish Department photo)

After the winter of 1996-97 — arguably the worst winter for resident wildlife in the last half century — I remember hearing upland game biologist Lowell Tripp and wildlife division chief Randy Kreil, now both retired, repeatedly say North Dakota was on the northern tier of the pheasant range and winters "like this" are going to take their toll.

They also related how such a winter probably wasn't a one-time phenomenon, which proved true a decade later, from December 2008 to spring 2013.

A simple look at historical harvest numbers provides some insight into how that winter of 1996-97 affected North Dakota wildlife populations. Try these numbers on for size. In 1996, the statewide pheasant harvest was 311,000. In fall 1997, only 136,000 roosters were taken.

Sharp-tailed grouse harvest went from 149,000 down to 89,000, and partridge hunters bagged only 27,000 birds in 1997, compared with about 62,000 in 1996.

So, it's easy to see how a nasty winter can take its toll.

Drought impact

But this year, we are learning more about how a drought can influence upland bird populations as well. Making it through the winter is the first step, but the stress of trying to survive doesn't end there.

"There's nothing easy about a hen's life," said Jeb Williams, North Dakota Game and Fish Department wildlife division chief.

Record amounts of snow in December and January last winter made life difficult for

wildlife, pheasants included, across much of North Dakota. Those that survived then had to deal with the stress of breeding and nesting, followed by working to feed themselves and also protect their chicks from predators.

Because pheasant chicks are unable to control their body temperature for many days

after hatching, untimely cold, wet weather can kill the chicks despite the hen's best

efforts to keep them warm and dry. On the opposite end, dry, hot conditions such as occurred this year throughout spring and into early summer, result in a decline in insect production. Since insects make up more than 90 percent of a pheasant chick's diet, a lack of insects makes survival difficult.

"The challenges pheasants and all the other wildlife in North Dakota face throughout the

seasons is amazing," Williams said. "In times when the weather doesn't cooperate, and

it seldom does, and sufficient habitat is lacking on the landscape, those successes from

birth to maturity are even more remarkable."

Significant declines

And so it wasn't a surprise when the 2017 late summer upland game brood survey was completed and numbers were down significantly in all areas of the state for all species, with pheasants hit the hardest. But just like after the winter of 1996-97, down certainly doesn't mean out.

"It is going to take a little bit of work out there," Williams said on a recent edition of "Outdoors Online," the Game and Fish Department's weekly web-based news program. "But there is still going to be some opportunities for people to have out there, no doubt."

The 2017 pheasant season opens Saturday, Oct. 7 and continues through Jan. 7, 2018.