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A tougher go for pheasant hunters

North Dakota's summer roadside pheasant counts were down 61 percent statewide from last year, the Game and Fish Department said. North Dakota's pheasant season opens Saturday, Oct. 7. (North Dakota Game and Fish Department photo)

Pheasant hunters in North Dakota can expect to cover more ground this fall. Hammered by a severe winter that affected survival and summer drought conditions that hampered production, pheasant numbers are down.

North Dakota's pheasant season opens Saturday, Oct. 7.

The first bad news came in July, when the Game and Fish Department reported a 14 percent decline in the pheasant population index based on spring counts of crowing roosters. Going into breeding season, pheasant numbers were down anywhere from 6 percent to 10 percent in the state's primary pheasant regions, Game and Fish said.

"December and January provided a rough start to winter, with record snowfall and extremely cold temperatures making it less than ideal for all wildlife," R.J. Gross, upland game biologist for the Game and Fish Department in Bismarck, said in a news release announcing the crowing count survey results. "In addition, last year's production was below average, so we entered this spring with a lower than average number of adult upland birds."

Then came the drought, which decimated habitat in crucial pheasant areas. Results from the department's annual roadside pheasant survey in late July and August showed pheasants observed per 100 miles were down 61 percent from last year.

Brood counts were down 63 percent, and the average brood size was down 19 percent.

Game and Fish bases the summary on results from 279 survey runs conducted along 103 brood routes across the state.

"Brood data suggests very poor production this spring when compared to 2016, which results in less young birds added to the fall population," Gross said. "The majority of the state was in extreme drought conditions during critical times for pheasant chicks. This resulted in poor nesting/brood habitat and more than likely a less than ideal insect hatch."

The survey broke down pheasant numbers across the state as follows:

• Southwest: Total pheasants were down 59 percent and brood counts declined 60 percent from 2016. Observers counted eight broods and 68 birds per 100 survey miles. The average brood size was 4.3.

• Southeast: Pheasants declined 60 percent, and brood counts were down 70 percent. Observers counted two broods and 24 birds per 100 miles. The average brood size was 4.7.

• Northwest: Total pheasants declined 72 percent from last year, and broods were down 76 percent. Observers tallied three broods and 24 birds per 100 miles, and the average brood size was 5.2.

In northeast North Dakota, a marginal pheasant hunting area under the best conditions, the survey tallied one brood and six birds per 100 miles. The number of birds observed fell 54 percent, and brood counts were down 63 percent. The northeast generally lacks adequate habitat to carry pheasants through the winter.

Despite the decline, North Dakota's pheasant opener is one of the most anticipated events on the state's outdoors calendar, and there's no reason to expect any different this year. The "rush of the flush" remains strong as ever, and as always, there likely will be pockets offering the kind of pheasant numbers that spoiled hunters for years. But overall, hunters will have to keep their expectations in check and expect to work harder for the birds they encounter.

Last year, about 76,600 pheasant hunters shot 501,100 roosters in North Dakota, down 10 percent and 15 percent respectively from 2015, when 85,500 hunters shot 590,700 roosters.

For more information on the season, check out the North Dakota 2017-18 Small Game Hunting Guide available at license vendors or online at gf.nd.gov.

Neighboring states

North Dakota isn't the only key pheasant state where hunters can expect tougher going this year. Here's a look at prospects in South Dakota, Minnesota and northeast Montana from Pheasants Forever's 2017 Pheasant Hunting Forecast:

• South Dakota: As in North Dakota, a tough winter, summer drought and loss of habitat combined to reduce pheasant numbers. Travis Runia, senior upland game biologist with South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks, said the statewide pheasants per mile index declined by 45 percent, from 3.05 in 2016 to 1.68 this year. The 2017 index is 65 percent lower than the 10-year average, Runia said, but 16 of the 110 survey routes yielded more birds per mile than last year. Bottom line: South Dakota still has more birds than anywhere else, and another harvest of more than 1 million birds again is in reach, Pheasants Forever said in its forecast. South Dakota's season opens Oct. 21 and continues through Jan. 7; limit is 3 roosters daily and up to 15 in possession after the fifth day of hunting.

• Minnesota: The ebbs and flows in Minnesota's pheasant scenario continue to trend in a negative direction, largely the result of losing more than 686,000 acres of habitat enrolled in the federal Conservation Reserve Program in the past decade. According to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, the statewide pheasant index of 38.1 birds per 100 miles was down 26 percent from 2016 and well below the 10-year and long-term averages. Minnesota's pheasant season opens Saturday, Oct. 14, and Marshall, Minn., is hosting this year's Governor's Pheasant Opener. The limit is 2 roosters daily with a possession limit of 6 through Nov. 30; beginning Dec. 1 and continuing through the end of season Jan. 1, the limit is 3 roosters daily and 9 in possession.

• Northeast Montana: Drought conditions hampered production, and pheasant hunting this fall likely will be below average in the northeast part of the state, said Ken Plourde, habitat specialist for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. Final brood count numbers weren't yet available at the time Pheasants Forever compiled its forecast, but Plourde said the number of broods observed was down "significantly" on all routes, though some areas did better than others. Still, for an upland hunter willing to walk, there will be birds where habitat is good, Plourde told Pheasants Forever. "Parts of Sheridan, Roosevelt, Richland, and Daniels counties form the core pheasant range in this portion of the state," he said. "There is good access to pheasant habitats in each of those counties available through Montana's Block Management Program and Upland Game Bird Enhancement Program." The general pheasant season opens Saturday, Oct. 7 and continues through Jan. 1; limit is 3 roosters daily with a possession limit three times the daily bag limit.

Pheasants Forever's complete state-by-state hunting forecast is available at pheasantsforever.org.

PULLOUT FOR NORTH DAKOTA PORTION OF STORY:

N.D. pheasant harvest since 2012

• 2012: 616,000.

• 2013: 447,000.

• 2014: 587,000.

• 2015: 590,000.

• 2016: 501,100.

• Record: 2.45 million in 1944 and 1945.

Source: North Dakota Game and Fish Department

N.D. pheasant hunters since 2012

• 2012: 85,487.

• 2013: 76,542.

• 2014: 84,584.

• 2015: 85,500.

• 2016: 76,600.

Source: North Dakota Game and Fish Department.

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