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DOUG LEIER: As goes habitat, so goes wildlife abundance

Without habitat, wildlife populations have a much more difficult time rebuilding after tough winters. (N.D. Game and Fish Department photo)

For years, North Dakota Game and Fish Department biologists have stressed the importance of habitat in maintaining healthy wildlife populations in the long term.

At the recent round of Game and Fish Advisory Board meetings, that topic got a lot of emphasis and brought to light many discussions on the "good old days" of deer and pheasant hunting that reached their peak only a half dozen or so years ago.

Since then, we've seen the statewide pheasant harvest fall by more than a third, and deer harvest is down by more than half.

It's no coincidence that the Conservation Reserve Program provided a new habitat base that allowed pheasant and deer populations to build from the mid-1980s to the late 2000s. And since 2007, it's no coincidence that pheasant and deer numbers are declining because of cutbacks in CRP acres.

Part of that is because of higher commodity prices that make farming former CRP land a more attractive financial option for landowners than if the land was still idled under a CRP contract.

Another factor is that availability of federal dollars for CRP is not unlimited, and in the most recent signup period last spring, North Dakota had many landowners who wanted to enroll in the program but were not offered contracts.

All of this is sort of old news to North Dakota hunters who know firsthand that we don't have nearly as many pheasants or deer as we did five years ago. We've also had several harsh winters over the past five years, which can cause deer and pheasant mortality even with ideal habitat conditions in places.

Short-term feeding through winter isn't an efficient method for trying to rebuild a wildlife population. For a day or week it might temporarily help a few animals survive longer than they otherwise would, but no matter what we do, North Dakota's location on the globe always will hold the ultimate trump card.

Without habitat, wildlife populations have a much more difficult time rebuilding after tough winters.

In my position as a Game and Fish Department outreach biologist, a lot of people ask me what the options are, if feeding isn't the answer.

If I could paint a picture, it would include needed habitat components in as natural a setting as possible. For pheasants and big game, it's protective cover with substantial grass in the vicinity, with natural food sources within easy reach.

Such a setting is much preferred to grain or bales placed in the open where there is no shelter from the numbing winter wind.

In backyards, consider a total landscaping practice involving seed- and berry-producing plants and vines. An array of wildflowers will draw insects, which will in turn naturally attract songbirds and other watchable wildlife during the warm months.

Perhaps there is another wildlife management philosophy, developed through research and study that will evolve over the next several decades.

Today, however, most scientists and biologists agree that for the welfare of species as a whole, diverse habitat that includes all four elements -- food, water, shelter and space -- is the best recommendation given the research and knowledge we have available.

Leier is a biologist for N.D. Game and Fish Department. Reach him at Read his blog at