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North Dakota pheasant preview: Another respectable season on the horizon

Not as good last year. But still pretty darn good. That's the general assessment of North Dakota's fall pheasant hunting prospects. This year's version of the fall tradition gets under way Saturday. "The overwhelming theme is, 'Not seeing as many...

Not as good last year. But still pretty darn good.

That's the general assessment of North Dakota's fall pheasant hunting prospects.

This year's version of the fall tradition gets under way Saturday.

"The overwhelming theme is, 'Not seeing as many birds as last year,' " said Jesse Beckers, North Dakota regional wildlife biologist for Pheasants Forever in Bismarck. "That's not to say we're not going to have a heck of a season."

Simply put, pheasant seasons like the one North Dakota hunters enjoyed in 2007 don't come around very often. According to the North Dakota Game and Fish Department, hunters in 2007 bagged more than 907,000 roosters -- the highest tally in more than 60 years.


North Dakota's record pheasant harvests occurred in 1944 and 1945, when hunters in consecutive years shot 2.4 million pheasants.

The official roadside counts mirror the reports Beckers has been hearing. Results from the North Dakota Game and Fish Department's roadside surveys in late July indicate pheasants are down 25 percent to 30 percent in the northwest, southwest and southeast portions of the state.

In the northeast, which holds few pheasants, roadside counts were down 63 percent.

Stan Kohn, upland game management supervisor for the Game and Fish Department in Bismarck, attributes the decline to cool, wet conditions early in June. That's a crucial time for pheasant chicks, and the weather likely hampered survival.

At the same time, Kohn said, hot, dry weather in June and August may have affected production of insects that young pheasants rely on for food.

CRP impact

Beckers said he doesn't think land being taken out of the Conservation Reserve Program contributed to this year's pheasant decline. North Dakota has about 3 million acres of land enrolled in CRP, federal statistics show, but farmers have returned about 400,000 acres to production since last fall, and contracts for more than 1.8 million acres are set to expire in the next four years.

The trend will come home to roost -- so to speak -- eventually.


"It's more of a lag effect," Beckers said. "It's unfortunate CRP is going out. It's going out fast, and that will affect pheasant numbers in the future. The glory days are right now."

Southwestern North Dakota again led the state in the July roadside counts, with 23.4 broods and 205 birds per 100 miles counted. The southeast tallied 17.6 broods and 148 birds per 100 miles, while crews in the northwestern part of the state counted 13.5 broods and 102 birds per 100 miles.

The southeast in recent years has been a bright spot for hunters in the Red River Valley because of its proximity. According to Doug Leier, outreach biologist for Game and Fish in West Fargo, N.D., there'll still be birds in the southeast, but extreme wet conditions that have plagued the area since last spring certainly have changed the landscape.

Conditions get progressively wetter the farther south you travel, Leier said.

"If hunters are going to go to the southeast, their eyes are going to be opened," he said. "Realistically, the southeastern corner of the state is probably wetter than just about anywhere else."

Given the reports trickling in from all parts of North Dakota pheasant country, Leier said it's his impression that hunters are adjusting their expectations.

"I don't think anybody's that shocked," he said. "They understand and realize numbers are off from last year. I think a lot of hunters have their sights set that it's going to be a fair to good pheasant season."

All relative


Leier said it's easy to forget that as recently as 1988, North Dakota hunters shot only 120,000 pheasants. If this year's predictions come to pass and the season is more like 2002 or 2003 than 2007, North Dakota hunters still will bag more than a half-million birds.

That would have been difficult to comprehend 20 years ago. As Leier says, it's all relative.

"We say numbers are down, but a lot of hunters out there, a lot of my generation and beyond, remember how thin our pheasant population was in 1988," said Leier, who's 36.

Good years and bad, there's a common theme that weaves through the minds of pheasant hunters, and it says a lot about why this is such a special time of year: It's about watching the dogs at work, spending time afield with friends and family, soaking in the sights and sounds and smells of the prairie.

"I make my way around the state and see lots of birds, and I'm saying, 'It won't be long now,'" Beckers of Pheasants Forever said. "Once you get out there, you might see a little bit of difference, and you might have to hunt a little harder.

"But that's the fun part."

Dokken reports on outdoors. Reach him at (701) 780-1148; (800) 477-6572, ext. 148; or send e-mail to bdokken@gfherald.com .

Brad Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and has been the Grand Forks Herald's outdoors editor since 1998.

Besides his role as an outdoors writer, Dokken has an extensive background in northwest Minnesota and Canadian border issues and provides occasional coverage on those topics.

Reach him at bdokken@gfherald.com, by phone at (701) 780-1148 or on Twitter at @gfhoutdoor.
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