North Dakota Pheasant Preview: Fading pheasant forecasts

A rough winter, a wet spring and continued loss of land enrolled in the federal Conservation Reserve Program mean hunters in North Dakota and elsewhere across pheasant range can expect fewer birds on the landscape this fall.

(Photo credit: Forum Communications)

A rough winter, a wet spring and continued loss of land enrolled in the federal Conservation Reserve Program mean hunters in North Dakota and elsewhere across pheasant range can expect fewer birds on the landscape this fall.


This fall's North Dakota pheasant outlook calls for a return to days gone by, which isn't a good thing after the opportunities hunters have come to enjoy during the past decade.

According to the North Dakota Game and Fish Department, results from August roadside surveys suggest pheasant production was poor, which in turn means fewer birds this fall.

Stan Kohn, upland game management supervisor for Game and Fish in Bismarck, said statewide pheasant numbers are down 36 percent from last year, while brood observations were down 38 percent. The upside was a 4 percent increase in the average brood size.


Kohn said the survey results are similar to 2001, when hunters shot about 420,000 roosters.

"If fall weather conditions hold through most of the year, I could see a fall harvest of about 400,000 birds," Kohn said. "But if winter weather sets in early, we could be much lower. Either way, this could be the first fall since 2001 that we harvest less than 500,000 roosters."

Kohn attributes the drop-off to a third consecutive severe winter, wet conditions during the hatching season and loss of habitat in the Conservation Reserve Program.

"Boiled down, hunters will likely have to put in more time in the field to find success," Kohn said.

Here's a look at hunting prospects in each of the state's four pheasant districts:

• Southwest: The number of broods and number of birds observed was down 26 percent from 2010, at 14 broods and 118 birds per 100 miles. The average brood size was six. Kohn said the survey indicates the southwest will have the best pheasant numbers this fall.

• Southeast: Birds observed were down 54 percent from last year, and the number of broods was down 60 percent, at four broods and 36 birds per 100 miles. The average brood size was 5.7.

• Northwest: A sleeper favorite among some hunters because its lower hunting pressure, the northwest appears to have taken a substantial hit. Game and Fish surveys indicate a 53 percent decline in pheasants and a 62 percent drop in broods. Observers tallied two broods and 21 birds per 100 miles, with an average brood size of 5.5.


• Northeast: Marginal pheasant country at best, the northeast produced 0.4 broods and four birds per 100 miles, with an average brood size of six, a decline of 66 percent in both categories. Kohn suggests hunters concentrate their efforts in the southernmost counties of the northeast.

Rules of the hunt

• Season dates: Saturday-Jan. 8; opens Oct. 15 in part of Williams and McKenzie counties (see hunting regulations for map of delayed-opener area).

• Limits: Three daily, 12 in possession.

• Hunting hours: Half-hour before sunrise until sunset.

• Nonresident note: Nonresidents can't hunt Game and Fish Department wildlife management areas or PLOTS (Private Land Open to Sportsmen) lands from Saturday's opener through Oct. 14.

• For more information: Refer to the 2011-12 North Dakota Small Game Guide, available wherever licenses are sold or online at

By the numbers


Here's a look at North Dakota's pheasant harvests during the past decade:

• 2001: 421,586.

• 2002: 517,821.

• 2003: 592,066.

• 2004: 587,600.

• 2005: 809,775.

• 2006: 750,787.

• 2007: 907,434.


• 2008: 776,709.

• 2009: 651,700.

• 2010: 552,800.

• Record: 2.45 million in 1944 and 1945.

Number of pheasant hunters

A banner decade of pheasant hunting brought more hunters to the field from 2001 through 2008. The number dropped in 2009 but rallied last year. Here's a look at hunter numbers since 2001:

• 2001: 75,825 (53,589 residents and 22,236 nonresidents).

• 2002: 78,995 (56,155 residents and 22,840 nonresidents).


• 2003: 88,809 (63,711 residents and 25,098 nonresidents).

• 2004: 85,982 (59,030 residents and 26,952 nonresidents).

• 2005: 92,801 (64,130 residents and 28,671 nonresidents).

• 2006: 99,849 (68,216 residents and 31,633 nonresidents).

• 2007: 106,574 (71,870 residents and 34,704 nonresidents).

• 2008: 107,984 (74,044 residents and 33,940 nonresidents).

• 2009: 88,400 (59,700 residents and 28,700 nonresidents).

• 2010: 91,900 (61,100 residents and 30,800 nonresidents).


Top harvest areas

Counties with highest percentage of pheasants taken by ...

Resident hunters

• Hettinger: 7.3 percent.

• Burleigh: 6.1 percent.

• McLean: 6.0 percent.

• Stark: 5.2 percent.

• Morton: 4.5 percent.

Nonresident hunters

n Hettinger: 23.9 percent.

• Bowman: 6.2 percent.

• McIntosh: 5.1 percent.

• Dickey: 5.0 percent.

• Divide: 4.4 percent.

Other states

Here's a look at the pheasant outlooks in neighboring states from Pheasant's Forever's "2011 Pheasant Hunting Forecast":


A severe winter followed by a wet spring triggered a 64 percent decline in pheasant numbers from last year, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. The news is worse in southwest Minnesota -- typically the state's best pheasant range -- where numbers fell 82 percent. Hunters are expected to shoot about 250,000 roosters this fall, the lowest tally since 1997 and a significant drop from harvests that have exceeded 500,000 roosters five of the past eight years. The highest pheasant counts were in the east central region, where roadside surveys tallied 51 birds per 100 miles; the statewide pheasant index was 23 birds per 100 miles -- the lowest since 1986. Hunters will find fair hunting opportunities in pockets of south central and southwest Minnesota, but the outlook in most of the state's pheasant range is rated poor to very poor. Minnesota's pheasant season opens Oct. 15 and continues through Jan. 1. The bag limit is two daily, six in possession through Nov. 30 and three daily, nine in possession from Dec. 1 through the end of season.

• Info:


A severe winter followed by a wet spring dealt a double-whammy to the state's pheasant population. According to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, heavy spring rain in the eastern part of the state likely inundated nests, driving hens from their eggs or killing chicks that hatched. Pheasants in the southeast and Montana's "Hi-Line" regions also are expected to be down, while bird numbers in south-central Montana should be similar to last year. If there is a bright spot, it's southwest Montana, where pheasant numbers are expected to improve from last year -- back to near-average. Season opens Saturday and continues through Jan. 1, with a daily limit of three and a possession limit of nine.

• Info:

South Dakota

"Big drop, but still the best" could describe South Dakota's pheasant outlook. Results from annual brood surveys showed a 46 percent decrease from last year, but the state still has the country's highest pheasant population. Travis Runia, an upland game biologist with the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks, said hunting should be comparable to the 1990s and early 2000s, when hunters shot 1.2 million annually. Last year, 172,000 hunters bagged more than 1.8 million birds. Runia said traditional hotspots near Winner, Pierre and Mobridge have pheasant abundance comparable to the past decade. Areas surrounding Aberdeen, Mitchell and Huron are down but still logged about three pheasants per mile and should provide ample opportunities. The Chamberlain area again stands to be the state's top pheasant producer, Runia said, but hunters shouldn't overlook the western part of the state, which he says can be a hidden gem. Season opens Oct. 15 and continues through Jan. 1, with a daily bag limit of three and a possession limit of 15.

• Info:

Impact of CRP loss

Across the Midwest, there's 5 million fewer acres of land enrolled in the federal Conservation Reserve Program than there was four years ago, and the result is fewer pheasants in every major pheasant-producing state, Pheasants Forever said in its "2011 Pheasant Hunting Forecast."

There'll still be millions of pheasants on the landscape this fall, but hunters no doubt will have to work harder to find them.

According to Pheasants Forever, South Dakota has lost 25 percent of its CRP acreage -- about 600 square miles of grassland habitat -- since 2007. North Dakota has lost about 1 million acres of CRP since its heyday, and Minnesota has seen about 120,000 acres of grassland habitat enrolled in CRP and other farm programs disappear since 2007.

Despite the declines, states are doing what they can to offset the losses. In Minnesota, for example, nearly 10,000 acres of private property across pheasant range will be open to public hunting through the state's new Walk-In Access program. The state DNR also acquired an additional 4,585 acres of wildlife management area land through the state's Outdoor Heritage Fund, which comes from a small sales tax increase voters approved for natural resources and the arts.

In South Dakota, about 60,000 acres of land enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program will be available for public hunting in the James River Valley through a program Pheasants Forever helped launch, the conservation group said.

Sources: North Dakota Game and Fish Department and Pheasants Forever.

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, by phone at (701) 780-1148 or on Twitter at @gfhoutdoor.
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