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Doug Leier: June weather and habitat conditions have big impact on fall upland game hunting prospects

North Dakota’s 2018 spring pheasant population index was down 30 percent from the same time last year because of reduced production last year. Photo/ North Dakota Game and Fish Department1 / 2
Doug Leier, North Dakota Game and Fish Department2 / 2

A year ago, North Dakota was experiencing a lack of precipitation that created dire conditions for rangeland, grasslands, cattle, crops and wildlife.

What we didn't know for sure was the direct influence this drought would have on pheasant numbers for the fall hunt, as earlier 2017 spring crowing counts provided some optimism. While unseasonably wet, cool weather is not ideal for growing young pheasant chicks, extended hot, dry weather isn't good either.

The fallout of hot, dry weather is slow or no growth of nesting habitat and cover for rearing broods, lack of dew to help regulate a chick's body temperature and a decline in insect production.

Rodney Gross, North Dakota Game and Fish Department upland game management biologist, said in the August-September 2017 issue of North Dakota Outdoors magazine that hen pheasants generally produce 10 to 15 eggs and incubate 23 to 25 days, which typically means eggs start hatching about mid-June in North Dakota.

"After that incubation period when the hen is sitting on the nest and trying to feed herself when she can, the eggs hatch and her duties are ramped up," Gross said. "Now she has to protect her chicks from predators and all the other uncertainties that nature throws her way."

One of those uncertainties, as mentioned earlier, is cold, wet weather. 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.

Unfortunately, but for other reasons, the hot, dry weather experienced over much of North Dakota pheasant range last year was just as deadly.

"For the first several weeks of their life, insects make up more than 90 percent of a pheasant chick's diet," Gross said. "The protein-rich insects help the chicks grow quickly. Without a buffet of insects, survival is difficult."

The 2017 late summer brood survey would show just how difficult that survival was, as brood observations were down more than 60 percent.

When all was said and done, the final statistics for the 2017 hunting season estimated that 58,300 pheasant hunters (down 24 percent) harvested 309,400 roosters (down 38 percent), compared with 76,600 hunters and 501,100 roosters in 2016.

Not surprisingly, North Dakota's 2018 spring pheasant population index was down 30 percent from the same time last year because of reduced production last year. However, Gross said the past winter was good for bird survival, so hens should have been in good physical shape for the nesting season, and spring and early summer weather was good.

In a few weeks, Game and Fish biologists will start the annual roadside upland game brood survey, which provides an assessment of summer pheasant production and insight into what hunters could expect this fall.

There's no guarantee what biologists will find this year, but understanding the factors in the equation can help hunters understand the importance of June weather and habitat to fall upland game populations.