North Dakota drought taking toll on prime pheasant areas
BISMARCK, N.D. — Drought that has plagued North Dakota this summer might cut into the success of the fall pheasant hunting season in a state considered one of the nation’s prime pheasant areas.
Wildlife officials also are concerned about what the upcoming winter and spring might hold for the population of the popular upland game bird.
Participants in the state Game and Fish Department’s annual pheasant brood survey in late July and August observed 23% fewer birds than they did last year, though Upland Game Supervisor Jesse Kolar said the results might have been more indicative of the survey conditions than the pheasant population.
“It was so dry out, we weren’t able to find mornings where there was tall, wet grass, with birds flocking to roads so we could count them,” he said.
The survey includes 266 runs made along 102 routes across North Dakota. In the southwest – the state’s premier pheasant hunting region – there were 59 pheasants counted per 100 miles, just six fewer than last year. A difference that slight likely isn’t statistically meaningful, Kolar said.
In the northwest, observers counted 68 pheasants per 100 miles, down from 80 pheasants in 2020. In the southeast, the count was 24 birds per 100 miles, down from 42. Northeastern North Dakota is considered secondary pheasant habitat, The Bismarck Tribune reported.
Overall, “Hunters should expect to find similar numbers to 2020, with the exception that there will be fewer acres of typical grassland cover to walk,” Kolar said.
Last year, about 57,000 pheasant hunters harvested 331,000 roosters. That was up from 50,000 hunters and 257,000 roosters in 2019. But 2019 was a record wet year in North Dakota that left crops standing unharvested through much of the hunting season, providing plenty of cover and food for pheasants. Opening day of the 2019 pheasant season also was marred by a winter storm.
And last year’s pheasant harvest was down from the Game and Fish benchmark for a “good” season – 400,000 harvested birds. But if this year’s harvest is similar to last year’s, it still will be considered a win.
“Considering the drought, I think we’re almost thankful for anything we get,” Kolar said. “The expectation at midsummer was this could be terrible.”
Extensive drought has blanketed the state for months. Drought reduces cover for game birds and can impact the hatches of insects the birds eat, though this year there have been plenty of grasshoppers around, Kolar noted.
What isn’t around is plentiful cover for pheasants. In the Dickinson area, where Kolar is, and the southwest in general, “there’s a lot of grass that’s still pretty short,” he said.
“Hunters are going to find areas with cover are going to have higher concentrations of pheasants, but there’s going to be fewer of those areas,” Kolar said.
The lack of cover has wildlife officials looking past the pheasant season to the upcoming weather seasons.
“I’m concerned with winter, how the birds will survive,” Kolar said.
Last year’s mild winter led to an estimated 3% increase in North Dakota’s spring pheasant population this year. A repeat might be too much to hope for next year.
“If we have any winter severity this year – extended cold periods, or worse yet, significant snow events, blizzards – there’s just no cover in the areas hardest-hit by drought,” Kolar said. “And the early hatch next spring could be difficult if there’s no residual grass on the ground.”
North Dakota’s pheasant season opens Oct. 9 and continues through next Jan. 2. The two-day youth pheasant hunting weekend, when legally licensed residents and nonresidents 15 and younger can hunt statewide, is Oct. 2-3.
The regular season typically draws tens of thousands of hunters who pump tens of millions of dollars into the economy, particularly in the southwest.
The state Commerce Department’s Tourism division keeps an eye on the annual pheasant survey numbers and is “concerned” about this year’s data but still expects hunters to come, Outdoor Promotions Manager Mike Jensen said.
Many pheasant hunters have North Dakota on a bucket list, he said. And many who regularly come from other states do so as much for the social aspects of the trip as for the hunting prospects.
For pheasant-destination communities such as Mott, Regent and Hettinger, “It’s not going to be the windfall that it has been, but it’s still important to those communities,” Jensen said.
Survey data for sharp-tailed grouse and partridge was similar to last year, with sharptails observed per 100 miles up 2% statewide and partridge up 9%.
Sharptail hunters should expect to find mainly adult grouse this fall, according to Kolar. He said numbers along the Missouri River are still high compared to long-term averages, so hunters who can find cover should have average-to-good hunting.
There likely won’t be enough cover on many range land areas that typically hold grouse for hunters to target them this fall, according to Kolar. Most grouse likely will be found in draws with shrubs and trees, or near waterways, he said.
Partridge numbers typically aren’t high enough for hunters to target the birds. The harvest is mostly “incidental,” Kolar said, with partridge being shot by hunters who come upon them while pursuing grouse or pheasants.
The grouse and partridge seasons opened earlier this month and continue through next Jan. 2.