In recent years, the number of pheasant hunters in North Dakota has dropped below 100,000, with a harvest running about 600,000 roosters annually.
Those of us living in the south central and southwestern parts of the state thought we had it good last winter, but then a blizzard arrived in mid-April, depositing snow and lots of it.
This is just what we didn’t need at a time when pheasants were leaving winter cover for breeding areas. And then, when the snow finally did melt this spring, May arrived with almost continuous rain throughout the state.
With 75 percent of the Game and Fish Department’s roadside brood routes completed as of this writing, preliminary numbers indicate total pheasants are down about 30-40 percent statewide from last year, the lowest since 2003. In addition, brood observations were down 43 percent, and the average brood size was down 4 percent.
So it goes on the Northern Plains. Habitat and weather play important roles in the number of pheasants we see each fall, so a long, harsh winter or a spring blizzard can certainly cause problems with the breeding population. Initially, things appeared not to be as bad as first thought. Spring crowing counts were only down 11 percent statewide from 2012, and were comparable to 2011 counts.
In recent years, the number of pheasant hunters has dropped below 100,000, with a harvest running about 600,000 roosters annually. It seems that whenever we have a harvest of 500,000 roosters or more, hunters are seeing plenty of birds and they deem it a good pheasant year.
Whether we can maintain that level of harvest is uncertain, regardless of weather conditions. As we are beginning to see, removal of CRP from the landscape is occurring in many areas, most notably in the southern half of the state. Removal of this nesting and brooding habitat will surely have a negative influence on our pheasant population.
Stan Kohn, Upland Game Management Supervisor, Bismarck
A delayed fall turkey application deadline will allow time to analyze additional brood information before determining license numbers.
In addition, major flooding on the Missouri, Little Missouri and Souris river bottomlands in 2011 inundated thousands of acres of nesting habitat. Even though the breeding population is low, biologists will have to wait and see how production is this summer before determining fall numbers.
To allow for more summer production information in the fall season-setting process, the Game and Fish Department rescheduled the fall turkey application deadline to September 4 to allow time to analyze additional brood information before determining license numbers.
This summer, habitat conditions in most areas of the state are quite good for turkeys and, for the most part, weather conditions were favorable for nesting and brooding hens. While license numbers this fall are reduced from last year in many units, with some preseason scouting and contacts, hunters should be able to locate birds, especially if they concentrate their efforts along wooded river bottoms, drainages and forested areas.
Weather patterns and the quality and quantity of habitat are the main reasons game bird populations fluctuate from year to year. In the last year, extreme weather was an issue, from 18 inches of snow in April in southwestern North Dakota, to severe drought last summer, to record rainfall this May and June.
Additionally, thousands of CRP acres returned to crop production will be devastating to the future of North Dakota upland game species. While in the western part of the state, habitat fragmentation and disturbance from energy development is starting to disrupt the natural ecology of sharp-tailed grouse and other ground nesting birds.
History has shown that if birds have quality habitat, Mother Nature will provide the other necessary ingredients to maintain healthy upland bird populations. While some lows are inevitable, the thought that keeps hunters heading to the fields every fall is the hope that this will be a banner year.
Even though spring survey numbers indicated a population comparable to last year, the telling factor is always late-summer counts.
Data from summer roadside counts indicate sharp-tailed grouse populations are down significantly from last year. Brood results suggest grouse numbers are down 51 percent statewide, with the number of broods observed down 50 percent. The average brood size is about the same as 2012, and the age ratio is up 19 percent.
Fall hunting season success is directly correlated to the current year’s reproductive success. If there is a good hatch, then logically there will be more birds on the landscape during the fall hunting season.
Aaron Robinson, Upland Game Management Biologist, Dickinson
Ruffed grouse are the only native woodland grouse species inhabiting North Dakota. They are found in the native aspen woodlands in Rolette, Bottineau, Pembina, Walsh and Cavalier counties. These birds provide an interesting segment to the state’s landscape, are most enjoyable to hunt, and provide superb table fare.
More than 40 years of ruffed grouse census data in North Dakota shows that ruffed grouse numbers tend to cycle about every 8-10 years. Even though native aspen forest habitat continues to shrink, birds are doing their best to adapt to what is available for habitat.
As with all species, habitat is the key to ruffed grouse success and any land use change that permanently removes aspen forest from the landscape affects grouse populations.
Hunting season dates, bag limits, numbers of hunters and harvest have remained fairly constant over the last 20 years. In 2010, it seemed we were slowly moving out of the low point in the population cycle. However, spring drumming counts in both 2011 and 2012 showed a decline from 2010.
2013 spring census information is limited because weather conditions prevented data collection. There were no drumming counts collected from the Pembina Hills, and the Turtle Mountains showed a decrease of more than 50 percent in the num
ber of drums heard from 2012. In early July, nesting success and production information for ruffed grouse was unknown. It’s anticipated that the fall population will be low, so hunters can expect to spend more time walking trails in fall before encountering flushes. Even so, it is always enjoyable to hike through North Dakota’s native aspen woodlands in fall.
No matter the duration of the Hungarian partridge’s stay in North Dakota – more than 90 years thus far – the bird will always be an exotic species to the Northern Plains. Even so, the native of northern Europe has adapted to North Dakota, providing hunting opportunities for upland hunters for years. Hungarian partridge are a bonus, often harvested by sharp-tailed grouse or pheasant hunters.
Sage Grouse, Pinnated Grouse
Hunting seasons for sage grouse and pinnated grouse are closed again this fall.
Results from the Game and Fish Department’s spring sage grouse survey indicated the number of strutting males observed in southwestern North Dakota remained well below management objectives.
Biologists counted a record low 50 males on 11 active strutting grounds in spring. In 2012, 72 males were counted on 12 active leks.
This is the sixth year in a row that North Dakota won’t have a sage grouse season, and the fourth year in a row for no season on pinnated grouse, or prairie chickens, in the northeastern and southeastern parts of the state.
Tree squirrels may be taken with firearms loaded with shot, rimfire rifles, or with bow and arrows legal for taking upland game.