No doubt about it, the highlight reel for 2013 revolves around fishing. North Dakota now has more managed lakes than at any time in the state's history.
And it's not just new water bodies with a few fish in them, but a collection of emerging, quality fisheries that have come on board because of a wet cycle that started 20 years ago, topped off by abundant precipitation over the past five years or so.
People are noticing, too. For the 2012 licensing year, North Dakota had a record number of anglers, both resident and nonresident, and it looks like 2013 could even top that.
While not every water has its best historical fish population at the moment, the statewide fishing scene looks great for the next few years at least.
The flip side, and there always is a flip side when it comes to weather on the Northern Plains, is that the precipitation over the last five years that has filled many water basins to historic highs, is partly responsible for much reduced pheasant and deer populations.
Record or near-record snowfall in parts of the state caused higher-than-normal winter mortality. Rainy, cool springs are not good for upland bird nesting and 2013 fit that description.
At the same time, North Dakota has lost a fair amount of Conservation Reserve Program grasslands, shelterbelts, native prairies and wetlands over the past five years. By themselves, either the weather or habitat losses that occurred in recent years would have reduced pheasant and deer populations. Together, they have pushed deer and pheasant populations to levels that are much lower than they were in the past decade.
And when we look ahead to 2014, that's where we'll look. What can the Game and Fish Department, and the hunters and anglers of this state, do so that the long-term trend, regardless of the weather, gets headed in the right direction?
Following are some details on highlights and challenges from the past year.
Waiting for Spring
Department biologists knew a delayed ice-off and a mid-April blizzard that dumped several inches of snow across much of the state would influence wildlife and fish production in North Dakota. To what degree, however, was only a guess.
After fall surveys were completed, fisheries managers said reproduction was better than expected, with good numbers of young-of-the-year yellow perch in lakes statewide.
Devils Lake and Stump Lake had excellent numbers of young-of-the-year yellow perch. The upper reaches of Lake Sakakawea had a good number of small walleye, and a fair to good perch count on the east end of the lake. Fisheries biologists also noted good survival of walleye stocked around the state in smaller waters.
For nesting upland game birds, however, news wasn't as good. The late-summer roadside pheasant survey indicated that total pheasants were down 30 percent from last year.
Upland game biologists said poor spring and summer production meant fewer young birds added to the population and a lower fall population in all areas of the state.
While a late spring and wet weather that followed influenced upland bird numbers, other factors contributed to lower counts in the prime pheasant range, including removal of Conservation Reserve Program acres, grasslands converted to croplands and small grain fields converted to row crops.
ANS Efforts Continue
Statewide monitoring efforts for aquatic nuisance species in 2013 uncovered only one new infestation – curly leaf pondweed in Grass Lake in Richland County.
For the second consecutive year, no zebra mussels were detected in the Otter Tail and Red rivers at Wahpeton, where immature zebra mussels were found in both 2010 and 2011.
However, adult zebra mussels that exist in Minnesota's Otter Tail drainage continue to move closer to North Dakota. In addition, adult zebra mussels were documented this fall in Lake Winnipeg, which is of great concern to Manitoba officials.
Statewide monitoring efforts also indicated that known ANS populations in North Dakota water bodies are generally stable, and in some instances are even in decline.
A few adult silver carp were again observed in the James River below Jamestown Dam, after having moved upstream into North Dakota during extremely high flows in 2011.
Game and Fish will continue intensive monitoring for ANS in 2014. In addition, the Department will also continue its ANS information and education campaign and enforcement efforts, with the intent of full compliance with existing rules and regulations.
North Dakota's landscape continues to change and the most significant alteration to the countryside is the loss of Conservation Reserve Program acres.
Since 2007, North Dakota has lost about 1.9 million CRP acres, from a high of 3.4 million acres, down to about 1.5 million acres. Landowners, how-ever, still have interest in enrolling land in CRP, but changes to the ranking system do not favor the Northern Plains. In the 2013 CRP signup, only 69 percent of the acres offered in North Dakota were accepted.
If all current CRP contracts in North Dakota are left to expire, and no new acres are enrolled in the next five years, the state will have fewer than 1 million acres in CRP on opening day of pheasant season in 2018.
The loss of wildlife habitat also translates into fewer places to hunt. This was evident in the Department's Private Land Open To Sportsmen program in 2013, when 760,000 PLOTS acres dotted the landscape, compared to a high of 1.1 million acres in 2008.
Of those 760,000 PLOTS acres, about 250,000 was CRP.
If no new acres are enrolled and current agreements are left to expire, the number of CRP acres enrolled in PLOTS could fall to around 200,000 by 2018.
License Fee Increases
State lawmakers voted in 2013 to increase North Dakota hunting, fishing and boat registration fees. Those fee increases take effect in 2014.
State legislators, hunters and anglers voiced overwhelming support during committee hearings, and Department personnel heard the same type of support at statewide advisory board meetings. This is the first time in many years that North Dakota has had such a wide range of license fee increases.
Some examples of the license fee increases effective April 1 include:
Resident small game hunting license will increase from $6 to $10, while the nonresident small game hunting license will increase from $85 to $100.
Resident big game hunting licenses increase from $20 to $30, and nonresident big game hunting licenses go from $200 to $250.
The resident individual fishing license goes from $10 to $16, and a nonresident individual fishing license increases from $35 to $45.
Outdoor Heritage Fund
North Dakota's Outdoor Heritage Fund, passed by lawmakers during the 2013 legislative session, is designed to enhance habitat, public access, hunting, fishing and other outdoor recreation in the state.
The fund, which is supported from a percentage of the state's oil and gas production tax, can receive up to $15 million annually, or $30 million per biennium.
The Outdoor Heritage Fund is a significant state funding commitment for conservation and outdoor recreation, beyond what hunters and anglers have for years contributed through license fees and excise taxes.
The State Industrial Commission, comprised of the governor, attorney general and agricultural commissioner, is the chief authority over the Outdoor Heritage Fund. Additionally, the governor has appointed a 12-member advisory board to evaluate project proposals and make recommendations to the commission.
The first application deadline for project proposals was December 2013, with three additional project application periods to follow in 2014.
State organizations and agencies submitted more than 70 project proposals prior to the first deadline. The advisory board will score them and make recommendations to the Industrial Commission, which will award the first round of grants in late January.
Deer Numbers, Licenses Fall
Beginning in 2004, the Game and Fish Department made available more than 145,000 deer licenses for a string of six hunting seasons.
A combination of factors, including three consecutive tough winters starting in 2008-09, loss of habitat across the landscape, and the aggressive harvest of antlerless deer for several years to meet landowner, motorist and hunter tolerance levels, sent deer numbers the other way.
In 2012, Game and Fish reduced the number of deer licenses 65,300, and then cut the number to just 59,000 licenses in 2013, the lowest number since 1983. And for the second time in as many years, hunters in 2013 could receive only one license for the gun season.
More than 40,000 applicants in the 2013 license lottery did not receive a deer gun license.
On another note, Game and Fish personnel closely monitored the deer population in southwestern North Dakota starting in late summer when the first reports of dead deer, attributed to epizootic hemorrhagic disease, came in from Bowman, Grant and Burleigh counties.
Isolated deer deaths continued into mid-September, prompting the Department to suspend the sale of about 1,000 antlerless deer licenses that were still available in units 3F1, 3F2 and 4F in the southwestern part of the state.
With thousands of hunters in the field during the opening week of pheasant season, Game and Fish received only a few additional reports from hunters who found dead deer in southwestern North Dakota.
WPA Closure, Reopening
Because of the federal government shutdown in early October, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service closed all the waterfowl production areas in North Dakota and other states to public access on October 1.
As these areas are important public lands for hunters, the Game and Fish Department, along with the governor's office and attorney general's office, worked hard to influence a Fish and Wildlife Service decision to open the WPAs the day before North Dakota's pheasant season began, and a full week before the federal shutdown ended.
Pronghorn Population Increases
North Dakota's pronghorn population showed signs of recovery in 2013 after five years of steady decline. However, numbers were still below population objectives and not yet high enough to warrant a fall hunting season.
Survey results indicated the statewide population was about 5,400 pronghorn, 49 percent higher than 2012, but still 62 percent below 2008, the last year a hunting season was held.
A rise in the pronghorn population was expected, due to another year without a hunting season and a mild winter across much of the pronghorn range, which led to higher adult and fawn survival.
Another mild to average winter in 2013-14 should encourage future population growth, but challenges remain with pronghorns, including habitat fragmentation and disturbance, and loss of CRP acres in the secondary range.
Positive Signs in Mule Deer Population
For the second time in as many years, the Game and Fish Department did not issue any mule deer doe licenses in eight badlands hunting units.
In turn, Department wildlife biologists have noted some signs of mule deer population recovery.
Spring survey numbers revealed the mule deer population index in the badlands increased 15 percent from 2012, but was still 22 percent lower than the long-term average.
The Department's fall mule deer survey also indicated better production in 2013 than in 2012. Biologists counted 1,761 (1,224 in 2012) mule deer in the aerial survey in October. The buck-to-doe ratio of 0.46 (0.37 in 2012) is similar to the long-term average of 0.43 bucks per doe, while the fawn-to-doe ratio of 0.74 (0.59 in 2012) was the highest since 2009, but still below the long-term average of 0.91 fawns per doe.
While wildlife managers say it is encouraging to see mule deer numbers increase for the short-term, challenges remain for continued population growth, including changes in habitat quality due to fragmentation and disturbance, predators and weather.