Stable downturnWhen North Dakota Game and Fish Department officials went out to conduct the annual spring pheasant crowing counts they expected to see a decrease from last year following a severe winter.
By: John Odermann, The Dickinson Press
When North Dakota Game and Fish Department officials went out to conduct the annual spring pheasant crowing counts they expected to see a decrease from last year following a severe winter.
And while that expectation was on the money with a 25 percent decrease, the state’s pheasant population is still in good shape, said Terry Steinwand, director of the NDGF.
“We have wildlife in North Dakota that is really, really resilient,”
Steinwand said. “Very honestly, deer and pheasants surprised the bajabbers out of us this year. We thought ‘Oh man, we’re taking a heck of a hit,’ and we did, but not nearly to the extent that we thought.”
According to NDGF data, crowing counts, conducted from May 1 to June 10, were down in all four regions of the state. The northwest saw a 25 percent decrease, the northeast a 51 percent decrease, the southeast a 33 percent decrease and the southwest a 10 percent decrease compared to the same period last year.
Steinwand said that’s not a problem, especially with how high the 2008 numbers were and the drop won’t likely mean a lower daily limit on pheasants.
“They were down from 2008, but that was just an absolutely phenomenal year. We had some great pheasant hunting, we had some great conditions,” Steinwand said. “But when you compare it to 2005, 2006, 2007, it’s up from those years so it would be really tough to justify going less than what we were last year.”
The NDGF will give its recommendation to the governor’s office later this month, and Steinwand said he foresees the daily limit staying at three per hunter and 12 in possession.
Stan Kohn, upland game management supervisor for the NDGF, said the dramatic drop in the eastern part of the state is likely due to that area being what they consider the “secondary range” for pheasants, adding the drop there wasn’t surprising.
“We always knew in the back of our mind that a lot of that secondary range doesn’t have the winter cover to sustain good populations when the weather gets really tough,” Kohn said.
But there were also places “with good winter cover where there was still high mortality,” Kohn said.
Kohn said even though the pheasant population is in much better condition number wise then the last severe winter in 1996-1997, there is worrisome information.
According to a study conducted by wildlife officials in South Dakota following the winter of 1996-1997, hen pheasant mortality is higher during severe winters.
The crow counts only count the potential number of roosters, but reports put the number of hens per rooster this spring at one-to-two hens. That number is usually three-to-five, Kohn said.
“It (the crow count) gives us an index of what that rooster population is doing, but it tells us absolutely nothing about the hens,” Kohn said. “If we have fewer adult hens out there nesting this year we might have a lower production reproduction wise.”
But even if the hen mortality rate wasn’t as high, Kohn said production could still be affected. The same South Dakota study also shows hens are less productive after a harsh winter.
“Hens that did survive those long winters like that were not quite in the same healthy state as they would be if they came through a mild winter and were able to feed everyday,” Kohn said. “As a result of that hens coming through a tough winter were in less good physical condition and did lay smaller clutches.”
The pheasant hatch, which reached it’s peak in mid-June and is now winding down had excellent weather for a productive hatching season Steinwand said and maintaining good habitat for the birds will be the key for sustaining the population.
“The ability to rebound is really going to be the key and that’s where the nesting cover in terms of CRP (Conservation Reserve Program) is so vitally important,” Steinwand said. “That’s why we’ve been preaching for the last five-six years is CRP is really, really important to North Dakota pheasant production.”
Due to new regulations in the CRP program focusing on wetlands conservation and restoration, hundreds of thousands of acres, especially in the southwest part of the state will no longer be eligible for the program.
Kohn said the lower number of CRP acres could be pointed to as a reason for the lower numbers this year, but due to the severity of the winter it may not have made much difference.
In some areas though, where the winter wasn’t quite as harsh, it may have made a difference.
“Certainly that would be something we would certainly point to and say if there was just more of this stuff out there we probably could have carried a few more birds through,” Kohn said.
In the meantime, Kohn said there will be plenty of opportunities for hunters in the fall, though it might not be as easy this year as in years past.
“We’ve been spoiled over the last few years. Everybody’s expecting to go out after 5 o’clock after work and hunt for an hour and be able to shoot their three roosters,” Kohn said. “It might require a little more effort.”