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Pheasants history in North Dakota

North Dakota Game and Fish Department Courtesy Photo While pheasant numbers aren't quite what they were 70 years ago, they are still the state's most popular game bird.

Check the annals of Lewis and Clark during their time in what is now North Dakota, and you'll find references to native grouse, elk and pronghorn, and even about 10 entries related to grizzly bear. Don't believe me?

April 14, 1805 (Crow Flies High Butte -- 2 miles west of present day New Town) "I joined the party at their encampment a little after dark. on my arrival Capt Clark informed me that he had seen two white bear pass over the hills shortly after I fired, and that they appeared to run nearly from the place where I shot."

While Lewis recorded a vast array of species, nothing remotely alluded to a pheasant. Most hunters realize these birds are not native and were introduced to North America well over a hundred years ago, but they've been here long enough that they seem like a natural part of the landscape.

The first pheasant season in North Dakota was held more than 80 years ago in Sargent, Richland and Dickey counties in the southeast. It lasted just a day and a half.

"We had no trouble getting our bag limit in the fall of 1931. Most of our hunting then was in cornfields and sweet clover patches ..." reported a Ludden, hunter in "Feathers from the Prairie," published by the North Dakota Game and Fish Department.

The estimated harvest in 1934, according to Game and Fish Department records, was 213,000 birds. By 1936, hunters were shooting five times as many roosters as native grouse, and pheasants were fast becoming the bird of choice.

While North Dakota's rooster harvest just a few years ago was close to a million birds, the absolute best pheasant days were decades before that in the 1940s. Harvest was estimated in the millions from 1940-46, highlighted by nearly 2.5 million birds taken in both 1944 and 1945.

From North Dakota OUTDOORS magazine in the mid-1940s: "We have never seen so many upland game birds since we have been in the state ... With an estimated upland game bird population of 15 million, it is going to be impossible to harvest the necessary number of birds ... The state could stand to harvest 7.5 million birds. It is estimated that there will be about 20,000 licenses sold this fall, and therefore the Department has been making an effort to interest more nonresident hunters to come to North Dakota."

Department records show that the average hunter shot more than 34 pheasants per season from 1942-45. In 2011, the average hunter bagged just more than eight birds for the season.

More from "Feathers from the Prairie:" "Gunners shot pheasants practically anywhere during these years of high populations. They could easily be shot from the road and walking was unnecessary. The birds 'boiled out' of sweet clover patches for those who did get out and walk ... Nearly everyone enjoyed pheasants at the dinner table and servicemen traveling railroads received free pheasant sandwiches served by the USO and other organizations in places like Mandan, where the troop trains stopped. Hunters followed the birds. In the banner year of 1945, 62,000 residents and 4,800 nonresidents bought licenses to hunt in North Dakota. Even still, the numbers of hunters were small compared with the numbers of pheasants that were in the field for the taking."

While pheasant numbers aren't quite what they were 70 years ago, they are still the state's most popular game bird, and the pheasant opener this month will likely find more bird hunters afield than on any other day of the year.

Leier is a biologist with the Game and Fish Department. He can be reached by email: