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Enthusiastic outlook: Game and Fish biologists stay optimistic for North Dakota's pheasant season

FNS Photo by Sam Cook Bill Oswald of Duluth and others in his group push through a stand of cattails while pheasant hunting near Artesian, S.D., in early December.

Harsh winters don't always mean bad things for wildlife.

Despite experiencing a winter with extreme temperatures and conditions, some experts say the pheasant population of southwest North Dakota may be faring well this year.

Though studies only began earlier this week, North Dakota Game and Fish Department wildlife assistant chief Jeb Williams said he is optimistic about the upcoming pheasant season.

"It's going to be a while before we can tell the real picture that's out there," Williams said. "But we hope that the good cover out there is going to mean good things for wildlife."

Studies are currently being conducted to find out what the summer may yield. There are many factors which are taken into account that contribute to pheasant numbers.

Williams said the wetland conditions across the region makes for a great environment for wildlife, including pheasants.

"Time will just have to tell," he said. "We're just going to have to wait and see."

Game and Fish Department upland game biologist Aaron Robinson said moisture may have positive or negative impacts on the reproduction of pheasants. When in the right amounts, precipitation helps pheasant habitats flourish, giving the game birds a prime reproduction environment.

However, snow late in the year creates a strenuous setting for pheasants. Last winter in southwest North Dakota was much easier on the birds than elsewhere in the state.

"(The) southwest part of the state fared much better," Williams said. "Other parts of the state had a tougher, longer and colder winter."

The Conservation Reserve Program also have an impact on pheasant head count.

The purpose of the program is designed to pay landowners to refrain from utilizing certain acres of their land for farming production. The idle grounds are then given chance to develop habitat that is suitable for wildlife -- including pheasants.

"The population is very cyclic," Robinson said. "Depending on the variables, including weather, CRP and habitat, that's going to have a direct impact on how successful the hunting season is going to play out.

"We're probably on a downhill slide right now because the most habitat we lose with oil, the loss of CRP, the less area we're going to have to nest. Nesting is what drives the population."

The Game and Fish Department are now beginning their pheasant research, as they are roughly one month past their peak of breeding period. According to Williams, the pheasant nesting season occurs in the later end of June.

"It'll give and take a little bit," he said. "Some years, some things are later, but it's usually right around that period of time. Anywhere from June 18 to June 25 is that prime area."

Robinson emphasized the environmental impact originating from the western North Dakota oil boom, which has hindered pheasant growth. Construction, pollution and expanded human population has limited pheasant development in many areas he said.

"Oil and gas are bad for wildlife; there's no beating around the bush," Robinson said. "It takes away and fragments habitat. It causes multiple problems with the ecology of all wildlife species. "The two have a very hard time coexisting for a long period time. They can coexist as things are happening, but if development happens to the extent that they are talking about, it will be bad for all wildlife, not just pheasants."

Signs have already shown the effects of the Oil Patch on the pheasant population.

Robinson said the northwest region of the state was a great place for pheasant hunting before the oil boom hit. Now, pheasants are extremely scarce in the region.

Though Dickinson and the surrounding area hasn't been affected by the Oil Patch nearly as much, Robinson said pheasant hunting may be much more difficult in the coming years as oil activity is expected to move further south.

"We're going to have a decent season. But the next 10 years, we could be down to a pretty low number," Robinson said. "If people want to hunt pheasants, they better get it done now because in the future it could be tough."