Pheasant bonanza

You can't blame pheasant hunters who are heading to southwestern North Dakota this weekend for foaming at the mouth and having a glazed look in their eyes.

You can't blame pheasant hunters who are heading to southwestern North Dakota this weekend for foaming at the mouth and having a glazed look in their eyes.

The region is experiencing another surge in the pheasant population this year, based upon the roadside survey conducted in late July and August by the North Dakota Game and Fish Department.

The survey reports nearly 1,000 more birds than last year on the annual route driven in the nearly dozen counties that comprise the southwest region.

"CRP, CRP and CRP. That's the first three answers," said Game and Fish upland game management supervisor Stan Kohn of Bismarck in explaining the continued growth in the pheasant population here. "There is no doubt that putting large amounts of grass on the prairie landscape helps grassland nesting birds."

Kohn said it's not only pheasants that benefit from the federal Conservation Reserve Program and other federal and state programs dedicated to creating habitat. Waterfowl, big game and other upland game birds like grouse and partridge also benefit.


"Pheasants of the upland game species have certainly responded faster," Kohn said.

In the past six years, the number of pheasants counted on the July-August survey route in southwestern North Dakota has increased fourfold. In 2002, 1,242 birds were counted for an average of 128.3 birds per 100 miles. This fall, 5,013 birds were counted for an average of 302.7 birds per 100 miles.

"There is no doubt the mild winters have helped," Kohn said of the ongoing increases.

At the same time, parts of the region have been hit with severe drought conditions for consecutive years.

"We certainly don't want to give the impression that all of the counties are seeing the increase that other counties are," Kohn said of the region.

But even some of the drought-stricken areas of Morton and Grant counties are going to see better pheasant numbers this fall, he added.

"I keep telling folks, even if your pheasant numbers this fall turn out to be nothing better than last year, you're still riding a high from the late 40s," Kohn said.

The number of broods on the southwest region survey route also has increased by four times since 2002. Starting with 142 broods six years ago, that number has grown to 555 this fall, creating an average of 33.5 broods per 100 miles.


The average brood size is up slightly this year at 7.01 birds, compared to 6.17 birds in 2006. The 7.32 birds per brood in 2005 represents the highest average during the past six years.

Kohn agrees with the thinking of many people that this region could be at its ultimate peak for pheasants.

"Because any small tweak in either winter weather or changes in CRP or changes in converting grassland back into cropland because of prices are going to affect upland game in general, and pheasants in particular," Kohn said.

CRP contracts are coming due in the next couple of years and high commodity prices and synfuel opportunities give farmers a lot of options to consider for income purposes.

"When farmers sit down and look at all the decisions they have, CRP may not rank up there when it comes to money," he said.

The other thing that can immediately impact pheasant numbers is a return to normal winters.

"We are getting so docile in how we approach winter anymore. A normal winter that starts in November and goes through April, we would see some changes in pheasant numbers too," he said.

The wet spring that was seen in southeastern North Dakota, however, doesn't appear to have created the negative impact that many people were expecting on the nesting opportunities there.


"We weren't seeing pheasant broods show up right away. It wasn't until late July that we started to see broods show up," Kohn said.

The wet conditions disturbed hens when they initially nested, but the birds made strong efforts to renest.

"We had a lot of breeding hens available to us, which really helped," Kohn said. "Even though we had a number of second and third nesting attempts, the number of eggs the hen lays is less each time."

As a result, the southeast region is down slightly on the total number of birds counted during the survey, but the number of birds per 100 miles is up when compared to last year.

Pheasants in the southeast region have nearly tripled during the past six years, and now represents the second-strongest pheasant population in the state behind the southwest. As a result, many nonresidents are now hunting in the southeast and saving on the added expenses associated with additional fuel costs and the expansion of fee hunting in the southwest.

"It seems like many of those first-time hunters or those folks who don't have connections to the southwest, they tie in closely to the eastern boundary of North Dakota," Kohn said.

The pheasant range also has become stronger immediately north of Interstate 94, especially in the central and western part of the state.

"We even got some of those counties now that are north of Interstate 94 that five to 10 years ago we considered secondary ranges," he said in reference to McLean, Oliver, Mercer and Dunn counties.


If you've been debating whether or not to take your gun out this weekend, you may want to heed some final insight from Kohn.

"So far, every year has been a great year, so you better take advantage of it," he said.

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