BISMARCK — Hunters killed more pheasants in North Dakota last fall than they did the previous year, but drought and declining habitat in recent years continue to impact the odds of a successful outing.

About 58,200 hunters killed 327,000 roosters in 2018. That was up just 6% from the dismal 2017 hunt, when the harvest was the smallest in 16 years at just 309,400 pheasants.

Neither year approached the state Game and Fish Department’s benchmark for a good season of 500,000 pheasants.

The problem is twofold, according to state Wildlife Chief Jeb Williams. There is less grassland in the state due to farmers putting millions of acres of idled land once enrolled in the federal Conservation Reserve Program back into crop production, and drought has impacted many parts of the state the past couple of years. That has led to a double-whammy effect.

“What abundant habitat gives you is the ability to rebound (from drought) quickly,” Williams said. “With less habitat, you’re going to see swings in the (pheasant) population. We’re going to be more dependent on what the weather conditions give us.”

The Game and Fish Department’s crowing count survey last spring indicated a 6% increase in roosters statewide from the 2018 count. The agency later this summer will conduct its annual pheasant population survey, which will provide a better indication of the bird's status.

Regardless of the outcome, it’s likely time to lower the benchmark for a good pheasant hunting season in North Dakota, according to Williams.

“A harvest approaching 400,000, I think, would be a good year,” he said. “It’s going to have to be a perfect storm (of conditions) to have everything kind of come together to where we could get up and above that.”

It’s not the first time the benchmark will have been adjusted.

“It’s all based on expectations,” Williams said. “In the early ‘80s, before CRP hit the landscape, the pheasant harvest was right around the 130,000 mark on average. The good news is right now, we’re still better than that.”

The 2019 regular pheasant season begins Oct. 12. Pheasant hunting is big business in North Dakota, with the typical resident hunter spending about $100 per day, according to Tourism Division statistics.

The harvest of other upland game birds during the 2018 season also was down from the previous year, according to Game and Fish statistics.

Hunters killed 45,600 sharp-tailed grouse, down 3%, and 23,000 Hungarian partridge, a drop of 30%.

Upland Game Management Supervisor Jesse Kolar suspects the dramatically lower partridge harvest was related to fewer pheasant hunters and fewer trips per hunter, since the decline in partridge during the summer 2018 brood survey was not as drastic.

“Partridge are most commonly harvested incidentally, while hunters are pursuing pheasant or grouse, so the rate of harvest does not always mirror numbers on the ground,” he said.