Big decline for pheasants

NDG&F:?Population down 61 percent

North Dakota’s pheasant season is perhaps the most anticipated season for hunters every fall. Unfortunately, this year’s pheasant populations are quite low throughout the state. Kim Fundingsland/MDN

The numbers aren’t good. A recently completed survey conducted by the North Dakota Game and Fish Department shows the state’s pheasant population to be down 61 percent from a year ago. Pheasants are the state’s number one game bird and are responsible for the largest influx of out-of-state hunters of any of the state’s hunting seasons.

A lack of rainfall this year that created drought conditions throughout much of the state is cited as the primary reason for the dramatic decline in the pheasant flock.

“Drought is about the worst thing that can happen for an upland game bird,” said R.J. Gross, NDG&F upland game biologist. “It was fairly expected. The states around us had about the same stuff.”

In South Dakota, where many merchants rely on out-of-state hunters to boost profits, pheasant numbers are down 45 percent statewide, according to S.D. Game, Fish and Parks. It is a significant decline but the impact is buffered by South Dakota’s usual large population of the colorful birds. In North Dakota the decline is very significant, especially considering that the pheasant population was down the previous year as well.

“We had below average production last year,” recalled Gross. “We need a nice, mild winter and a nice spring next year. As long as the birds come through this winter in a healthy condition and we have a nice spring, everything will bounce back.”

Hunters will likely have a difficult time finding birds this season though. In the southwest part of the state, traditionally where the highest concentrations of pheasants are found, the recently completed Game and Fish survey indicates the total pheasant count down 59 percent from a year ago. The number of broods observed was down 60 percent.

A less than expected population of rooster pheasants could lead to less than anticipated hunter activity in the southwest. Two southwest North Dakota communities that have merchants who bank on an invasion of pheasant hunters are New England and Mott. Fewer birds could translate to fewer new dollars brought into those communities. Motels, gasoline stations and restaurants are among the businesses that will feel the pinch.

“Our facility is booked up for the first couple of weeks but there’s a lot of holes after that,” said Jerry Rokusek, owner of the 18-unit Pheasant Manor in Mott. “We had drought, moisture and drought. It doesn’t look like it’s going to be the best of seasons this year.”

Rokusek says there’s still pheasants in the field, although in fewer numbers from what he has seen in past years.

“No. You don’t see a lot of birds like you do in ordinary years. No moisture. No bugs,” said Rokusek. “Still, we saw quite of few the other day but it was a unique piece of ground.”

While Rokusek is accustomed to hunters filling up Pheasant Manor for several weeks during the pheasant season, he knows this year season will be challenging. If hunters do well they are likely to return for a second or third hunt.

However, at least initially, it appears that the effect of the drought on pheasant numbers is already taking a toll economically. Rooms are said to be available for the opening weekend of pheasant season at the Mott Hotel and Tailfeather Inn, two places that usually sell out weeks in advance.

A spokesman for the Tailfeather Inn in Mott said, “We’re not sold out for the opener and we’re normally sold out for the first two weeks for sure. We have availability this year.”

The opener of this year’s pheasant season was moved up from the second Saturday of October to the first Saturday following legislative approval earlier this year. The move was sought by merchants hoping to get an extra weekend of hunting and the increased business that comes with it. However, without a high population of pheasants, there is no economical advantage to the new early opener. Hunters will opt to go somewhere else or wait for another year in the hope that pheasant numbers will rebound.

“It’s sad. There’s none. No pheasants. There was no hatch at all, that I’ve seen,” said Dennis Stang, New England.

Stang is a long-time resident of New England, the center of what has historically been some of the best pheasant hunting ground in North Dakota. He sells insurance and therefore interacts with farmers in the area on a daily basis.

“It’s amazing. It’s nothing. We must have lost a whole lot more last winter than we thought and, with this summer’s dry weather, no hatch at all. It’s not good,” said Stang.

Other areas of the state didn’t fare any better than the southwest, according to the Game and Fish survey. The southeast survey shows pheasants down 60 percent from a year ago. In the northwest, which has experienced a good boost in pheasant numbers the last few years, the count is down 72 percent from a year earlier.

“Traditional areas in the state will still have birds,” said Gross. “It kind of depends on where you’re at. Hunters will have to work a little harder.”

Earlier surveys revealed a sharp decrease in the state’s population of sharp-tailed grouse and Hungarian partridge. Roadside counts conducted by Game and Fish showed grouse to be down 29 percent from last year and partridge to be down 62 percent from a year ago.

North Dakota’s grouse and partridge season opened Sept. 9. The state’s pheasant season opens Oct. 7 and runs through Jan. 7.