DICKINSON One of the most active weekends for North Dakota hunters is fast approaching. The state's pheasant season opens Saturday. Hunting is expected to be spotty at best.
Pheasant numbers across the state continue to plummet due to a combination of factors which includes a series of harsh winters, cold and wet nesting seasons, fewer acres enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program and encroachment by energy development. The state's pheasant harvest fell dramatically last year and the trend has continued. The numbers compiled by North Dakota Game and Fish Department surveys are staggering.
The pheasant population in the northeast corner of the state is down 66 percent compared to one year ago. In the northwest the decline is said to be 62 percent. Some of the locals there say it could be even more. Pheasant numbers in the southeast section of the state are down too, 60 percent. Even in the southwest part of the state, where pheasant hunting is big business and the majority of the state's birds are harvested, the population is believed to be down 30 percent.
"It's going to be a changing year," said Aaron Robinson, N.D. Game & Fish upland game biologist. "We've been spoiled over the last decade. Hunters are really going to have to work for pheasants now. This is going to be true across the state."
Pheasant hunters will have fewer places to look. The state lost 200,000 acres of important CRP habitat this year. Another 800,000 acres is expected to be lost in 2012. Additionally, many wetlands remain full of water heading toward freeze-up. That means cat-tails that often provide pheasant cover are flooded. Gone too are thousands of acres of prime pheasant hunting land swallowed up by higher water in Lake Sakakawea.
"A lot of our Game Management Areas around the lake, which were basically managed for pheasant habitat, great pheasant habitat, has been taken out with the lake coming up," Robinson said. "When people hear it's going to be harder, a lot of them just stay home."
Despite gloomy survey numbers, most hunters are expected to head to the fields for the traditional opener and find out for themselves what actual pheasants numbers are in their chosen hunting areas. Some will be surprised to find birds, but Robinson says he believes the overall harvest will be down once again.
"We could get back to the level of 250,000 pheasants harvested, even less than 200,000," Robinson said. "That's where we're headed for in the next few years, in my opinion."
For comparison, as recently as 2007 the state's hunters bagged more than 900,000 roosters. Each year since the harvest has been dropping. The last time the state's pheasant harvest was listed at fewer than 200,000 birds was 1997 when hunters took an estimated 136,000 roosters.
Those hunters who have taken to the field for upland game, grouse and partridge, may be better prepared for the pheasant opener than those who will be heading out for the first time this coming weekend. Grouse hunting success has not been very good. Again, winter, spring and energy development is all believed to be playing a role in declining bird numbers.
"For grouse we've had some mixed results, mostly on the negative side," Robinson said. "Most people have seen a lot fewer birds than in the past. That was expected. There's some really bad results and reports coming in from hunters."
Some hunters have been finding birds too, just not in the numbers they are accustomed to seeing. For most, it appears that will likely be true for the pheasant season as well.