It is too early to tell for certain if the state's upland game population is on the increase, but the early indicators are favorable. Mid-June is considered a peak time for upland game birds, particularly pheasants, to be coming off the nest. Official brood surveys won't be conducted until later this summer. However, there are some encouraging signs that this year's hatch may have been a successful one.
"Our crowing counts in all four districts were comparable to last year," said Stan Kohn, North Dakota Game and Fish Department upland game supervisor. "It is too early to know much about production, but some are saying they are seeing a fair amount of pheasant chicks. The hatch appears to be at least a week earlier than normal. I've had reports of some chicks about the same size as adults."
Kohn was referring to ring-necked pheasants but added that turkeys, partridge and sharp-tailed grouse may have had earlier than normal hatches as well. The key to fall upland game populations is brood survival. So far weather conditions have been favorable for young birds.
North Dakota’s sharp-tailed grouse may have benefited from an early spring and favorable weather throughout the nesting season. Brood success for grouse, partridge and pheasants won’t be known until surveys are conducted later this summer.
Turkey numbers in North Dakota have been on the decline in recent years, but good weather during the nesting season might speed their recovery.
"There's been no real weather problems," noted Kohn. "We had three cool, wet springs that affected all upland game birds. This last winter was not only mild, but this year has been almost ideal as far as really good nesting and brooding weather."
Kohn said he will likely move the start of annual brood surveys up by a week to coincide with the earlier than usual hatch. That means department personnel will probably begin brood surveys at mid-month and continue through the end of August. Brood survey data is important to crafting limits for the fall hunting seasons.
"Knock on wood," said Kohn. "It doesn't look all that bad right now."
The state's upland game numbers have declined noticeably in the past three years, due in part to a series of severe winters that proved difficult for much of the state's wildlife. The pheasant harvest that neared 1 million birds a few years ago has dipped to about half that amount. Official numbers are expected to be released in the near future.
According to Kohn, a return to the large bird populations North Dakota saw in the mid-2,000s is not likely. Kohn cited a combination rough winters and changing conditions on the landscape as factors influencing bird survival and recruitment. An estimated 800,000 acres of Conservation Reserve Program acres, generally thought to be ideal upland game bird habitat, is due to come out of production in North Dakota this year.