Much of North Dakota recorded less-than-normal amounts of rainfall this year. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, all of the state is showing effects of drought. Fortunately, dry conditions are not nearly as bad in North Dakota as they are in states to the south, including South Dakota, Nebraska and Kansas - three states known for upland game hunting.
The southern half of South Dakota is listed as being in extreme or exceptional drought as of Oct. 30. Nearly all of Nebraska is rated in exceptional drought, the worst declaration of dryness. Most of Kansas is categorized as being in extreme or exceptional drought too.
It should be remembered that states to the south of this state experience about 30 days or more of warm temperatures when compared to North Dakota. Also, the average high temperatures are several degrees more than what is experienced in North Dakota. That means more days for drought to take hold.
Sportsmen in this state know well the effect of dry conditions on bird populations. Neither waterfowl nor upland birds do very well without ample moisture. It is a balance though, particularly with upland game birds. Rain during the hatching season helps alleviate drought conditions and is certainly welcome from that standpoint, but it can have an adverse effect on chick survival.
The Nebraska Game and Park Commission recently informed hunters in that state, and out-of-state hunters considering a Nebraska hunt, that current drought conditions in that state have had a major effect on upland game bird populations. It was an unusual move but a necessary one.
According to Nebraska Game and Parks, 100 percent of the state is regarded to be suffering severe drought. Conditions are so bad that emergency haying and grazing was authorized to help provide forage for livestock. Grazing on Conservation Reserve Acres was extended through Nov. 30.
A Game and Parks release stated, "extreme heat and the lack of habitat may have had a negative effect on chick survival," and "overall upland bird numbers are down this year, mostly related to the extreme drought and excessive heat, resulting in high mortality of chicks. Further, some upland birds are known to curtail breeding activities during prolonged drought and high heat. In general, habitat throughout the state has been affected by the drought. Even areas such as rangelands that were not hayed or grazed may have sparse vegetation due to harsh growing conditions."
Reports from hunters in the field in Nebraska seem to confirm what Game and Parks is claiming - birds are very hard to find, even non-existent in some areas frequented by hunters in previous years.
In North Dakota, our biggest factor on upland game bird populations is generally believed to be harsh winters, but cool nesting seasons and drought can play major roles in the survival of grouse, partridge and pheasant chicks too. While our northern climate insulates us somewhat from prolonged periods of severe drought, we are not immune to the possibility.
While we still have a long way to go to match the severity of conditions in states to the south, continued dry conditions next spring could produce a very difficult environment for our upland game birds.