As pheasants go, so goes the number of hunters in North Dakota. The long-tailed birds are a fairly reliable barometer of hunter participation. If pheasant numbers are high, so too is the number of hunters in the field. Fewer pheasants generally lead to fewer hunters.
In a recent release, the North Dakota Game and Fish Department tied the state's pheasant population to the amount of acres enrolled in the state's Conservation Reserve Program. Both are on the decline.
How large this fall's pheasant population will be is yet to be determined. More will be known when Game and Fish completes their annual brood survey. Game and Fish personnel began running their annual survey routes this past week and will continue to do so through the month of August.
Brood counts will be more difficult this year because of greater-than-normal rainfall over much of the survey area. The added moisture has led to an accelerated growth of cover. There's also a good possibility that rainfall took a toll on young upland game birds just at the time they were beginning to venture from the nest.
"Once those chicks hatch, the hen will do what she can to protect her young, but there's never enough space for everybody," said Stan Kohn, upland game management supervisor. "Even with more cover on the landscape this year, I'm still not sure what it did to our birds."
We should have an answer in early September when brood survey work is finished. If the trend of recent years continues, pheasants numbers will likely see a decline. It goes against all odds to expect a population increase of roosters while CRP - key pheasant habitat - is disappearing. Kohn says there is a direct correlation between the two.
"CRP loss probably has a major effect," explained Kohn. "We've always been under the contention that habitat and weather are the two factors that shape our pheasant population each year. Weather we have to live with. There's not much we can do about that."
While habitat and weather are understandably critical elements to maintaining a good population of pheasants, others factors such as predators and insect growth have a degree of impact too. Still, as biologists will attest, habitat is the key. Take away the habitat and you take away the birds.
North Dakota's peak pheasant harvest in recent years occurred from the 2005-07 seasons. In 2007, more than 100,000 hunters harvested a record number of 908,000 roosters. By 2010, the number fell to less than 600,000. Last year's rooster harvest was estimated at 616,000.
The state's CRP acreage was more than 3 million acres from 1998 through 2007. Today's CRP total has fallen to fewer than 1.7 million acres. The number of pheasants harvested has fallen too, much of it due to the fatal combination of dwindling habitat and a series of harsh winters.
Now, even following relatively mild winters, pheasants may not be able to rebound to the high numbers that excited so many to take to the field in pursuit. In many areas of pheasant country, there simply may no longer be enough suitable habitat to support high pheasant numbers.
"At some point we are going to see drops in our pheasant population. It won't be a drastic decline right away, but small chunks over a large part of the state. Then things will start being noticeable," said Kohn.
Certainly there will be exceptions, maybe even some surprises, but the current trend remains disturbing to many upland game hunters who count the number of days to the annual pheasant opener.