It hasn't been the best of seasons for many pheasant hunters. Those hunters who enjoy getting outdoors are still doing so, but they are finding the forecast of fewer birds in the field this year to be true. Limits of pheasants, fairly common a few years ago, have become more of a rarity this season.
Veteran hunters know the cycle. They've seen it before. North Dakota's pheasant population has had highs and lows for many years. Game and Fish surveys said that pheasant numbers would be down significantly this season as compared to a year ago, and pheasant numbers a year ago were down too.
An increase in Conservation Reserve Program acres, a series of unusually mild winters and agreeable spring weather during the nesting season was been credited with helping create a booming pheasant population. In 2007, the annual hunter harvest was approaching a million roosters. The harvest last season was slightly more than 600,000. I expect this year's harvest will be much fewer.
The number of birds in the state's primary pheasant range in the southwest annually account for a high percentage of the total harvest. However, when pheasant numbers are good, hunters shoot plenty of birds outside the southwest. This year pheasant numbers are known to be down all across the state, and the southwest got hit with a big snowstorm prior to the start of the season - not good for pheasants. It all adds up to some pretty tough days for many hunters hoping to stuff some feathers into their game bag.
There are exceptions, of course. Some hunters have access to land with suitable cover and a decent population of pheasants. Most early season reports, though, are not very encouraging. A number of sportsmen are already wondering what next year will bring in terms of pheasant numbers. It is a very good question, especially when considering all the changes taking place in the countryside.
CRP acreage has been decreasing. That means fewer nesting habitat for pheasants and fewer young birds joining the flock. There will also be fewer breeding-age birds available to nest next spring than there have been for several years. Assuming nice winters and warm springs, which is a somewhat wishful thought in our climate, it may take several years for the pheasant population to rebound to the numbers seen from 2001 to 2011. There's another consideration, too: an increasing population in the west due to the rapid development in oil producing counties.
Less habitat, fewer birds, a growing population that includes more hunters and reliance upon good weather seems to be a difficult combination for pheasants to overcome. Yes, they can bring off large broods if everything works in their favor. I hope that happens for the next three or four years but, admittedly, I'm not very optimistic that it will.
Historical data disputes my thinking. It shows that pheasant numbers can fluctuate greatly from year to year, certainly from decade to decade. Harvest data from 1945 shows North Dakota hunters bagged 2,400,000 roosters. Obviously weather and habitat had to be ideal at for that to happen. By 1950 the number of harvested roosters dropped to 60,000. Later, pheasant numbers rebounded again.
Indeed, it was quite a run from about 1990 to 2000. Then it got even better. Hunter numbers increased but that was due to a large increase in pheasant numbers. There were plenty of birds for everybody.
This year is different. We are in a different era, a different atmosphere and it seems likely that different trends are to be expected. What I wonder is, are this state's best pheasant hunting years already behind us?