A hard winter, persistent drought and habitat loss have put North Dakota pheasant counts down substantially. But select areas still have birds to hunt.
By Tom Carpenter
The news is tough out of North Dakota. There is no sugarcoating it. Winter slammed hard, and drought – especially in the southwestern part of the state, the primary pheasant range – provided a second strike.
“Summer brought extreme drought to the majority of the state,” reports R.J. Gross Jr., Upland Game Management Biologist with the North Dakota Game and Fish Department. “This had a negative effect on brood survival and chick development.”
North Dakota’s roadside pheasant survey, conducted in late July and August, confirms that total birds, and number of broods, are down statewide from 2016.
“The survey shows total pheasants observed per 100 miles are down 61 percent from last year,” says Gross. “In addition, brood observations were down 63 percent, while the average brood size was down 19 percent. The final summary is based on 279 survey runs made along 103 brood routes across North Dakota.”
“Brood data suggests very poor production this spring when compared to 2016,” he continues, “which results in fewer young birds added to the fall population.”
“The majority of the state was in extreme drought conditions during critical times for pheasant chicks,” he says. “This resulted in poor nesting/brood habitat and more than likely a less than ideal insect hatch.” Pheasant chicks thrive only when they have abundant insects to eat.
Statistics from southwestern North Dakota indicate total pheasants were down 59 percent and broods observed down 60 percent from 2016. Observers counted eight broods and 68 birds per 100 survey miles. The average brood size was 4.3.
Results from the Southeast show birds are down 60 percent from last year, and the number of broods down 70 percent. Observers counted two broods and 24 birds per 100 miles. The average brood size was 4.7.
Statistics from the Northwest indicated pheasants are down 72 percent from last year, with broods are down 76 percent. Observers recorded three broods and 24 birds per 100 miles. Average brood size was 5.2.
The northeast district, generally containing secondary pheasant habitat, with much of it lacking good winter cover, showed one brood and six birds per 100 miles. Average brood size was 3.5. Number of birds observed was down 54 percent, and the number of broods recorded was down 63 percent.
What’s a North Dakota pheasant hunter, or one heading there, to do? “Get out there and hunt.” Says Gross. “Be prepared to scout and walk plenty of spots to find pheasants this year.” It’s that simple. Birds are there, but you can see from the counts that they will be spread out and challenging to find.
Where will there be some potential bright-spot hunting? “Look to the Southwest -- Adams, Hettinger and Stark Counties,” advises Gross.
North Dakota Hunting Notes
*In 2016, hunters bagged about 500,000 birds. That number is sure to fall this year, but North Dakota could still produce a couple hundred thousand pheasants in 2017. There are birds for those willing to hunt hard.
*"Some areas no doubt had good production and other areas had poor production, so hunters who want to find better hunting opportunities may need to move around," advises Gross..
*Drought means that there was necessarily some early and haying of some CRP grasslands in the state. Hunters should keep the following in mind this fall when they visit an effected WMA or PLOTS tract. While there is a short-term loss in the public recreation aspect, those acres will likely see a long-term gain in the quality and diversity of habitat due to the mowing and disturbance. Maintaining good relations with farmers and ranchers making their livelihoods is in our best interest to ensure that hunting opportunities continue to exist on private property throughout North Dakota.
5 North Dakota Pheasant Destinations
North Dakota Pheasant Page
Tom Carpenter is Digital Content Manager for Pheasants Forever.