NoDak pheasants dwindle in drought, but mobile and hard-working hunters will grind out a few birds for the gamebag
By Anthony Hauck
North Dakota just isn’t as flush with pheasants as years past. The state’s Game and Fish Department reports the number of pheasants observed during its annual upland game brood survey was down 23 percent.
That decline can be pinned squarely on the drought of 2021. “Recent weather patterns have shifted toward a drier period, particularly this year with a warm, open winter and exceptional drought across much of the state,” said Jesse Kolar, upland game supervisor with North Dakota Game and Fish.
Ben Geaumont, a wildlife and range science research assistant professor at the Hettinger Research Extension Center, said that in southwestern North Dakota – typically the state’s top pheasant-producing region – the lack of rain greatly reduced plant growth and overall structure of upland habitat.
Despite uncooperative skies, Geaumont says a few things kept pheasant chicks afloat during this dry run.
“Unlike in 2017, when there were few insects on the ground to feed chicks, this year there are grasshoppers everywhere, so I don't think getting food was a problem,” he said, “Also, more weeds were allowed to occur on the landscape, as it seemed many farmers were unwilling to invest in extra chemicals given the lack of moisture. And as you know, some weeds, like kochia, make for excellent cover.”
Roadside survey statistics from southwestern North Dakota indicated six broods and 59 pheasants per 100 miles, down from seven broods and 65 pheasants in 2020. Observers in the northwest counted eight broods and 68 pheasants per 100 miles, down from 10 broods and 80 pheasants in 2020. The northeast and southeast survey regions each marked 24 pheasants per 100 miles during the late summer checks.
While pheasant numbers are generally on par with last year, the landscape across the North Dakota pheasant range has undergone a serious transformation, with drought-borne emergency haying and grazing taking a serious bite out of habitat availability. In the long run, these disturbances should create quality habitats, but that won’t help hunters this fall.
“Hunters should expect to find similar BIRD numbers to 2020, with the exception that there will be fewer acres of typical grassland cover to walk,” Kolar said.
This includes the venerable Private Land Open to Sportsmen, or PLOTS, program, which provides about 800,000 acres for hunting, with about 409,000 acres in western North Dakota and 390,000 in eastern North Dakota.
Expect to find plenty of PLOTS parcels with haying and grazing activity, though. That’s reality. The brightside PLOTS news is that the program includes 3,130 acres of high-diversity, new grass establishments.
Geaumont says finding these plantings could be like hitting the pheasant jackpot. “A new grass planting is generally good given the weeds that occur during the early years following planting. These places often hold good bird numbers when other places lack.”
Regarding access, pheasant hunters must heed the new law regarding hunting unposted lands. The rule hasn’t changed, but what has is this. Landowners can now electronically post their properties in lieu of, or in addition to, traditional physical posting. Translation: lands can be posted physically, digitally, or both. Check out North Dakota’s app online to see electronically posted lands
, or add the later on OnX Hunt.
The drought and subsequent haying and grazing means birds have moved around, and hunters serious about success in North Dakota should prepare to do the same, as familiar haunts may not look so familiar.
Geaumont, an avid pheasant hunter, says hunters would do well to target crop field corners and, after harvest, weedy patches left standing in crop fields. With pheasant research part of his day job, Geaumont says the lack of chemical use by farmers substantially increased weedy cover in and around fields, and that the radio-collared hens -- and their broods- - that they’re tracking are targeting these areas.
Kolar and Geaumont both noted the lack of dewy mornings this summer that bring hens and their broods out to roadsides where they can be seen and counted, meaning this year’s index could be slightly under-representing the pheasant populations.
Geamont is buoyed by anecdotal reports from late summer farming activity, haying and silage operations, that report good numbers of pheasants in his southwest area.
“Overall, I am slightly optimistic that this year will be better than the last couple even with the drought.”
The pheasant season opens on Saturday October 9 and continues through Sunday January 2, 2022.