The winter of 2019-20 was a split personality to say the least. East of the Missouri River, the state was plagued with heavy snow, colder temperatures and a prolonged season. West of the flow, it was a virtual banana belt with light snow events and minimal ground cover from December to March. As a result, North Dakota Game & Fish Department (NDG&F) Upland Game Biologist RJ Gross and members of the agency know where the areas of concern lie for the state’s population of ringneck pheasants and what will impact hunter success come next fall.
“In the west, I don’t know if you could even call it a winter, for most of the season they didn’t have snow on the ground which bodes well for all upland birds - the less stress and the less amount of energy they have to waste finding food, the better,” Gross stated, continuing, “in the east they had quite the winter; we’re still doing all of our spring surveys trying to figure out the impact of it, we had a couple of reports of some dead pheasants in the southeast, which we expect - you lose some every winter - but we probably took a little bit of a hit down there.”
Southeast Stands Last summer’s roadside counts put the population of pheasants in the southeastern portion of the state ahead of the historical destination of the southwestern corner of North Dakota for both avid resident and non-resident hunters. With nearly 51 birds per 100 survey miles driven in the southeast, compared to the 41 or so seen on average in the southwest, the eastern edge of the birds’ range owed its staying power to the retention of grass cover and thermal habitat such as cattail sloughs, in buoying their populations. After this tough winter for the region, Gross is hopeful that the same habitat options, and some sustaining work done by the NDG&F, will help populations into spring.
“Cattails are basically the main thermal cover down in the southeast and in a lot of North Dakota, and those get blown in and filled in with snow and then obviously pheasants don’t have anywhere to hide,” Gross referenced, “as far as habitat goes, we were losing some CRP down there but our PLOTS program shifted a bunch of money out there and signed up a lot of CRP into grasses, so kudos to them, they saved a lot and I think that’s going to help out the pheasant numbers dramatically,” he concluded.
Southwest Status Where the bountiful habitat has propelled pheasant populations in the southeast, the lack of it in southwestern North Dakota has prevented any rebound from the disastrous drought of 2017 which crushed pheasant numbers in the region. With the lighter winter conditions in the area this year, however, it is likely birds are in good shape and will utilize spaces of grass and cover that remain untouched from last fall due to all of the moisture the state experienced. This in turn has already spurred early growth of nesting cover which should be thick and protective of hens in the incubating process over the next month or so. Still, without significant habitat, a lot of factors must align to help turn the tide in an area which boasted 212 birds per 100 miles on routes surveyed just five years ago.
“It’s not going to be 2007-2008 numbers in one year; typically our pheasant populations would come back historically – say like after 1997 – every three years after a decline they would come back up, but that was also in the heyday of CRP,” Gross noted, adding that southwestern birds “should be in really good body condition with the easy winter, so if everything comes into play, we should have good clutch sizes, there’s plenty of residual cover, it was very wet last fall, with plenty of grass and the grass is coming up nicely now, so I am optimistic.”
Spring Activities Currently, Gross and other agents of the NDG&F are engaged in rooster pheasant crowing count surveys. Driving the same routes the department utilizes for its summer roadside surveys three times over a six-week period from May 1 to June 10, a surveyor stops and listens at various intervals for the sound of crowing roosters. While it isn’t a predictor of what’s to come, it is a valuable tool in the biologists’ kit in helping provide hunters with more information about what to expect come next fall.
While the challenge early in the surveying season has been finding good mornings to run the routes and listen for the two-note call to create a population index, and it’s one that goes back more than 60 years. “You need basically winds below five miles an hour, and if you’ve ever been in North Dakota in the spring you know that doesn’t happen very often, so when we get those good mornings we have to [go out],” Gross relates, “we don’t really use it as a forecast, but it’s basically another index we can use for strength in telling people how it’s going to be and how pheasants are looking,” he concluded, adding that when coupled with roadside surveys from later in the summer, the crowing count adds depth to NDG&F predictions for the upcoming season.
As for now much of the state’s traditional pheasant range is in relatively good shape, thanks to a combination of a lighter winter and habitat carrying over from a wet autumn, which sets a strong stage for the spring nesting period and potentially increased opportunities for North Dakota’s upland hunters next fall.
By: Nick Simonson