State offers unique outdoor experiences
I've written extensively on the rich diversity of natural resources that make North Dakota a great place to live if you like the outdoors, or even if you don't.
And who would argue. Within our borders we have opportunities to snag paddlefish, and hunt swans, sandhill cranes, elk, moose and bighorn sheep.
This array of species exists in North Dakota because of its place on the continent, which is sort of a transition from east to west and north to south. Our habitats include Great Plains, badlands, prairie potholes and northern woodlands, and the intensity of our winters puts us on the edge of the range for many plains species.
Minnesota, for instance, doesn't have pronghorn, sage grouse or bighorn sheep. Montana doesn't have prairie chickens. South Dakota doesn't have moose. Manitoba is beyond the mule deer range and Saskatchewan has very few pheasants.
Humans had nothing to do with the variety of animals that evolved in what became North Dakota, but we have a lot to do with the species that currently exist and how they will fare in the future.
We all must understand the common denominator is habitat, and in our case diverse habitat, from the aspen woodlands and lakes of the Turtle Mountains, to the dry, sagebrush dominated prairie of Bowman County.
A strong and healthy environment took millennia to build, and as we've already experienced once -- from the late 1800s through the early 1900s -- what we have can be greatly diminished or destroyed in the relative blink of an eye.
Since that transition period, when North Dakota went from a state with a few thousand people to one with several hundred thousand citizens, we've improved many wildlife populations because we've preserved and created habitat. There's still a lot of work to do and some new challenges to address.
Sage and ruffed grouse, along with prairie chickens or pinnated grouse, have distinct habitat requirements. Sage grouse are limited to the extreme southwestern corner of North Dakota, where health of the sagebrush habitat is a concern.
Prairie chickens are found in Grand Forks County and within the Sheyenne National Grasslands of southeastern North Dakota. Many of these birds live in the last remaining stands of tallgrass prairie, and only through restoration of this type of habitat can we hope to build prairie chicken populations.
The Turtle Mountains of Bottineau and Rolette counties, as well as the Pembina River Gorge and a portion of McHenry County, host huntable populations of ruffed grouse. Ruffed grouse are challenged by the ever-increasing desire for human migration into these wooded habitats. I'll never forget a conversation I had a few years back with a new aspen forest homeowner who was wondering about a decline in the ruffed grouse population shortly after stands of aspen were removed.
Pallid sturgeon and paddlefish are historic links to the past found in the waters of the Missouri River System. These fish depend on free-flowing stretches of river, which were greatly reduced following construction of Garrison and Oahe dams.
North Dakota once had about 350 miles of free-flowing Missouri. Now, when both Lake Oahe and Lake Sakakawea are at normal pool, only about 100 miles of free-flowing river remains.
The badlands of western North Dakota are home to the state's bighorn sheep, which have their own battle for survival. Bighorn sheep need unobstructed views to spot potential predators, especially on their lambing grounds. In some places in the badlands, woody vegetation is starting to encroach on traditional lambing grounds, which has the potential to reduce annual recruitment.
Of course, we all know the Missouri River isn't going to revert to its historic flows, and we aren't going to reseed entire townships to tallgrass prairie. My point is, we're blessed with an array of fish and wildlife species that depend on unique habitats. There are many little things we can do to make sure those species always have enough of what they need to maintain themselves.
If we continue to do those things, we'll maintain or even improve the quality of life that North Dakota citizens and visitors cherish.
Leier is a biologist with the Game and Fish Department. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org