BISMARCK -- Continuing a theme that began going into waterfowl season, pheasant hunters in North Dakota likely will have to lower their expectations this fall.
The reason, same as it was for duck season, boils down to one word: drought.
North Dakota’s pheasant season opens Saturday, Oct. 9.
“It’s going to be spotty,” said RJ Gross, upland game bird biologist for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department in Bismarck. “There’ll be birds, but more than likely, a lot will be adults. Wherever we were in extreme drought or severe drought, the production just wasn’t very good, but there will be localized spots, like always.”
Based on results from the Game and Fish Department’s annual summer roadside survey in late July and August, the number of pheasants observed per 100 miles is down 23% from last year, and broods per 100 miles dropped 30%.
The average brood size, at six, remains unchanged from 2020, the department said. The tally is based on 266 survey runs made along 102 bird routes across North Dakota, Gross said.
The extreme dry conditions resulted in less habitat on the landscape, and with less habitat, pheasant production suffers, Gross said. Newly hatched pheasant chicks also have fewer bugs on which to feed during dry years.
“The main part of it was food,” Gross said. “Since the drought kind of started in the fall (of 2020), a lot of the nesting cover just wasn’t there or was very limited.”
That, in turn, drove the decline in pheasant counts.
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By the numbers
While pheasant numbers were down across North Dakota, the best results came from the far southwest and far northwest corners of the state, Gross said. The survey tallied six broods and 59 pheasants per 100 miles in the southwest, down from seven broods and 65 pheasants in 2020.
In the northwest, observers counted 68 pheasants and eight broods per 100 miles, down from 80 pheasants and 10 broods in 2020.
The southeast, traditionally a popular destination for hunters in the eastern part of North Dakota, showed three birds and 24 pheasants per 100 miles this year, Gross said, down from five broods and 42 pheasants in 2020.
“Really bad,” is how he describes pheasant prospects in the southeast.
“They had easily the biggest decline,” Gross said. “It seems they were never really in that exceptional drought category, but they always seemed to get just a little dusting of rain, they wouldn’t get the bigger ones that a lot of other areas got.
“It just seemed like everything missed down there, and that definitely came through in the survey.”
The dry conditions might have skewed survey results because the survey is most accurate on mornings with heavy dew on the ground, Gross said.
“Obviously, we didn’t have that, so the survey is a little bit variable,” he said. “To what extent, I don’t know. It definitely impacted what we saw and what we didn’t, but with all the routes, we definitely noticed a substantial decrease.”
"Especially pheasants in drought, they just kind of know it’s not worth the energy. And that probably happened in North Dakota just because of how bad and how hot the drought really was.”
- RJ Gross, North Dakota Game and Fish
The department will have a better idea of nesting success and the size of this year’s hatch when it begins collecting wings from hunter-harvested pheasants to age the birds, Gross said. There’s a good chance that second nesting efforts – or even third – will account for most of the young birds hunters encounter this fall, he said.
When pheasant hens are stressed and in poor condition after laying their eggs, they’ll often simply abandon their nests, Gross said. That likely happened with initial nesting efforts this year, he said.
“Especially pheasants in drought, they just kind of know it’s not worth the energy,” Gross said. “And that probably happened in North Dakota just because of how bad and how hot the drought really was.”
Young pheasants from second nesting attempts might fare well because of the grasshopper “plague” – as Gross calls it – that occurred because of the dry conditions, but birds from third nesting efforts likely won’t survive.
“Lately, a lot of people have been telling me they’ll be out (Hungarian) partridge hunting and kicking up partridge-size pheasant chicks, which isn’t good because they’re not going to make it,” Gross said. “But I think the hens kept trying to renest.”
Hunting for habitat
This year, perhaps more than any other year since 2017 – also a dry year – hunters are going to have to put on the miles to find habitat suitable for holding birds, Gross said. Out of necessity, livestock producers have had to hay and graze areas that might have knee-high grass in a normal year.
“It’s cliche, but you’re just going to have to go out there and scout,” he said. “If you find what looks like marginal habitat, you’re probably not going to find pheasants, but if you find something that looks good, more than likely, you’re going to kick some pheasants out of there.”
New this year, hunters will have to be aware of the electronic posting law that took effect earlier this summer. A landowner or authorized agent now can post land electronically without having to place physical signs.
Lands that are posted electronically are outlined in orange crosshatch in the Game and Fish Department’s PLOTS – short for Private Land Open to Sportsmen – guide, which is available in print and digital formats. Game and Fish offers two free apps, Avenza and ArcGIS Explorer, that also show lands posted electronically and in the PLOTS program. Avenza doesn’t require cell service to work in the field, but ArcGIS does.
In addition, Game and Fish is offering a free three-month subscription to OnX Hunt, a popular nationally used hunting app that will include electronically posted land. The trial is available in the My Account section of the Game and Fish website.
About 70% of the landowners who opted to post their land electronically also included contact information, Gross said.
“I didn’t think it would be that high, so that’s good,” he said. “That’s at least showing that they’re willing to discuss (granting access). Whether they’re going to say no or yes, at least there are opportunities there to have a conversation.”
Pheasant season might not be the big event it was during the population boom of the late ’90s and early 2000s, but it still ranks right up there among the top outdoor “happenings” in the state, Gross said.
The bulk of the state’s pheasant harvest typically occurs the first two weeks of the season.
“I think there’ll be a lot of people who just won’t hunt a lot this year because of the drought, and they’re worried about the birds,” Gross said.
Hunters also need to be aware that dry conditions persist pretty much everywhere in the state and keep fire danger in mind.
“Don’t be driving down section lines when it’s blowing 40 miles an hour and it’s 80 degrees out there,” Gross said. “We don’t need to start a wildfire so just pay attention.”
Given the habitat conditions across the state, Gross says he worries about the impact of a bad winter, should one occur.
“Last winter was kind of a blessing at first,” he said. “Obviously we didn't have snow so that made the drought that much worse but we had great overwinter survival of pheasants.
“If we have a bad winter this year, there’s going to be a huge loss in probably all wildlife. In North Dakota, the limiting factor to wildlife is winter habitat. If you can't hide and get out of the elements, you’re not going to make it. And with everything getting hayed and grazed and even a lot of cattails getting burned and getting disked up, that's not good.”
Rules of the hunt
North Dakota’s pheasant season opens Saturday, Oct. 9, and continues through Sunday, Jan. 2, 2022.
The limit is three roosters daily, with a possession limit of 12.
Shooting hours are 30 minutes before sunrise until sunset.
In accordance with state law, nonresidents are not allowed to hunt on Game and Fish Department wildlife management areas or conservation PLOTS from Oct. 9 through Oct. 15. The exception, new this year, is that nonresidents can hunt on PLOTS land they own.
More info: gf.nd.gov.