GRAND FORKS — R.J. Gross knew I was looking for pheasant brood numbers as soon as I identified myself.
“You can’t have the results yet,” he said with a laugh before I could even tell him what I was calling about.
It’s a question Gross says he gets a lot these days as the upland game biologist for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department who’s in charge of pheasant brood count surveys.
Inquiring hunters want to know what’s in store for this fall, and they’ve been asking me, as well.
It won’t be long, Gross says — perhaps as soon as Monday, Sept. 9 — and the results will give pheasant hunters a better idea of what to expect when the Great Rooster Pursuit of 2019 gets underway Saturday, Oct. 5 for residents and Saturday, Oct. 12 for nonresidents.
Rooster crowing counts were up slightly this spring, but it’s production that drives pheasant hunting success. The survey, which started Saturday, July 20, wrapped up Saturday, Aug. 31, and Gross is still compiling the numbers.
That’s no small task, considering the survey encompasses 101 routes of 20 miles each, which each survey participant has to run three times.
“I’ve had lots of calls already about it,” Gross said Wednesday. “We still have a few people who have to turn in their data, but it’s looking good — I’ll give you that.”
While pheasant counts are improving, hunters shouldn’t expect the kind of numbers they enjoyed when North Dakota had 3 million acres of land enrolled in the federal Conservation Reserve Program on the landscape, he said.
Today, there’s only about 1 million acres or so of North Dakota land left in CRP.
The habitat bonanza was reflected in years such as 2007, when North Dakota CRP acreage peaked at nearly 3.4 million acres and hunters bagged more than 907,000 roosters. Last year, by comparison, hunters shot about 327,000 pheasants, which actually was an improvement from 2017, when severe drought hampered production in many parts of pheasant country.
“It looks better,” Gross said. “We’re starting the rebound but there’s a long ways to go. We’re not even halfway back to where we were.”
For the habitat that’s out there, though, the conditions appear to be pretty good, which bodes well going forward.
“It’s not too wet, but it is wet — just right for fall conditions,” Jesse Kolar, upland game management supervisor for Game and Fish in Dickinson, N.D., said of conditions in southwest North Dakota, which has some of the state’s prime pheasant country. “That’s the good part. We have a lot of grass on the ground and a lot of fall and winter cover. Next spring should have good residual cover for early nesting periods.”
It will be another day or two before we know the complete story on pheasant brood counts, but any increase is good news. Especially after the setback that occurred because of the drought that afflicted pheasant country in 2017.
So, for all you pheasant hunters out there champing at the bit, the waiting’s almost over.