By Nick Simonson
With the completion of summer roadside surveys by the North Dakota Game & Fish Department, there’s plenty of good news for much of the state when it comes to upland game bird populations, with notable rebounds of pheasants in the western half of the state driving an overall increase in their numbers. With a mild winter and better habitat carrying over from last autumn, when wet conditions helped spring stands of nesting and rearing grass get established quickly, pheasants reaped the benefits.
“Statewide we were at just about 60 birds per 100 miles, and broods were up 30 percent, so we saw 7 broods per 100 miles compared to 5 last year, and then average brood size was just about six,” reports NDG&F Upland Game Biologist RJ Gross on the pheasants tallied across the Peace Garden State this summer by agency employees.
The northwestern quarter of the state had by far the biggest jump in pheasants observed with a 120 percent increase over 2019, with 91 birds per 100 miles driven this summer, compared to the 41 seen in 2019. Last year, 275 pheasant chicks were observed on the northwestern routes, and this year 618 were tallied, and adult birds counted more than doubled as well.
“They’ve had really good production in the last three years,” Gross relates, “I think hunting around basically the north side of Lake Sakakawea and even the southern shores will be good too and then all the way up into the northwestern corner,” he concludes.
After the challenges of the drought of 2017, the southwestern portion of the state had struggled to increase its pheasant populations, as habitat remained scarce. With the wet fall and the strong reemergence of grass for spring nesting after the mild winter, the region finally joined the rest of the state on the upswing. Observed pheasants increased to 71 birds per 100 miles driven, up from 49 per 100 miles in 2019. Pheasant broods were also more frequent with 7.8 observed compared to 6.6 per 100 miles last year. Additionally, brood size was up about 1.5 birds per brood, to an average of 6.5. While the 71 birds seen per 100 miles is about half of where the southwest region was in 2016 before the drought, it’s the rebound Gross feels most hunters have been looking for over the past three summers.
“In 2016 we saw 130 birds per 100 miles, but as I’ve been telling people, we’ve got to start somewhere,” Gross explains.
The southeastern corner of the state was the only region in the pheasant’s primary range which had a downtick in its populations according to the survey results, as a wet fall, cold and snowy winter, and rainy spring and early summer hampered recruitment. Pheasants observed per 100 miles driven dropped to 41 from 51 in 2019 and brood size decreased slightly from 5.7 to 5.1. While crowing counts in the spring indicated good rooster survival, it was the hen population that Gross was more concerned about coming into the summer surveying season.
“It was fairly comparable in the adults we had seen, but the production wasn’t there,” Gross says, “I was kind of worried because the hens are the ones that succumb to the winters if it’s bad, and if they make it through, they’re probably not in as good of body condition as the rest of the state was, and that came through with the broods and the sizes we had,” he explains.
Based on the summer survey numbers and barring a wet autumn like last year which hindered hunters from getting out in many areas of the state, Gross expects harvest tallies to near 400,000 roosters this year, based on historical data. Last year, an estimated 256,800 roosters were taken by hunters in the Roughrider State, compared to 342,600 harvested in 2018. The North Dakota pheasant opener is Sat. Oct. 10. For more information on the season visit https://gf.nd.gov/hunting/pheasant.