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Pheasant numbers down in N.D., S.D. and Minnesota ... and it's not just the weather

by Mike McFeely

North Dakota Game and Fish released the results of its roadside pheasant count and the news is what everybody expected: the pheasant population is down across the entire state by the significant figure of 30 percent.

Why?

The easy answer is weather. We had a cool, wet, very late spring and that naturally leads to less successful reproduction of all upland bird species.

And it is true that the horrible spring will lead to decreased bird numbers for this fall's hunting season, which begins Oct. 12 in North Dakota.

But the story that everybody except conservationists and biologists seems to miss is the role played by decreased acreage in the Conservation Reserve Program. Biologists like NDGF upland game management supervisor Stan Kohn will tell you that the negative effect of a poor spring can be greatly reduced if we have more grassland and sloughs, and less corn and beans.

It is simple: If critters have more cover, more food, more livable habitat, they can survive in greater numbers during tough weather.

The continued loss of CRP is staggering. North Dakota alone had more than 3 million acres enrolled in 2006. More than 800,000 acres expired by the end of 2012 and by the end of 2015 the state's CRP base will fall to about 1 million acres.

How many pheasants (and ducks, deer, geese and every other sort of animal) could live on the 2 million acres of CRP that will disappear? Hundreds of thousands.

Nationwide, we've lost 9.7 million acres of CRP in the last five years.

Some loss of CRP was inevitable. High commodity prices, incentives to grow corn for alternative fuel uses and the U.S. deficit have all contributed to the loss of set-aside acres.

But have sportsmen been vocal enough about the habitat loss? In the messy discussions over the Farm Bill, have hunters let it be known that CRP matters? 

How much angst and energy that has been spent in the phony debate over the government "taking our guns away" could have been used to let politicians know that habitat matters?

The fact today is that pheasant numbers are declining in North Dakota, South Dakota and Minnesota and while there still will be pockets of good hunting and there will still be many pheasants shot and memories made, the "good old days" we had less than 10 years ago are gone. Likely never to return. Unless we find a way to mix a booming farm economy with an emphasis on what is really important in hunting ... habitat preservation and acquisition.

Here is the press release from North Dakota Game and Fish on this fall's pheasant numbers:

Game and Fish Summarizes Pheasant Brood Data

Tuesday, September 10, 2013
North Dakota’s roadside pheasant survey conducted in late July and August indicates total birds, number of broods and average brood size are all down statewide from 2012.
Stan Kohn, upland game management supervisor for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department, said the survey shows total pheasants are down 30 percent from last year. In addition, brood observations were down 29 percent, and the average brood size was down 10 percent. The final summary is based on 253 survey runs made along 101 brood routes across North Dakota.
“Poor production this spring resulted in fewer young birds added to the population and a lower fall population in all areas of the state,” Kohn said.
Noteworthy factors cited for the decrease in brood numbers, according to Kohn, were continued land use changes in the prime pheasant range, including removal of Conservation Reserve Program acres, grasslands converted to croplands and small grain fields converted to row crops; and continuous wet spring weather.
“Earlier this summer we thought it was possible that nesting season was delayed enough to avoid an influence from the cold, wet spring,” Kohn said, “but it now appears that wasn’t the case.”
Kohn said even though statistics reveal bird numbers are down statewide, there will still be local areas with good pheasant populations.
Statistics from southwestern North Dakota indicate the number of birds observed was down 25 percent from 2012, and the number of broods was down 22 percent. Observers counted 15 broods and 126 birds per 100 survey miles. The average brood size was 5.8.
Results from the southeast show birds are down 43 percent from last year, and the number of broods down 42 percent. Observers counted five broods and 49 birds per 100 miles. The average brood size was 5.9.
Statistics from the northwest indicated pheasants are down 39 percent from last year, with broods down 32 percent. Observers recorded six broods and 48 birds per 100 miles. Average brood size was 5.5.
The northeast district, generally containing secondary pheasant habitat with much of it lacking good winter cover, showed one brood and seven birds per 100 miles. Average brood size was 4.7. Number of birds observed was down 35 percent, and the number of broods recorded was down 33 percent.
The 2013 regular pheasant season opens Oct. 12 and continues through Jan. 5, 2014. The two-day youth pheasant hunting weekend, when legally licensed residents and nonresidents ages 15 and younger can hunt statewide, is set for Oct. 5-6. 

(Mike McFeely is a talk-show host on KFGO-AM in Fargo, N.D. He can be reached at mike.mcfeely@mwcradio.com. Follow him on Twitter @MikeMcFeelyKFGO.)