Saturday is the pheasant opener in North Dakota, arguably the most popular hunting season here besides the deer gun opener.
And, while the North Dakota Game and Fish Department has forewarned hunters to expect fewer birds — 30 percent fewer statewide — compared to last year, they may find fewer public hunting places as well.
This fall there are roughly 760,000 acres of PLOTS (Private Lands Open to Sportsmen) tracts, the Game and Fish Department’s public hunting access program.
Between 2008 and 2010, there were about 1.1 million acres enrolled in the program. Those are some of the state-managed lands.
With the federal government shutdown, many hunters are wondering if their favorite haunts will be available to hunt this fall.
The short answer is no. Waterfowl season, managed by federal regulations as migratory species, has been open for about two weeks.
But when the shutdown of the federal government began Oct. 1, federal lands like national wildlife refuges, Waterfowl Production Areas and others technically closed for the duration of the shutdown.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has put up signs at refuges like the Upper Souris Refuge, Lake Audubon Refuge and others notifying the public the areas were closed because of the federal shutdown.
The closure affected access to fishing on Lake Darling, including popular shore fishing spots like Grano Crossing.
Federal workers like those tasked with law enforcement and property protection have remained on the job since the first of the month when the shutdown began. But visitor centers like those at Lake Audubon National Wildlife Refuge near Coleharbor are closed.
Lake Audubon, and the Long Lake refuge near Moffit are popular spots for birders during the fall as countless species of birds pass through the state during the fall migration.
The status of some areas, like WPAs, and the National Grasslands for instance, are uncertain in the minds of many hunters.
David Bonham is the acting regional chief of refuge law enforcement for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Bonham said under the shutdown, all federal lands that normally would be open for hunting whether archery deer, waterfowl or upland game, are closed.
Bonham said while signs have been posted in some areas, the vast amount of land involved and sheer number of areas make it impossible to sign every area.
He said law enforcement personnel for the service have been exempted from the furloughs, and the primary mission is to protect federal property and resources during the closures.
Bonham said that mission also has included some public relations with hunters.
“People are upset and we expect that,” Bonham said. “We’re upset about it, too.”
In the event hunters are found on closed lands, federal wardens are being instructed to explain the situation and ask them to leave.
“Education is a priority at this point,” he said.
The WPAs are rather inconspicuous, bordered by barbed wire fences and green-and-white rectangular signs and in many cases, off the beaten path.
Federal lands affected in the shutdown include not only the WPAs, but some U.S. Army Corps of Engineers managed lands around Lake Sakakawea and Lake Oahe, Bureau of Land Management and National Park Service lands.
The corps last week said it has closed day-use areas that it manages, popular areas like the Downstream Campground below the dam.
Maggie Oldham of the corps’ Omaha district office said corps-managed lands around Lake Sakakawea, Lake Oahe and the Missouri River are open to hunting during the shutdown.
The same hold true for Bureau of Land Management lands and the National Grasslands.
Robert Timian, chief of enforcement for the Game and Fish Department, said state game wardens have jurisdiction to enforce hunting laws on federal lands.
He said state wardens will go about business as usual during the shutdown.
What might be frustrating and confusing for hunters is the lack of information along with a lack of consistent policy. The BLM and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are both agencies under the umbrella of the Department of Interior, but have different policies during the shutdown.
The websites of federal agencies like the Long Lake National Wildlife Refuge and others are not operational during the shutdown.
The state’s two fish hatcheries that are managed in cooperation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the state Game and Fish Department also are closed for the duration.
Meanwhile, with the pheasant opener just a couple of days away, the story is there are fewer birds and fewer places to hunt them.
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, when hunters bagged 616,000 roosters.
While bad for this year’s pheasant numbers, spring rains have left existing habitat in excellent condition and some areas will still provide excellent pheasant numbers.
Stan Kohn, upland game supervisor for the Game and Fish Department, said the best places for pheasant hunting will remain in the areas that have been traditionally good; south of Interstate 94 and west of the Missouri River as well as around Lake Sakakawea.
He said hunters will likely have to work harder for their birds this fall, and that includes finding a place to hunt them.