Pheasant photo

In 1996, 311,000 pheasants were successfully hunted. In fall 1997, that number was 136,000.

Provided by North Dakota Department of Game and Fish

After the winter of 1996-97 — arguably the worst winter for resident wildlife in the last half century — I remember hearing upland game biologist Lowell Tripp, and wildlife division chief Randy Kreil, now both retired, repeat over and over again the basic fact that North Dakota was on the northern tier of the pheasant range and winters “like this” are going to take their toll.

They also related how such a winter probably wasn’t a one-time phenomenon, which proved true a decade later, from December 2008 to spring 2013.

A simple look at historical numbers provides some insight into how that winter of 1996-97 affected North Dakota wildlife populations. In 1996, 311,000 pheasants were successfully hunted. In fall 1997, that number was 136,000.

Sharp-tailed grouse went from 149,000 down to 89,000, and partridge hunters bagged only 27,000 birds in 1997, compared to about 62,000 in 1996.

So it’s easy to see how a nasty winter can take its toll.

This year, we are learning more about how a drought can influence upland bird populations as well. Making it through the winter is the first step, but the stress of trying to survive doesn’t end there.

“There’s nothing easy about a hen’s life,” said Jeb Williams, North Dakota Game and Fish Department wildlife division chief.

Record amounts of snow in December and January made life difficult for wildlife, pheasants included, across much of North Dakota. Those that survived then had to deal with the stress of breeding and nesting, followed by working to feed herself and protect her chicks from predators.

Because pheasant chicks are unable to control their body temperature for many days after hatching, untimely cold, wet weather can kill the chicks despite the hen’s best efforts to keep them warm and dry. On the opposite end, dry, hot conditions, such as occurred this year throughout spring and into early summer, result in a decline in insect production. Since insects make up more than 90 percent of a pheasant chick’s diet; a lack of insects makes survival difficult.

“The challenges pheasants and all the other wildlife in North Dakota face throughout the seasons is amazing,” Williams said. “In times when the weather doesn’t cooperate, and it seldom does, and sufficient habitat is lacking on the landscape, those successes from birth to maturity are even more remarkable.”

And so it wasn’t a surprise when the 2017 late summer upland game brood survey was completed and numbers were down significantly in all areas of the state for all species, and pheasants were hit the hardest. But just like after winter 1996-97, down certainly doesn’t mean out.

“It is going to take a little bit of work out there,” Williams said on a recent edition of Outdoors Online, the Game and Fish Department’s weekly web-based news program. "There is still going to be some opportunities for people to have out there, no doubt.”

The 2017 pheasant season opens Oct. 7 and continues through Jan. 7, 2018.

Doug Leier is a biologist with the North Dakota Department of Game and Fish.

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