North Dakota, if nothing else, is notorious for being a land of extremes.
That is particularly true when it comes to the weather and with our wildlife population.
Hunters who have been chasing birds or bucks for the past 20 years have seen the pendulum swing back to the down side when it comes to wildlife populations.
The 2013 hunting season is right around the corner, and while a few seasons have already opened, the big ones in terms of participation are coming up this weekend with grouse, partridge and youth waterfowl.
Historically, the number of hunters taking to the fields in North Dakota has been holding its own to increasing slightly, bucking the national trend of fewer hunters.
Even with the aging demographic of our hunters, there is a strong segment of today’s sportsmen and sportswomen that have experienced outstanding opportunities over the course of the past two decades.
And like the weather, things are changing on the landscape with respect to habitat which is the ultimate driving force as to how good — or not so good — the opportunities will be for hunters.
Randy Kreil, wildlife chief for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department, likened hunters’ expectations to technological advances: the more technology improves, the higher the expectation of the hunter.
Going back to 2007, three straight harsh winters put a dent in deer numbers which this year again was reflected in fewer deer gun licenses available. Add to that a flood and a drought, wildlife populations have had their share of stressors in the past five year.
But Kreil said the key factor is the loss of habitat.
“Unfortunately, this trend that started in about 2007 is not only continuing, it has accelerated in the past year,” Kreil says in an upcoming issue of North Dakota Outdoors.
“The loss of Conservation Reserve Program grasslands, native prairie, wetlands and shelterbelts is ongoing at an alarming rate.”
Game and Fish Department biologists, in their annual hunting season preview, point to the loss of habitat, how it relates to wildlife populations and how that might affect hunters in the field.
Pheasant - Opens Oct. 12
Most of south central and southwestern parts of the state had a good winter, until a blizzard hit in mid-April.
The storm hit at a time when pheasants were leaving winter cover for breeding areas. When the snow melted, May brought almost continuous rain throughout the state.
Preliminary numbers indicate total pheasants are down about 30 percent statewide from last year, the lowest since 2003. In addition, brood observations were down 29 percent, and the average brood size was down 10 percent.
Initially, things appeared not to be as bad as first thought. Spring crowing counts were only down 11 percent statewide from 2012, and were comparable to 2011 counts.
In recent years, the number of pheasant hunters has dropped below 100,000, with a harvest running about 600,000 roosters annually. It seems that with a harvest of 500,000 roosters or more, hunters deem it a good pheasant year.
Grouse/Partridge - Opens Sept. 14
Snow, rain, drought and loss of habitat have sharp-tail and partridge numbers down.
Even though spring survey numbers indicated a population comparable to last year, the late-summer counts showed otherwise.
Data from summer roadside counts indicate sharp-tailed grouse populations are down significantly from last year. Brood results suggest grouse numbers are down 51 percent statewide, with the number of broods observed down 50 percent. The average brood size is about the same as 2012, and the age ratio is up 19 percent.
Turkey - Opens Oct. 12
Wild turkey numbers are down from a few years ago, the result of several years of poor production.
Even though last spring was a fairly good production year, North Dakota’s breeding population was low, limiting the number of young produced. As a result, the number of both spring and fall licenses have been reduced to coincide with the lower population in almost all turkey hunting units.
Major flooding on the Missouri, Little Missouri and Souris river bottomlands in 2011 inundated thousands of acres of nesting habitat.
To allow for more summer production information in the fall season-setting process, the Game and Fish Department rescheduled the fall turkey application deadline to Sept. 4 to allow time to analyze additional brood information before determining license numbers.
Habitat conditions in most areas of the state are good for turkeys and for the most part, weather conditions were favorable for nesting and brooding hens.
License numbers this fall are reduced from last year in many units, but hunters should be able to find birds if they concentrate on wooded river bottoms, drainages and forested areas.
Waterfowl - Resident season opens Sept. 21
Wetland conditions and waterfowl numbers remain good in North Dakota.
The 2013 water index was up 17 percent from 2012 and was 12 percent better than the 1948-2012 average.
Breeding duck numbers decreased from last year, but were still well above the 65-year average — the 12th highest on record, but down 17 percent from 2012, which was the third highest index on record. The 2013 duck index was 73 percent above the long-term average.
Mallards were up 6 percent and were the fifth highest on record; scaup increased 23 percent; pintails and canvasbacks were up 2 percent, and shovelers were down 1 percent, basically unchanged.
All other species were down from 2012, including green-winged teal (minus 56 percent), ruddy duck (minus 52 percent), blue-winged teal (minus 38 percent), redhead (minus 30 percent) and gadwall (minus 28 percent).
Some of the declines are not surprising after last year’s record high for green-winged teal and near-record high for blue-winged teal.
The number of broods observed during the July survey was down 48 percent from 2012, but the average brood size was up .3 ducklings.
Duck nesting was delayed this spring but indications are for an exceptional late hatch. Fall flight of ducks is expected to be similar to those from 2007-11.
Numbers of resident Canada geese, western prairie Canada geese and arctic nesting tallgrass prairie Canada geese, snow geese and Ross’s geese all remain high. Hunting opportunities for all these birds should again be good, but are highly dependent, as always, on fall weather conditions, especially for migrant birds.
This fall there are more generous daily bag limits and possession limits.
Archery open through Jan. 5; gun season Nov. 8-24; muzzleloader Nov. 29-Dec.15
In 2010, deer management goals were re-evaluated and updated for each hunting unit with a statewide goal at that time set for the next five years at 124,800 deer licenses.
In 2008 and running through April 2011, three “real winters” hit, characterized by early and persistent snow cover coupled with cold temperatures. Winter in 2012 was moderate in much of the state, followed by another hard winter in 2013 throughout the Red River Valley and northern tier hunting units along the Canadian border.
Dramatic changes in wildlife habitat including the loss of CRP, wetland drainage, habitat fragmentation, removal of tree rows and abandoned farmsteads have resulted in 59,500 licenses available for the 2013 deer hunting season, 5,800 fewer than 2012 and the lowest number since 1983. Hunters can receive only one license for the gun season.
After a significant reduction in gun licenses in 2012, harvest and survey data shows deer populations are still below management objectives in most units. Statewide hunter success in 2012 was 63 percent, which was better than 2011 (52 percent), but lower than the goal of 70 percent.
Winter aerial surveys showed that deer were down from 2011 levels in units 3A1, 1, 2K1, 2K2, 2C, 2D and 2B. Although deer are still below the management objective in 2A, 2F1 and 2F2, winter aerial surveys showed that numbers were slightly above levels recorded in 2011 (2F1 and 2F2) or 2012 (2A).
Deer numbers overall remain below objectives from the winters of 2008-10. Last winter was severe in the northern and eastern portions of the state, slowing population recovery in those areas. All hunting units in the state are below management goals set in 2010, except in 3E2, 3F1, 3F2 and 4F. Offering fewer licenses in 2013 is necessary to allow deer populations to increase toward management goals.
Antlered licenses were reduced by 1,850 and antlerless licenses were reduced by 3,950 with 47 percent of the reduction coming from the Red River Valley management region (2A, 2B and 2C) with nearly 25 percent coming from 2C alone.
White-tailed buck licenses were increased by 550 in the southwestern portion of the state due to improved hunter success rate.
At total of 1,166 muzzleloader licenses are available in 2013, 583 antlered and 583 antlerless white-tailed deer licenses, a reduction of 116 muzzleloader licenses from 2012. A total of 180 nonresident any-deer archery licenses are available for 2013, 502 fewer than in 2012. The number of nonresident any-deer archery licenses will further decline to 172 in 2014.
All resident and nonresident deer archery licenses will be issued via electronic means only.
Mule deer in North Dakota’s badlands are showing signs of recovery following record low fawn production after the severe winters of 2008-10, when deer numbers declined by nearly 50 percent from 2007.
This is the first year since 2007 that the spring mule deer index was higher than the previous year. The 2013 spring index was 15 percent higher than 2012, but still 22 percent lower than the long-term average.
The population increase can be attributed to not harvesting antlerless mule deer in the Badlands during the 2012 hunting season, and a relatively mild winter over much of the primary mule deer range.
Mule deer in core Badlands areas, which encompasses units 4B, 4C, 4D, and 4E, increased 23-30 percent from 2012. Mule deer hunting opportunities this fall will be similar to 2012, with 1,150 antlered mule deer licenses available, 50 fewer than last year. No antlerless mule deer licenses are available again in hunting units 3B1, 3B2, 4A, 4B, 4C, 4D, 4E and 4F.
North Dakota’s pronghorn population is growing after five years of steady decline, but not high enough to warrant a hunting season for a fifth consecutive season.
Summer survey results revealed the statewide population is 5,400 pronghorn, 49 percent higher than 2012, but still 62 percent below 2008, the last year a hunting season was held.
This year, fawn production was average to below average in all management regions. Another mild to average winter in 2013 should encourage future population growth.
Applicants who have accumulated preference points will maintain their current points.
North Dakota’s 2013 elk season features 261 licenses, down from 301 licenses last year. Season prospects, however, are good, with anticipated hunter success similar to last year.
Elk numbers in southwestern North Dakota are low due to a successful, coordinated volunteer herd reduction effort in Theodore Roosevelt National Park in 2010-11. Units E3 and E4 will have 60 any-elk licenses this season, compared to 100 in 2012. In units E1 and E2, elk numbers are stable and the number of licenses issued is the same as last year.
The boundary of elk unit E1 in the northeast has been expanded to encompass an increasing elk herd in the Turtle Mountain area.