One of the handouts at the spring round of Game and Fish Department advisory board meetings held in April was four pages that included two North Dakota state maps with counties color-coded for Conservation Reserve Program loss and two pages showing charts with pheasant harvest and deer license allocation.
These two visual comparisons covered from 2007 to 2017 and clearly correlates the influence that habitat changes have on wildlife populations for North Dakota hunters.
This isn’t a new concept, and we also need to remember that North Dakota is on the northern range of sustained pheasant territory, and weather plays a significant role in annual population fluctuation for pheasants and deer.
What North Dakota enjoyed from the late 1990s until the mid-2000s was consistent habitat and generally conducive winters by North Dakota standards. But 2007 loomed on the horizon as a pivotal year because that was when a significant number of CRP contracts involving hundreds of thousands of acres established in the early to mid-1990s started to expire.
At the time, it was easy for biologists to look at the numbers and see that potentially more than 2 million acres of CRP under contract could go back into crop production from 2007 to 2012.
At the same time, the nationwide cap on CRP acres was reduced from 39 to 32 million acres and commodity prices spiked. Some agricultural producers who wanted to stay in the program weren’t able to renew contracts, and high corn, soybean and other grain prices offered better bottom lines than CRP.
At the same time CRP was starting its decline, deer numbers were still high and Game and Fish Department biologists and state legislators were feeling pressure from farmers, ranchers, landowners and other organizations to reduce the deer herd, so license numbers were set with the intent to reduce deer numbers in many units.
Then the winters of 2008-09 and 2010-11 hit. While it’s impossible to relay what occurred in every single county or deer hunting unit since then, let’s look at a couple.
Deer unit 2J2 in the central part of the state had about 195,000 acres of CRP in 2007. At the end of 2017, it had about 36,000 CRP acres. The number of deer licenses has been reduced by about 1,000, or around 40 percent.
Unit 2E north of Devils Lake went from about 261,000 CRP acres in 2007 to about 92,000 in 2017. Correspondingly, deer license numbers have been cut by almost 90 percent during that time.
Statewide, deer license allocation went from more than 140,000 in 2007 to less than 45,000 a few years back, though it has rebounded to about 55,000 licenses this year.
The statewide pheasant harvest went from nearly 1 million birds in 2007 to about 309,000 in 2017.
When you look at numbers like that, it’s pretty easy to understand the importance of habitat to wildlife populations.