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Rooster rebound: Plenty of optimism going into this year’s ND pheasant opener

By Brad Dokken / Grand Forks Herald

Following the trend in neighboring states, pheasant numbers are up in North Dakota, and that’s good news for hunters going into Saturday’s pheasant opener.

“I think it’s going to be a lot better than last year definitely,” said Matt Olson, regional biologist for Pheasants Forever in Lisbon.

According to a recent report from the North Dakota Game and Fish Department, results from late-summer roadside surveys showed total pheasant numbers are up 30 percent from last year, and brood counts increased 37 percent.

Game and Fish conducts the annual survey by following 253 runs along 106 brood routes across the state.

Stan Kohn, upland game management supervisor for Game and Fish in Bismarck, said the average pheasant brood size was down slightly in most areas, but the overall increase in brood counts should offset the decline.

“With the good spring weather for most of the nesting and early brooding period, I suspected a better production year, and it looks like it did occur,” Kohn said. “Late-summer roadside counts indicate pheasant hunters are going to find more pheasants in most parts of the state, with more 

young roosters showing up in the fall population.”

Olson said while pheasant numbers were up at least marginally in every part of the state, areas farther west will offer the best hunting prospects.

“A lot of that’s out in the western part, the southwest and areas west of the Missouri River, which has always been good,” he said. “There’s quality habitat, winters usually aren’t as tough, and you look at that Lake Sakakawea area, there’s a lot of cover out there.”

By the numbers

By region, results from the Game and Fish Department’s roadside survey showed a 22 percent increase in total pheasants and a 23 percent gain in broods in southwest North Dakota, where observers counted 19 broods and 154 birds per 100 survey miles. The average brood size was 5.7.

In southeast North Dakota, total pheasants are up 2 percent, and the number of broods increased 16 percent. Observers counted six broods and 50 birds per 100 miles, and the average brood size was 5.4

That’s not on par with the southwest, of course, but for hunters in eastern North Dakota, the 

southeast again looks like a viable option closer to home. The key, Olson said, is finding areas with cover, which is becoming harder to come by as Conservation Reserve Program acreage dwindles. North Dakota now has about half the CRP acreage it had during peak years such as 2007, when about 3.4 million acres were enrolled in the federal set-aside program.

“With reduced CRP on the ground, it’s made a noticeable difference, but there’s still good populations,” Olson said.

No coincidence, hunters in North Dakota shot more than 900,000 roosters in 2007, by far the highest in the past decade and more than twice last year’s estimate of 447,000.

“We’ve lost half of our habitat from record highs, but it is nice to see this increase” in pheasant counts, Olson said. “It does show, obviously, how resilient pheasants can be in the right conditions. It’s still going to be a struggle to get up to those record numbers. It really does closely follow the trend of CRP.”

Elsewhere in North Dakota, the Game and Fish survey tallied a 21 percent increase in total pheasants in the northwest along with a 26 percent increase in brood counts. Observers counted seven broods and 57 birds per 100 miles, and the average brood size was 5.1.

Northeast North Dakota is never a pheasant stronghold because most of the habitat is secondary and lacking good winter cover. Still, Game and Fish includes the area in its survey and tallied two broods and 16 pheasants per 100 miles, with an average brood size of 4.2. The counts represent increases of 126 percent in total pheasants and 166 percent in brood counts, but those numbers have to be kept in perspective.

Spring thing

Olson attributes this year’s pheasant increase to a mostly favorable spring more than winter conditions. The spring was wet, but not as wet as some recent springs in pheasant range.

“A lot of people focus on how hard the winters are, but we only really get one chance to increase bird numbers and that comes through raising birds in broods, and that’s in the spring and summer,” Olson said.

Olson said he’s hearing mixed reports about young roosters; some people say the birds are fully “colored up,” while others say they continue to see immature, scraggly looking birds that haven’t achieved peak plumage.

That means hunters will have to watch closely to make sure they’re not shooting hens, but at the same time, the number of young roosters on the landscape could make for some easier hunting early in the season.

“Generally, you get those young of the year birds that just aren’t educated and aren’t as wary and it is a little easier right away on the opener,” Olson said. “But I’ve also had some great hunting late in the fall.”

This year’s opener, Olson says, seems to be carrying more anticipation because of the higher pheasant counts.

“It’s always a highlight in North Dakota,” he said. “Between the pheasant opener and deer opener, that’s just the North Dakota way of life. Those are about as close to North Dakota holidays as you can get without putting them on the calendar.”

Olson said he doesn’t own a hunting dog because his Pheasants Forever job keeps him on the road. But friends have pointers, he says, adding few outdoor experiences can rival the sight of that hunting companion locking up on point.

The “rush of the flush” now is just days awa

y.

“It’s a scary, excited feeling all wrapped up into one,” Olson said. “You know it’s coming up, but you just don’t know when it’s coming up. Just the fun of watching the dogs work.”

North Dakota’s pheasant season continues through Jan. 4.

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