By Jeb Williams and NDGF Staff
Most people will remember 2017 as a time when drought returned to North Dakota.
North Dakota is well known for wild weather swings, but the end of 2016, and so far into 2017, is about as weird as weather can get.
As a beautiful November ended last fall, December arrived with a mission, a seemingly singular focus to make things miserable for critters and citizens of the state.
For more than a month, the weather did indeed test the resiliency of every living thing. But just when many conversations were taking shape in coffee shops across North Dakota that winter 2016-17 was going to wind up as the worst on record, it stopped snowing. Temperatures increased, and snow gradually started melting in late January. By March, much of the snow was gone, with most places hardly showing a puddle of proof that some areas received record snowfall in December.
Fast forward to spring, when all we needed to set the stage for a good year were good rains to get some surface moisture to match the subsoil moisture in most areas. But the rain didn’t come. And when it did, it wasn’t enough.
So what does this crazy weather mean for the state’s wildlife? It’s not helpful. While it appears we were fairly fortunate that most wildlife survived winter, the next hurdle is getting through the dry conditions, which can be just as difficult.
The fallout is the lack of nesting, fawning and brood-rearing cover, fewer protein-rich insects needed by young, hungry upland birds the first month of life, and a lack of water in the form of both dew and surface water.
As an agency, the North Dakota Game and Fish Department is most concerned with managing specific areas to benefit wildlife and ensure the best possible hunting opportunities. However, the agency is also charged with maintaining areas with adequate habitat where hunters feel like they have a reasonable chance to harvest game. In short our mission is twofold: wildlife production along with public recreation.
Through the NDGF’s wildlife management area system and its Private Land Open To Sportsmen program, those opportunities exist. And they will again this year. But in dry years, we also recognize the challenge that neighboring farmers and ranchers are experiencing and offer a bit more flexibility with our managed haying and grazing activities on some of these areas.
Understanding the gravity of the situation on the landscape, the NDGF, along with several other conservation organizations, signed a joint letter to the secretary of agriculture supporting early haying of Conservation Reserve Program grasslands in the state.
Hunters should keep this in mind this fall when they visit a WMA or a PLOTS tract that has been hayed or grazed. While they may see a short-term loss in the public-recreation aspect, these acres will likely see a long-term gain in the quality and diversity of habitat due to the manipulation of grass cover. In addition, maintaining good relations with farmers and ranchers is in our best interest to ensure hunting opportunities continue to exist on private property throughout the state.
This summer also accelerated the 2018 farm bill discussion and what citizens would like that bill to look like. Conservation groups and hunters have noticed the changes associated with the loss of 2 million acres of CRP grasslands from North Dakota’s landscape over the last 10 years.
Across the board, the majority of North Dakota game species have declined since the peak CRP year in 2007 when more than 3 million acres were enrolled in the program. We are excited to participate in the discussion as we move closer to the 2018 farm bill and how it will influence North Dakota.
In the meantime, North Dakota’s fall hunting seasons are upon us. Many will argue that this is the finest time of year on the Northern Plains. Even with some expected challenges caused by uncontrollable weather the last several months, it’s an argument that remains difficult to dispute.
— Jeb Williams, NDGF Wildlife Division Chief
North Dakota’s run of below-average winter snowfall came to an end in 2016-17. December greeted parts of the state with record snowfall and cold temperatures. January brought much of the same, but near the end of the month, both humans and wildlife got a much needed break.
The remainder of winter was mild in comparison, and the birds needed it. Pheasants were feeling the effects of the harsh winter weather and many birds would have died if not for the early warmup.
Results of this spring’s crowing-count survey showed lower numbers of breeding roosters throughout most of the state’s traditional pheasant range. The number of roosters heard calling was down anywhere from 6-10 percent.
While residual cover for nesting hens was average in spring, drought conditions and sparse precipitation since snowmelt likely hampered the production of insects, which are vital to chick survival.
North Dakota’s roadside pheasant survey conducted in late July and August indicates total birds and number of broods are down statewide from 2016.
The survey shows total pheasants observed per 100 miles are down 61 percent from last year. In addition, brood observations were down 63 percent, while the average brood size was down 19 percent. The final summary is based on 279 survey runs made along 103 brood routes across North Dakota.
Statistics from southwestern North Dakota indicate total pheasants were down 59 percent and broods observed down 60 percent from 2016. Observers counted eight broods and 68 birds per 100 survey miles. The average brood size was 4.3.
Results from the southeast show birds are down 60 percent from last year, and the number of broods is down 70 percent. Observers counted two broods and 24 birds per 100 miles. The average brood size was 4.7.
Statistics from the northwest indicated pheasants are down 72 percent from last year, with broods down 76 percent. Observers recorded three broods and 24 birds per 100 miles. Average brood size was 5.2.
The northeast district, generally containing secondary pheasant habitat, with much of it lacking good winter cover, showed one brood and six birds per 100 miles. Average brood size was 3.5. Number of birds observed was down 54 percent, and the number of broods recorded was down 63 percent.
The 2017 regular pheasant season opens Oct. 7 and continues through Jan. 7.
— Rodney Gross, Upland Game Management Biologist, Bismarck
Sharptail populations respond either negatively or positively to certain weather conditions. There is typically a happy medium between too wet/cold and too hot/dry. If the scale is tipped too far on either end of the spectrum, negative results occur.
This year the state likely had poor grouse production as a result of hot and dry summer weather, which reduced habitat conditions and insect production.
The central and northeastern parts of the state may have fared a bit better, but we’ll know more after summer roadside counts are completed. Some localized areas will likely have good chick survival, so hunters who are willing to travel can still find good hunting opportunities.
Additionally, NDGF asks all sharp-tailed grouse and Hungarian partridge hunters to send in wings from harvested birds to help biologists analyze production for 2017. Wing envelopes can be requested online.
The North Dakota sharptail season opens Sept. 9 and closes Jan. 7.
— Rodney Gross
In the 1980s and early 1990s, Hungarian partridge were plentiful in North Dakota, but as weather cycles shifted from dry to predominately wet, partridge populations responded negatively.
While the state’s Hun population has increased in the last five years, hunters will likely see fewer birds this fall compared to last year due to drought conditions. However, biologists have observed some good-sized partridge broods this year compared to last summer.
Partridge have become a bonus bird for hunters pursuing sharp-tailed grouse or pheasants, so keep an eye out for areas such as abandoned farmsteads and native prairie on the edge of small grain crops. Pockets of decent hunting may be found in these areas, but hunters will need to spend some time in the mornings scouting.
The North Dakota partridge season opens Sept. 9 and closes Jan. 7.
— Rodney Gross
NDGF made 54,500 licenses available to deer gun hunters for 2017, which was 5,500 more than 2016.
The statewide hunter success rate in 2016 was 66 percent, which was about the same as 68 percent in 2015 but below the Department’s goal of 70 percent.
With heavy snow in December, NDGF biologists flew winter aerial surveys in 26 of 32 hunting units, the most in more than a decade.
Based on comparisons with past aerial surveys, deer numbers along the Missouri River and Coteau units were higher than 2013, whereas the number of deer counted in the Turtle Mountains was down. About the same number of deer were observed on the Slope, Devils Lake, upper Red River Valley and Pembina Hills as in 2013. Winter aerial surveys were not conducted in the Sheyenne, James and southern Red River Valley due to inadequate snow cover.
Here is a summary of white-tailed deer licenses for 2017:
• Any-antlered licenses increased by 1,450.
• Any-antlerless licenses increased by 1,750.
• Antlered white-tailed deer licenses increased by 550.
• Antlerless white-tailed deer licenses increased by 950.
• 1,022 muzzleloader licenses are available in 2017 (511 antlered white-tailed deer licenses, and 511 antlerless white-tailed deer licenses). This is an increase of 94 muzzleloader licenses from 2016.
• 245 “I” licenses available for the youth deer hunting season, up 20 licenses from 2016. The licenses are limited in number for units 3B1, 3B2 and 4A-4F, and they’re valid for any deer, except antlerless mule deer in unit 4A. There are unlimited “H” youth deer licenses valid for any deer statewide, except mule deer in the above restricted units.
• 382 nonresident any-deer archery licenses available for 2017, 101 more than 2016. The number of nonresident any-deer archery licenses will increase to 502 in 2018.
— Bill Jensen, Big Game Management Biologist, Bismarck
Mule deer in North Dakota’s badlands continue to show signs of recovery following the severe winters of 2009-11, which reduced deer numbers by nearly 50 percent from 2007.
For the fifth consecutive year, the spring mule deer index was higher than the previous year. The 2017 spring index was 16 percent higher than 2016, and 58 percent higher than the long-term average.
The mule deer population increase is attributed to no harvest of antlerless mule deer in the badlands during the 2012-16 hunting seasons, moderate winter conditions and improved fawn production in 2013-16. Fawn production in 2016 was good and indicative of a growing population, with a fawn-to-doe ratio of 90 fawns per 100 does.
An increasing mule deer population will mean more hunting opportunities this fall. There were 2,450 antlered mule deer licenses available in 2017, an increase of 200 from 2016. Antlerless mule deer licenses also increased from 600 to 900 in 2017. All mule deer units will have antlerless licenses except 4A, where the population remains below the management goal.
A mule deer buck license remains one of the more difficult to draw in the lottery. Those lucky enough to draw a license should expect a high-quality hunt similar to last year, when hunter success for mule deer buck hunters was 80 percent.
— Bruce Stillings, Big Game Management Supervisor, Dickinson
Ducks and Geese
Good wetland conditions and high waterfowl numbers were found again during the NDGF’s 2017 annual spring breeding duck survey.
In its 70th year, this is perhaps the longest-running operational breeding waterfowl survey in the world, covering nearly 2,000 miles to assess spring wetland conditions and the number of waterfowl in the state.
Although winter started off with a lot of snow, late winter and spring conditions were mild and generally dry, with below-average precipitation in many areas. Waterfowl habitats were drying up as spring progressed, and unlike the previous two years, there wasn’t much late spring rain to replenish wetlands.
The 2017 May water index was the 30th highest on record, up 78 percent from 2016, and 8 percent above the 1948-2016 average. Unfortunately, the count was deceivingly high as many wetlands were in a drying phase and probably weren’t around long after the survey was completed.
This year’s breeding duck index was the 24th highest on record, down 15 percent from last year, and 23 percent above the long-term average. This is the first year since 1994 that the state’s estimated breeding population of ducks (2.95 million) dropped below 3 million birds.
All species, except canvasbacks (up 23 percent), pintails (up 5 percent), redheads (up 2 percent) and northern shoveler (unchanged), had lower numbers than those that were observed in 2016. Mallards were down 5 percent from 2016 for their 20th highest count on record. Wigeon and ruddy ducks declined 16 and 36 percent, respectively, while all other species declined from 20 percent (green-winged teal) to 28 percent (gadwall).
Although most species declined from last year, all species, except pintail (down 24 percent), blue-winged teal (down 6 percent), and ruddy ducks (down 4 percent) are above the long-term average, including redheads (up 73 percent), mallards (up 67 percent), wigeon (up 48 percent), scaup (up 33 percent), gadwall (up 32 percent), shovelers (up 30 percent) and canvasbacks (up 16 percent).
Duck numbers in North Dakota have remained high since 1994 because of exceptional water conditions and abundant nesting cover provided by CRP. However, as CRP acres and native grasslands continue to decline across the state, biologists expect duck production to decline.
The brood index observed during the Department’s July brood survey was down 5 percent from 2016, and 30 percent above the 1965-2016 average. The average brood size was 6.82 ducklings, up 0.5 ducklings.
July wetland counts were down 38 percent from 2016, and 16 percent below the long-term average. Wetland conditions were variable across the state, with most areas receiving little spring and summer rainfall, but some localized areas did receive average total precipitation from heavy rains. Areas farther east and north also appear to have benefitted from more persistent precipitation.
It appears brood-rearing wetlands were in good enough condition going into the dry spell to provide habitat for breeding ducks and young. While shallow wetlands mostly dried, medium-sized and larger wetlands provided brood rearing habitat in summer.
It’s predicted that a fall flight of ducks from North Dakota this year will be down about 8 percent from last year and similar to 2008.
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.
North Dakota’s waterfowl hunting seasons, like last year’s, can be negatively affected by mild fall weather. Ducks and geese, especially mallards and snow geese, arrived late in the season, and moved through the state in a matter of days. Hunting opportunities for ducks and geese will likely be highly variable across different regions of the state.
— Mike Szymanski, Migratory Game Bird Management Supervisor, Bismarck
For more information, or to read the entire 2017 Hunting Outlook for North Dakota that includes more species of big game and furbearer seasons, go to gf.nd.gov.