Despite a decline in habitat conditions as well as drops in spring breeding numbers for both ducks and pheasants, reasons remain for North Dakota's waterfowl hunters and upland bird hunting enthusiasts to be optimistic heading into fall.
As waterfowlers wait for the 2018 Waterfowl Breeding Population and Habitat Survey report to be issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service next month, clues are beginning to emerge about what kind of fall flight can be expected this autumn.
Some of those clues come from biologist field reports from the 16 different crews comprised of USF&WS and Canadian Wildlife Service workers as they fly and hike the ground to check out 2018 spring habitat conditions and duck breeding numbers in the prairie pothole region of the northern U.S. and southern Canada.
Other clues come from biologists working for state agencies in the same Duck Factory region, including those with the North Dakota Game and Fish Department, which just conducted the agency's 71stannual spring breeding duck survey.
According to NDGF biologists, the survey work done in May shows an index of 2.8 million ducks in the Peace Garden State this year. Those figures reflect a 5-percent drop from the same survey conducted one year ago.
Even though the North Dakota duck index number fell below the 3 million threshold for the second straight spring, NDGF migratory game bird supervisor Mike Szymanski indicates the count is still 16 percent above the 1948-2017 long-term average (LTA).
What's more, it marks the 25thhighest spring number in the survey's seven-decade long history.
"Duck numbers are still hanging on, but are certainly better in some local areas," said Szymanski in a NDGF press release.
According to Szymanski, shoveler breeding numbers are up 10 percent and wigeon numbers are up 7 percent as compared to last spring. Mallards are down 1 percent while green-winged teal are down 20 percent from last spring. Most of North Dakota's other nesting duck species are down between 3 percent and 17 percent, although most remain well-above the LTA.
The duck breeding numbers in North Dakota are to a great degree the result of water conditions across the state. According to NDGF officials, the number of temporary (seasonal) wetlands is down from a year ago with the state's spring water index falling some 34 percent.
"That was mostly felt in the shallow waters," said Szymanski in the press release. "Similar to last year, there were a lot of wetlands that weren't in good shape and were close to drying up."
There is reason for some delayed optimism, however, as Szymanski noted that rainfall in recent weeks has improved wetland conditions across North Dakota since the May survey work took place.
"If rain continues over the next month, wetland conditions in some regions will be conducive to raising broods," he said.
Coupled with good waterfowl habitat news out of portions of South Dakota, eastern Montana, and southern Alberta, a summertime surge of precipitation could mean another strong nesting effort from ducks in such portions of North America's so-called Duck Factory.
If that happens to be the case, it could show up in North Dakota's duck brood survey in July, an effort which will give a better look at duck production and fall hunting prospects.
Szymanski noted another area of concern in North Dakota this spring, the state's nesting Canada goose population, which didn't show a strong breeding effort as of May.
"We can attribute that to the late spring and overall dry conditions," the biologist said in the agency news release.
Szymanski also notes that habitat remains a concern in North Dakota, especially in light of Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) acreage that is expiring and opening the door for habitat to be converted to other uses.
That brings even more concern to North Dakota's pheasant hunting enthusiasts, since ringnecks rely heavily on CRP acreage for nesting success. While it remains to be seen what happens to the state's pheasant fortunes in the future as CRP acreage potentially declines, what is apparent in 2018 is that pheasant numbers are down significantly in the Peace Garden State.
"We entered spring with a lower than average number of adult birds," said NDGF upland game management biologist R.J. Gross in a news release. "Last year's production was far below average due to the statewide drought conditions."
That has spurred a sharp drop in North Dakota's spring pheasant population index this year, a number that is down 30 percent as compared to last year's spring pheasant crowing count survey. In such surveys, observers drive specified 20 mile routes, stop at predetermined intervals, and count the number of roosters they hear over a two-minute period.
Gross notes that the number of roosters heard crowing this spring was down statewide in North Dakota with decreases ranging from 15 to 38 percent in the state's top pheasant country.
That being the case, Gross did note that the past winter was good for bird survival in North Dakota, so hens should be in good physical shape as nesting takes place this year.
"In addition, this spring's weather has been good so far, as most of the state has received adequate rainfall," said Gross in the press release. "If the trend continues, a good hatch should be expected, but it will take a few years of good reproduction to get the population back to where it was before the drought."
As Szymanski noted with waterfowl in North Dakota, Gross points out that the spring rooster crowing count number does not always serve as a prime indicator of what fall pheasant numbers will look like across the state.
Additional brood survey work for pheasants, which will begin in late July and continue until September, will give biologists a better idea of North Dakota's pheasant production this year and what hunters can expect this fall.
Look for more details on fall hunting prospects in the Dakotas as such information becomes available later this summer.