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2017 drought impacts pheasant hunt, lowers breeding ducks

June 22, 2018 GMT

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — A summer of severe drought in North Dakota in 2017 severely cut into the success of pheasant hunting last fall and is reducing the number of ducks breeding in the state this spring and summer, which could put a damper on the fall hunt.

The reductions in wildlife affect not only hunters but also the state’s economy, with upland game bird and waterfowl hunters spending tens of millions of dollars each season, based on state tourism data.

Last year’s pheasant harvest in North Dakota totaled only about 309,000 birds, when the benchmark for a good season is 500,000. It was a drop of 38 percent from the previous year, and the smallest pheasant harvest in 16 years.

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A big reason was that drought reduced food and habitat for the birds, resulting in a population loss of about 60 percent, according to the state Game and Fish Department. The number of hunters dropped 24 percent, as the dismal forecast for the fall hunt sent many in search of better prospects in other states.

“We fielded a lot of phone calls in that late-summer, early-fall period from people trying to firm up their plans,” state Wildlife Chief Jeb Williams said.

Other upland game birds also were affected by the drought, with the sharp-tailed grouse harvest down 28 percent from 2016 and the Hungarian partridge harvest down 40 percent.

Game and Fish won’t conduct its annual pheasant survey until later this summer, but conditions so far this year are more conducive to bird reproduction.

“There’s more cover on the landscape, more rain, more plant diversity, more insects that feed those young chicks,” Williams said.

The latest U.S. Drought Monitor map shows less than 2 percent of the state being in severe drought, compared to about 27 percent last year at the same time.

If rain continues over the next month, wetland conditions will be conducive to raising duck broods, according to Mike Szymanski, migratory game bird supervisor for Game and Fish. However, the department’s annual spring survey estimated that the number of breeding ducks in North Dakota was down 5 percent from last year, to 2.8 million, due in large part to the deterioration of wetlands.

“Last year’s drought conditions definitely had an impact,” Williams said.

The survey number is below 3 million for the second straight year and for only the second time in the past 24 years. However, there is reason for optimism, according to Szymanski. Historically speaking, the survey total is still 16 percent above the long-term average, a 70-year period that dates to 1948.

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“Duck numbers are still hanging on,” Szymanski said.

The spring survey gives hunters their first glimpse of how duck numbers might shape up for the fall hunt. A July brood survey will estimate duck production and provide a better idea of what hunters can expect.

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Follow Blake Nicholson on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/NicholsonBlake