Wishing for Snow

January 28, 2009 by  

By Doug Leier

If the drought should continue or even worsen, waterfowl nesting success will suffer in what is traditionally the duck factory of North Dakota

If the drought should continue or even worsen, waterfowl nesting success will suffer in what is traditionally the duck factory of North Dakota

The middle of winter generally finds me wondering more than wandering. Oh, I still get out, if even for a Sunday afternoon drive just to make sure it’s all still there. If you haven’t tried it, take a drive past some of the haunts you hunkered down in last fall.

There’s nothing like a little blanket of fluffy snow perfectly dripped over a field of grass field to bring a smile to your face, and help you remember the good days from a few months ago. It takes your mind away from wondering about when the snow geese will arrive or how hot the spring fishing action will be.

Back at the office, however, I’ve never found it difficult to fast forward a few months down the road and this year I continue to worry about a key issue that may influence our outdoors in the months and possibly for years to come.

In one word, it’s drought.

Remember spring and summer of 2006? If you didn’t experience it, I’m here to tell you it was about as bad as it gets for the summer months. I’ve always been told that six months of dry weather doesn’t make a drought, but I’ll counter that it sure is a good start.

The reality is droughts can and do extend over years and even decades. We’ve all crossed our fingers in hopes that last year’s drought across much of central and western North Dakota was a blip on the radar and not the beginning of long term dry pattern. There’s no doubt about the effect on farmers, ranchers and landowners—the drought was horrible.

Lack of rain means grass doesnt grow well, which means a shortage of hay for livestock producers. Such emergencies usually result in release of some Conservation Reserve Program acres for haying-prime pheasant habitat.

Lack of rain means grass doesn't grow well, which means a shortage of hay for livestock producers. Such emergencies usually result in release of some Conservation Reserve Program acres for haying-prime pheasant habitat.

Hunters need to realize that pheasants and ducks may begin showing marked signs of a lasting drought if 2007 doesn’t change its course. It’s rather obvious that ducks need water. And nesting waterfowl in 2006 were afforded decent spring nesting water and habitat. The drought more likely impacted renesting efforts and fall migration patterns.

If the drought should continue or even worsen, waterfowl nesting success will suffer in what is traditionally the duck factory of North Dakota. Low moisture not only limits brood rearing and recruitment because of dry wetlands, but also limits growth of vegetation needed for nesting cover.

While extreme heat and depleted wetlands have less immediate impact on pheasants, the hot weather can stress young birds. More important is the effect on pheasant habitat. Lack of rain means grass doesn’t grow well, which means a shortage of hay for livestock producers. Such emergencies usually result in release of some Conservation Reserve Program acres for haying.

While CRP emergency haying typically is not allowed to begin until after the peak of the upland bird nesting effort is past, some nests and broods are destroyed. In addition, with dry summer conditions followed by a dry winter and spring, grass regrowth is curtailed, which can hurt pheasant production.

Essentially, drought in 2006 will influence what occurs in 2007, even if this year turns out to be relatively normal.

I realize there’s really not much we can do about a drought, but the bigger picture is to understand and realize that no matter how warm our winter weather or how little snow accumulates, the implications are more than just not having to shovel as much of the white stuff. Lack of snow and mild temperatures do make for better winter survival by resident wildlife, but there is a downside.

As winter turns to spring, if the dry pattern continues, you’ll begin to read more accounts of how a mild, snow-challenged winter will expand its influend on all aspects of life on the prairie.


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