A decade ago: the winter of 1996-1997

February 20, 2009 by  

By Doug Leier

There was a lot of game lost in ND during the winter of 1996-1997

There was a lot of game lost in ND during the winter of 1996-1997

The winter of 1996-1997 was a winter for the ages. It started in early November with blizzard after blizzard, snowfall after snowfall, and spread its impact across the Midwest. While it was 10 years ago, the memories remain fresh in our minds, and not many people who experienced it would want to go through a similar winter again.

That winter I was working as a game warden in north central North Dakota, and I vividly recall the excessive snow and extreme cold. Because of snowstorms that kept many hunters at home the first couple of weekends of deer season, it was one of the rare times that the Game and Fish Department extended the deer season. With so much early snow, extra hunting days were necessary for a good deer harvest in some units.

As December gave way to January I recall spending extensive time on snowmobile. It was much easier to get around that way, and living in Bottineau at the time, it was about as standard as a tow rope and jumper cables that winter.

It never dawned on me at the time, though I had gone to college in Bottineau a few years earlier, that the winter of 1996-97 was turning into one for the ages. At the time, current game warden Corey Erck and I lived in a house, and to save on fuel oil, we watched television in sleeping bags and full sweats to stay warm as the temperature kept dropping and the snow continued falling. To this day, I just figured that much cold and snow was a way of life in that part of the state.

What stands out in my work for the Game and Fish Department that winter was the stress on wildlife and people alike. Deer were herded up and seeking food and shelter anywhere possible. That often meant dependence on livestock feed supplies, I was one of several dozen Game and Fish employees statewide who did what we could to help minimize the impact.

Winter stress was significant on deer and upland game such as grouse, partridge and pheasants, and no matter the food or work done it was never enough. I recall hauling bales of alfalfa via snowmobile to not necessarily feed the deer, but to keep them from herding into area farmsteads.

A simple look at historical harvest numbers provides some insight into how that winter affected North Dakota wildlife populations. Try these numbers on for size. In 1996 the pheasant harvest was 311,000. The fall of 1997 only 136,000 pheasants were taken in the entire state. Sharp-tailed grouse harvest went from 149,370 down to 89,000, and partridge hunters bagged only 27,000 birds in 1997 compared to 61,598 in 1996.

White-tailed deer harvest went from about 60,000 in 1996 to less than 50,000 by 1998. Recent harvest estimates of white-tailed deer in 2005 and 2004 were more than 91,000.

75 percent of Pronghorn were lost during the winter of 1996-1997

75 percent of Pronghorn were lost during the winter of 1996-1997

The big game species to suffer the most was pronghorn. Game and Fish biologists estimate the state lost approximately 75 percent of its pronghorns that winter. In the fall of 1997, only three of 21 pronghorn units were open to hunting, and it took several more years of conservative seasons and closed areas to rebuild the pronghorn population.

When spring 1997 finally did arrive, it didn’t come with a sigh of relief. The famous March ice storm that shut-down Fargo found me in the midst of the sportsmen’s show at the Fargodome as I prepared my pending transfer to Fargo. Stuck in a motel for I don’t know how many days, I wondered why on earth I wanted to move here?

And that, of course, was eventually followed by the epic Red River Valley flood. In next weeks column I’ll share some of my experiences as a game warden during what turned out to be an even worse time for man and wildlife alike.


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