Fall Hunting Predictions

February 18, 2009 by  

By Doug Leier

The spring breeding duck survey showed an index of more than 3.2 million birds, down 13 percent from last year

The spring breeding duck survey showed an index of more than 3.2 million birds, down 13 percent from last year

Football previews with prognostications and predictions for the upcoming season are starting in earnest. Based on drafts and off-season transactions, “experts” are predicting which teams will flourish or fail.

While most hunting seasons are at least six weeks away, biologists and wildlife managers can also make calculated estimations as to how well a fall season should play out. It’s not about adding a new coach or signing a top draft pick, but rather an assessment of last winter’s weather and factoring in habitat conditions that might influence and nesting success and brood survival for both upland game birds and waterfowl.

First let’s break down the waterfowl situation. The North Dakota Game and Fish Department’s 60th annual spring breeding duck survey showed an index of more than 3.2 million birds, down 13 percent from last year. Green-winged teal (35 percent) and canvasback (30 percent) had the most significant decreases.

While the numbers are down from last year, the spring index is still more than 50 percent above the long-term average compiled from 1948-2006. Pintails are the only species not above the long-term average in North Dakota. Also important is the 2007 water index, which was up 39 percent from 2006 and 43 percent above long-term.

Pheasant hunters should expect another fantastic fall

Pheasant hunters should expect another fantastic fall

Reports indicate South Dakota is experiencing significantly improved water conditions, due primarily to late winter and early spring precipitation. Also, reports from Canada indicate that for the third consecutive year, much of the Prairie Pothole Region and parklands have good to excellent water conditions.

While weather patterns determine where and how long waterfowl migrate, all spring numbers and water conditions give reason for optimism.

When talk turns to upland game, visions of roosters busting out of cattails and limits by early afternoon have nearly erased the memories of years such as those following the winter of 1997, when pheasants last experienced widespread winter mortality.

Realistically, some pheasants die every winter. Last year had relatively low snowfall amounts and limited significant stretches of arctic temperatures. While there may be localized areas here and there where winter did impact pheasant numbers, widespread losses were not documented.

Moving into and through the nesting season, a couple of factors can influence pheasant numbers. Drought conditions last summer prompted emergency haying provisions for many Conservation Reserve Program grassland acres. While haying was allowed only after the peak of pheasant nesting efforts, it did reduce the amount of winter cover CRP would otherwise provide, as well as the amount of residual grass on the landscape for spring nesting.

In addition, heavy rainfall in parts of the state during or prior to peak hatch around the middle of June, could have led to localized chick mortality or nest flooding, but widespread losses are unlikely.

A look ahead to fall seasons isn’t complete without a few words on deer. While statewide white-tailed deer numbers have remained steady, mule deer numbers also give reason for optimism. This spring biologists counted 2,797 mule deer in 291 square miles. Mule deer density per square mile was 9.6, a slight increase from 8.8 in 2006, and significantly higher than the long-term average of 6.4 mule deer per square mile in the same areas.Game and Fish Department biologists point to good production in 2006, coupled with recent mild winters and a conservative and responsible harvest strategy, are the primary reasons for the above-average mule deer population.

Similar to fall football, we’ll likely see some surprises and experience a few disappointments. We’ll find out when we hit the field … and I can’t wait.


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