In June, many duck and pheasant hunters will mentally circle the backside of October as a key window for waterfowl and upland hunting. In similar manner, deer hunters also key out the dates, times and places for hunts, stake a claim to vacation time if needed, and anticipate the coming fall season.
As important as early securing of vacation or planning family events so the fall runs smoothly for people, the last half of June is paramount to producing the wildlife on which we base our fall activities. If you want a few mallards, a wily rooster or deer sausage, the bird hatches and deer production occurring now are an important part of fall's foundation.
Two big factors are the left side of the pheasant equation where habitat plus reproduction equals roosters. First, Conservation Reserve Program grasslands across the Midwest and North Dakota have been drying up, and will continue to do so unless something changes.
While North Dakota peaked a few years ago at more than 3 million acres, we're on a path to see state CRP acreage at closer to 1 million acres in the not-so-distant future.
The CRP provides large tracts of undisturbed grassland that is usually ideal nesting habitat for pheasants. Beyond that, young birds feed on insects found in the heavy grass, which provide important nutrients and energy to help them survive the crucial first weeks after hatch.
During the peak of the hatch in June, pheasant chicks can't regulate their body temperature and a cold, wet weather pattern can literally kill pheasant production. While winter mortality significantly influences pheasant populations, part of the crop of roosters that will flush this fall is on the ground as I write, hoping for mild weather so survival is high.
Intense winters can cause direct mortality of adult deer, followed by reduced reproduction from does that survived the winter. Conversely, mild winters allow extensive carryover of young-of-the-year deer, and does commonly give birth to twins and even triplets.
With a much shorter winter this year, followed by an earlier spring, it will be interesting to track the anecdotal reports on summer deer numbers from biologists, farmers, ranchers and rural mail carriers. What has been decided is the number of available licenses was reduced more than 27,000 from last year. Most of that reduction comes from antlerless licenses, as the Game and Fish Department is implementing a strategy that would allow that state's deer population to build somewhat in many units.
Different than resident deer and pheasants, migratory waterfowl populations aren't directly influenced up or down by severe or mild winters due to the obvious migratory nature of ducks and geese. However, severe winters usually come with a lot of snow, which when it melts in spring accumulates in North Dakota's prairie potholes and that's a good thing.
Based on observations from the prairie this spring, optimism is running high. Mike Johnson, game management section leader, cautions, “Water conditions were generally good throughout the state, with the abundant snow cover and significant spring rains filling most basins,” he added. “The large number of ducks tallied during our survey is consistent with the well-above-average populations we have been carrying since 1994. These high numbers are the result of abundant Conservation Reserve Program nesting cover combined with the wet conditions that have been in place since the summer of 1993.”
Indeed from ducks to deer it's looking like the fall of 2010 should be a good one. But don't wish away summer. For now, it's a good time to go fishing.
Leier is a biologist with the Game and Fish Department. He can be reached by email: firstname.lastname@example.org