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Kevin Schnepf, Published October 10 2008

Pheasant decline likely to continue

OAKES, N.D. – When Lowell Tripp started his job as the pheasant biologist for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department in the spring of 1966, a three-day blizzard decimated the pheasant population so much that the hunting season was closed the next fall.

Welcome to the new job – one Tripp would hold for nearly four decades until he retired in 2004.

Through it all, Tripp would see the state’s pheasant population plummet like it did in the 1970s before it would skyrocket in the 1990s and as recently as 2006.

“I think the population is going to drop again,” Tripp said Wednesday, three days before another pheasant season opens on Saturday.

Game and Fish officials have voiced the same concern, fearing history may be repeating itself.

Back when Tripp started his job, the Soil Bank program – which converted 2.72 millions acres of cropland to year-round cover for wildlife like pheasants – was running out of money.

“Farmers weren’t getting paid, so they put it into crops,” Tripp said.

Nearly four decades later, the same thing is happening. This time, the Conservation Reserve Program is starting to lose the 3.4 million acres of land earmarked for wildlife cover.

The program lost 400,000 acres in 2007. Game and Fish officials anticipate an additional 1.9 million acres will be converted to cropland for the next four years.

High commodity prices, high cash rents, demands for more croplands and the upsurge of ethanol plants are big reasons farmers have been able to double the price of CRP rental rates.

“You can’t blame the farmers,” Tripp said. “Until the prices of crops drop – and hopefully they don’t for the farmer’s sake – then the landowners may come back for some CRP land.

“To keep those CRP acres, you have to offer a pretty good price for the land. The state can’t afford that for millions of acres.”

Stan Kohn, upland game management supervisor for the Game and Fish Department, doesn’t feel this year’s 31 percent drop in pheasant and brood observations is a direct result of loss of CRP acres.

“At least not yet,” Kohn said.

“It’s going to take several years to determine that,” Tripp said.

It’s not like in the spring of 2000 when Tripp heard 50 pheasants on one stop during his annual spring crowing count on the rural roads outside of Oakes. During lean years like 1967, 1968 and 1969, Tripp heard only four birds during 10 stops.

“I had always hoped for that day,” Tripp said, referring to his 50-count report. “You always hear about southwest North Dakota and the Mott area being where the pheasants are. But hunters around here have done very well.”

In fact, the origins of pheasant hunting began near Oakes. In 1917, 28 pheasants were released on the Kendal farm southwest of Oakes – one of the state’s first pheasant stockings.

“Mrs. Kendal was my wife’s great aunt,” Tripp said.

It wasn’t until 1931 when the state had its first open season on pheasants in the southeast North Dakota counties of Dickey, Sargent and Richland Counties.

That season lasted 1 1/2 days with a three-rooster limit.

Today, North Dakota has an 86-day season that attracts 100,000 hunters who are shooting 800,000 pheasants annually.

“The locals aren’t seeing as many birds as they used to,” said the 70-year-old Tripp, who still lives in Oakes. “But I think nonresident hunters have had such good success here, they will still come out here. There are still some birds out there.”

More than when Tripp started his job in 1966. Just not as many as when he retired in 2004.

“Hunters will find numbers similar to 2005,” Kohn said. “Which was still a pretty good year.”

North Dakota

OPENER: Saturday through Jan. 4, but nonresidents can’t hunt Game and Fish Department-managed lands until Oct. 18.

PROSPECTS: Roadside counts indicate the population is down 30 percent to 60 percent from last fall, depending on region, according to Pheasants Forever. But last year was exceptional by state standards, the best in 60 years, according to the Game and Fish Department.

HOT SPOTS: The southwest portion of the state where surveys revealed 23.4 broods and 205 birds per 100 miles. “This area of the state will likely have the best pheasant numbers in the state, though still below population numbers of the last two years,” said Stan Kohn, North Dakota Game and Fish Department upland game management supervisor. The southeast part of the state shows 17.6 broods and 148 birds per 100 miles. “There will be local areas of good pheasant hunting, but in many areas of the district, hunters are going to have to spend more time in the field to fill their bag,” Kohn said.

LIMITS: Three roosters per day, 12 in possession according to daily limit.

SHOOTING HOURS: 30 minutes before sunrise to sunset.


OPENER: Saturday through Jan. 4

PROSPECTS: Roadside count indices show a 24 percent drop in numbers from last year, but this year’s population is about even with the past 10 years’ average.

HOT SPOTS: As usual, southwestern Minnesota holds the most birds, but hunters should find good hunting in pockets across most of the pheasant range.

NEW LIMITS: The limit will be two roosters per day and six in possession from the opener through Nov. 30. From Dec. 1 to Jan. 4, the daily limit will be three roosters with a possession limit of nine.

SHOOTING HOURS: 9 a.m. to sunset.

South Dakota

OPENER: Oct. 18 through Jan. 4

PROSPECTS: Summer counts indicated a record population of pheasants after an exceptional season last fall.

HOT SPOTS: Pheasant production was very good in the central part of the state, with substantial increases found in the Mobridge, Pierre, Chamberlain and Winner areas. Pheasant numbers remain higher than 10-year averages in areas such as Brookings and Watertown.

LIMITS: Three roosters per day, 15 in possession according to daily limit.

SHOOTING HOURS: Noon to sunset Oct. 18-24, 10 a.m. to sunset rest of season.

– Kevin Schnepf

Readers can reach Forum reporter Kevin Schnepf at (701) 241-5549