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Doug Leier, Published December 18 2012

Leier: 2012 will be remembered for unusual conditions

Fargo - As the inevitable change of calendars from 2012 to 2013 is upon us, I will end the year in traditional fashion with a look back at the past 12 months from an outdoors perspective.

I am still marveling at the start of 2012, when most of North Dakota had limited or no snow and January temperatures that felt like March. And after that came a spring that didn’t involve sandbags, floods and widespread destruction of homes, property and livelihood.

At the time, we had no idea how dry our landscape would become, but to be honest most of us were just enjoying the moment after enduring the winter and spring of 2011.

One of my enduring memories of this year is a picture sent by my friend Al Cruchet, showing him wearing shorts, casting into the open waters of Lake Elsie in Richland County on Jan. 5. While open-water fishing in January is not unheard of in North Dakota at places like Nelson Lake and the Garrison Dam Tailrace, that picture will forever document the unique winter that never arrived.

Could it happen again this year? Possibly, but on the other hand, such an open, mild winter followed by such a warm early spring may not occur again in our lifetimes.

For the time being, however, the climatic correction was welcomed with open arms.

It gave fisheries biologists better conditions for spring spawning work, and spring snow goose hunters encountered less mud and more enjoyable field conditions. Farmers were in the field weeks earlier than what is typical, and while I don’t journal my days fishing (maybe that will be my 2013 resolution), I’m certain I had more fishing trips prior to June 1 this year than possibly the entire summer of 2011.

The mild, dry winter was also beneficial to most resident North Dakota wildlife like deer, pronghorn, pheasants and even fish in lakes that are subject to winterkill during severe winters. Pheasant counts were up in 2012, and while mule deer and pronghorn numbers didn’t increase much, at least they didn’t decline as they had during the “hat trick” of horrible winters the three previous years.

To help get both the mule deer and whitetail populations headed in the right direction, the North Dakota Game and Fish Department allocated the fewest licenses in 25 years. The final count of just over 65,000 greatly reduced the number of whitetail doe licenses and did not allow for any mule deer doe licenses in the badlands units.

In the short term, hunter success should improve upon the disappointing results from 2011, and hopefully we’ll see a corresponding population growth and increases in available licenses next year.

Despite the lack of precipitation over the winter and spring, the state’s annual spring breeding duck survey showed an index of 4.8 million birds, up 16 percent from 2011. That corresponded to a mid-July brood index that was up 110 percent from 2011 and the third highest on record.

Heading into fall, many temporary and seasonal wetlands were drying up, which is a concern for next year if we don’t get some winter or spring moisture.

On the pheasant side, higher spring counts, coupled with nearly ideal weather during the nesting and brood rearing period led to a higher fall population. That good news, however, is tempered by the reality that contracts for tens of thousands of acres of Conservation Reserve Program grasslands expired this fall.

Just how that development will influence pheasants, plus deer and waterfowl in 2013, will be part of my look into the future in next week’s column.

Leier, a biologist for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department in West Fargo, can be reached at dleier@nd.gov. Leier’s blog can be found online

at www.areavoices.com