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Doug Leier, Published December 25 2012

Leier: 2013 is a critical year for wildlife in North Dakota

Fargo - When it comes to looking ahead at how 2013 will shake out for hunting and angling, I can’t help but see a mixed bag of prospects.

On one hand, North Dakota now has more managed lakes with fish in them than at any time since statehood. “We have a record number of pike fisheries on the landscape and record-setting pike populations,” said Greg Power, fisheries chief for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department.

Walleye and perch populations are also doing well on a statewide basis, though walleyes on the Missouri River System from Garrison Dam to the South Dakota border are struggling somewhat because of a reduced forage base.

Overall though, you couldn’t ask for a much better fishing scenario to start out the year, and that should carry on throughout the winter and next spring and summer as well.

Wildlife prospects are a bit more variable, and a lot of that has to do with the fortunes of the Conservation Reserve Program.

At its peak in 2007, North Dakota had more than 3 million acres of CRP, a little over 1 million acres in Private Lake Open to Sportsmen access acres, and not coincidentally, hunters harvested more than 900,000 roosters. Those were the good old days – everything peaked in 2007.

Since then, as hundreds of thousands of acres of CRP contracts expired, we’ve been saying that CRP losses will influence not just pheasant numbers, but also acres available to the PLOTS program, and that has basically followed our expectations. On the positive side, however, right now things are still better than they were in 2001 when we only had around 100,000 acres in the PLOTS program, and harvested just over 400,000 roosters.

Many hunters are hoping 2013 is a rebound kind of year, sort of a continuation of 2012 when, for the first time in four years, resident wildlife populations didn’t decline following severe winters. But even with a fairly benign start to this winter, there’s no guarantee on that. Regardless of what winter brings, however, biologists and wildlife managers are concerned about the long-term reduction in CRP acres and how that will influence pheasants, deer, ducks and nongame animals.

While mule deer and pronghorn aren’t as directly tied to CRP, another fair winter would go a long way toward nudging their comeback in the right direction. Even after last year, these western big game animals were still under the negative influence of the previous three winters.

One all-too-real biological process affecting mule deer and pronghorn is reduced production from a population that has not had an influx of young animals for several years. As the years go by, the viability of older animals that have survived the winters is reduced.

What that meant in 2012 is that even though winter mortality was likely negligible, mule deer and pronghorn fawn production didn’t jump right back up to where it was prior to 2009.

My summation is that 2013 is a pivotal year. Landscape habitat changes are a certainty, but with good weather we can still see wildlife gains in the short term. Next year at this time we might have a better outlook on what to expect in the long term.

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