GRAND FORKS - During last year's North Dakota pheasant opener, Scott Lindgren of Grand Forks and his hunting partners headed west to hunt an area that produced easy, three-bird limits not that many years ago.
"Typically, you'd walk in and make one walk, and you'd shoot your three birds," Lindgren said.
Different story last year.
"We jumped into one of those pieces on opening morning - we shot one and saw four," he said. "It went from hundreds (of pheasants) to a handful."
Lindgren's experience last year wasn't unique among North Dakota pheasant hunters. And with another pheasant season now underway - season in North Dakota opened Saturday, Oct. 6 - hunters again this fall will have to be realistic about hunting prospects.
"There's no doubt about it - it's going to be another tough year," said Jeb Williams, wildlife chief for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department in Bismarck. "It's not like we're void of birds, obviously, in North Dakota, but it's at a lot lower level than many people are used to, and it's going to require proper setting of expectations."
The overriding factor is a steady loss of habitat in the past decade, a trend intensified last year by severe drought that hampered production in much of North Dakota's pheasant range.
"I think overall numbers are shaping up to be pretty similar to last fall, but last year there was just a real lack of production," Williams said. "Not many young birds were shot last year, so basically, what was harvested last year was some carryover from the year before.
"This year, we definitely saw better reproduction, but the issue was we had a lot less hens reproducing than in previous years."
CRP acreage declines
Driving the loss of habitat - and birds - is the expiration of contracts for land enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program, a federal program established in the 1985 Farm Bill that pays landowners an annual rental payment and provides cost share to set aside marginal farmland and establish conservation practices.
At the peak in 2007, North Dakota had nearly 3.39 million acres of land in CRP, and more than 36.7 million acres was enrolled nationally, according to statistics from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. With abundant habitat, populations of pheasants, waterfowl, deer and other wildlife soared, and North Dakota hunters in 2007 shot 907,434 roosters, Game and Fish statistics show.
"It was a sportsman's paradise for a number of years," Williams said.
Today, North Dakota has about 1.5 million acres of land enrolled in CRP, and with a nationwide cap of 24 million acres in the Farm Bill that expired Sept. 30, prospects for re-upping land when lawmakers pass a new Farm Bill or when existing contracts expire are uncertain.
North Dakota's pheasant harvest last year dipped to 309,400 roosters, the lowest since 2000.
"We're in a situation - and we've talked about this until we're blue in the face - but our landscape has changed so much in the last 10 years in North Dakota that it's tough for us to recover from extreme drought, from extreme winter," Williams said. "When you had 3 million acres of CRP on the ground, it's like, 'Yeah, we can bounce back from that fairly quick.' When we're closer to 1 million acres of CRP on the landscape, it just doesn't give you that cushion."
Call it the New Normal.
"I'd say we're very close to being back to the pre-CRP days" in terms of pheasant hunting success, Lindgren, the Grand Forks hunter, said. "There'll always be some hotspots, and some of those areas won't be very large, but there'll be areas with good birds as long as a guy can get access.
"I guess I'm glad we got to have the years we did, and I'm thankful for that; it just might be the future doesn't look too bright."
Mark Mazaheri, a Fargo hunting enthusiast who's been involved with North Dakota sportsmen's issues for nearly two decades, says he's grateful to have experienced the glory days, as well. "For 20 years, we had some great land within 40 miles of Fargo," Mazaheri said. "Everywhere south of (N.D.) Highway 200, you could find very huntable numbers of pheasants, and that is not the case anymore."
Recently, Mazaheri said he drove about 600 miles through parts of southeast and south-central North Dakota and saw three pheasant coveys, two of them in about a 1-mile stretch.
"It's tough out there," he said. "I have pretty constant contact with landowners out west, and these guys just aren't seeing birds.
"Some of that stuff out west where it would not be uncommon to see 10,000 birds in a day, last year, I don't think we saw 10 birds," Mazaheri said. "This year, we might be lucky to see that."
Slowing the loss
Both the House and Senate versions of the Farm Bill now stalled in Washington call for slight increases to CRP acreage nationally, but it won't be enough to make up for the habitat losses that have occurred in the past decade, said Rachel Bush, North Dakota state coordinator for Pheasants Forever.
"It's still going to be a modest increase so it's not going to solve our habitat issues," she said. "It's not going to get us back to where we were a decade ago."
Besides a modest increase in CRP acreage, both Farm Bill versions have strong working lands components for producers to establish conservation practices on land they continue to farm, Bush said.
Every little bit helps.
"Even if it's on working lands, pheasants are an agricultural bird, and they do well in agricultural landscapes as long as they have nesting habitat available," she said.
In a recent development for the conservation group, Pheasants Forever has put a focus on working lands with its Precision Agriculture Business Planning Initiative, now in place in LaMoure, Dickey, Ransom and Sargent counties in southeast North Dakota, Bush said.
As part of the program, a Pheasants Forever specialist works with producers in the four counties to identify less profitable farmland and help them establish alternative practices such as cover crops or perennial cover, Bush said.
Game and Fish funds the program, which is administered through local soil and water conservation districts in the four counties, Bush said. Pheasants Forever recently hired an additional specialist to expand the program into southwest North Dakota, she said.
"We're a habitat organization, so when we start talking about precision agriculture technology, we have to make that connect for people," Bush said. "But the producers that have worked with us down in the southeast have adapted many of the recommendations, and they've got conservation and new habitat on the ground."
Pheasants Forever also offers the precision ag initiative in Iowa and Minnesota, she said.
In addition, Game and Fish offers various incentives to landowners through its Private Lands Initiative, including the successful and popular Private Land Open to Sportsmen (PLOTS) program, but it can never match the scale of CRP in its prime, Williams said. At the peak, CRP rental payments in North Dakota were more than $112 million annually, USDA statistics show. By comparison, the Game and Fish's biennial budget for the entire department is about $75 million, Williams said.
"We don't have the room in our budget for that type of program, and that's where CRP was such a great program for North Dakota," Williams said. "The federal government saw the need, saw the demand for those CRP acres, and they were the ones doing the heavy lifting as far as the payments.
"We came in on top of those on some certain PLOTS contracts and paid some extra dollars to that landowner for access and we got some real quality habitat for a real cheap price."
Given the realities of habitat loss and the difficulty in replacing that habitat, pheasant hunting in North Dakota may not return to the glory days of the mid-2000s anytime soon, Still, it's one of the biggest dates on the outdoors calendar.
Just ask Lindgren, the Grand Forks pheasant hunting enthusiast.
"It was just fabulous hunting, but it can't be that way forever," he said. "You've just got to drop those expectations and enjoy a good walk out there with your dog and just be satisfied with that - with less birds."
N.D. pheasant harvest since 2000
• 2000: 283,759.
• 2001: 421,586.
• 2002: 517,821.
• 2003: 592,066.
• 2004: 587,600.
• 2005: 809,775.
• 2006: 750,787.
• 2007: 907,434.
• 2008: 776,709.
• 2009: 651,700.
• 2010: 552,800.
• 2011: 683,000.
• 2012: 616,000.
• 2013: 447,000.
• 2014: 587,000.
• 2015: 590,000.
• 2016: 501,100.
• 2017: 309,400.
Source: N.D. Game and Fish Department
Rules of the hunt
• Season dates: Saturday, Oct. 6 through Sunday, Jan. 6.
• Bag limit: 3 daily, 12 in possession.
• Shooting hours: Half hour before sunrise to sunset.
• Info: gf.nd.gov.