BY DOUG LEIER
While I’m never one to wish away the current for the future, I also realize mid-July is weeks and not months until school begins, baseballs are replaced by footballs, and shotguns and doves are mentioned with walleyes and plugs I’ll hold onto summer as long as possible.
But I also realize we’ve been losing daylight for the better part of three weeks now.
So with all that considered, the North Dakota Game and Fish Department spring wildlife surveys continue to roll out and direct our thinking more seriously toward fall.
The annual spring breeding duck survey showed an index of 3.9 million birds, down 17 percent from last year but still 73 percent above the long-term average since the survey began in 1948. Total duck numbers this spring were similar to annual estimates over the past decade, so even though the index was down a bit, breeding duck numbers are still in good shape.
The same holds true for most individual species. While blue-winged teal were down 38 percent and gadwall were down 28 percent, both are still well above their long-term average.
Not all species had lower numbers than last year, however. Scaup showed a notable increase, while mallards, pintails, shovelers and canvasback were essentially unchanged.
The spring breeding waterfowl survey also includes observations on water conditions. At the time of the survey in mid-May, larger wetlands had good water, but many shallow wetlands, especially in the southern part of the state, were on the verge of drying up. Mike Szymanski, waterfowl biologist for Game and Fish, said the somewhat poor condition of small wetlands probably resulted in losing ducks to Canadian nesting grounds.
“Duck numbers were down roughly 30 percent in the south central and southeastern areas of the state due to dry conditions,” Szymanski said, but water conditions were much better in the northern half of the state.
However, the week after the survey much of North Dakota received several inches of rain. Szymanski said that moisture doesn’t change survey numbers, but it does mean better conditions for breeding and raising young.
Over on the pheasant side, the spring crowing count indicated an 11 percent decline statewide compared to last year.
All four pheasant districts had lower counts than last year. The number of crows heard in the northeast declined by 18 percent, southeast and southwest by 11 percent, and the northwest by nearly 2 percent.
Stan Kohn, upland game management supervisor for the Game and Fish Department, said only the southwest was initially spared a harsh winter, but a spring snowstorm in April buried much of the area in more than 12 inches of snow.
“Had it not been for the long winter in most of the state and the April storm, I would have expected a higher crow count statewide this spring,” Kohn said.
On the positive side, Kohn said the snow in April and rain in May seemed to jump start grass and forb growth, which will help late or renesting efforts with improved habitat quality. “Unless we experience some early summer weather problems,” Kohn said, “I still expect much better upland game production this summer from all our species.”
Both Szymanski and Kohn noted the loss of CRP grassland and how that will reduce reproduction potential for both ground-nesting ducks and pheasants in future years.
These numbers are important for biologists, and also give hunters a little glimpse into fall expectations. Duck and upland game brood surveys will provide a more accurate assessment of production and insight into fall populations.
So for now, it’s back to enjoying summer and fishing … at least for a few more weeks.
Leier is a biologist with the Game and Fish Department. He can be reached by email: firstname.lastname@example.org