By Doug Leier
Looking ahead to 2014, it’s hard not to get exited, or stay excited, about the excellent fishing prospects that lie ahead for North Dakota.
None of us who are anglers today have ever lived through a time when the state has had more fishing waters than it does right now. Many of these waters have developed quality fisheries over the past several years, and may not even have reached their peak just yet.
People are already noticing, too. The North Dakota Game and Fish Department issued a record number of fishing licenses over the 2012-13 licensing year, and it’s possible that number will go even higher for the 2013-14 licensing year that ends March 31.
Of course, as bright as the year ahead looks for fishing, significant challenges loom for deer and pheasants. Of immediate concern is the winter, which so far is colder than average with some areas already getting a fair amount of snow as well.
Most people who hunt deer and pheasants were hoping for a mild winter that would put minimal stress on resident wildlife. It may still turn out that way, but the larger, long-term challenge for those species is habitat. One mild winter is better than a severe winter, but it’s still not nearly enough to allow pheasant and deer numbers to rebuild all at once.
It took 20 years of the Conservation Reserve Program, and a string of relatively mild winters to grow pheasant numbers in North Dakota to a point where the annual harvest approached 1 million roosters in 2007. Compare that to the five years prior to the first CRP contract in North Dakota – in the early 1980s – when the average pheasant harvest was less than 130,000 birds.
In an optimistic “glass-half-full” sort of way, we could look at the 2014 situation, with 1.6 million acres of CRP still on the landscape, as a good starting point. Certainly, that’s a bit less than half the CRP that existed in 2007, but it’s a lot more than the zero acres in the CRP that we had in 1984.
While the generation of hunters who enjoyed the bounties at the peak of the CRP and PLOTS may not see that same level again, compared to 1984 things are still in pretty good shape. The challenge in 2014, for Game and Fish and all of us who enjoy hunting, is to now maintain what we have while working toward long-term improvements that get our wildlife populations headed back in the right direction.
At the same time, we can look for some bright spots. Like fishing, waterfowl hunting is at a high point now.
If you live in North Dakota in 2014 you’ll also have an opportunity to snag paddlefish, catch a catfish, walk the woods for ruffed grouse or the prairies for sharptails, trap a fisher, go mountain lion hunting, or apply for an elk, moose or bighorn sheep license. All of this, plus, and I reaffirm, we still have pheasants and deer.
Maybe 2014 won’t bring back the “good old days” for all things outdoors, but look around and you’re sure to find many reasons to look optimistically ahead.
Doug Leier is an outreach biologist with North Dakota Game and Fish