2018 North Dakota Hunting Outlook

    Here’s what hunters can expect in the Rough Rider State this fall.


    A year ago, and for good reason, talk centered mostly on the return of drought conditions to North Dakota.

    While the spigot seemed to turn on a bit in August, it was too late for much of the state’s small grains and pastures. The lack of precipitation early in spring and summer left its mark. It was pretty clear what the dry conditions meant for agriculture producers, yet the uncertainty was the influence drought would have on North Dakota’s most popular upland game bird, the ring-necked pheasant.

    Typically, pheasants do better with warmer, drier conditions versus cooler, wetter conditions during the hatch, which peaks around the third week of June. But the warm and dry conditions in 2017 were a bit extreme.

    When the North Dakota Game and Fish Department’s 2017 upland game survey numbers started rolling in, it was clear there were few young-of-the-year birds on the landscape. This certainly painted an unfortunate picture, as the majority of pheasants harvested each fall are those that hatched earlier in summer.

    When the 2017 pheasant season was all said and done, hunters harvested roughly 300,000 roosters, the lowest tally since 1998. While drought conditions undoubtedly impacted the pheasant population, a reduction in this nonnative’s numbers has long been influenced by the state’s changing landscape.

    During North Dakota’s peak Conservation Reserve Program years, approximately 3.5 million acres of idle grasses carpeted the state. Today, that once robust figure is closer to 1 million acres.

    There are far fewer places today on the landscape for pheasants to successfully nest and raise a brood. With a new farm bill being discussed, there is some hope that North Dakota will see some additional opportunities for landowners willing to enroll some acres into CRP. At this time it doesn’t appear to be a significant increase, although every bit will help.

    The Game and Fish Department’s “Life After CRP” publication was developed in 2012 by several visionary wildlife professionals, both inside and outside of our agency, as they could see the projected CRP cuts and the likely fallout of losing quality wildlife habitat. The goal of the publication was to discuss and promote the use of former CRP acres to identify and provide guidance toward managing for profitable agriculture, while maintaining at least some benefits for pheasants and other wildlife.

    Enter the Precision Agriculture program — an original partnership between Pheasants Forever and AgSolver. The program’s goal is to work with agriculture producers to maximize profitable acres, while identifying less profitable acres that may be better suited to conservation programs.

    North Dakota Game and Fish Department wildlife managers recognized the need to partner with Pheasants Forever to utilize the strategic nature of the Precision Agriculture program, which helps much more than just pheasants.

    NDGF and others — including the North Dakota Natural Resources Trust, the state Department of Health’s 319 watershed program, and four soil conservation districts in Ransom, Sargent, Dickey and LaMoure counties — started working with Pheasants Forever in 2017.

    Working directly with private landowners, more than 34,000 acres have been evaluated under the program. NDGF has also provided $131,000 in cost-share with landowners, the soil conservation districts have contributed $43,000 in matching funds, and approximately 1,200 Private Land Open To Sportsmen acres have been impacted in this four-county area.

    The program has been successful enough that it will be expanding into southwestern North Dakota this fall. We anticipate the program will generate a lot of interest and continue to play a role in a more strategic effort in putting habitat on the landscape to continue our great hunting traditions in North Dakota.

    Safe travels and best of luck this fall while you enjoy North Dakota’s outdoors.

    — Jeb Williams, NDGF Wildlife Division Chief


    Pheasants in North Dakota were treated with below-average snowfall and above-average temperatures for most of last winter. This should have translated into good body conditions for the hens going into the nesting season.

    Results of the spring crowing-count survey showed lower numbers of breeding roosters throughout most of the traditional pheasant range. The number of roosters heard calling was down anywhere from 15-38 percent throughout North Dakota’s primary pheasant range. This was not a surprise, as last summer’s drought caused a 60 percent decline in the 2017 late-summer roadside counts.

    Wildlife biologists from the North Dakota Game and Fish Department are saying it’s likely hunters will see pheasant numbers similar to 2017. That said, hunters who are willing to be a little more mobile this fall should find some good pheasant hunting opportunities. Photo by Jason Lindsey, ND Tourism

    Nesting cover for hens was about average in spring thanks to timely spring rains. Those timely rains continued into early summer, and all of North Dakota was green through late June. Areas in the southwestern part of the state have had multiple severe weather events, which will likely translate to pockets of low densities of pheasants due to chick mortality.

    At the time of this writing, NDGF biologists are conducting late-summer roadside brood counts, but preliminary numbers indicate hunters will see bird numbers similar to 2017.

    The drought last year caused poor production across the state. Thus, pheasants entered the 2018 breeding season with a lower than average adult breeding population. However, most of the state should have good production, while other areas could have poor survival due to severe weather events.

    Hunters who are willing to be a little more mobile this fall should find some good pheasant hunting opportunities.

    North Dakota’s regular pheasant season runs Oct. 6 through Jan. 6.

    — Rodney Gross, Upland Game Management Biologist, Bismarck

    Sharptail Grouse

    Sharp-tailed grouse are typically most abundant in the western half of the state. Unfortunately, drought in 2017 was most severe in the west, and hunter reports, as well as Game and Fish Department spring surveys indicated that sharptail numbers are as low as they have been in 20 years.

    With that said, hunters can still find pockets of sharptails, particularly in the eastern part of the state, which showed a slight increase since 2017. Hunters who head east should be aware of two areas closed to sharptail hunting: an area west of Grand Forks and an area around the Sheyenne National Grasslands. Maps of areas closed to sharptail hunting are found in the North Dakota 2018-19 Hunting and Trapping Guide and online at gf.nd.gov.

    Anecdotally, brood sizes were slightly larger for sharp-tailed grouse in 2018, so barring a harsh winter, an upcycle in sharptail numbers could be in the works. A better estimate of 2018 production will be available after summer roadside surveys are completed, but for now, biologists anticipate that hunters will likely need to walk more and perhaps learn new areas to find grouse this fall.

    In addition to roadside surveys, hunters are encouraged to send in grouse and Hungarian partridge wings from harvested birds to help biologists further assess production for 2018. Because it’s predicted harvest will be low, it’s hoped that hunters who might not have submitted wings in the past would consider helping in the wing collection effort. Hunters can request prepaid wing envelopes on the Department’s website at gf.nd.gov.

    The North Dakota sharptail season opened Sept. 8 and closes Jan. 6.

    — Jesse Kolar, Upland Game Supervisor, Dickinson

    Whitetail Deer

    NDGF made available 55,150 whitetail licenses for the 2018 hunting season, an increase of 650 from 2017.

    The statewide deer gun hunter success rate in 2017 was 61 percent, a little lower than in 2016 (66 percent), and below the Department goal of 70 percent.

    The winter of 2017-18 was a mixed bag. Conditions over much of the state were mild to moderate. However, northeastern North Dakota received some late winter snow causing prolonged winter conditions.

    Landowners interested in having more antlerless deer harvested are encouraged to call NDGF at 701-328-6300, and department personnel will direct the number of doe hunters landowners are comfortable hosting.

    Population and harvest data indicate that the state’s deer population is stable to increasing, but still well below management goals. Deer numbers remain below objectives in most hunting units due to prolonged effects of severe winters in 2008-09 and 2010-11, which not only increased adult mortality, but also reduced fawn production.

    The extreme winter conditions followed nearly a decade of aggressive deer management that featured large numbers of antlerless licenses in most units. In addition, the northeastern part of the state also experienced severe winters during 2012-13 and 2013-14, which continued to impede population recovery.

    Further, high-quality deer habitat is not as abundant as in the past, which limits the potential for population recovery. For example, deer numbers in hunting units 2E and 2C in northeastern North Dakota have not responded to more favorable winter weather conditions and reduced harvest. These hunting units have lost approximately 60 percent of CRP grass cover and nearly 400 acres of trees.

    Conditions for winter aerial surveys were generally poor throughout the state, so only two of the 32 hunting units with monitoring blocks were flown. Biologists surveyed units 3A1 and 3B3 in March, and deer numbers were stable in 3A1 and increasing in 3B3.

    — Bill Jensen, Big Game Management Biologist, Bismarck

    Mule Deer

    Mule deer in North Dakota’s badlands continue to show signs of recovery following the severe winters of 2008-10, which resulted in deer numbers declining by nearly 50 percent.

    Mule deer densities this year remain high and are similar to last year. The 2018 spring index was 6 percent lower than the 2017 index, but still 45 percent above the long-term average.

    A mule deer buck license remains one of the most difficult licenses to draw in the North Dakota deer lottery. Those lucky enough to draw a license should expect a high-quality hunt. Hunter success for mule deer buck hunters was 83 percent in 2017. Getty Images

    The mule deer population increase is attributed to no harvest of antlerless mule deer in the badlands during the 2012-16 seasons, more moderate winter conditions, and improved fawn production in 2013-17. Fawn production was highest in 2014 and 2016, with fawn-to-doe ratios of 95 and 90 fawns per 100 does, respectively.

    An increasing mule deer population will mean more hunting opportunities this fall. There were 2,600 antlered mule deer licenses available in 2018, an increase of 150 from 2017. Antlerless mule deer licenses were also increased from 900 to 1,450 in 2018. All mule deer units will have antlerless licenses except 4A, where the population remains below management goals.

    While another year of a population increase is encouraging, mule deer in the badlands face many challenges, such as encroachment of juniper in mule deer habitat, direct and indirect habitat loss due to energy development, predators, and variable weather conditions.

    — Bruce Stillings, Big Game Management Supervisor, Dickinson

    Ducks and Geese

    Declining wetland conditions, but good waterfowl numbers were found during the NDGF’s 71st annual spring breeding duck survey. However, wetland conditions across much of the state made a quick turnaround following abundant late spring and early summer rains.

    In early May, waterfowl habitats were drying up as spring progressed, continuing a trend that started the previous spring. The 2018 May water index was the 45th highest on record, down 34 percent from 2017, and 29 percent below the 1948-2017 average. Some areas of the state were quite dry, and few ducks settled in these areas.

    Following the survey in May, a lot of rain fell through June and into early July in many important duck producing regions. While wetland conditions are a little spotty due to the nature of heavy rains from isolated storms, the precipitation greatly improved things, and incited renesting by hens that had failed during earlier nesting attempts.

    This year’s breeding duck index was the 25th highest on record, down 5 percent from last year, and 17 percent above the long-term average. This is the second year since 1994 that the state’s estimated breeding population of ducks (2.81 million) dipped below 3 million birds.

    All species, except shoveler (up 10 percent) and wigeon (up 7 percent), had lower numbers than 2017. Mallards were down 1 percent from 2017 for their 21st highest count on record. Green-winged teal declined 20 percent, while all other species declined from 17 percent (redheads) to 4 percent (scaup).

    Although most species declined from last year’s estimates, all species, except pintail (31 percent below), blue-winged teal (19 percent below), and ruddy ducks (17 percent below) were above the long-term average. Those species above the long-term average include mallards (63 percent above), wigeon (57 percent above), shovelers (42 percent above), redheads (42 percent above), gadwall (28 percent above), scaup (28 percent above), green-winged teal (19 percent above) and canvasbacks (10 percent above).

    The number of broods observed during the Department’s July brood survey was up 37 percent from 2017, and 77 percent above the 1965-2017 average. The average brood size was 6.76 ducklings, nearly identical to last year’s estimate.

    July wetland counts were up 11 percent from 2017, and 7 percent below the long-term average. Wetland conditions were variable across the state, ranging from fair to very good in some localized areas. Much of the state was quite dry to start spring, but most regions were drenched by early summer rains. When duck brood surveys were conducted, wetland conditions in the northwest, central and southeastern regions of the state had benefited most from rainfall, but duck production also appeared to be very good in the northeast part of the state.

    Brood-rearing wetlands benefited from June rains to provide good habitat for breeding ducks and their young. Many shallow wetlands recovered from drought last summer and upland vegetation is providing thick nesting cover. Some regions are still cycling through some dryness, but this will help maintain productivity within wetland basins when wet conditions return.

    Numbers of resident Canada geese, Western Prairie Canada geese and arctic nesting Tallgrass Prairie Canada geese, snow geese and Ross’s geese all remain high. NDGF has added a new zone structure for hunting Canada geese to increase harvest opportunity in regions where geese are causing more problems, and also maintain late season opportunities in parts of the state where they are readily available. The changes mostly affect Canada goose hunters in the eastern half of the state.

    North Dakota’s waterfowl hunting seasons are always affected by fall weather, and the mix from early to late seasons is usually not consistent from year to year. By producing a lot of birds locally, hunters aren’t as dependent on good migration weather to bring birds from Canada in a timely manner.

    Abundant wetlands in good condition, coupled with abundant, secure nesting cover in the uplands drives duck production. Hunting opportunities for waterfowl should be good this season based on duck production in North Dakota and also reports from Saskatchewan. As always, hunting conditions will be variable, but this year hunters might see more localized variability with some areas swinging from being a little dry to very wet in just a matter of miles.

    Prospects for a good fall flight from northern breeding areas should also be good, but as always, weather conditions and migration patterns will dictate waterfowl hunting opportunities come fall.

    — Mike Szymanski, Migratory Game Bird Management Supervisor, Bismarck

    For more information, or to read the entire 2018 Hunting Outlook for North Dakota, which includes information on additional species of big game and furbearer seasons, go to gf.nd.gov.