BISMARCK, N.D. — Pheasant numbers in North Dakota have dropped 10 percent from a year ago, but as the hunting season nears wildlife officials are confident of another decent harvest of at least half a million birds.

The drop indicated by a state Game and Fish Department survey this summer follows last year’s 30 percent increase. The department blames the fall in population on a reduction in habitat and dry early spring conditions in the prime southwestern pheasant territory.

“From Hettinger over to Bowman and then up to Medora — that kind of L-shaped area was extremely dry,” said Aaron Robinson, upland game management supervisor for Game and Fish.

The amount of North Dakota land enrolled in the federal government’s Conservation Reserve Program also is less than half what it was a decade ago, due to lucrative crops enticing farmers to put more land back into production. That means there are fewer areas for pheasants to breed and raise their young.

“We’ll probably never go back to the 2007, 2008 levels where we were close to a million birds” killed during the hunting season, Robinson said.

He predicts hunters will kill about 500,000 pheasants this fall down from nearly 590,000 last year, but still a good season in terms of keeping hunters happy and keeping the pheasant population at a manageable level.

“We don’t have it formally written down, but we would like to maintain at least a half-a-million-bird harvest every year,” Robinson said.

Last year, more than 85,000 hunters took to the fields in search of pheasants. They provide a big boost to the state’s economy, with each hunter spending about $100 daily, according to state Tourism Division data.

The pheasant survey in July and August involved counts along 270 routes throughout the state. It found a 21 percent drop in the southwest, a 4 percent decline in the southeast and a 129 percent increase in the northwest. There are few birds in the northeast, which is considered secondary pheasant habitat.

“As always, there will be local areas within all four pheasant districts where pheasant numbers will be both better and below what is predicted for the district,” Robinson said.

The pheasant population decline in North Dakota is similar to the drop in South Dakota this year, where a survey estimated a 20 percent drop in bird numbers for similar reasons. Officials in South Dakota also still expect a good hunting season, however.

North Dakota’s regular pheasant season runs from Oct. 8 through Jan. 8.

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