BISMARCK, N.D. — Pheasant numbers in the Dakotas are down to some of the lowest levels on record, a drop biologists blame largely on the worst drought to hit the states in decades.

North Dakota’s roadside pheasant survey, released Monday, is shows the number of birds is down 61 percent from last year. A similar survey in South Dakota shows a 45 percent drop statewide in the number of pheasants per mile compared to 2016. The South Dakota survey also shows that 2017 is the second-lowest pheasants-per-mile index since 1979.

R.J. Gross, upland game management biologist for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department, said the count in North Dakota is the lowest in at least 20 years.

“It’s alarming,” Gross said. “Drought is about the worst thing that can happen to an upland bird.”

Drought reduces the amount of insects available for pheasant chicks to eat and also decreases habitat, leaving young birds more susceptible to predators, biologists said.

The latest U.S. Drought Monitor map shows 66 percent of North Dakota in some stage of drought, and 86 percent of South Dakota in the abnormally dry category.

Gross said drought is only part of what he called a “three-headed monster” affecting the pheasant population in North Dakota. Cold, wet weather in the spring of 2016 and harsh winter weather this year also hurt pheasant numbers.

Travis Runia, senior upland game biologist for the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department, said pheasant numbers this year are comparable to 2013, which had the fewest birds in about 20 years.

Though there were fewer pheasants, hunters who did take to the field in 2013 had decent success in South Dakota.

“It was a pretty good year because there was a lot less hunting pressure,” Runia said.

Drought not only impacts the harvest but also the economy. Pheasant hunting is big business in North Dakota, with each hunter spending about $100 daily, according to state Tourism Division data.

North Dakota averages about 25,000 out-of-state hunters annually, or only about one-third of the number who come to South Dakota to hunt pheasants.

Gross said hunters typically kill 500,000 pheasants or more in North Dakota in a good year. Gross said he expects fewer than 300,000 birds to be harvested in North Dakota this year.

South Dakota hunters killed 1.1 million roosters last year, down from 1.2 million in 2015.

The season starts next month in both states and runs through early January.

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JAMES MacPHERSON
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