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Doug Leier: As goes habitat, so goes wildlife populations in North Dakota

For the first time since last fall, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is accepting applications for the voluntary Conservation Reserve Program. (Photo/ North Dakota Game and Fish Department)1 / 2
Doug Leier, North Dakota Game and Fish Department2 / 2

Given the fall hunter harvest of pheasants in 2017 was down 24 percent from the previous year, there really was no reason to expect this spring's numbers wouldn't be down in similar fashion. And they were, down 30 percent from last year.

R.J. Gross, upland game management biologist for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department, said the number of roosters heard crowing this spring was down statewide, with decreases ranging from 15 percent to 38 percent in the primary regions holding pheasants.

However, Gross said the past winter was good for bird survival, so hens should be in good physical shape for the nesting season. Spring and early summer weather was also mostly favorable for nesting compared with extremely dry conditions last year.

In similar fashion, waterfowl numbers this spring also were lower, as the department's 71st annual spring breeding duck survey conducted in May produced an index of 2.8 million birds, down 5 percent from last year.

Migratory game bird supervisor Mike Szymanski said even though the index was below 3 million for the second consecutive year, it still stands 16 percent above the long-term average (1948-2017) and is the 25th highest on record.

"Duck numbers are still hanging on, but are certainly better in some local areas," Szymanski said.

Most annual wildlife population swings in North Dakota are related to weather during the year. Long-term trends of up or down are more likely related to increases or decreases in habitat. It's no secret that North Dakota's grassland habitat, which influences both pheasant and duck populations, has declined over the last decade.

But there is a new opportunity out there that could start to shift the trend in a positive direction.

For the first time since last fall, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is accepting applications for the voluntary Conservation Reserve Program. Eligible farmers, ranchers, and private landowners can sign up at their local USDA Farm Service Agency office through Aug. 17, 2018.

For this year's signup, limited priority practices are available for continuous enrollment. They include grassed waterways, filter strips, riparian buffers and wetland restoration.

In addition to the continuous CRP enrollment, producers in many counties in southwestern and south central North Dakota have an opportunity to enroll eligible cropland along riparian areas into the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program. Producers enrolling land into CREP will receive annual rental payments with incentives and cost share from FSA. Game and Fish can work with producers on other lands not eligible for CREP.

Approximately 30,000 acres are available in these various practices in North Dakota.

Kevin Kading, Game and Fish Department private land section leader, said landowners interested in either of these programs could also qualify for additional financial incentives and cost-share from Game and Fish.

"These practices in the right spots can improve the bottom line for a landowner," Kading said. "Anyone who's interested in seeing how Game and Fish can help add to that, can contact a private land biologist in their area."

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