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PRAIRIE OUTDOORS: North Dakota fall game scenario looks good

Good hunting is a combination of adequate wildlife populations and reasonable access to that wildlife. At the moment, North Dakota has both ... . All of this, of course, can change over time, but not before hunting seasons start this fall. In general, 2004 looks like a good year.

My phone has been ringing off the hook lately with calls from people inquiring about our upcoming hunting seasons. Evidently, I'm not the only one looking forward to the crisp autumn mornings ahead. E-mail, phone calls and casual coffee conversations are all bearing the same theme: "How's hunting going to be this year?"

From pheasants and ducks to grouse, turkeys and mourning doves, North Dakotans have many decent hunting opportunities just out our back door, or at least not too far away. Good hunting is a combination of adequate wildlife populations and reasonable access to that wildlife. At the moment, North Dakota has both, which is a quality of life bonus for residents who hunt and a reason for many nonresidents to visit the state.

All of this, of course, can change over time, but not before hunting seasons start this fall. In general, 2004 looks like a good year. Here's a look at what hunters can expect this fall.

Upland game

In reference to upland game hunting, most people immediately think of pheasants, but North Dakota has many other options. This fall includes one new option, the first opportunity to hunt prairie chickens in the state since 1945.

The ring-necked pheasant draws much attention, and spring crowing count results showed good numbers of breeding birds throughout most of the traditional pheasant range. Spring weather conditions also were conducive to good nesting success. Reproduction and survival of young birds was not known by late summer, but if it's typical, birds will be plentiful throughout traditional areas.

Spring sharp-tailed grouse numbers were just slightly below last year, with Hungarian partridge up more than 10 percent. Ruffed grouse populations fluctuate in 10-year cycles, and survey results indicate the population is lower than last year and toward the low end of the cycle.

Hunters who applied for fall turkey licenses also should find good hunting ahead.

With upland game, keep in mind the nature of resident populations. A particular area may have experienced a localized hailstorm or other natural phenomenon that reduces bird populations. Game and Fish biologists are in the middle of late summer brood surveys right now, so it will still be a few weeks before we know for sure how much the hatch was affected by cool, wet early summer weather.

Geese and ducks

Based on the Game and Fish Department's mid-summer duck brood survey, North Dakota's contribution to the 2004 fall flight is predicted to be down about 40 percent from last year, which was the all-time high. That said, the state still produced a lot of ducks, as it has for the past 10 years, and the fall flight is still well above the long-term average.

The 2004 breeding season was atypical for ducks in North Dakota. Fall and winter were dry across much of the state, and so was the early part of spring. That meant fewer of the small, temporary and seasonal wetlands needed to attract breeding ducks.

Nevertheless, the number of breeding ducks counted in the Game and Fish spring survey was higher than in 2003. The number of breeding mallards and blue-winged teal, however, was down slightly.

By early June, spring rains turned things around, and the northern and eastern portions of the state had excellent conditions for the growing season, providing good nesting cover for ducks and rejuvenating some dry wetlands.

Resident Canada goose numbers in North Dakota remain high, and the plan is to continue the state's early September hunting season to keep this population in check. During the 2003 early season, 6,871 hunters bagged about 20,500 Canada geese.

Big game

Game and Fish is issuing a record number of deer licenses in 2004, and there are still plenty of whitetail doe licenses available in several units. All licenses remaining after the third lottery drawing will be available first-come, first-served starting about Sept. 1.

Another bright spot is the pronghorn population, which is continuing to rebound from the severe winter of 1996- '97. As such, Game and Fish was able to issue more licenses than last year and reopen pronghorn hunting in a couple of additional units.

Western North Dakota's mule deer population also is doing well.

That covers just about all the major species, and while there are a few ups and downs from last year in relation to long-term averages, just about everything is in good shape. Weather permitting, your fall will be as good as you make it. What else can we ask for?

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