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Field Report: Did Late Winter Snows Hurt Minn., N.D. and S.D. Pheasants?

Photo courtesy of NRCS

Snow cover was common well into April in many parts of the Dakotas and Minnesota. Photo courtesy of NRCS

While the calendar turned over to spring in March, winter hung on much longer in the Upper Midwest, where parts of Minnesota reported the snowiest April on record, two feet of snow collected in Bismarck, North Dakota and South Dakota saw its share of April snowstorms.  Also an important factor is a late winter’s slowing down of “greening” nesting grasses to make the quality cover that is available attractive to hen pheasants.

Cold April temperatures can be deadly for pheasant nests already on the ground, but with the way winter lingered, it’s not likely many hens got to that point this month. “I haven’t noticed any pheasants starting to prepare nests yet,” said Troy Dale, a Pheasants Forever Farm Bill Wildlife Biologist in west-central Minnesota’s Lac qui Parle County, “With the late snow melt this year the hens are going to fall a little behind on nest preparation.”

Across the border in South Dakota, Matt Morlock, a Pheasants Forever Farm Bill Wildlife Biologist II from Volga, says the conditions did put some stress on pheasants, but he’s thankful it was just snow as opposed to ice. “Ice is the real killer on birds, so that was a huge break. The other helpful thing is that it hasn’t been overly cold with these systems, and the fields have maintained some open spots for scratching and feeding. We haven’t been seeing any die-offs or other signs of severe stress. I do think that we are going to see the hens in a little poorer condition this spring as opposed to previous nesting seasons which could have an impact on the number of eggs and chicks produced.”

To the north, moderate temperatures and little precipitation was the story of North Dakota’s winter for the first half. “Then various blizzards hit every region of North Dakota from January to April,” says Matt Olsen, a Pheasants Forever Farm Bill Wildlife Biologist from Forman in the southeast part of the state, “The most recent snowstorms in mid-April hit the south-central and far southeast corner the hardest.” Olsen expects there to be reduced nesting cover, a combination of the extended winter and carryover effects from the drought. “Last fall, nearly all Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) acres in North Dakota were opened up for emergency haying and grazing. Consequently, this vegetation has not had the time to recover to be available for quality nesting habitat,” Olsen said, “And with the spring melt being this late, some areas that could have served as nesting habitat will be flooded and will not provide any nesting cover in the near future. “

While the weather hasn’t been ideal for pheasants, compounding the issue is continued upland habitat loss in these states. “North Dakota has also seen a reduction in the amount of land enrolled in CRP which will further reduce the amount of nesting cover on the landscape,” Olsen says.

Adds Morlock, “Drain tiling and grassland conversion will have a far bigger and more widespread impact on our pheasants than the snow ever could.”

Anthony’s Antics Afield is written by Anthony Hauck, Pheasants Forever’s Online Editor. Email Anthony at AHauck@pheasantsforever.organd follow him on Twitter @AnthonyHauckPF.

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