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Unit 7: Set 6: Bringing Back the Game: Hunting and Game Conservation in North Dakota- Pheasants and Prairie Chickens

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On September 26, 1909, the Bismarck Tribune printed the headline: “New Game Birds.” The article stated that the “board of fish and game control” was considering introducing Chinese Ring-necked Pheasants and Hungarian Partridges in forest habitats in the Turtle Mountains where it was expected that they would “thrive wonderfully.”

The same article mentioned that the “prairie chicken crop in North Dakota is getting woefully small.” The board considered closing the season on prairie chickens for a few years to bring back their formerly high numbers, but the board did not close the season or reduce the 5 bird bag limit and hunting continued for the next 35 years.

Pheasants are natives of Asia. In the U.S., they were considered excellent game birds and a few different varieties were introduced to the U.S. by individual hunters and sportsmen’s clubs decades before they came to ND. The Game and Fish commissioner released 75 birds in 1910 in the northern part of the state. The birds were stocked again in 1915. In 1917, 28 birds were released in Dickey County. This group was successful in reproducing and adapting to the grasslands and wheat-growing farmlands.

ND opened its first pheasant season in 1931. Each hunter was allowed three male (rooster) birds per day. In 1932, with the pheasant population climbing in Dickey, Sargent, and Richland counties, Game and Fish agents trapped 15,460 birds to release in 45 other counties. This process continued until the pheasant population was well-established in ND, especially in the southern part of the state.

Between the time that the first pheasants were released and the first season opened, the population of prairie chickens continued to decline. They were not long-time natives of the state, but had migrated to the northern Great Plains as farmers moved into the area in the 1880s. But as farmers turned over the wild grasses, and hunters pursued them, Prairie Chickens entered an unstoppable decline. Hunting season on prairie chickens closed after 1945 and it was thought then that there would never be another one. Pheasants took their place as a favorite game bird of hunters.

Prairie chickens had been reduced to a few thousand birds nesting in the sandhills of southeastern ND by the 1960s. In 2006, following a 45-year effort by the Game and Fish Department to stock birds and provide adequate habitat, the department opened a brief and very limited prairie chicken season.

Today pheasants are well-adapted to North Dakota’s grasslands and farm fields. A harsh winter can harm the population, but the birds have become a familiar sight and a boon to the economy of several western North Dakota towns that benefit from the influx of hunters every fall.

Prairie chickens are still here, though far fewer in number than in 1900. Though once they had nearly disappeared from ND,  small populations now exist in the grasslands of the northern Red River Valley and the sandhills of the state’s southeastern counties thanks to scientific management practices of the Game and Fish Department and a growing awareness on the part of hunters that hunting laws help to maintain healthy game populations.

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