Hunters in the northern Plains who've grown accustomed to bringing home three pheasants or a deer are finding the years of abundance may be over.
Three brutal winters and a steady loss of habitat have hurt reproduction and reduced the number of animals hunters have seen this season, wildlife and conservation experts say.
Randy White, who's been hunting South Dakota pheasants for a quarter of a century, said wild birds are out there but hunters are no longer reaching their three-bird-per-person limit within the first hour.
"I'm hunting with two very good dogs, and it's still tough," said White, who has spent some 30 days this season in fields with his golden retrievers, Annie and Roxy. "You just got to hunt hard and a lot longer."
A Christmas with little or no snow should help hens and roosters find food and survive so they can reproduce, said Randy Kreil, wildlife chief of the North Dakota Game and Fish Department, but population gains will still be hampered by loss of habitat as land enrolled in the federal Conservation Reserve Program shifts back to farming.
The voluntary CRP program pays landowners not to farm their property. Since its creation in 1985, it has boosted populations of ducks, ring-necked pheasants, prairie chickens, Columbian sharp-tailed grouse and other wildlife by providing areas where they can feed and reproduce, according to the USDA.
But the fees paid to landowners haven't kept pace with increases in crop prices, and many farmers are putting native prairie and even land once considered marginal for farming back into production. If property owners don't want to farm themselves, they can get more than $100 per acre annually by renting their fields to those who do. The average CRP fee is just $57 an acre.
About 31 million acres are enrolled in the CRP program, but contracts on 6.5 million of those acres are scheduled to expire by September. At its peak in 2007, the program protected nearly 36.8 million acres, said Dan James, spokesman for the USDA Farm Service Agency in Bismarck.
"We've warned people that the previous years' experiences with deer and pheasants could be considered the `good ol' days' because it's going to change quickly," Kreil said. "We have a whole generation of hunters that doesn't have any idea what it's like."
Some hunters have already noticed the loss of habitat.
"They'll go out to places they've hunted pheasants or deer for the last 20 years and it's completely black dirt now," Kriel said. "It's all turned over."
In South Dakota, the pheasants-per-mile index used to assess the population dropped by 46 percent over the past year, after reaching historic highs from 2003 to 2010.
Joe Sonnenfeld, 27, who regularly hunts pheasants near Doland, S.D., said he and other outdoorsmen have to cover a lot more land to get their limit. But out-of-state hunters who fly in and out of Sioux Falls Regional Airport for guided or preserve hunts often leave happy because they're hunting on stocked land.
"If they're paying for their hunt, they're pretty much guaranteed their birds," said Sonnenfeld, assistant manager of the Enterprise rental car branch at the airport. "They've been seeing them, but I think that's kind of a flawed representation of what the state bird numbers are."
Pheasant numbers also have dropped in North Dakota and Minnesota and have hit an all-time low in Iowa, said Dave Nomsen, vice president of government affairs for the conservation group Pheasants Forever. He experienced the loss firsthand a few weeks ago while hunting near Aberdeen, S.D. The two most frequent comments he heard were "Where are the hens?" and "Wow, we're shooting a lot of old, adult birds." Both are signs of a hard winter, he said.
Back-to-back-to-back tough winters have killed bucks and does and led to some of the lowest reproductive numbers North Dakota has ever seen. Mule deer typically produce from 0.8 to 1.2 fawns per doe, but last year that number dropped to 0.59 fawns, Kreil said.
"They may be pregnant going into the winter, but they're just not able to bring the fawn to birth," he said. "And what deer will actually do is they will reabsorb the fetus and use the energy to stay alive. If you have that happen three years in a row, you really limit the amount of new animals coming into the population."
The loss is so severe that North Dakota, which made 150,000 deer licenses available in 2007, will issue fewer than 100,000 in 2012 _ the lowest number in two decades.
"It's going to be tough to even get a deer license in some areas next year in North Dakota," Kreil said.
Spring flooding in the northern Plains boosted 2011's duck population, but waterfowl organizations say such conditions won't last forever, and hunters will eventually feel the loss of conservation acres.
Nomsen said the warm fall provided a good start for pheasants, and a mild winter with no ice and a warmer, drier spring could kick off a recovery of a species with high reproductive potential. Previous springs have been too wet and cool for the birds.
But even with ideal conditions, including gentle rains that produce insects for chicks to eat, the bird numbers won't be as high as those seen during the height of the CRP program, Nomsen said.