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Published February 01, 2011, 10:41 AM

North Dakota Winter Has Been Tough on Wildlife

The weather in February and March will be critical to the health of wildlife in North Dakota and the prospects for hunters, state wildlife officials say.

By: Associated Press,

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — The weather in February and March will be critical to the health of wildlife in North Dakota and the prospects for hunters, state wildlife officials say.

Animals and birds could use a reprieve after struggling with tough conditions for three straight winters, Game and Fish Department Wildlife Chief Randy Kreil said.

"They are not as resilient as they were in the beginning of winter," he said. "The longer winter drags on, the greater the impact to wildlife populations and next fall's hunting opportunities."

Record to near-record snowfall has blanketed much of North Dakota each winter since 2008-09. As of the end of January, the average snow depth in North Dakota of more than 2 feet was nearly double what it was last year at the same time. Heavy snow cover makes it difficult for animals to find food and survive.

Winter mortality forced officials to reduce deer hunting licenses last year by 19 percent to the lowest level in almost a decade, and the antelope population was too low to even have a hunting season. Kreil said there are reports of dead and dying deer again this season, as there typically are during tough winters, and reports of pheasant losses.

"What this winter will mean in terms of pheasant hunting opportunities next fall is hard to tell," he said. "For the most part, birds were able to adapt the past two winters under similar conditions. But then again, good nesting habitat in spring allowed them to rebound, (and) with the continued loss of Conservation Reserve Program acres, their ability to rebound could be impaired."

CRP is a program under which farmers are paid by the federal government to idle land to prevent erosion and provide wildlife habitat. Some 4.4 million acres could come out of the program this year because contracts are expiring, though the federal Agriculture Department hopes new contracts will offset the loss.

Kreil said this winter's effect on North Dakota wildlife is still uncertain.

"A mild February and March is much needed, and if we get a break we will see the benefits next fall," Kreil said. "If not, then hunters will need to adjust their expectations in 2011."

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