In summer 1993 it ended. A years-long drought that beset North Dakota in the late 1980s and early 1990s was erased with inches and inches of rain that started falling sometime in June, poured in July, and began to abate by late August.
In a land of weather extremes, what happened 20 years ago this month in North Dakota was unusual, as rain totals in all regions of the state were appreciably above average. July 1993, in many parts of the state, was the wettest month ever recorded. Many locations received 12 inches or more of rain than was typical for the month. Nearly 14 inches, for example, fell on Bismarck that July, which was well above the average of 2.89 inches. In terms of yearly precipitation rankings for Bismarck, 1993 stands as the third wettest with nearly 27 inches of rain.
While it was inevitable, but certainly not guaranteed, that rain would eventually return, washing the landscape of arguably the worst drought since the Dust Bowl, it’s unlikely anybody would have predicted what would follow.
“The mantra at the time was that we never had more than three wet years in row,” said Mike Johnson, North Dakota Game and Fish Department game management section leader. “We’d see two or three wet years, then two or three dry years. Historically, we knew that North Dakota had wet cycles lasting longer, but we had never seen it.”
North Dakota has been more wet than dry the last 20 years, which is unprecedented since record-keeping began. “We are water rich right now,” said Scott Gangl, Department fisheries management section leader. “Where we are at today in terms of the number of lakes in North Dakota is just amazing.”
During the drought of the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Game and Fish Department managed far fewer lakes, about 170, than today’s record of more than 400 waters.
Today, the North Dakota Game and Fish Department manages a record 400-plus fishing waters.
The only thing predictable about weather on the Northern Plains is its unpredictability. “Tracking water on the landscape is kind of like watching the stock market,” Gangl said. “You see some years where it really spikes, then you have a dry year like last summer and it falls. But over the last 20 years the trend has been upward.”
Before water returned to the prairie in full force in 1993, Johnson said waterfowl managers thought it impossible for struggling duck populations to mount a comeback.
While water on the landscape is a boon to waterfowl, too much of it can flood roads and cause other headaches.
“We were doing everything, from building manmade islands, to predator-proofing nesting areas, to putting out thousands of duck nesting structures,” Johnson said. “The goal was to keep hunters hunting because hunters are the people who buy licenses, duck stamps, shotguns and ammunition which funds the conservation effort.”
While the return of water to North Dakota was crucial to a rise in duck numbers, Johnson said other key ingredients played a major role in the recovery, such as huge blocks of Conservation Reserve Program acres and a decline in predators that are notoriously hard on nesting ducks. Mink numbers fell during the drought and red fox declined as mange worked its way through the wild canine population.
“While we had CRP in place, we had no idea that putting large blocks of grass on the landscape would change the situation we had with ducks,” Johnson said.
Yet, it did.
By 1994, breeding duck numbers in North Dakota were up significantly, likely equal to the high going back to 1948. “In 1995, we saw a huge increase in breeding duck numbers, breaking all the records at the time. The following two years we just went up from there and have been on a high ever since,” Johnson said. “Duck numbers have yet to drop in North Dakota back to what they were before 1993.”
Johnson said the continuing decline in CRP and native grasses in North Dakota today is a growing concern, but having plenty of water still attracts ducks and benefits production.
“Without the grass, ducks will struggle to reproduce, but the water in North Dakota is still drawing birds,” Johnson said.
Even so, Johnson said the hopes of waterfowl managers decline at about the same rate as North Dakota’s CRP acres. “Without the large blocks of cover for ducks to nest in, production will have to drop off, which will reflect in a lower continental population of ducks.”
Prairie Fishery Boom
When rain clouds opened in 1993, thousands and thousands of acres of water flooded vegetation that had stood dry for years. The newly inundated vegetation provided ideal spawning habitat and nutrient-rich conditions for northern pike and yellow perch.
“Before the water came back, some of these perch lakes just didn’t exist,” said Greg Power, Department fisheries chief in a North Dakota OUTDOORS article in 2003. “Dry Lake (McIntosh County) went from a deer meadow to a 30-foot deep lake and, for a few years, was a world-class perch fishery.”
Power added at the time: “We feel safe to say that, in geological time, we have never had so many pike and perch in the state. There have never been so many fishing opportunities …”
Spring forward to 2013 and the fishing picture, however, gets even brighter. “Today, we have surpassed even where we were then,” Power said. “Never in North Dakota has there been more water bodies, pike lakes, walleye lakes … We might not be where we were in terms of perch, but that’s only because of the significant number of predators like pike and walleye.”
Power said when a new body of water was created with an abundance of rain and runoff 20 years ago, fisheries biologists called them “opportunistic” lakes because it was believed that the majority had short windows of time in which they’d provide fishing opportunities to anglers. Many of those waters, however, are still producing fish in these water-rich times.
“We don’t use ‘opportunistic’ when referring to these waters anymore,” Power said. “Having water this long is new to us. We’ve never been here before.”
But who knows what next year or the year after will bring, Gangl said. “Through experience we have learned to take advantage of what Mother Nature provides,” he said. “By the end of last summer as we lost 2 feet of water in some of our lakes, we thought, ‘Yep, it’s over … it was good while it lasted.’ But this spring was terrifically wet and some of those lakes are higher than they’ve ever been.”
Cool Weather Killer
While the return of water to the landscape two decades ago was the start of a long-term boon for fish and ducks, it was a short-term blow to many species of ground-nesting birds, and a long-term blow to another.
It was reported in North Dakota OUTDOORS that 1993 reproduction surveys showed pheasant numbers were down 36 percent statewide from 1992. Sharp-tailed grouse were down nearly 43 percent, and Hungarian partridge were down a staggering 68.1 percent.
While much of the heavy rain that would have flooded nests fell after peak hatching periods for pheasants, grouse and partridge, it was believed that cool temperatures played a bigger role in killing young than anything else.
During the peak hatching period, and continuing through July 1993, temperatures were well below normal. Daily low temperatures fell to below 40 degrees during the last week in June in western North Dakota. From June 28-July 4 temperatures statewide at the time were 6-8 degrees below normal, and lows again plunged into the 30s at times in the western part of the state.
While water brings life to the prairie landscape, it also brings death, inundating and killing mature trees that stood proud through the seasons.
These kinds of temperatures are tough on young upland game birds, biologists say, that are not able to regulate their own body temperature until they are about 1-3 weeks old.
While pheasant and grouse populations have climbed and declined a number of times in the last 20 years, Hungarian partridge have yet to recover from the cool, wet summer of 1993.