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Months of persistent drought in 2012, a cold, wet spring in 2013 and a reduction in habitat have impacted pheasant brood counts, according to a report released last week by the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department.

South Dakota pheasant population takes hit

Britton Journal

Months of persistent drought in 2012, a cold, wet spring in 2013 and a reduction in habitat have impacted pheasant brood counts, according to a report released last week by the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department.

The 2013 report indicates an index of 1.52 pheasants per mile, down from 4.19 pheasants per mile last year. That represents a 64 percent decrease from a year ago.

Marshall County is included in the Sisseton and Aberdeen route counts. A total of .47 pheasants per mile were counted on the Sisseton route, down from last year’s .82 and the 10-year average of 2.04. The Aberdeen route count fell from 3.74 to 1.7 and is way down from the 10-year average of 6.76 birds per mile. But officials note that South Dakota will still offer the best pheasant hunting experience in the country, with more than 1.1 million acres of public land available for pursuing birds within the state’s main pheasant range.

The department’s annual brood count surveys the number of pheasants per mile as a means to track pheasant numbers over time. The actual population size is estimated after the pheasant hunting season ends, with additional information gathered from hunter surveys and a winter rooster-to-hen ratio survey.

“The annual brood count provides us with a year-over-year analysis tool,” said Travis Runia, GFP’s lead pheasant biologist. “Our numbers may be down from last year, but hunters will still be able to find birds.”

GFP conducts the brood route survey each year on select stretches of roads around the state. All pheasants are counted along each route, with particular attention to the number of broods.

“Much of the northern Great Plains experienced the same weather and habitat factors that impacted our brood counts,” Runia said.

Runia noted that lower brood counts in 1992 and 1997 still resulted in almost one million pheasants harvested in South Dakota each year. Since 1992, the state has added 350,000 acres of public access within the main pheasant range, expanding hunting opportunities.

The 2013 pheasant season opens Oct. 19 and runs through Jan. 5, 2014. The Youth Pheasant season will run from Oct. 5 – 9 and the Resident Only season Oct. 12 – 14.

The 2013 Pheasant Brood Survey Report, complete with comparisons for different local areas, can be accessed at http://gfp.sd.gov/hunting/small-game/pheasant-outlook.aspx.

A spokesperson from Pheasants Forever says upland habitat loss is the primary culprit in the downturn of South Dakota’s legendary pheasant population, a trend he feels will continue unless federal policy makers swiftly enact strengthened conservation policies.

“By not passing a Farm Bill, by not including the ‘Protect Our Prairies Act’ (also known as Sodsaver provisions), by not re-linking crop insurance payments to conservation compliance, federal policy makers are all but ensuring this unprecedented habitat loss will continue in South Dakota and across the Midwest,” said Dave Nomsen, Pheasants Forever’s Vice President of Governmental Affairs. “South Dakota’s identity as the top pheasant-producing state, and as our nation’s premier pheasant hunting destination, is truly dependent on Congressional action.”

Nomsen added the passage of a new Farm Bill is the single most important aid to South Dakota upland habitat that can be made with immediacy, while state-level and private organization contributions need to be part of a more comprehensive conservation effort.

While weather events in recent years – tough winters, cold, wet springs and heat and drought – undoubtedly earn a share of the blame for the diminished pheasant numbers, Nomsen says the impact of the habitat loss is unmistakable, pointing to the destruction of Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) acres and conversion of other grasslands.

“For the first time in two decades, there were less than 1 million CRP acres in South Dakota for pheasants to nest in,” Nomsen said, who, along with many wildlife biologists, considers this well below the threshold level of 1.25-1.5 million acres necessary for sustaining a world-class pheasant population. “Landowners need to know these conservation programs will remain viable, so passing a Farm Bill that reauthorizes the Conservation Reserve Program, Wetlands Reserve Program and other wildlife-friendly, USDA conservation programs, is a step lawmakers must take this September.”

Pheasants are big business in South Dakota. In fact, the South Dakota Department of Tourism estimates pheasant hunting generates $223 million in retail economic impact annually and an additional $111 million in salaries annually. Additionally, the state estimates there are 4,500 jobs linked directly to the pheasant hunting industry and related tourism.

South Dakota’s pheasant population has fallen from a modern historic high in just a few years, and Nomsen says given the prolific nature of these birds, a rebound in equal short order is possible, provided new and improved habitat is added.

“Having Congress pass a comprehensive Farm Bill right now is the first step. Additionally, all stakeholders concerned about preserving and enhancing the traditions of pheasant hunting dear to South Dakota should begin evaluating their roles and how they can work together supporting the habitats critical for this iconic bird important to the state’s identity, economy and culture,” Nomsen said.

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