Monday, February 6th, 2023
Monday, February 6th, 2023

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Outlook is excellent for South Dakota pheasants

Contributing Writer

Pierre, S.D. The nation’s premier pheasant hunting state South
Dakota is poised for one of its best seasons in recent memory,
according to wildlife officials from South Dakota Game, Fish and
Parks.

On the heels of consecutive years in which the state experienced
statewide pheasant declines (19 percent in 2001; 18 percent in
2002), the results of this year’s much-anticipated August brood
count surveys show the statewide pheasant population has increased
by a whooping 121 percent the highest number since 1963.

“It looks real good,” said George Vandel, GF&P assistant
wildlife director. “Not only do we have more birds than last year,
but our surveys show they’re more distributed across the state.
We’re hoping for a harvest in the neighborhood of 1.5 million
birds, but it could be more if the weather cooperates.”

The reason for the increase is twofold: last year’s mild winter
and near-perfect spring nesting conditions, Vandel said. He also
said the state, which has suffered recently from severe drought
conditions in many regions, received some much-needed precipitation
last fall and in early spring.

“The precipitation helped improve nesting conditions this
spring,” he said. “The temperatures this spring were moderate,
which helped with the hatch and brood survival.”

The best pheasant densities in the state are in the traditional
pheasant belt region of south-central South Dakota, particularly in
and around Chamberlain. According to the survey, the pheasant
population near Chamberlain increased 112 percent (16.23 pheasants
per mile) more than a two-fold increase from last year.

Even in areas of northeast South Dakota where severe winter
weather in the middle 1990s decimated the population, pheasant
numbers have rebounded big time.

For as long as there have been pheasants in the South Dakota,
severe winter weather has been one of the primary factors affecting
the number of breeding birds available in the spring, say South
Dakota wildlife officials.

Even in an average winter, as many as 20 percent of the birds
that make it through the hunting season die before spring. When the
winter is bad, 50 percent mortality, perhaps more, isn’t
uncommon.

But pheasants are resilient birds, say wildlife officials. They
can sustain dramatic losses each year because they are capable of
producing an amazing number of offspring. According to the
GF&P, a good pheasant hatch will include seven to 10 young
birds for every adult.

To illustrate, this year’s brood count survey near Aberdeen
showed a 243 percent increase more than triple last year’s
population. The reason? A mild winter and good spring nesting
conditions, say wildlife officials. “When we don’t have a severe
winter, pheasants can rebound really fast,” Vandel said. “Aberdeen
in the northeast is one of those places that has really
rebounded.”

Several other areas in the state showed large pheasant increases
from last year, based on the August survey:

Winner: 51-percent increase, with 6.37 pheasants per mile.

Pierre: 91-percent increase, with 5.25 pheasants per mile

Mobridge: 127-percent increase, with 4.14 pheasants per
mile.

Huron: 100-percent increase, with 8.18 pheasants per mile.

Mitchell: 160-percent increase, with 8.15 pheasants per
mile.

Yankton: 185-percent increase, with 1.68 pheasants per mile.

Sioux Falls: 125-percent increase, with 2.72 pheasants per
mile.

Brookings: 87-percent increase, with 4.89 pheasants per
mile.

Watertown: 122-percent increase, with 4.47 pheasants per
mile.

Sisseton: 132-percent increase, with 1.58 pheasants per
mile.

Vandel cautioned, however, that pheasant numbers in South Dakota
will not only vary from region to region, but from county to county
and from one piece of land to the next depending on habitat and
weather conditions. “If there’s a severe hail storm before the
season, that area could be impacted,” Vandel said. “But in general,
where there’s the best habitat, like acres of CRP, that’s where
you’re going to find the most birds.”

While the immediate future of South Dakota’s pheasant population
appears strong, some rule changes to the popular Conservation
Reserve Program (CRP) have wildlife officials worried.

CRP pays landowners to idle environmental sensitive lands to
grass. The program, which has been hailed by conservation groups as
one of the best farmland conservation programs in the history of
farm bill legislation, has been credited for increasing pheasant
populations across most of the Midwest.

According to Vandel, the Farm Service Agency, which administers
CRP, is allowing CRP lands to be hayed or grazed or otherwise
“managed” one out of every three years during the life of the
contract.

“It used to be one in five years, which is OK for South Dakota
and most states in the Great Plains,” Vandel said. “However, we are
extremely worried about the change to one in three years; it could
severely impact the pheasant population.”

The FSA also is allowing states to change the time in which CRP
lands are hayed or grazed. In many states, Vandel said, CRP
management (haying or grazing) could coincide with the peak of the
pheasant nesting season. “This is really big, because not only
could the change hurt pheasants, but many other ground-nesting
birds as well,” he said.

Said Vandel: “With the rule changes, many CRP acres are being
cut right now in South Dakota.”

Vandel also said that GF&P officials will be checking lands
that are enrolled in the state’s popular Walk-in Area program
private lands that are open to public hunting. “We want to find out
if hunters are getting the bang for their buck,” he said. “We’re
hoping those lands are not being hayed or grazed, but we don’t know
that for sure.”

Last year, hunters in South Dakota harvested 1.26 million
ring-necked pheasants. The highest recorded harvest occurred in
1945, when hunters killed an amazing 7.5 million birds, with an
average harvest per hunter of 42.9 birds, according to the
GF&P.

The South Dakota pheasant hunting season runs from Oct 18-Dec.
31. A nonresident license costs $100 and is valid for two, five-day
periods.

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