Monday, January 30th, 2023
Monday, January 30th, 2023

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S.D. pheasant numbers are highest in decades

Officials predict a 2-million bird harvest this
fall

By Tori J. McCormickContributing Writer

Pierre, S.D. – Most wildlife managers – they of measured words
and poker faces – abhor making black-and-white predictions about an
upcoming hunting season, regardless of the species.

But that could be changing in South Dakota, where wildlife
managers in recent years could have made small fortunes in what’s
been described as a ‘pheasant bull market.’

The good news is the nation’s premiere pheasant hunting state is
poised for yet another banner hunting season. The bad news is that
the bull market could be nearing its end.

‘We’re staring down the barrel of an excellent season, so oil
your shotguns and buy a lot of shells,’ said George Vandel,
assistant wildlife director for South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks.
‘The flip side of that is that we know we’re going to be losing a
lot of pheasant habitat this fall, and when you lose habitat, there
are consequences.’

According to Vandel, brood count surveys conducted in early
August show that statewide pheasant numbers are up 23 percent from
2006, when hunters harvested more than 1.8 million birds. In
addition, the pheasant population index, which hit a 40-year high
in 2005, is at historic highs. Indeed, this year’s pheasant numbers
are the highest on record since 1963, the tail end of the so-called
Soil Bank era.

‘The index is higher than 2005,’ Vandel said. ‘Like I said,
we’re looking at a good year. I anticipate a harvest of about 2
million birds.’

South Dakota’s much-anticipated brood count survey is conducted
on 110 30-mile routes where pheasants are found in sufficient
numbers to count. Vandel said South Dakota’s high pheasant
population can be attributed to yet another mild winter and a
strong habitat base. In addition, mild spring weather in most areas
east of the Missouri river – the state’s primary pheasant range –
helped nest success.

‘In some counties in the northeast, spring rains may have hurt
nest success, but overall we have a good distribution of birds
throughout East River,’ Vandel said. ‘And that should help spread
out hunting pressure when the season opens on the third Saturday in
October.’

The results of brood route survey showed a 15-percent increase
in broods and an 11-percent increase in brood size from 2006. The
average 2007 brood size was 6.71 chicks, according to the survey.
In addition, the average number of pheasants counted per mile
(7.85) is 67 percent higher than the 10-year average (4.71).

‘We had some pheasant routes where the number of pheasants
counted per mile were the highest ever recorded,’ Vandel said.

Although pheasant numbers in South Dakota are some of the
highest in decades, this year’s crop pales in comparison to World
War II-era numbers. Consider: In 1941, South Dakota had an
estimated pheasant population of 11 million. That number increased
to 15 million in 1942 and 1944, only to rise to 16 million birds in
1945.

While hunters visiting South Dakota this fall can expect to see
plenty of birds, Vandel and others sketch an ominous picture for
the future. According to Vandel, South Dakota currently has 1.4
million Conservation Reserve Program acres, valuable grassland
habitat that has buoyed pheasant numbers across much of the Midwest
in recent years.

However, by autumn’s end, Vandel said roughly 300,000 CRP acres
will go back into agricultural production, which, he says, doesn’t
bode well for future pheasant production, not to mention production
for a slew of other ground-nesting birds, including prairie ducks
like blue-winged teal and mallards.

‘We could lose even more acres after this year,’ Vandel said.
‘Pheasant populations are going to go down, I just don’t know when
or by how much.’

Vandel said he hopes the new federal Farm Bill, which Congress
likely will pass by October, will keep CRP intact and make it more
attractive to landowners. He said high corn prices and an increased
demand for corn-based ethanol are deterrents for landowners who may
otherwise want to keep their lands in CRP.

‘There are no easy solutions,’ Vandel said. ‘Habitat is the key,
and many farmers in South Dakota manage their lands for pheasants.
That’s good. But you can’t lose that much grass and expect to keep
pheasant numbers at historic highs.’

South Dakota wildlife officials say that hunters should plan
ahead and do their homework for the upcoming season. They say
finding private land to hunt, particularly early in the season, can
be extremely difficult, concentrating hunters on public lands.

‘All signs point toward a terrific pheasant hunting season,’
said Doug Hansen, South Dakota GF&P wildlife director.
‘However, high counts don’t automatically translate into hunter
success. The best bet is to scout the area where you’re going to
hunt and to visit landowners because localized conditions can cause
pheasant populations to fluctuate.’

Added Hansen: ‘Anyone interested in South Dakota maintaining its
world-class pheasant population needs to get involved in the
process of convincing Congress that programs like CRP are vital for
the conservation of all kinds of wildlife.’

The regular 2007 pheasant hunting season starts at noon on Oct.
20. For more information on the 2007 pheasant brood count survey,
visit
http://www.sdgfp.info/Wildlife/hunting/Pheasant/BroodReport07.pdf
.

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