Tuesday, January 31st, 2023
Tuesday, January 31st, 2023

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Low bird numbers in Dakotas, Iowa ground traveling pheasant hunters

Pierre, S.D. — As interested parties gathered this week at a so-called Pheasant Habitat Summit in South Dakota, one thing surely on their minds and up for discussion was the loss of state revenue caused by fewer Minnesota pheasant hunters – and those from other states – crossing the border to hunt in the state most renowned for pheasant hunting.

No summit was scheduled in neighboring Iowa, but state officials there, too, say poor weather, lost pheasant habitat, and subsequent declines in bird numbers have slowed the flow of money coming into the state via hunters.

At the summit in Huron, state officials in South Dakota hope to demonstrate to media and others the importance of the pheasant-hunting heritage in that state, according to Justin Larson, outdoor media and industry representative for the Department of Tourism.

“We’re creating an awareness of what we’re losing,” Larson said.

In dollars, the reduction in pheasants and, ultimately, hunters pursuing them, has caused a loss of around $100 million the past couple years, based on a peak of about $300 million in pheasant hunting-related revenue a few years ago, to under $200 million last year, Larson said.

Both South Dakota and Iowa, two of the nation’s top states for pheasant hunting, have seen hunter numbers drop upon projections of lower bird numbers.

Before the respective seasons began, South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks officials announced the pheasant index had dropped 64 percent from 2012, and was 76 percent below the 10-year average. And in Iowa, an August roadside survey – similar to Minnesota’s – showed an 18-percent decline. (Minnesota’s pheasant population was about 29 percent below last year, based on the August counts, and 64 percent below the 10-year average.)

While the reduction in the pheasant population in Iowa didn’t appear as drastic as the drops in other states, it was similar to the counts in 2011, which, according to an Iowa DNR press release “was the lowest in 60 years of summer surveys and preceded the lowest harvest in Iowa’s rich pheasant-hunting history.”

As expected, based on those dreary reports the number of hunters who’ve visited those states from others had declined, too.

During the hey days of the late 1990s, about 50,000 nonresident small-game hunters visited Iowa, most of them there to chase pheasants, according to Todd Bogenschutz, DNR upland game research biologist in Ames. They represented about one-fourth the total of about 200,000 pheasant hunters.

This year, Bogenschutz expects around 45,000 pheasant hunters will participate in the fall and winter season, of which around 7,000 will be from outside the state.

“Nonresident (hunter) numbers are declining along with bird numbers,” he said.

In South Dakota, pheasant-hunting license sales are down about 20 percent this year, Larson said.

The decline in hunter numbers there hasn’t been as pronounced as it has been in Iowa. Larson said the pheasant population was at a high point in South Dakota in 2007, when about 103,000 nonresidents and 80,000 residents chased the birds. Last year those numbers slid to about 94,000 nonresidents and 69,000 residents.

(As of last week, the number of resident pheasant stamps sold in Minnesota was lagging about 14 percent behind last year: about 88,100 in 2012 vs. 75,500 this year.)

Along with a drop in hunter numbers has come a drop in harvest in those two neighboring states, again, most dramatic in Iowa.

During the late 1990s, the pheasant harvest in Iowa was typically between 1.2 million and 1.5 million, Bogenschutz said. The million mark last was seen in 2003.

Last year, Iowa hunters took about 160,000 roosters.

“The weather and habitat are both working against us,” he said.

While above average corn and soybean prices have led to a reduction in habitat, and Conservation Reserve Program acres have been lost in that state, there should be more pheasants available, Bogenschutz said – were it not for poor weather conditions.

“We’ve lost habitat, but it’s not just that,” he said.

During the course of the past half century or so, Bogenschutz said most decades have featured about three or four years when weather conditions could be classified as harsh enough to negatively affect pheasant production. This past decade, however, that’s happened six or seven times, he added.

“It’s been really snowy for us,” he said, “and really wet.”

Given the habitat that exists in the state, and given better winter and nesting conditions, “we should be harvesting 600,000 to 800,000 roosters without much trouble,” Bogenschutz said.

While Bogenschutz didn’t have an estimate on the overall economic impact of the downturn in pheasant hunting, he said the DNR took in $4.8 million in revenue related to the hunt in 2006. In 2006 “dollars,” the revenue from pheasant hunting was about $1.6 million, he said.

Larson said fewer hunters have meant fewer roosters shot in South Dakota in recent years.

In 2007, the harvest was about 2.1 million, and with the exception of 2010, when the harvest bounced up to 1.83 million from 1.65 million in 2009, the trajectory has been downward. Last year, the harvest was about 1.4 million.

Habitat loss has shouldered some of the blame, as CRP acreage for the first time in a couple decades has dropped below a million acres.

But as has been the case in Iowa and Minnesota, poor weather has been holding back the birds, Larson said.

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