South Dakota pheasant picture slowly coming into focus
Last year, pheasant hunters shot 1.17 million ringneck roosters in South Dakota. That figure was just down from 2015’s harvest of 1.25 million birds, but close to 2014’s take of 1.19 million roosters.
Almost 143,000 pheasant hunters walked South Dakota ground in 2016, with about 80,000 of them hailing from out-of-state. Nonresident hunter numbers have dropped in South Dakota since the recent heydays of the mid- to late- 2000s, when upwards of 100,000 visitors hunted annually.
Traveling hunters should take note of that data point: There’s more room to roam than ever, less competition for space … and one million-plus is still a lot of birds.
As summer takes shape, South Dakota’s fall pheasant prospects are still developing. Travis Runia, Upland Game Biologist with South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks, said it was too early to look ahead to fall. “I shouldn’t speculate on this topic until our brood report is released around Labor Day,” he said.
In that regard, hunters should hope for figures better than the 5.91 to 6.17 average brood sizes seen in 2016 and 2015, respectively. Can it happen?
“Most of the primary pheasant range received 30-40 inches of snow, which is near normal,” said Runia. “An early thaw starting in mid-February melted most of the snow pack well before normal. The exception was the upper Missouri River Valley, which received much above normal snowfall. Some areas received 60 inches or more.
“Overall, the pheasant population was probably not negatively impacted by winter, except for that north-central part of the state.”
Nesting success is going to be key to this fall’s hunt, and Runia ventured some insights.
“Precipitation during the nesting and early brood-rearing period of April and May was 80 percent of normal state-wide, but only 40 to 60 percent of normal in central and north-central South Dakota,” said Runia. “North-central South Dakota had the fourth driest April-May on record. The lack of moisture in central and north-central South Dakota has resulted in poor vegetation growth which could reduce concealment cover for nesting pheasants and broods.
“Many wheat fields failed due to drought conditions,” added Runia. “This will reduce the amount of nesting cover provide by this cereal crop. As of late June, 57 percent of South Dakota was under moderate drought or worse, with 31 percent suffering from severe drought or worse. The drought is intensifying during the brood-rearing period which can cause reduced chick survival.
“The August roadside survey is the best gauge of the pheasant population. Results of the survey will be available by Labor Day,” and will be included in Pheasant Forever’s Fall Hunt Forecast.
If you’re starting to think about a South Dakota hunt this fall, Runia offered some general guidelines.
“Pheasant harvest was highest in central South Dakota in the Missouri River Valley last year, followed by the James River Valley,” he said. “These areas traditionally boast the highest pheasant abundance. But far-eastern counties and portions of western South Dakota also have locally good populations.”
— Tom Carpenter