BISMARCK, N.D. — Tourism and business officials in the Dakotas are bracing for poor pheasant hunting this fall when they typically expect hundreds of millions of dollars in economic activity.
The worst drought in recent memory this past summer has depleted the population of the popular game bird in the two states, with bird numbers down by nearly half from last year in South Dakota and down nearly two-thirds in North Dakota. The two states are considered among the best pheasant hunting areas in the nation by the Pheasants Forever conservation group.
In North Dakota, where 500,000 pheasants killed is the benchmark for a successful hunting season, “we’re not going to get anywhere close to that,” state Wildlife Chief Jeb Williams said as the Game and Fish Department prepared for the season opener Saturday. South Dakota’s opening day is two weeks later.
Pheasants are big business in the Dakotas, attracting hundreds of thousands of hunters. They spend an estimated $60 million per year on average in North Dakota, according to state Tourism Division data. In South Dakota, pheasants are an even bigger economic boost, with hunters spending nearly $250 million last year, according to the state Game, Fish and Parks Department.
“Many communities in southwest and south central North Dakota depend on the influx of hunters to sustain their businesses, so we are hopeful hunters will continue to make the annual pheasant hunting trip to North Dakota,” state Tourism Director Sara Otte Coleman said.
Her office will “encourage hunters to come and enjoy the experience and tradition of pheasant hunting with less emphasis on bagging their limit,” she said.
Bagging birds isn’t the only attraction of pheasant hunting, said Troy Mosbrucker, mayor of Mott, which is generally considered the heart of North Dakota pheasant country.
“Some guys come because they like to visit,” he said. “They spend a week with their friends, and if they get birds, they get birds.”
“There are going to be some disappointed hunters, I can tell you that. The birds are gone,” Mosbrucker said.
That will hurt the town of about 800 people, he said.
“Our town probably doubles in size during the first month of hunting season,” he said. “Bars and restaurants, they rely on hunting season to get through the winter. The motel’s getting cancellations already, and they’re usually booked up through Thanksgiving.”
Stephan Stanley, who hosts about 300 pheasant hunters each season at his Ringnecks Hunting Lodge in Presho, S.D., said he expects business to be down about 10 percent this year, and he expects to be one of the more fortunate ones.
“The small, individual farmers who don’t have a full-time hunting business, who just have a 1,000-acre parcel, they’re going to be affected the most by this,” he said. “Most large commercial operations are releasing birds” to boost pheasant numbers in their areas, he said, and they also draw hunters with other amenities such as food and camaraderie.
“There’s a lot more to how good of a trip hunters have then just the pheasant population,” he said.