Conditions favor state's estimated 7.5 million pheasants
Thousands of hunters will head into South Dakota's fields today, chasing roughly 7.5 million pheasants, most of which are concentrated in the central and eastern reaches of the state.
Who has the advantage?
The pheasants do, according to Department of Game, Fish and Parks employees, because a string of natural occurrences throughout 2009 has given those millions of birds plenty of places to hide.
Not only have steady rains this year prompted the growth of cover for pheasants, but the birds also will be protected by countless acres of row crops that still stand because it's been too wet and cold for farmers to harvest.
And making matters worse for hunters, the corn that is still standing is tall -- taller than usual because of the exceptional growing season earlier this year, said Steve Rossow, a GF&P conservation officer based in Brule County, about 60 miles west of Mitchell.
"I'm guessing that over this weekend, the birds will have the advantage because there is so much cover," said Rossow. "But once that corn comes out ..."
South Dakota's statewide pheasant season opens at noon today, with a daily limit of three roosters. Shooting hours last until sunset. Although the GF&P noted a 26 percent decrease in its annual summertime brood surveys, there still should be plenty of pheasants, employees of the agency are saying.
Last year, South Dakota's pheasant population was estimated at 9.9 million, which was down from 11.9 million in 2007. If there is indeed a 26 percent drop -- as the brood surveys indicate -- there still would be more than 7 million pheasants in the state as of this weekend, which is higher than each population estimate from 1964 to 2002.
And it's possible this year's brood counts were skewed, said Rossow, because of excessive moisture throughout the summer. After several years of drought, the last two years have been wet, creating an environment of ample cover for ring-necks.
"The birds are still out there," said Rossow. "My brood routes were down a little bit from last year, but not much. I think that was due to the cover that was out there. They were there, I'm sure -- I was just not seeing them."
Either way, Rossow's region is the state's prime pheasant country, according to the 2009 survey results. Surveys in August near Chamberlain showed 19.26 pheasants per mile, down a bit from 2008's 22.56 pheasants per mile but still almost double the other best regions in the state.
At Winner this year, GF&P officers saw 11.43 pheasants per mile during the August surveys, and at Pierre, the number was 11.48.
Other areas in the state and their pheasants-per-mile count were Mobridge (8.54), Huron (7.08), Mitchell (6.17), Aberdeen (5.75), Watertown (3.24), Brookings (2.67) and Sioux Falls (1.93). The large geographic area simply labeled by the GF&P as "Western South Dakota" showed 3.84 pheasants per mile.
Statewide, the average was 6.32, which is lower than last year's 8.56 but higher than the 10-year average of 5.58.
"There are still plenty of birds out there to hunt," said Ron Schauer, a regional game manager with the state GF&P's office in Sioux Falls. "But when you throw in hunting conditions and the crop harvest, it's going to make for much more difficult hunting."
According to the National Agricultural Statistics Service, only 2 percent of South Dakota's corn crop had been harvested as of earlier this week. Typically, about 19 percent has been cut by now. About 25 percent of the soybean crop is out of the fields, down from the usual 56 percent.
Rain and cool weather have slowed the harvest, and those damp conditions also could make for some muddy and unpleasant walking today, although the weekend forecast calls for dry conditions with temperatures in the 50s and lower 60s.
Whether the predictions of lower pheasant numbers, the economic recession or the recent weather will impact the number of hunters in the region is anyone's guess, although Chad Switzer, a GF&P terrestrial administrator, said it's unlikely that hunter numbers will be affected much.
Although South Dakota never hosted more than 98,000 nonresident pheasant hunters throughout history until 2007, the past two years brought 103,231 and 100,349 out-of-state guests, respectively.
Typically, about 75,000 South Dakotans hunt pheasants each year, but nonresident hunters have outnumbered resident hunters each of the past seven seasons.
"I don't know if we'll be over 100,000 nonresident hunters like we have been the previous two years, but we anticipate that we'll be pretty close to that," Switzer said.
The Daily Republic's Austin Kaus and Seth Tupper contributed to this report