HURON — The main focus of Friday’s gathering of pheasant hunters, landowners and policymakers was on the loss of pheasant habitat and its impact on the birds’ numbers.
But that’s not the only factor influencing the pheasant population. Some attendees at the Governor’s Pheasant Habitat Summit in Huron said there are other factors, including weather and predation.
Merlin Feistner, 69, of Woonsocket, believes predators — such as coyotes, hawks and possums — are pushing pheasant numbers down.
“I’ve never seen as bad of a predator problem as we have now,” he said during a small-group discussion with about 20 other people and a South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks official. “We’ve got everything from coyotes, hawks, eagles and possums.
“I know what CRP stands for. It’s Coyote Reproduction Program, and it’s working great.”
He added that “all the habitat in the world” will not help bring pheasant numbers back up as long as predator numbers stay high.
When asked to identify the biggest influence on the recent decline in pheasant numbers, people at Friday’s summit answered in a variety of ways. Following are some of the responses.
Rick Smith, Hayti, 62: “I think it’s a combination of when you have some bad weather, but you have poor weather, you’re going to have some problems. Just the cold and the snows and even the drought, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to lose a lot of pheasants. But when they don’t have a place or any kind of protection, that’s when bird loss is really going to come into play.”
Lyle Stewart, Pierre, 59: “It’s the droughts and the weather. We had a major drought last year. The second biggest in my opinion is predators. Back in 2008, we had a bad hailstorm and it just wiped out everything, the deer, coyotes and pheasants.”
Brandon Sargent, Sioux Falls, 38: “It’s the loss of habitat. The facts show that. You can see the trend lines of when we have good habitat, birds numbers are up. I think that’s the No. 1 thing and why we’re here today. It’s the biggest thing we can influence, too.”
Dennis Hoyle, Roscoe, 62: “The high-priced corn and ethanol is forcing people to take CRP or other lands out and turning it into something that’s making some money. You can’t blame anybody for that. It may not be what you like, but it’s understandable. Monsanto likes to sell their chemicals and they lobby in Washington.”
Billy Antonides, Aberdeen, 61: “Habitat, no question about it, is the No. 1 culprit in the decline of pheasant numbers. Good cover provides good shelter from blizzards and cold, and there’s also nesting there. Habitat provides cover in the winter, nesting in the spring and hiding places from predators.”
Don Miles Jr., Doland, 55: “We’re losing our habitat. It’s politics. I’ve been farming a short 40 years since the ’70s. I remember as a young man before that driving truck in the Soil Bank days and the sky would be filled with birds. Then came the ’70s and Earl Butz — secretary of agriculture, who said to feed the world — and it was the idea of farming fence row to fence row, which is going on now with corn and marginal land being put back into production. It’s kind of a repeat in history now. The government is the only one that can control that to keep this poor land out of production, or if they want to break that up, you should have to put another 100 acres back to grass. We’re losing our habitat. It’s not the predator. The pheasants are losing their habitat.”
Butch Spain, Cavour, 66: “We’re not doing what we’re supposed to be doing with the habitat we have now, such as letting farmers raise cattle in it and haying it. Also, the predators are a problem. If we had a good bounty back on predators, then I’m sure we’d have more pheasants, too.”
David Healan, Pierre, 54: “I feel like it’s attributed to a lot of different reasons. I think the last few years in the short term has been mainly weather related. It is a concern about the loss of habitat, but South Dakota has experienced some high crop prices and better farm technology. I don’t think you can pin it on one aspect. I think you have to look at several different aspects and I think that’s the reason you’re seeing this summit here. It’s to get everyone on the same page and see what we can do for South Dakota pheasants.”
Marie Kimlicka, Redfield, 43: “I think the main reason for pheasant decline is habitat loss. Our farming practices have changed and we are able to farm a lot more ground than we used to and not as much cover for the birds. We do have some sloughs that have dried up that we are now farming that we weren’t five years ago. We do have a pheasant lodge and we are farmers, and farming is our No. 1 business, but we want to bridge that gap between production and conservation. There’s a balance in there and we need to find it.”