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A South Dakota coyote is shown in this image from the state Department of Tourism.

GF&P says coyotes not to blame for pheasant decline

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Keith Fisk has heard the complaints.

Coyotes and other predators are killing pheasants and driving the birds’ population down, some hunters and landowners say.

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Fisk, administrator of the Wildlife Damage Management program of the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks, says the complainers are wrong.

“Anecdotally, I would say our predator populations have increased over the past few years,” he said. “But if people are out there trying to make a correlation between our coyote populations and pheasant population, they’re barking up the wrong tree.”

Though there’s no official estimate of the coyote population, the number of coyotes killed by government predator-control efforts in South Dakota ballooned from about 3,700 in 2010 to more than 7,000 last year.

At the same time coyote numbers have increased, pheasant numbers have plummeted. Last August, the GF&P reported pheasant numbers dropped 64 percent from the previous year based on an annual roadside survey that counts broods. The drop was the second largest in the history of the state’s survey, dating to 1949. It also means the state’s official 2013 pheasant population estimate, which is yet to be released, could dip below 3 million after reaching 12 million as recently as 2007.

Concern about the numbers sparked the first-ever Pheasant Habitat Summit called by South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard in December at Huron. People who attended the meeting were asked to focus on wildlife habitat in the state, which has been declining in part because of shrinking acreage in the federal Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). That trend, plus unfavorable weather, has taken most of the blame for the declining pheasant numbers. But some attendees at the summit were adamant about the role of predators, including coyotes, foxes, skunks and raccoons.

Merlin Feistner, of Woonsocket, believes predators are pushing pheasant numbers down and claimed he has never seen as many predators around as he has recently. When interviewed at the summit, he criticized CRP, which pays farmers to keep marginal land out of production and instead keep it covered in vegetation.

“I know what CRP stands for,” Feistner said. “It’s Coyote Reproduction Program, and it’s working great.”

Anti-predator efforts

Fisk said the GF&P’s Wildlife Damage Management program has increased its efforts to control predators. The program was designed for GF&P employees to work with landowners and producers to reduce wildlife damage to crops, feed supplies, livestock and other property.

But the efforts of the GF&P are not meant to keep predators from feasting on South Dakota’s coveted game bird, the ring-neck pheasant, according to Fisk.

“Coyotes don’t impact pheasants much at all; very rarely do they attack nests,” Fisk said. “It’s not to say coyotes don’t kill pheasants. They do. But the primary nest predators are skunks and raccoons.”

The increased efforts to control predators are primarily to decrease the loss of livestock by coyotes, which is the main reason Fisk said further in-depth records on control have been kept in the past two years.

Wade Musick, of Mitchell, has hunted coyotes for about 20 years, killing about eight to 10 per year. Musick hunts coyotes to help protect the pheasant population and believes predators have an impact on the birds.

“I wouldn’t say it’s major, but they definitely have an effect,” he said. “The more coyotes there are, the more impact there is. There are just as many now as there ever have been in this area.”

More liberal regulations apply to hunting predators than hunting game species. The killing of coyotes and foxes is allowed year-round across the state, and in some cases artificial light can be used to take the animal. People can also shoot from their vehicle at coyotes and there is no limit on the amount a person can kill. Trespassing is not allowed to hunt coyotes and permission from a landowner is still necessary.

To legally hunt most predators, a resident would need to possess any resident hunting license or a predator license or furbearer license. A furbearer license is required to legally trap coyotes, but resident landowners and their immediate family may trap or hunt predators on their land without obtaining a hunting or furbearer license.

Mark Ohm, a conservation officer based in Chamberlain, said chasing coyotes with a snowmobile is illegal. He added a hunter cannot carry an uncased gun or shoot from a snowmobile in any circumstance.

The numbers

The most recent data on predator control is from July 1, 2012, to June 30, 2013, which was the 2013 fiscal year for the GF&P. During that stretch, the department received 1,409 requests for assistance regarding livestock loss due to predators, resulting in the killing of 7,184 coyotes (and also 49 foxes). That’s up from 2012 when there were 1,120 requests and 6,735 coyotes killed.

The kill numbers in the past two years are up from previous years. In 2010, there were 1,262 requests for assistance and about 3,700 coyotes killed, and 949 requests with 4,448 killed in 2011.

Fisk said there are several reasons for the higher kill numbers. He said there are more coyotes in the state and more landowners are becoming aware of the Animal Damage Control program, which is the specific branch of the Wildlife Damage Management program that funds state employees to control coyotes and other predators. The program has also been aided recently by use of a federal agency’s plane in coyote hunts.

Coyotes, meanwhile, have benefited from a drop in the disease known as mange.

“Coyotes populations will grow and grow until they get high and the disease moves in,” Fink said. “It’s a little mite that lives on the coyote and forces them to start scratching and scratch all of their fur off, and then they die from exposure in the wintertime.”

He said when predator complaints were lower in 2008 and 2009, about 75 percent of the coyotes killed by GF&P-tracked control efforts had mange. Last year, it was only 10 to 15 percent.

Besides tracking the amount of predators being killed and requests coming to the office, the GF&P has started logging the hours spent on predator control, total dollars spent and miles traveled.

Last fiscal year, the GF&P spent about $650,000 — or 26 percent of its $2.5 million Wildlife Damage Management program budget — and worked nearly 14,000 hours on predator control, up from 2011 when $517,000 was spent and 13,000 hours were worked. Fisk said since 2001, the GF&P has spent a total of $6.6 million on predator control. In the past two years combined, the state has traveled 525,000 miles for predator control.

“We’re not out there to try and kill coyotes to increase the pheasant population,” Fisk said. “We work strictly on livestock loss events or protection of livestock. It’s real focused on specific scenarios that have had a history of problems.

“If we wanted to go out and just make dead coyotes, we could sure do that and do a lot more of that. But we want to focus our money on where it will make an impact.”

Specialists added

GF&P employees called wildlife damage specialists use various methods to control coyote populations, including hunting, trapping and Environmental Protection Agency-registered toxicants. Wildlife damage specialists work directly with landowners to alleviate or reduce damage to private property.

The GF&P created three additional wildlife damage specialist positions last year. In March, South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard signed a bill allowing a $1 surcharge increase on certain hunting licenses for predator control purposes.

Some of that extra money helped created the positions across the state for areas needing additional focus on wildlife damage control and management, including a new position in Mitchell, where Blake Bappe was hired as the area’s first-ever wildlife damage specialist. Bappe started his duties with the GF&P in August and is one of 27 wildlife damage specialists in the state.

“They’re scattered all over South Dakota and they’re responsible for their own work district,” Fisk said. “They’re working on all sorts of assistance from elk to deer to Canada geese and coyotes.”

County, aerial efforts

Some counties in the state have organized their own predator control district, which implements a local tax to fund the expenses associated with hunting predators. Last fiscal year, the GF&P provided a total of $26,000 in cooperative funding to four predator control districts in the state, including groups in Edmunds, Faulk, Perkins, Harding, Butte, Lawrence and Meade counties.

Another entity involved in predator control is the U.S. Department of Agriculture-Wildlife Services. The program, which is federally funded, works in cooperation with the GF&P and has a plane stationed in Spearfish that’s used to help kill coyotes across the state.

A pilot drives a crewmember to an area where a predator problem has been reported by the GF&P, and the crewmember shoots coyotes from the air. The USDA-WS provides 700 hours of service annually to the GF&P, and last year the state needed an additional 120 hours.

“People often ask about the best way to manage coyote populations, and I say as many methods as we have available,” said Phil Mastrangelo, state director with USDA-WS, based in Bismarck, N.D. “It’s a good tool to use along with the other tools the state agencies use on the ground.”

Fisk said the aerial program kills about 2,000 coyotes per year.

‘It’s not going to get any better’

Tony Austerman, who farms cattle, sheep and grain north of Artestian, has worked with the GF&P’s wildlife damage specialists.

He’s convinced predator populations — specifically coyotes — have risen in the past five years. Austerman related stories of watching coyotes cruise through ditches preying on pheasant chicks. His main concern is coyotes feasting on his livestock, though.

“We raise sheep and cattle both, and we lose both to coyotes each year,” Austerman said. “And it’s not going to get any better. A guy has to stay on top of the problem.”

When told of the $650,000 spent on predator control during the GF&P’s most recent fiscal year, Austerman did not think it was enough. He said the Wildlife Damage Management program is “spread thin” and needs additional resources.

“When you stop and think about it, there are 66 counties and that’s about $10,000 a county,” he said. “When you divide that over a 12-month period, that doesn’t come out to be very much.”

Coyotes killed in SD

Though there’s no official estimate of the coyote population in South Dakota, a potential indicator of the population — the number of coyotes killed by government predator-control efforts — has grown in recent years.

Here is a list of the requests for predator control and coyote kills the Wildlife Damage Management program of the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks has reported in the past four years.

2013: 1,409 requests, 7,184 kills

2012: 1,120 requests, 6,735 kills

2011: 949 requests, 4,448 kills

2010: 1,262 requests, 3,700 kills

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