Pheasant numbers drop feared
By Kevin Woster
For The Daily Republic
South Dakota wildlife officials are worried that a snowy, wet spring combined with losses in federal conservation acres have combined to further damage an already declining pheasant population.
And that matters a lot in a state where the ring-necked pheasant season can generate $200 million in years of high pheasant numbers.
The pheasant-population survey completed Sunday by the state Game, Fish & Parks Department had been extended for another three days to give counters more chance to find and record birds. But former GF&P officials and others close to the process used words like “abysmal” and “pitiful” to describe the bird totals in the early parts of the survey.
GF&P upland-bird biologist Travis Runia, of Huron, wouldn’t discuss details of the survey, which ran Aug. 1 to Aug. 18 on 110 survey routes across parts of the state where pheasants are commonly found. But he said officials were prepared for bad news before the survey began.
“We predicted a pretty tough year, with all that snow and cold in April and the tough nesting conditions,” Runia said. “We sure know that we didn’t have a lot going for us going into this survey. We’ll just have to see how the numbers shake out.” Runia said GF&P will release survey results sometime around Labor Day.
Hunters follow numbers
The numbers recorded in the annual surveys, taken by GF&P employees as they drive the 30-mile routes, offer an important glimpse of the pheasant population. Combined with winter bird surveys and the numbers of birds killed during the hunting season, the August surveys give GF&P officials an idea of trends and overall population.
Last year, the population estimate was 7.6 million birds, up from the 6.6-million estimate in 2011 but still the second-lowest estimate since 2002.
The 11.9-million estimate in 2007 was the highest since the early 1960s.
Ups and downs in the pheasant population are typically followed by ups and downs in the number of pheasant hunters, particularly those from other states who travel to what many consider the best pheasanthunting landscape on earth.
During the banner year in 2007, non-resident hunters outnumbered resident hunters 103,231 to 77,879. Together they killed 2.1 million pheasants, the highest total since 1963.
Non-resident hunters in particular pack an economic punch, spending money on lodging, meals, gear, guide services and other essentials, as well as non-resident hunting licenses.
Pheasants tend to thrive in periods of good habitat and favorable weather conditions. Even with tough weather, birds are better able to survive the winter and reproduce in the spring with abundant habitat. The federal Conservation Reserve Program, which pays farmers to convert highly erodible farm ground to grass and associated cover, was essential to the rise in pheasant numbers.
But CRP acres have declined in recent years as more farmers put more land back in production. And additional habitat loss has come through the conversion of wetlands to cropland.
Once as high as 1.7 million in South Dakota, CRP acres have fallen below 1 million. And Runia fears the slide will continue.
“It’s not just the weather the birds are dealing with,” he said. “Right now, we’re in a habitat-loss mode.”
The impacts have been obvious to landowners who hunt pheasants. that are several times more costly than resident permits.
Terry Wieczorek, a Brookings lawyer who owns land for hunting near Wessington Springs, said he has seen fewer pheasants on and near his property. And farmers in the area have noted the same.
Trouble started in 2012 with a cold, wet spring followed by a hot, dry summer, Wieczorek said. The weather in 2013 added to that impact, he said.
“It really hurt them,” Wieczorek said. “And it seems like the farther east you get, the worse it gets.”
He said a relative who farms extensively in the Mitchell area also has noted declines.
Presho area landowner Tip Taylor said bird numbers seem to be down again this year in his area, in what he considers a multi-year trend. Taylor did say, however, that last year turned out to be better for pheasant hunting than he thought it would be going into the fall.
“We went into it thinking it would be bad and ended up OK,” he said.
Taylor said the loss of CRP acres as well as the diminished vegetation on some long-standing CRP lands mean less cover to protect birds from weather and aerial predators. That combination seems to be the main reason for the decline, he said.
“We’ve had CRP go out and a lot of the remaining CRP has been out there for a long time. It isn’t as thick. It’s not standing up like it was,” he said. “And it seems like there are a lot more eagles and hawks around.”
Same path as Iowa?
GF&P officials point out that even with reduced numbers, there are still areas of good to excellent hunting. And heavy vegetation in some areas can make it difficult to see pheasant broods that might be smaller than normal after a spring that set back nesting.
It’s possible that contributed to birds being missed in the pheasant survey. GF&P officials hope so.
Aberdeen-area hunting-preserve owner Tim Kessler, a former chairman of the state Game, Fish & Parks Commission, knows all that. But he still worries about an environmentalhabitat trend that could knock South Dakota pheasant numbers down, as they have fallen in other states.
“This was fairly predictable after the tough winter we’ve had up here and the loss of so much cover,” Kessler said. “Last year, there was smoke everywhere in the fall as the sloughs burned, not to mention thousands and thousands of acres of grass going into production.
“I’m concerned that we’re going down the same path as Iowa.”
Hunting on many pheasant preserves will be sustained by penraised birds. And even with reduced numbers in recent years, the overall population was higher than in the ’70s, ’80s and most of the ’90s. Pheasant estimates during that period varied between 2 million and 5 million.
The economic impact was far less in those years, too, although still essential to the state economy.
Last year, reduced pheasant numbers meant reduced hunter numbers, too. Resident hunters fell from 77,879 in 2007 to 69,240 in 2012, while nonresident numbers dropped from 103,231 in 2007 to 93,801 last year. The economic impact slid, too, to about $172 million.
That’s still substantial, however, and businesses that rely on the pheasant season hope it stays that way.
The soon-to-be-released results of the summer bird survey will offer a look at what could be coming in the 2013 season, which opens statewide Oct. 19. Runia is hoping it will be better than expected.
“We’re keeping our fingers crossed,” he said. “Hopefully, there will be some good news.”