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Pheasant numbers look promising, GF&P says

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Some say it's the best time of the baseball season. Others point to oncoming football season. But for thousands of South Dakotans, fall means pheasant season is almost upon us.

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South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks staffers are determining how good that season will be, according to Travis Runia, a senior upland game biologist based in Huron. An annual survey will be completed this week, and results will be released in a month.

Runia said based on what he's seen, it will be another strong year for pheasant hunting in the state, despite a rough winter and soggy spring and summer, all of which reduce pheasant numbers.

"Kind of like we expected. We're going to dip a little bit from last year," he said. "Right now, the numbers look pretty encouraging. It's not going to be a drastic drop."

The past few years have been "historical harvest" years in South Dakota, Runia said. The numbers indicate that won't happen this year.

GF&P staff survey 110 established 30-mile routes from late July through mid-August to compare the observed number of roosters, hens and pheasant broods. The survey, conducted annually since 1949, is used to develop a comparison of pheasants-permile counts within specific areas surveys from previous years.

"We will run each of these routes at least once in the next three weeks when the counting conditions are ideal," Runia said. "The results from this survey give our biologists excellent historical data as part of our pheasant population monitoring, and more importantly, give hunters a glimpse at what they should expect when they take to the fields this autumn."

Mike Kuchera of Mitchell, who has operated a hunting guide service for 35 years, said he also predicts a successful season for pheasant hunters.

"I think myself, based on the counties I have seen, it should be comparable to last year," Kuchera said.

He said the recent humid conditions should also benefit hunters, since that will speed the corn and soybean harvest season as those crops mature sooner than they did last year. That should mean less cover for the birds when the season opens at noon on Saturday, Oct. 16, Kuchera said.

The survey work is almost done, Runia said. "We got some of the data in and we'll be running surveys through the weekend," he said.

GF&P staff members drive the designated routes early in the morning. Pheasants gather along roadsides at that time to feed, gather grit to help digest food, and dry the morning dew from their feathers.

Runia said the birds emerge from the wet grass to "catch some rays and dry off." GF&P staffers try to run their route at least one day that features a morning with heavy dew and clear skies.

The GF&P will provide a pre-season, pheasants-per-mile index for each area and an overall average for the combined surveys at the end of August.

"This survey has proven to be a very good indicator of trends in pheasant numbers," Runia said. "We are able to get a sense for what our pheasant numbers are doing, based on route comparisons from last year and over a 10-year average."

The 2009 brood route survey indicated that the South Dakota pheasant population declined 26 percent from the 2008 observation. However, 2007 and 2008 produced two of the highest pheasant counts in more than 40 years. The 2009 survey was 13 percent higher than the 10-year average and was the fourth highest count per mile in the past 45 years.

Runia, an Iowa native, is in his first year with GF&P. He attended South Dakota State University and said he has learned to enjoy pheasant hunting as much as a South Dakota native. He said GF&P employees don't just count pheasants.

"We usually get out and hunt a few," Runia said.

GFP will post survey information online at www.gfp.sd.gov when available, approximately Sept. 1.

For more on pheasants, including hunting season information, go to http://gfp.sd.gov/hunting/small-game/.

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