Weather 'setting the stage' for pheasant rebound
Travis Runia looks back at winter with a sigh of relief.
"Yes, it was very cold, but we didn't have blizzard conditions or very much snowfall," said Runia, the upland game biologist for the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks.
One of Runia's main duties is to study the state bird, the ring-necked pheasant. He said the mild winter is "setting the stage" to help the coveted game bird make a rebound in population after recent years of declining numbers.
Now, Runia said outdoor enthusiasts who hunt pheasants should hope for warm temperatures in April and timely rains in May.
Phil Schumacher, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Sioux Falls, is expecting "normal conditions" for May, June and July, something that delivers another sigh of relief for Runia.
"If you look back the past three to four years, we've had about every extreme you can think of," Runia said. "We had a couple terrible winters. We had that severe drought. So far this year, we've gotten back to normal, and that's what we'd like to see."
Each year since 2010, the GF&P has seen the number of pheasants spotted during its annual August survey decline from the previous year's survey.
Last year, the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department reported the number of pheasants spotted during the survey dropped 64 percent compared to the previous year.
That is the second-largest drop in the history of the state's survey, which dates to 1949, and it means the pheasant population is probably under 3 million after being as high as 12 million as recently as 2007.
Runia has blamed the dwindling pheasant population to loss of habitat and weather conditions. He said a tough winter can result in adult bird mortality, with the hope of getting healthy, strong hens into the spring nesting season.
Schumacher said Mitchell received 30.8 inches of snowfall this winter, which is below an average winter of 34.1 inches of snow.
Last year, Mitchell got 54.5 inches of snow, which includes the three-day April blizzard that dropped 13.8 inches in places. After that three-day storm, another blast dumped five more inches to bring last April's snowfall total to 23.2 inches.
"Last winter was the most snowfall Mitchell has seen since at least the winter of 2002 to 2003," Schumacher said.
Aside from last year's snowfall, the region has seen periods of hot, dry weather and periods of overly wet weather. That includes the drought of 2012 and flooding from 2011.
"We've seen so many swings in extreme weather," Runia said. "Having those extreme weather conditions is certainly stressful on pheasants and doesn't help production any."
Runia explained pheasants are starting the beginning of their nesting cycle right now. He said the peak nesting cycle is mid-May, which is when most of the hens incubate their eggs.
The first peak hatching period starts in mid-June, and if a nest is destroyed by a predator, some pheasants will re-nest as late as early- to mid-July.
Runia said the next few months will be crucial to helping the pheasant population rebound. The main hope will be for no prolonged periods of rainy weather. That reduces the chance of a nest hatching, he said.
"That's primarily because if a hen is incubating her eggs and she gets wet from a rain storm, it's easier for predators to smell those birds and seek out those nests," Runia said.
Schumacher expects nearly normal rainfall amounts for May, which is about 3 inches total.
He added there are no strong signals whether the summer will be overly dry or wet, but expects "close to normal" conditions.
That's good news for Runia and pheasant hunters across the state.
"Hopefully we warm up a little bit here and get a little bit of precipitation, and then we'll be in good shape," Runia said.