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Fewer pheasants await hunters

Many people don't believe national Pheasants Forever President and CEO Howard Vincent when he says he'll see hundreds, or even thousands, of birds per day while pheasant hunting in South Dakota.

"You try to explain and people think you're exaggerating," Vincent said, "but you're not. People don't understand what South Dakota offers."

Vincent, who is from White Bear Lake, Minn., and has been hunting pheasants in South Dakota for 20-plus years, is well aware of the decline in bird numbers in the Upper Midwest this year.

At noon today, the statewide pheasant hunting season opens and hunters will be chasing fewer birds than in recent years, when bird numbers were near all-time highs. Resident and out-of-state hunters are eligible to chase rooster pheasants on public land and with permission on private land, with a limit of three daily and a possession limit of 15.

According to the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks, South Dakota pheasant numbers dropped 46 percent from last year to this year, falling to a total of about 5.3 million. Pheasant populations in Minnesota, Iowa, North Dakota and Nebraska have also dropped.

Many factors affected the numbers, according to Vincent, who leads the nation's largest organization devoted to preserving and enhancing the pheasant population.

"We worry about the things we can control," said Vincent, who attended a banquet Friday hosted by Mitchell's chapter of Pheasants Forever. "Obviously, the weather, some tough winters and some wet springs have impacted pheasant numbers. But more disturbing is the loss of CRP (Conservation Reserve Program) acres in the Upper Midwest."

The GF&P estimated the state to have about 9.8 million pheasants last year, a season that continued a trend of more than 8 million pheasants statewide since 2002. A GF&P preseason pheasant outlook reported that from 2003 to 2010, the pheasantper-mile index was at a level not seen in 40 years. The numbers are compiled by GF&P employees who count pheasants along designated routes.

In 2007, South Dakota had its highest pheasant population in 70 years with nearly 12 million birds. The state's all-time high was in 1947 at a whopping 16 million pheasants.

This year's estimated bird count is the first time numbers have dipped to around 5 million since 1997, but it's still the biggest pheasant population in the nation.

Like Vincent, GF&P Upland Game Biologist Travis Runia said three major factors are to blame: a harsh winter, losing CRP acres and an unusually wet spring.

"I don't think there was anyone in the state, biologists or sportsmen, who thought we would hold steady from last year to this year," Runia said. "We had a lot of people saying they were seeing a lot fewer birds throughout the winter. We definitely knew there was going to be some influence in the population."

Harsh winter

When asked to rank the three top reasons for the decline in pheasant numbers, Runia said the harsh winter was by far the biggest factor.

Much of the state got its first snowfall in late October last year. By early December, snow covered nearly the entire state.

According to Mike Gillispie, a hydrologist for the National Weather Service in Sioux Falls, a Huronbased weather station last year measured 55.3 inches of snowfall from December to February, ranking third highest on record. Temperatures were about 2 to 4.5 degrees below average in the same three months.

Gillispie said the Huron-based station best represents the area in the James River Valley, including the Mitchell area.

"We had below normal temps with much above normal snowfall," Gillispie said.

Runia said more snow equals fewer chances for birds to find food, such as fallen grain on open fields. While birds are spending more time searching for food, they become more susceptible to predators such as coyotes and hunters.

"When there's 2 to 3 feet of snow on the ground, the pheasants can't find enough food to maintain their body weight, which is fine for a little while," Runia said. "But this year it was just too long. One hundred and twenty days of stress on those birds with the really cold weather, we probably lost some birds."

Runia said hen pheasants, or female birds, are especially more at risk to winter mortalities because of their smaller body stature.

He said after the conclusion of the last hunting season, the GF&P conducts a winter sex ratio count, which has conservation officers from around the state drive routes to count how many hens are grouped in flocks of pheasants.

When the season closed last year, Runia said there were almost three hens to every rooster, or male pheasant.

"By about March, they dropped to almost one to one," he said.

Loss of CRP

When Vincent is asked what can be done to grow pheasant numbers, he encourages people to call their representatives in Washington and remind them about the importance of CRP acres in the farm bill.

The federal program known as CRP pays landowners to convert marginal agricultural land to vegetative cover, a good environment for pheasants to feed, nest and raise their broods. Besides providing habitat for wildlife, the cover also provides a natural filter for runoff entering waterways.

"It's always going to take the local individuals in each state to contact their lawmakers and make that appeal that they feel the importance of the CRP acres," Vincent said. "People in South Dakota understand better than anywhere the economic benefit that pheasant hunting can bring to an economy."

In 2007, the state had 1.56 million acres of CRP land. Today, that number has dwindled to about 1.04 million acres, which equates to a loss of nearly one-third of the acres in just four years.

CRP Coordinator Daryl Campbell, of the state's Farm Service Agency, said farm economics is the main reason in the loss of CRP acreage.

"Land prices have gone up considerably and so has cash rent, so our ability to keep up with those is one reason," he said, referring to the CRP payments that landowners receive. "Another reason would be the price of commodities right now, especially last year and the year before."

In other words, the farm economy has gotten so good that landowners can make more money from farming or renting out some marginal land than they can from enrolling it in CRP.

Runia said the loss in natural grassland acreage has also affected pheasant numbers.

There are approximately 8 million acres of grazing land east of the Missouri River in the state, and Runia said farmers are swapping the land to cropland at a rate of 50,000 to 75,000 acres per year.

"While nesting isn't has high, those native grazing lands are very important," Runia said.

Wet spring

Gillispie said the amount of precipitation this spring in the James River Valley was not extremely unusual, but the large amount of snowpack caused flooding in much of the eastern half of the state.

South Dakota still is dealing with flooding and has warnings in three areas, including Huron, Forestburg and Mitchell.

With more water on the ground than usual, pheasants had fewer places to nest and raise their broods and found it harder to find food.

"If a pheasant gets three or four days of cold, wet weather, they'll sometimes abandon their nest just to find shelter," Runia said.

The GF&P found that the average brood size dropped from 6.25 birds to 5.8 this year. During the GF&P's annual spring brood count, all 13 areas statewide saw pheasant-permile numbers dip. The largest drop came in the Chamberlain area, which had a pheasant-per-mile index of 17 last year and is at 11.51 this year.

Runia said it's nearly impossible to predict next year's pheasant numbers.

But he and Vincent each agree that if CRP acres continue to decline, numbers of pheasants three to four years from now could drop even more significantly.

"The acres we're talking about in CRP are marginal acres," Vincent said. "They're not going to be highyield production. If you think about the edges along streams and creeks, we're losing soil downriver, and we can't afford to do that in any of our farmland.

"We should be farming the big, black, flat stuff. It's the marginal farmland that should be in wildlife cover."

One way the GF&P has enticed farmers to keep their land in CRP is the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, which was started a little more than a year ago.

The program is administrated by the Farm Service Agency and is focused on improving water quality, reducing soil erosion and providing flood control, all while creating additional pheasant nesting habitat in the James River Watershed.

CREP participants receive a 40 percent higher rental rate than if they were to enroll their land in CRP, and every acre is open to the public for hunting and fishing.

"It's providing awesome nesting and brooding habitat," Runia said.

There are about 50,000 to 60,000 acres signed up in CREP, and the GF&P is hoping to have 100,000 acres by next year.

Vincent said he's pleased to see the CREP program starting successfully, given the importance of CRP land to a high pheasant population.

"Recognizing that South Dakota's numbers are down significantly, it's still the best place on the planet to shoot pheasants," he said.

"People can either be resigned to the fact that we're going to let this go, or they can step up and fight it, and the hunting community has always stepped up."