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Pheasant count jumps 42 percent from last year

Republic file photo

Good news, pheasant hunters.

Officials with the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department said Thursday the pheasant count numbers are up by more than 40 percent this year compared to a year ago.

The 2015 statewide pheasants per mile index of 3.80 is up from 2.68 last year and more than double the total of 2013, when the count was 1.52 pheasants per mile. The 42 percent increase is attributed to better weather, with milder winters and favorable spring weather for reproduction purposes.

GF&P Senior Upland Game Biologist Travis Runia said it will continue to be a long haul to get back to where the state was 10 years ago, but it’s significant progress from just two years ago, when the dwindling pheasant population was entering crisis mode.

“I think we’re getting back to where hunting is good again,” he said.

This year’s statewide pheasants per mile index is similar to 2011 when hunters harvested 1.56 million roosters over the course of the season.

“The weather really dictates so much when it comes to the pheasant population,” Runia said. “On a year to year basis, it’s really weather that drives the boat.”

The report from GF&P says the abundance of birds is highest in the Missouri River corridor, including in The Daily Republic’s coverage area.

In the Chamberlain area, the 2015 survey showed 8.84 pheasants per mile, up 35 percent from last year. The Winner area is up to 5.97 pheasants per mile, up 58 percent from a year ago.

Mitchell is up 49 percent this year, now at 4.55 pheasants per mile. All three areas remain below their 10-year averages, though, and the decade-long downward trend of lost habitat is a concern.

But for this year, the hunting should be strong. The improvement in the bird population has been witnessed first-hand by Marshall Springer, who owns Buffalo Butte Ranch, a hunting lodge that operates 18 miles north of Gregory. His family has been hosting people hunting on their lands for about 50 years.

“A month ago, when they were just starting to hatch, we were seeing all kinds of birds,” Springer said. “Now that we’ve had so much rain, the cover has really grown. You don’t see as many birds now, but you know they’re out there.”

He said once they get out in the field and do some hunting, he expects a fun season.

“We were really optimistic,” Springer said. “We’re going to see some of the improvements over the last few years, mainly because we’ve had a few mild winters in a row and that’s really helped us.”

The survey index remains 56 percent below a recent high in 2008, when hunters bagged nearly 2 million birds.

“We’re about half of the level we were at in 2007 and 2008,” Runia said. “A lot of those 10-year averages came at the time when we had a lot of things going right, and it’s going to be tough to get back to that at the current habitat situation.”

Mike Stephenson, who works as a regional field representative for Pheasants Forever, said the birds had no problems bouncing back in the places that have great habitat. But the state has seen its Conservation Reserve Program, or CRP, acres drop from nearly 1.5 million at its peak in 2007 to about 880,000 acres in South Dakota during 2014.

From late July through mid-August, GF&P surveyed 109, 30-mile routes across the state to estimate pheasant production and calculate the PPM index. The survey is not a population estimate, but rather compares the number of pheasants observed on the routes and establishes trend information. Survey routes are grouped into 13 areas, based on a local city, and the index value of each local city area is then compared to index values of the previous year and the 10-year average. Statewide, 85 of the 109 survey routes showed an increase in pheasants per mile from 2014.

Stephenson said the effort and attention focused on pheasants is working.

“There’s been a lot of attention on the state and local levels and people realize how big a part of the economy,” Stephenson said. “There’s always going to be elements that are outside of our control, such as the weather. But the habitat, we can control, and I think if we do that, you’ll have that bounce back.”

Runia said it’s a good sign there was consistent growth in population numbers across the state.

“You look back at 2013, and that was a hunting season that probably left a lot of people with a sour taste in their mouth,” he said. “We’re trying to get back on track and I think it’s paying off.”

The statewide pheasant season opens Oct. 17.