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GF&P: Pheasant numbers up 76 percent from last year

A hunter is pictured aiming at a pheasant. (Photo courtesy of Pheasants Forever)

Call it a rooster rebound.

The South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department reported Tuesday the number of pheasants seen during its annual brood count increased 76 percent this year after the significant drop in last year's count.

"My first reaction is that I'm going to be thrilled by it as a bird hunter," said Dave Nomsen, Pheasants Forever's president of governmental affairs. "But I'm quickly going to temper that with what's going on long-term here in the state."

The success of the state's pheasant population in the long term will require a focus on the restoration and enhancement of the species' habitat, Nomsen said.

"If we can continue to focus long term on the birds' needs, that's how we're going to keep pheasant hunting sustainable here in South Dakota," he said.

Last year, GF&P said the number of pheasants spotted during the count dropped 64 percent compared to the year before. The decline was the second largest in the history of the count, which dates to 1949. Part of the blame for the drop was placed on the high demand on farmers to use more land for crops, often resulting in the destruction of grassland that serves as valuable habitat for pheasants.

Travis Runia, GF&P's lead pheasant biologist, said favorable weather this past winter and spring set the stage for the increase seen in the GF&P's latest brood count.

From about July to August, the GF&P surveyed numerous 30-mile routes across the state and determined this year's pheasant-per-mile index to be 2.68, up from 1.52 last year. The pheasants-per-mile index increased in all 13 of the areas surveyed during the count, with the largest increases observed in Chamberlain, Pierre and Yankton. Mitchell's pheasants-per-mile was 3.04 this year, a 52 percent increase from last year.

Despite the overall increase from last year, this year's pheasant-per-mile index is still well below the 10-year average of 5.75, according to the GF&P's report.

"Without a boost in habitat, it's going to be pretty difficult to get back up to those levels," Runia said.

Runia said the loss of acres in the Conservation Reserve Program in the state is partly to blame for the drop in the pheasant population. The number of CRP acres in South Dakota has fallen from about 1.56 million acres in 2007 to about 937,000 acres this year, a decline of more than 41 percent.

It's going to be a long-term trend, not an increase or decrease from one year to the next, that determines the fate of the state's pheasant population, Runia said.

"We're still way below where we've been, and probably way below where a lot of hunters would like to see our pheasant numbers," he said.

Nomsen is the head of Pheasants Forever's new regional headquarters in Brookings, and was also a speaker at the Governor's Pheasant Habitat Summit in December in Huron, which was held in response to the declining pheasant numbers reported in last year's brood count.

The summit resulted in the formation of the Pheasant Habitat Work Group, which is tasked with finding ways to boost the pheasant population. The work group consists of legislators, cabinet secretaries, an SDSU dean and others.

Steve Halverson, a member of the work group, said this year's increase was a step in the right direction, but also stressed a long-term approach.

"We need habitat on the ground," Halverson said. "That's the only way we're going to maintain strong numbers."

Halverson said the work group's recommendations will be released in early September, but he declined to reveal any specific details.

"I think our work group has come up with some things that are going to increase the habitat and have some long-term benefits, generally," he said.

The statewide pheasant hunting season opens Oct. 18 and lasts until Jan. 4, with a daily limit of three rooster pheasants and a possession limit of 15 roosters.

The resident-only season starts Oct. 11 and runs through Oct. 13, with a daily limit of three rooster pheasants and a possession limit of nine roosters.