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Wiltz: Chicken hawks could be affecting pheasant population

During my 21 years as Wagner's 7-12 school principal (1976-1997), truancy was my greatest

challenge. When all efforts failed, I signed an official complaint. The child, guardian and I ultimately wound up in front of Judge Paul Kern in the Lake Andes courthouse. A stern lecture and threat of a healthy fine got the job done. When Judge Kern spoke, those kids listened.

Paul Kern hunted pheasants before I thought about coming to South Dakota. The judge recently

explained to me what has happened to our pheasants and once again, I listened. I'm going to call Kern's explanation the "barnyard theory."

Back in the 1940's, 1950's and into the 1960's, every farmyard had chickens. Those chickens weren't just a source of Saturday night egg money, they were food on the table as in Sunday dinner. Betsy has told me about her egg-gathering chores on their Wessington Springs family farm. While reaching up to a nest for eggs, she grabbed a rat! That was certainly a horrendous experience for a little farm girl, but today's column isn't about rats.

Those afore-mentioned chickens were often under siege by "chicken hawks," a catch all generic term that included red-tail hawks, owls, etc. Ma and Pa had to protect those chickens, and a shotgun was handy in the entryway, pickup or on the tractor. The chicken hawks were kept in check, and our pheasants, partridge and jackrabbits flourished.

The judge went on to tell me that the protection of raptors is a federal mandate, and that is one

reason our state shies away from laying some of the blame on "chicken hawks." While I certainly don't advocate chicken hawk control, his theory has merit. In a recent column, I related some factual information about what eagles and gulls have done to our east coast eiders or sea ducks.

Judge Kern and friends make an annual Saskatchewan trip to hunt sandhill cranes. Over the years Kern has watched Saskatchewan's pheasants, sharptail grouse and Hungarian partridge disappear to uncontrolled raptors, at least in his opinion. Hopefully I'll relate a Kern sandhill hunt in a future

column.

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In the past I have touted the elk hunting opportunities we have as South Dakotans. Wagner

sportsmen Ken Cotton and Steve Donelan certainly proved that point when they recently applied for leftover Black Hills cow elk tags. In a second draw, forty-six applicants went after six tags, and Ken and Steve, who applied together, were lucky winners. In drawing these tags, they didn't jeopardize their existing elk preference points.

Monday, October 16th, was opening day in their unit west of Hill City. Neither hunter fired a shot on the opener, but a parade of bulls ambled by Ken's stand. It was frustrating for Ken as a lone cow was shielded the entire time by the numerous bulls.

Tuesday morning, the 17th, dawned clear. The guys found the nippy 28 degrees invigorating. A

vigorous climb left Steve above Ken in the same drainage. Both asked themselves the same question.

"Am I in the best possible place? Should there be more brush or trees between me and the trail?"

The wee hours had passed pleasantly enough when hooves and snapping branches broke the silence. A sizeable elk herd soon worked its way in front of Steve. His mind raced. Wait for a cow to step clear of the others! Minutes later patience and a cool head prevailed as Steve's Model 721 Remington came up. The 4X Redfield crosshairs found a shoulder. A 130 grain .270 slug buckled the cow elk in her tracks. She was seventy-five paces away. It was 10:00 a.m.

Unbeknownst to Steve, his spooked elk herd headed in Ken's direction. Within the minute, Ken's

venerable Bushnell 3X9 scope was glued to a cow's shoulder. The .30-06 BAR roared as the 180 grain Federal Power Shock bullet found its mark. She staggered and fell sixty yards from Ken's tree stump stand.

Within the hour, both cows were field dressed. Now the guys headed back to the road and their

respective ATV's. An hour later the cows lay side by side in Steve's trailer thanks to a power winch and some country engineering. Their elk were skinned and quartered by Top Pin just outside Custer.

Though the guys call their hunt "perfect," more than luck was involved. Steve had scouted the public land they hunted the previous month. While scouting, he called a six by six bull to within 15 yards.

This hunt was all the more perfect as the guys had their wives along. Our GF&P Dept. is on the

lookout for CWD (Chronic Waste Disease) in elk, and the guys' elk have tested negative. Want to bag your own Custer State Park cow elk? An extra 40 cow tags are available, and the application deadline is today!

See you next week.

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