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SD remains a pheasant ‘beacon,’ but is the light fading?

A pheasant peeks out from a public hunting area south of Mitchell earlier this week. (Sean Ryan/The Daily Republic)

From the time Todd Bogenschutz moved to South Dakota, he was infatuated with pheasants.

Bogenschutz, a native of New York, attended college at South Dakota State University in Brookings, where he studied pheasants while earning a wildlife biology degree. He eventually became an upland game biologist for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, but he still gets the annual urge to return to South Dakota and chase roosters.

0 Talk about it

“I’ll be coming up there with my dad later this year on Thanksgiving weekend,” said Bogenschutz, who has hunted pheasants in South Dakota each year since the early 1990s. “But in recent years you start noticing how more CRP is being plowed up, the wetlands are going dry and farmers are planting more corn and beans, which pheasants just don’t nest in. You start noticing it’s just not as good as it used to be.”

At noon Saturday, the statewide pheasant hunting season opens. And because of habitat loss and recent unfavorable weather, hunters will be chasing a lot fewer birds this year. 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 a report from the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish & Parks released in August, the number of pheasants spotted during an annual statewide survey dropped 64 percent this year compared to last year. But South Dakota isn’t the only state that’s lost pheasants.

The top six pheasant-producing states in the nation — both Dakotas, Minnesota, Kansas, Iowa and Nebraska — all saw declines in their preseason pheasant surveys this year, causing concern about deteriorating numbers of pheasants across the Great Plains.

South Dakota — which had 1.42 million pheasants harvested last season — saw the most significant drop, percentage-wise, in pheasant numbers since last year among the six states. But, as Pheasants Forever President and CEO Howard Vincent said, South Dakota is still “the pheasant capital of the universe.”

An official with the South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks estimates hunters in South Dakota will harvest around 900,000 to 1 million pheasants this year. That’s well above the next highest state, North Dakota, which is expected to harvest between 400,000 and 600,000. None of the other four states is expected to harvest more than 250,000.

“People are looking over South Dakota’s fence,” Vincent said. “We have chapters all over the nation in 40 states. They all know South Dakota is still going to harvest a million birds, and all of those states have that historically. You may have to go back 30, 40 or 50 years, but those states harvested 1 million-plus birds and they lost it.

“So they still look at South Dakota as this beacon, that it still can be done and it can be done right.”

Clinging to 1 million

The GF&P issues pheasant population estimates after each season and estimated the state to have about 7.6 million pheasants last year. With the 64 percent drop in this year’s survey, that means the pheasant population is likely down to 2.736 million.

“It takes a pretty significant event, such as loss of habitat and all these weather variables all piled in one year, to make a population do that,” said GF&P Upland Game Biologist Travis Runia. “It’s definitely a substantial drop and pretty significant when you look back in history.”

South Dakota’s annual brood count survey has been conducted each year since 1949, and only twice has the drop from one year to the next been higher than 60 percent — from last year to this year, and from 1963 to 1964.

There was a 67 percent drop in bird numbers in the brood count survey in 1963-64. That year resulted in a 52 percent drop in the harvest from the previous year, going from about 3.1 million pheasants harvested to about 1.5 million.

When asked whether South Dakota’s harvest could drop by half, similar to the last time the brood count survey plummeted more than 60 percent, Runia said he does not believe it will be that drastic.

It is Runia who is estimating about 900,000 to 1 million pheasants will be harvested statewide this year. He noted lower brood counts in 1992 and 1997 still resulted in almost 1 million pheasants harvested in South Dakota each year. In 1992, the preseason pheasant-per-mile index statewide was 2.77 birds. That year, the harvest was 969,000 pheasants. In 1997, a year the pheasant-per-mile index was 2.64, the harvest was 920,000 pheasants. This year’s pheasant-per-mile index went from 4.19 last year to 1.52 this year.

Some hunters don’t trust the survey data.

“I don’t think the report was too accurate,” said David Bultje, of Corsica, a pheasant hunting guide for about 16 years. “In the last few weeks, I’ve seen more birds around than I did when they did the count.

“I think what it was, there was so much cover and the grass was so good and so thick, they just had so many places to hide. I think numbers are down, but not as bad as what’s being reported.”

If Bultje is right, South Dakota could continue its long tradition of harvesting at least 1 million pheasants. In the 93 seasons since 1919, the year the state GF&P started keeping track of pheasant statistics, South Dakota has harvested 1 million or more roosters 65 times. Since 1991, only twice — 1992 and 1997 — were fewer than 1 million pheasants harvested.

During that same span, hunters in South Dakota have harvested 2 million or more birds 16 times and 3 million or more birds eight times.

The recent high was in 2007, when South Dakota had its highest estimated pheasant population in 70 years with nearly 12 million birds. That year, 2.1 million pheasants were harvested.

Weather takes some blame

Bogenschutz said weather has been the main culprit in declining upland game bird numbers in his state. This year, Iowa’s pheasant numbers are down 18 percent.

Iowa’s average winter sees about 25 inches of snow, but the state had five consecutive years with 30 to 50 inches of snow starting in 2007. There was major flooding in 2008, 2010 and 2011, and 2012 brought major drought.

“We should be harvesting 600,000 to 700,000 roosters with the habitat we currently have,” Bogenschutz said. “We should be the second state behind South Dakota if it wasn’t for all this bad weather.”

Instead, Iowa is expected to harvest 100,000 to 150,000 pheasants this year.

“Mother Nature is just not being friendly,” he added. “It’s frustrating, because what can you do about that?”

In South Dakota, the summer drought in 2012 hammered bird numbers, and then came an unusually wet, cold spring that dropped snow into late April and made for poor nesting.

Parts of South Dakota and Iowa saw both the 2012 summer drought and this year’s cold, wet spring. The two states had both of the extreme conditions that weren’t favorable for increasing pheasant populations.

Bird numbers in Minnesota and North Dakota were hampered more because of the cold, wet spring, while Kansas and Nebraska were hurt more because of the drought.

Nicole Davros, upland game project leader with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, said her state will harvest about 246,000 pheasants this year after seeing a 29 percent decline in the summer roadside survey.

Kansas, expected to harvest at most 250,000 pheasants, and Nebraska, around 125,000, each dropped about 35 percent in their survey from last year.

“If you look at the southern half of South Dakota into Nebraska and Kansas, that drought last summer was a killer,” Runia said, referring to the drought of 2012. “If you look at the northern states, the northern half of South Dakota, Iowa, Minnesota and North Dakota, we had that terrible spring this year with snow on the ground for the month of April.

“You look at those two factors, which were consistent across the whole Great Plains — and all of those states have lost habitat basically every year since 2007 — and you’re going to lose birds.”

So, what are prime weather conditions for pheasants? Runia said a mild winter is key, and then enough spring moisture to grow thick grass cover for habitat and nesting concealment.

“But any more than just enough is detrimental,” he said.

Conservation Reserve Program

Vincent, the Pheasants Forever CEO, knows weather in the Upper Midwest has played a major role in the drop in pheasant populations in recent years, but he also knows conservationists like himself can’t do much about Mother Nature.

Instead, he’s concerned with what can be controlled, like the rapid loss of acreage that’s in the Conservation Reserve Program and the damage it’s doing to pheasant habitat. The program pays landowners to set aside marginal land and not farm it, thereby creating wildlife habitat and natural filter areas for water runoff.

This year is the first time in about two decades South Dakota will have less than 1 million acres of CRP, according to Pheasants Forever. South Dakota has about 970,000 acres of CRP and could lose 170,700 acres in the next three years combined if expiring contracts do not get renewed.

Lyman County, in central South Dakota, is listed as one the most threatened areas for pheasants, according to Pheasants Forever. Pheasant hunters annually spend an estimated $10 million in Lyman County, but the county suffered a net loss of 13,173 CRP acres last year, and another 4,000 CRP acres are set to leave the program in the next two years.

The bond between CRP acres and strong pheasant populations is evident in North Dakota, which had a 30 percent drop in its survey this year.

In 2007, the state had its highest-ever number of acres in CRP at 3.2 million. That year was the state’s recent high pheasant harvest at about 900,000. Since 2007, North Dakota has lost 1.5 million CRP acres — including 600,000 acres last year — due to farmers putting more land into row crops. An official with the North Dakota Farm Service Agency said although North Dakota has experienced an oil boom recently, the major reason for loss of CRP is farming and not drilling.

This year, North Dakota is expected harvest about 500,000 pheasants.

“Spring nesting conditions were ideal back then,” said Stan Kohn, upland game biologist for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department. “We had a maximum number of CRP acres and everything just clicked for us — the weather, the habitat. Raising pheasants in North Dakota and South Dakota is pretty simple if you have those things.”

In the next three years combined, the top six pheasant-producing states could lose a total of about 1.6 million acres — 2,500 square miles — of CRP ground if expiring contracts do not get renewed.

According to a recent report, House and Senate negotiators could meet next week to renew work on the new U.S. farm bill, which is more than a year past due and has a large impact on CRP.

The bill could cut funding for conservation programs like CRP and expand by $1 billion a year the federally subsidized crop insurance program, which now costs around $9 billion annually.

If that happens, farmers could continue to be enticed to convert rocky, erodible, native sod that’s never been turned into cropland.

“The farm bill now says to farm every single acre instead of telling them to farm the best acres,” said Vincent, who thinks the rapid rise in corn prices has influenced farmers to plow more ground. “CRP needs to be competitive with our rental rates. This isn’t the landowner’s fault. I think this is a problem with the policy and a problem in Washington, D.C. We need to make sure we’re spending taxpayers’ money efficiently and wisely to protect soil, water and wildlife.”

What’s being done?

Will pheasant populations grow enough in South Dakota so the statewide harvest reaches 2 million birds per year again? Not in the foreseeable, Runia said.

“I really don’t see anything coming out of Washington that would suggest that and make the CRP program competitive enough to get back up to the habitat levels of 2007,” he said.

South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard recently indicated his understanding of the importance pheasant hunting has to the culture and economic wellbeing of the state. Pheasant hunting generates an estimated $223 million in retail economic impact annually and an additional $111 million in salaries annually, according to the South Dakota Department of Tourism. Additionally, the state estimates there are 4,500 jobs linked directly to the pheasant hunting industry and related tourism.

To ensure pheasant populations stay high in the state, Daugaard recently announced a Pheasant Habitat Summit, which will include panel discussions and public input to explore ways to maintain and enhance pheasant habitat in South Dakota. The event is scheduled for Dec. 6 at the Crossroads Convention Center in Huron.

“We’re really looking forward to that,” Vincent said. “We want to get all the players around the table: the wildlife department, the agriculture area, the tourism, the chamber of commerce and Pheasants Forever. We need to sit around and talk about how we can continue to maintain habitat on the ground for wildlife and pheasants and water and soil, and I think we can.”

Vincent has hunted South Dakota’s prairies several times and knows the feeling of his heart pumping after walking into a group of roosters that explode from the ground. This year, the White Bear Lake, Minn., native will make his annual pheasant hunting trip to the South Dakota in mid-November.

Each year, when he returns to the state, he remembers exactly why fighting for conservation is so important.

“The proof will be there this weekend when the world will come to South Dakota — the pheasant capital of the universe — to shoot pheasants,” Vincent said.