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When birds are few, pheasant hunting is about the ‘experience’

Jim Hagen, secretary of the South Dakota Department of Tourism, presents the state's strategy for promoting pheasant hunting and tourism during the Governor's Pheasant Habitat Summit on Friday at the Crossroads Hotel and Convention center in Huron. (Sean Ryan/The Daily Republic.)

HURON — In South Dakota, pheasant hunting isn’t about the number of birds — it’s about the experience.

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That’s according to South Dakota Tourism Secretary Jim Hagen, who spoke at the Governor’s Pheasant Habitat Summit on Friday at the Crossroads Hotel and Convention Center in Huron.

“We want to sell the experience,” Hagen said.

That’s been a hard sell this year, given the state’s declining pheasant population.

In August, the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department reported the number of pheasants spotted during an annual statewide survey dropped 64 percent this year compared to last year. That is the second largest drop in the history of the state’s survey, dating to 1949, and it means the pheasant population is probably under 3 million after being as high as 12 million as recently as 2007.

“We’re not sugar-coating things,” Hagen said. “Especially during low-count years.”

Instead, Hagen said, the state’s Tourism Department has focused its message on the experience of a day in the field, hunting with a canine companion and with family and friends.

According to statistics presented by Hagen, the majority of South Dakota’s non-resident pheasant hunters come largely from nearby states, including Minnesota, Wisconsin, Montana, Colorado, Iowa and others.

In South Dakota, Hagen said, citing Tourism Department research, the average pheasant hunter is between 35 and 60 years old, is married and has a household income of about $80,000.

Hunters spend an average of $900 each per hunting trip. Those dollars are vital to many small communities across the South Dakota, Hagen said.

“It is an integral, important part of South Dakota,” he said. “It’s an economic lifeline for many of our small communities.”

A multifaceted advertising campaign, involving print, radio and television advertising, as well as social media and targeted emails, has been used by the department to target those hunters.

Hagen said the department has worked to involve as many communities as possible in the state’s pheasant hunting season. As part of that effort, he said more than $25,000 in grants were awarded as part of a program known as South Dakota Rooster Rush, to provide assistance to communities through advertising and other promotional materials including banners, shirts and caps.

“They just go all out,” he said, referring to the communities involved in the program.

Hagen said it will be essential to maintain the health of the state’s pheasant population and, in turn, its pheasant hunting industry.

“We’re all relying upon it,” he said. “It’s all-important to everyone’s industry.”