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Hunter numbers plummet with pheasant survey

CORSICA — There’s no doubt Birdie Schoon is concerned about pheasant numbers.

She and her husband, Gene, have managed their five-bedroom bed and breakfast south of Corsica for 21 years. Each year, the Country Corner Bed and Breakfast houses nonresident hunters who come to South Dakota to chase roosters.

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Schoon said an average of 75 hunters stay at her business each year, but this year there have been a total of 14. Much of the decline at Schoon’s business is because of the drop in statewide pheasant numbers.

“You hardly see pheasants anymore,” she said. “The birds aren’t there, and I don’t know what the state is going to do about it.”

According to a report the state Department of Game, Fish and Parks released in August, the number of pheasants spotted during an annual statewide survey dropped 64 percent this year compared to last year. The drop was the second largest in the history of the state’s survey, dating to 1949. It also means the state’s pheasant population probably dipped below 3 million this year after being as high as 12 million as recently as 2007.

Schoon said the report sparked worry from several of her regular nonresident hunters, who hail from Washington, Georgia, Michigan, Texas and Kansas.

“They were booked to come and then they called when they heard about the drop in numbers,” she said. “You hate to have them come and find nothing. It really costs a lot to come.”

Because of the significant drop in pheasant numbers, Gov. Dennis Daugaard announced the formation of the first-ever Governor’s Pheasant Habitat Summit, which was held earlier this month in Huron. Jim Hagen, secretary of tourism for Daugaard, explained the importance of pheasant hunting to the state’s economy.

On average, the sport generates $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.

But when pheasant numbers drop, rural businesses like Schoon’s bed and breakfast suffer, Hagen explained.

“There’s no question in rural South Dakota in the eastern part of the state and some of the western counties as well for these mom and pop hotels, restaurants and diners, these hunters coming in are their lifeline,” Hagen said during the summit. “I talk to a lot of hotel owners who make the bulk of their living during those couple of months of pheasant hunting.”

The result of the summit was Daugaard announcing the formation of a pheasant habitat task force, which he said will consist of landowners, lawmakers and hunters. Tony Venhuizen, an aide to Daugaard, said recently Daugaard will reach out to potential members over the next week or two. Venhuizen expects membership to the task force to be announced in early January.

Scott Olson, of Red Label Guide Service in Corsica, said business has been down this year. He declined to say exactly how many people his business has guided this year, but he said “we booked about 50 percent of what our maximum would be and I think we could have booked about 75 percent of maximum.”

“We wanted to give people the opportunity to shoot their birds throughout the whole season,” he said. “Morally, that’s how we thought our business should be run.”

Olson, who’s been a pheasant guide for 22 years, explained many of his hunters asked about the reported drop in birds. He blames the decline in numbers mainly on the drought of 2011 and said he’s concerned there aren’t enough pheasants now to re-propagate the population quickly. Others have blamed the declining pheasant population on the conversion of habitat to farmland.

“I would say right now, if we have enough habitat that it could take at least three years to get back to the better levels of birds we had,” Olson said.

South Dakota’s statewide pheasant season opened Oct. 19 and continues through Jan. 5.