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Pheasant numbers down 64 percent in South Dakota

Rooster-chasers have cause for concern.

According to a Friday news release by the South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks Department, the number of pheasant broods spotted during an annual statewide survey dropped 64 percent from last year to this year.

The GF&P estimated the state to have about 7.6 million pheasants last year. With the estimated 64 percent drop, that means there's an estimated 4.864 million pheasants statewide now, although the latter estimate was made independently by The Daily Republic and is not an official GF&P statistic.

"There really can't be a single factor that can cause a decline that severe," said Travis Runia, GF&P's lead pheasant biologist. "There's definitely a combination of negative factors over the past year."

Ruina said months of persistent drought in 2012, a cold, wet spring in 2013 and a reduction in habitat have impacted pheasant brood counts.

The GF&P found during its pheasant brood survey a statewide drop from 4.19 birds per mile to 1.52. It's the first time since 1986 the survey showed less than two birds per mile statewide. GF&P conducts the brood route survey each year on select stretches of roads around the state. All pheasants are counted along each route, with particular attention to the number of broods.

Dillon Springer, owner of Backcountry Outfitters, a pheasant guiding service in rural Gregory, has been guiding for about 10 years. He said the survey numbers aren't indicative of the amount of pheasants he's seen this summer. He said he's noticed more birds than in recent years.

Still, he knows the survey could scare nonresidents who consider coming to South Dakota to hunt.

"There's definitely going to be some guys scratching their heads and getting nervous about those counts," Springer said. "Every time the report comes out and the numbers are lower, people kind of start panicing."

During the annual brood count, 12 of the 13 areas statewide saw pheasant-per-mile numbers dip. The largest drop came in the Chamberlain area, which had a pheasant-per-mile index of 10.81 last year and is at 2.66 this year. The Winner area also saw a major decrease, with a 7.35 pheasant-per-mile index last year compared to 2.0 this year. Mitchell's route went from 3.91 last year to 1.77 this year.

"It was a pretty substantial drop," Ruina said. "There were a number of factors that impacted them and judging from the numbers, it impacted them pretty severely."

Runia 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. Those were the only two seasons since 1991 in which the statewide pheasant harvest didn't exceed 1 million birds.

In 2007, South Dakota had its highest estimated pheasant population in 70 years with nearly 12 million birds. The state's all-time high was in 1947 at a whopping 16 million pheasants.

The statewide pheasant hunting season opens Oct. 19 and runs to Jan. 5 with a daily limit of three rooster pheasants and a possession limit of 15 roosters. The resident-only season runs Oct. 12-14 with the possession limit of nine roosters.

In a press release issued after the GF&P's survey, Pheasants Forever -- an organization dedicated to the conservation of pheasants and other wildlife through habitat improvements -- said upland habitat is the primary culprit in the downturn of the state's pheasant population.

"By not passing a farm bill, by not including the Protect Our Prairies Act, by not re-linking crop insurance payments to conservation compliance, federal policy makers are all but ensuring this unprecedented habitat loss will continue in South Dakota and across the Midwest," said Dave Nomsen, Pheasants Forever vice president. "South Dakota's identity as the top pheasant-producing state, and as our nation's premier pheasant hunting destination, is truly dependent on Congressional action."