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Unprecedented second count finds fewer pheasants

For the first time ever, the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish & Parks conducted a second pheasant survey this year to check the accuracy of its first count.

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The additional survey — which wasn’t as comprehensive — actually found about 10 percent fewer pheasants than the first one, an official with the GF&P said earlier this week. The average pheasants-per-mile index in the first survey was 1.52. A 10 percent drop would move the number to 1.35.

The GF&P reported its initial findings in early September that pheasant numbers statewide declined 64 percent from 2012. It is the second largest percentage drop from one year to the next in state history, dating back to records that have been kept since the 1940s.

GF&P Upland Game Biologist Travis Runia said there was anecdotal evidence showing that more chicks may have hatched after the initial survey, which was conducted July 25 through Aug. 15, or that the chicks that were hatched and alive during the survey were too small to see in thick cover. The annual survey consists of 108, 30-mile routes driven across the state.

The second survey covered 40 routes, and Runia added that conditions were not always ideal.

“We went ahead and did a few surveys again in September just to try and see if we missed a few of those late hatch broods or maybe the small grain harvest got completed and the roadside mowing was done,” Runia said. “But we really didn’t see much of a difference and really we were slightly lower.

“We had some people saying how small pheasant chicks were that they were seeing late in the year. We thought we would survey later and see if that pheasants-per-mile jumped significantly due to the later hatch birds, but nothing really stood out that we missed a lot.”

Runia said a wet, cooler spring may have influenced a later hatch this year. The overall mean temperature — which averages each day’s high and low — in Mitchell this April was 39.4 degrees, which is 8.4 degrees below the 30-year normal. Mitchell also had late April snowfall, dropping 23.2 inches of snow during the month. May and June temperatures were also slightly below the 30-year normal.

Those weather patterns slowed the spring wheat harvest, and pheasants are known to nest and use the crop as cover. According to the National Agriculture Statistic Service, the spring wheat harvest was well behind average this year in South Dakota. Some observers thought the survey might have missed pheasants hidden in the wheat.

On July 28, the first week GF&P conservation officers could conduct their brood count surveys, about 3 percent of spring wheat was harvested statewide. Last year on the same date, 78 percent of spring wheat was harvested; the annual average is 22 percent.

For the next two weeks that brood surveys could be conducted, spring wheat stayed behind its average harvest. On Aug. 4, 8 percent of the state’s spring wheat was harvested, compared to the 40 percent annual average. On Aug. 11, 21 percent was harvested — about one in five every field fields — which was still behind the annual 61 percent average.

Diana Schroeder, a conservation officer in Chamberlain, said the late harvest may have played a role in the survey.

“What I saw was fewer broods than there has been in past years,” Schroeder said. “The wheat fields had not been harvested yet and many of the ditches were not mowed, so it was very difficult to see the birds in the fields and also in the ditches. The vegetation was very tall this year.”

Conservation officers Andy Petersen, based in Mitchell, and Jeff Martin, of Platte, also acknowledged seeing some late broods after conducting their surveys when more of the spring wheat fields were harvested.

Still, Runia said even if there was a later hatch this year and some surveys missed some younger birds in the cover, he believes the pheasant index has historically done a good job predicting whether the numbers of pheasants harvested will be up or down.

“Whether it’s 64 percent or not, I’m pretty confident we’re down substantially from last year,” he said.