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Pheasants Forever office opens in Brookings

A dog brings a pheasant to a hunter during last year’s statewide opener in a field west of Mount Vernon. (Republic file photo)

By Kevin Burbach

PIERRE (AP) — National conservation group Pheasants Forever has opened up shop in South Dakota to help combat a state pheasant population that has declined in recent years as more of the bird's habitats are converted to cropland.

Dave Nomsen, who long has served as vice president of government affairs for the nonprofit, officially opened the group's first office in the state this week in Brooking at South Dakota State University. Nomsen said seeing the significant decline in the pheasant population last season was a wake-up call for the group.

"There are some threats right here, in the heart of pheasant country, that we need to address," he said.

Pheasants Forever will work with landowners along with the state to help conserve pheasant habitats, Nomsen said.

Pheasant numbers have fallen in recent years as fallow grasslands have been converted to farmland.

Travis Runia, a senior upland game biologist with the Department of Game, Fish and Parks, said seven or eight years ago the state had nearly twice as many pheasants. That correlates with the loss of land in the Conservation Reserve Program, which pays landowners to idle land to prevent erosion and create wildlife habitat.

"Over the long term we're losing habitat; over the long term our pheasant population is declining," Runia said.

Compared with the 10-year average, the number of pheasants per mile in 2013 was down 76 percent.

But there could be some good news this year, said Runia, noting that the lack of snow on the ground this winter and relatively dry spring could help.

"What we don't like to see is a lot of heavy rain when the pheasants are nesting," Runia said. "It can flood out nests; it can make the predators better able to smell where the nests are."

The department started its annual pheasant survey this weekend and will release its official report around Labor Day.

A good pheasant forecast could mean a return of hunters to the state this season.

In 2013, about 132,000 licensed pheasant hunters were in the state, the lowest since 1997, according to data from Game, Fish and Parks.

"If this year we have some good news to share, hopefully some of those hunter numbers will rebound," Runia said, "and I think they will rebound to some extent if our population is up."