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Official: Pheasant numbers to see 'slight increase' in 2016

Officials with the state Game, Fish & Parks Department are expecting a slight increase to pheasant populations this season, but spring rains may have dampened a great hatch.

(Luke Hagen/Republic)
(Luke Hagen/Republic)

Officials with the state Game, Fish & Parks Department are expecting a slight increase to pheasant populations this season, but spring rains may have dampened a great hatch.

Travis Runia, senior upland game biologist for GF&P, said a soggy season in South Dakota eased what could have been a great year for bird reproduction, but populations should rise, or, at the very least, be similar to 2015, when hunters in South Dakota harvested a little more than 1.25 million pheasants.

That was the top harvest of any state in the nation and was also the highest total in South Dakota since 2012, when 1.43 million birds were harvested.

The prime conditions to have increased populations are a wet - but not too wet - spring, and a mild winter. This year, heavy rains this spring in South Dakota may have caused some damage during the pheasant nesting and brooding period, which tends to take place from around mid-April to June.

When there is significant rain, like this past spring, it can drown out the nests and reduce pheasant chick survival, Runia said. Areas around Mitchell, which is in the heart of pheasant region, were "spotty" with some receiving more rain than others, but it was generally more rain than is desirable for good nesting conditions.

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According to Tim Masters from the Sioux Falls National Weather Service, the Mitchell area received 46.3 inches of total snowfall during the winter and 13.75 inches of rain in the spring. The rainfall was 4.12 inches above normal for the area.

But, last winter's conditions look good for pheasant survival. Heavy snowfall that stays around can be bad for pheasants, but the snow last winter continually melted off, Runia said.

"Survival is lower (with heavy snowfall) for a couple of reasons. When the ground is white, it's easier for predators to see and catch pheasants," Runia said. "Another one is when the ground is covered, it is more difficult to find food - waste grain, for instance. Then they have to spend longer feeding, and it exposes them to predators longer."

Statewide, snowfall was normal or slightly below average this year, Runia said, and South Dakota saw an early thaw. Most of the snow was gone by mid-February, which is a good sign for pheasants.

But, other weather can also cause a drop in pheasant numbers, Runia said. If there are any drought conditions this summer, it could be difficult for pheasant chicks to find enough insects to eat to grow to adult size.

From July 25 through Aug. 15, GF&P will drive 109 designated 30-mile routes for a population survey, Runia said. On mornings with heavy dew, pheasants tend to go out onto the roadway to dry their feathers, and this provides a prime opportunity for GF&P to count them. This is done the same way every year, so it gives GF&P a good comparison between years of pheasant abundance.

The pheasant hatching peak is around mid-June, but it can occur later because pheasants are good at renesting if they lose the first nest, Runia said. Results from the survey will be out to the public around Labor Day, so accurate numbers of the pheasant population in South Dakota will not be known until then.

Steve Weber, a postal carrier with the Mitchell U.S. Postal Service, said he hasn't seen many pheasants or pheasant chicks out, but it is still early in the year.

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"You see more deer than pheasants," Weber said. "It depends on the time of year, but I haven't seen many pheasants or little pheasants."

Weber said he didn't see many last year either, and he's also seen a decline in the amount of Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) land on his route to the east of Mitchell.

Hunting is not expected to be as good as it was in the mid-2000s when hunters were harvesting upwards of 2 million pheasants. And though pheasant populations have been seeing modest increases the past couple of years, Runia said South Dakota won't likely reach those numbers again looking at the current habitat base.

Weber was right when he said acres of CRP land was less. The acreage of CRP in South Dakota has decreased to about 950,000 acres in the state. This is bad for pheasants because they rely heavily on land in the CRP, Runia said.

"In 2006, we were closer to 1.5 million acres of grassland enrolled in CRP. With the current habitat base, a population of 11 million is out of reach unless habitat changes."

Runia said the department had 100 acres of land enroll in CRP this year, which is practically zero acres. The department's goal is to reach 1.5 million acres again, but it seems unlikely anytime soon. On Sept. 30, approximately 58,000 CRP acres will expire. About 46,000 and 51,000 acres will expire in the following years.

"It's a bit alarming and concerning as we look into the future. Two to three years down the road, we could have and less, and it's such a critical habitat for our pheasants," Runia said. "It's extremely disappointing and very concerning for those looking at the future of pheasant population and habitat."

South Dakota's statewide pheasant season runs Oct. 15 through Jan. 1, 2017, on public and private land, with permission. The daily limit is three rooster pheasants with a possession limit of 15. The resident-only season runs Oct. 8-10 on specific public lands.

Related Topics: HUNTING
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