WOONSOCKET — Ever since he began trapping two years ago on his family's farm, Ethan Hegg has noticed the difference in the fields.
After trapping over 100 nest predators around his family’s farm near Woonsocket, the 11-year-old has been noticing a significant increase in pheasants, seeing a first-hand impact of trapping on the pheasant population and their nesting areas.
“It’s cool to see how trapping predators helps the pheasant population. Ever since I started trapping two years ago, there have been more birds on the farm,” Hegg said. “I catch a lot of raccoons, which they say are really good at getting to the nests and eating the eggs.”
Hegg is one of about 4,000 trappers in South Dakota who has been rewarded for his efforts by the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks as a participant in the Nest Predator Bounty Program that wrapped up in July. The program paid trappers $5 to $10 for submitting the tail of every mammal they legally and properly trapped that’s defined as a pheasant nest predator. Among the predators on the list included striped skunks, raccoons, opossums, badgers and red foxes.
The bounty program created by Gov. Kristi Noem has been a priority in her first term as part of her Second Century Initiative, which aimed to preserve the state's pheasant population and hunting tradition for the next 100 years. The main goals for the bounty program were to reduce populations of nest predators to enhance pheasant and duck breeding success, along with increasing outdoor recreation and wildlife management and conservation efforts.
As hunters will flock to the fields and aim to shoot their limit of pheasants on Saturday during South Dakota’s opening day of the 2020 pheasant hunting season, the success of the program can vary from field to field.
But whether the bounty program has had a noticeable impact on the state’s pheasant population, Kevin Robling, GF&P deputy secretary, deemed the program a success for what it accomplished.
“It was a great success, and it exposed a lot of new people and youth to the trapping tradition,” Robling said. “It did enhance pheasant and duck nesting success and enhanced trapping awareness. When trapping is done at a high intensity during the primary nesting season at a localized level, predator removal has definitely shown to influence and increase nest success for upland nesting birds like pheasant.”
While area hunters and GF&P officials say Noem’s mission to enhance pheasant nest success to keep the state’s pheasant population strong and growing with the implementation of the bounty program has worked, Matt Morlock, assistant director of South Dakota’s Pheasants Forever and former biologist, said there isn’t a clear way to measure the impact it had on pheasant nest protection and the overall pheasant population.
“It probably hasn’t had a big impact on the pheasant population. It’s just hard to quantify what the program did for pheasant numbers, but predator control definitely helps pheasant nesting. That's always a good practice when done right,” Morlock said.
With the GF&P Commission’s recent decision to discontinue the pheasant brood count survey this year -- which shared scientific data by comparing a pheasant-per-mile index for multiple regions throughout South Dakota and gave a statewide snapshot of the bird population before each pheasant hunting season kicked off -- there are less ways to statistically determine whether the bounty program succeeded at maintaining or increasing the pheasant population.
Although Morlock concluded that removing nest predators has a positive impact on enhancing pheasant nesting, he said effective habitat management has the biggest impact on the stability of South Dakota’s pheasant population. By doing both, Morlock said the pheasant population would be as strong as ever.
“If you want to influence bird numbers, it’s through habitat. Without habitat, trapping won’t have much impact,” Morlock said. “But once you have built up your habitat, trapping and predator control helps the pheasant and duck population and their nesting.”
Between the 4,000 participants of the bounty program -- which spanned from April to July in 2019 and 2020, the timeframe that pheasants are breeding in their nests -- the trappers caught and removed roughly 80,000 nest predators, according to the GF&P’s data. Trapping participants were required to remove the tail from the animal and submit it to a nearby GF&P office to receive their reward. In 2019, each predator tail came with a $10 reward, while this year’s reward was set at $5 per tail. In total, just over $645,000 in bounty payments were dolled out to trappers throughout the duration of the program. Participants were able to submit up to $595 worth of predator tails per household.
According to Robling, roughly 90% of the nest predators were trapped in eastern South Dakota, which was the targeted area GF&P officials hoped to see more trapping take place considering it’s where most of the state’s pheasant population lives. Of that percentage, Robling said the majority of the nest predators that were trapped and removed were located in the state’s pheasant belt -- the territory that encompasses the southeastern and central portion of the state.
Now that the program that was considered a success has wrapped up, Robling said discussions of continuing the bounty program are likely to be had among the GF&P Commission and state officials.
Top predators threatening pheasant nests
Undoubtedly, all of the nest predators on the bounty program list threaten pheasant nesting. But there are certain species of predators that do more damage to pheasants than others.
The consensus among GF&P officials and wildlife biologists pinpointed raccoons and skunks as the top two predators that threaten pheasant nesting.
“Raccoons are one of the leading nest predators we have a lot of in South Dakota, and they derivate a lot of duck and pheasant nests,” Robling said.
According to the GF&P’s data, raccoons made up 80% of the nest predator species that were trapped and removed by bounty program participants in the two-year span. However, striped skunks made up only around 10% of the predators that were trapped during the program.
Dave Allen, president of Mitchell’s Pheasants Forever chapter, noted there is a particular lethal nest predator that wasn't on the bounty program’s list: feral cats. Allen said feral cats have been known to wreak havoc on pheasant nesting areas, which can be tricky considering the difficulty of differentiating a feral cat to a domesticated cat.
The average life expectancy of a pheasant is a little less than one year, according to Morlock. Therefore, they have a limited time to breed. When the hens -- female pheasants -- do lay eggs during the breeding season in the spring and summer months, it’s not uncommon it will only happen once in their lifetime.
That’s another reason why Morlock said it’s vital to protect the eggs they do lay in their nests.
“Getting a lot of eggs and chicks on the ground is what is needed because they are not going to be around for a long time,” Morlock said. “The predators also need to eat, and they mainly go after the eggs. The best way to control that is having more habitat out there to make it harder for them to find.”
Cultivating youth trappers and pheasant hunters
Had it not been for the bounty program, Cash Martinez, of Emery, may have never developed such a strong passion for trapping. But after two years of participating in the program and trapping many predators, Martinez is one youth trapper who will be carrying on the tradition for years to come.
From demonstrating humane trapping methods with snares to outlining the state’s trapping regulations, Martinez said he’s learned a wealth of trapping knowledge and wildlife management practices from GF&P officials.
“Sometimes I will set a snare trap. I like that they are a little more humane, because they don’t pull tight and lock them in an uncomfortable position,” Martinez said. “I had a game warden come and teach me how to legally trap. And next week, a government trapper is coming to teach us how to properly skin the animals.”
For Robling, the impact that the bounty program had on Martinez and Hegg was one of the most important outcomes that was achieved.
“Trapping at the youth level leads into conversations of wildlife management, conservation and habitat, and the bounty program did that,” Robling said. "Trapping was a South Dakota tradition that was starting to die, but this program helped keep it alive and got a lot of our youth back into it."
With the steady decline of in-state pheasant hunters, GF&P officials and the Pheasants Forever organization have been coordinating methods to reverse the downward trend in hunters. Since 2010, resident pheasant hunting licenses have dwindled from 70,000 to 47,000, a drop of 23,000 resident hunters. For Pheasants Forever and GF&P leaders, reversing the trend starts with the youth.
“I think it’s great what Gov. Noem is doing with the bounty program and the Second Century Initiative, because we have to think of the next generation coming up. Trapping might get a kid interested in pheasant hunting, and that is what we need for the tradition to stay alive,” Allen said. “My grandkids will want to hunt down the road, and I hope we can leave them with some good pheasants to hunt.”
Under the current trapping regulations, East River trappers have 48 hours to check their snares for any animals that are caught, while West River trappers have 72 hours. According to the GF&P, there are roughly 30 animal species that can be trapped during the state’s seasons.
This fall, Martinez will have his first opportunity to see the impact his trapping efforts have had. He's pheasant hunting for the first time.
“It’s important to know how to preserve pheasants for future generations so that other kids can have pheasants to hunt when they get my age,” Martinez said.