As pheasant hunters flock the fields this weekend to kick off another season, they’ll have more public land to access in the surrounding Mitchell area.

Thanks to the success of a recently established program that Davison County’s Pheasants Forever chapter rolled out in 2017 called Community Based Habitat Access Program (CBHAP), hunters will have an additional 2,011 acres of fields to scour for roosters in the surrounding area.

Over the past two years, Jackie Krakow has helped drive the success of the program to new heights. As a Pheasants Forever biologist who works with the local chapter, Pheasant Country, Krakow looks for land in the area to transform into publicly hunting ground by working out deals with private landowners.

“It allows me to work with local producers within a 45 mile radius of Mitchell to put land into public access hunting ground,” Krakow said, noting the program has enrolled public hunting in seven area counties. “I’ve had numerous contracts from absentee landowners who are not there and don’t hunt. What’s also nice is that the landowners have no liability when they enroll.”

When farmers enroll their land into the program, Pheasants Forever incentivizes them with a one-time $50-per-acre payment. Krakow strives to make 10-year commitments with landowners.

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According to Tom Kirschenmann, deputy director of the state’s Game, Fish &Parks Division of Wildlife, 80% of hunting land in the state is privately owned, while the remaining 20% is public land.

With the limited public hunting land available in the area, Krakow said those areas can get tapped out early in the season, as many out-of-state hunters utilize public ground. By adding more public hunting land, Krakow said it opens up more opportunities for both out-of-state and resident hunters who don’t have connections to local landowners.

“Someone who lives in a larger town like Mitchell might not have access to hunting ground, and this opens up more acres for them to go out and maybe finally have a chance to take their kids with,” Krakow said.

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For Doug Backlund, a board member of Mitchell’s Pheasant Country chapter, the success of the CBHAP program is an example of the commitment the organization has for providing more habitat for the rooster population to strive and keep hunters coming to South Dakota.

“You have to have CRP acres and conservation acres set aside to keep the hunting prime. People come to our area because they have a lot of access to a lot of land that’s public, which benefits everybody who resides here,” Backlund said.

A team effort

To help market the recently enrolled public hunting land, Krakow has been working with the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks to set up walk-in areas.

“That also gets them posted in the hunting atlas for people to find it easily,” she said, noting the public land is open to all hunting such as duck, deer and pheasant seasons. “It’s great to see us and the GF&P, along with other groups, to get more habitat and land enrolled. That’s what Pheasants Forever is all about: habitat.”

According to Kirschenmann, the GF&P also works with over 1,400 landowners, which has led to the enrollment of roughly 2 million acres of public hunting grounds.

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More importantly, the program incentives landowners to enroll their ground into the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) -- a land protection effort in which farmers remove environmentally sensitive land from agricultural production. And more habitat historically means more pheasants.

Reversing steady decline in pheasant hunters

While South Dakota continues to draw pheasant hunters from across the country with its abundance of ideal habitat for roosters to thrive in the rolling plains, the state has been faced with a steady decline in hunters.

Since 2010, license sales for non-resident pheasant hunters declined from roughly 100,000 to 63,000, a decrease of approximately 37,000, according to Emily Kiel, senior staff adviser with the GF&P. South Dakota resident pheasant hunters have also been dwindling over the past decade, as Kiel noted the state has experienced a decline of roughly 23,000 hunters, dropping from about 70,000 resident hunters in 2010 to 47,000.

Considering the economic impact the sport has on the state, GF&P officials and local Pheasants Forever chapters have been focused on implementing ways to reverse the trend. Krakow pointed to the CBHAP program as a key to get more hunters in the sport since it eliminates the burden of not having “good land” available to hunt, which she said can be the main factor that deters people from hunting.

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“If kids and people have to work too hard for something, they might not want to do it or lose interest. By providing more easily accessible land, I really think it’s only going to help get more people hunting,” Krakow said.

The dwindling number of hunters prompted the state’s tourism department to roll out a marketing campaign called “Hunt the Greatest,” which targets three groups of people: traditionalists, adventure hunters and lapsed to youth. The traditionalist group consists of avid hunting enthusiasts usually older in age, while the lapsed youth ages range from 18 to 35.

“We really want to recruit that group back into the field, and get them out there with their friends and family. If some of them in that group have already started their own family, we want to help shape that next generation and build that culture,” Kiel said. during last year's presentation at the State Fair in Huron.

Kiel estimates the campaign resulted in an increase of 4,100 pheasant hunting license sales in 2020.

Pheasants Forever has been getting creative with ways to spark more interest in hunting by hosting women’s pheasant hunt and annual youth hunts.

“We started a women’s chapter, which was created to make it less intimidating for women interested in hunting and maybe don’t feel comfortable going out in the fields with a group of experienced guys,” Krakow said.

To fund programs like CBHAP and women's hunts, Mitchell’s annual Pheasant Country banquet -- which is the largest pheasant organization membership banquet in the nation -- that’s held on the eve of pheasant hunting season opener in mid-October is one way the local chapter feeds programs all in the name of keeping the state’s rich tradition of pheasant hunting alive.

“Our events like the banquet benefit the type of programs that are keeping kids in the sport like the youth hunts and local trap shooting clubs. We have to get the kids involved in hunting and keep them involved,” Backlund said. “That’s where the future of outdoor sports and pheasant hunting lies.”