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Hagen: Coyotes never have been the culprit of South Dakota's pheasant decline

As South Dakota’s pheasant season sits just around the corner, it’s time we accept that coyotes and pheasants just aren’t connected.

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A GF&P official shows the teeth of a coyote after it was trapped. (Republic file photo)

It was one of the best quips I had ever heard.

During former-Gov. Dennis Daugaard’s Pheasant Habitat Summit , held in December 2013, a man stood up in a small work-group session and blamed coyotes for the significant decline in the state’s pheasant numbers.

“CRP, I know what that stands for,” he said. “It stands for Coyote Reproduction Program.”

Most of the room laughed, but most of the state Game, Fish and Parks officials didn’t. CRP, or Conservation Reserve Program, is a federal program that pays farmers to set marginal land aside to benefit wildlife. Through the years, as South Dakota’s CRP acres have gone up and down, so has the population of our state bird.

It was an interesting take at the time, a year when preseason pheasant numbers were down catastrophically. Were coyotes really a factor in declining pheasant numbers?

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Soon after the habitat summit, I reached out to a GF&P official who headed up the Wildlife Damage Management program who said the claim was inaccurate.

“If people are trying to make a correlation between our coyote populations and pheasant populations, they’re barking up the wrong tree,” he said.

The state official showed me data that his department had seen a significant increase in requests to have coyotes trapped and killed on private property statewide. That was the best information available, a possible indicator to show coyote numbers, since there was no official count conducted to estimate populations.

Fast forward to 2018, when Marty Jackley and Kristi Noem were squaring off in the Republican gubernatorial primary and appearing at National Pheasant Fest in Sioux Falls.

It was then again that I heard the idea that coyotes and pheasants were correlated. Noem outlined her plan to increase South Dakota’s pheasant numbers, called “the Second Century Initiative,” which included a point to target predators, while inspiring the next generation of South Dakota hunters.

But a Pheasant Forever official dismissed the idea of the bounty program to help pheasants.

“We absolutely know that if we have the habitat base that we need, predator control becomes less of an issue,” he said.

After Noem was elected our state’s governor she, through GF&P, successfully implemented the Predator Nest Bounty Program, which pays people to trap and kill predators such as coyotes, skunks and raccoons.

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A recent South Dakota News Watch report said South Dakota has spent about $2.4 million on the bounty program and tallied about 134,000 collected animals in three years.

Also notable is that the last time South Dakota conducted its preseason pheasant count, in 2019, that was the first year of the predator bounty program. Minnesota, Nebraska and Iowa all held their own preseason count — and all of the states were remarkably similar in pheasant population changes. Simply put, it didn’t really matter that South Dakota had a predator bounty program as its decline was just as bad as the neighboring states that year.

As South Dakota’s pheasant season sits just around the corner , it’s time we accept that coyotes and pheasants just aren’t connected.

Coyotes are a problem in South Dakota. New data says GF&P and other agencies have killed an average of 7,870 coyotes per year for the past five years. That’s the highest five-year window since data has been collected.

Declining pheasants are a problem in South Dakota. The numbers in recent years have been so alarming that the state has dropped its annual roadside survey to avoid losing the revenue stream from nonresidents scared off by the report.

But they’re separate issues that shouldn’t be linked. Instead, we have a nonsensical accusation and millions of wasted taxpayer dollars that otherwise should have been spent on improving habitat.

The newly released National Pheasant Plan shows the seriousness of habitat loss nationwide. South Dakota's pheasant production habitat base, the report says, has declined by 43% from 1990 to 2019. Good habitat for pheasants is the best form of predator control, and our habitat is cratering.

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Who’s joking about the Coyote Reproduction Program now?

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Mitchell Republic Editor Luke Hagen.

Luke Hagen was promoted to editor of the Mitchell Republic in 2014. He has worked for the newspaper since 2008 and has covered sports, outdoors, education, features and breaking news. He can be reached at lhagen@mitchellrepublic.com.
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