Starting this year, as the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks seems to be putting it, it doesn’t matter how many pheasants are in South Dakota’s fields.
Don’t worry about how many birds are around Mitchell, Winner or Huron. GF&P says there are birds out there.
That’s good enough.
Even though it’s mattered for the previous 70 years, GF&P says it doesn’t matter if the population is better or worse than a year ago or five years ago. That’s “more nice to know than need to know,” Department Secretary Kelly Hepler said last week in a meeting with the GF&P Commission, which decided to end the state’s annual pheasant brood count conducted since 1949. It’s the annual outlook issued around Labor Day to give an estimate for pheasant populations ahead of the upcoming season. The change was approved without any public input, either, which is never a sign for good governing.
The purpose of the survey, according GF&P’s current pheasant management plan that was approved in 2016, is to “determine reproductive success, population trends, relative densities of populations and to evaluate the effects of weather and land-use changes.” That plan said the survey was important to the GF&P guiding philosophy to monitor pheasant population and habitat.
South Dakota has had preseason population estimates since the very first year of pheasant hunting in South Dakota. In 1919, the state had 100,000 pheasants, according to the GF&P’s own records. As long as pheasant hunting has been a tradition, so has a preseason estimate to consider regarding just how many birds are in the fields.
The brood count survey is about as scientific as it gets, given how many miles of roads surveyors drive and how it takes about a month to collect all of the data around our state. If GF&P is taking away a main resource to gauge those key indicators like reproduction and relative density, how do we know those efforts are working? (Soon, it might not matter how many deer or ducks are out there either, with GF&P saying that other wildlife surveys might also be discontinued.)
GF&P’s reasoning for the change is to focus its efforts toward marketing, trying to grow new hunters and retain the current population of hunters. It intends to spend $700,000 on marketing across 16 states in the center of the country and put money toward social media influencers, paid social media, cable television outdoors shows, paid Google searches and podcast advertising.
All of the marketing is fine, because recruiting, reactivating and retaining hunters will keep pheasant hunting around. But if GF&P is not monitoring population, as it indicated last week, then how many pheasants are available to hunt doesn’t matter. What matters to GF&P is selling hunting licenses and driving sales tax. At least there’s no confusion about what it sees as being most important.
The survey costs as much as $90,000 a year to conduct. In an industry that generates more than $200 million for the state of South Dakota, our wildlife officials are drawing the line at spending a miniscule percentage of that to count the number of birds that are out there. Compared to the $700,000 a year in marketing expenses, the pheasant survey seems like a worthwhile investment.
It’s clear, based on GF&P’s planning, that state leaders are bothered by how pheasant count numbers are reported by South Dakota media outlets. Yes, the results of that survey do make the front page in this newspaper and others around the state. That’s because there are a lot of people who care about how the pheasant season is shaping up, thus why it’s almost a $220 million industry.
Instead, GF&P and South Dakota Tourism officials want to tell prospective hunters that South Dakota is the nation’s top pheasant hunting location, something that South Dakota media outlets have been doing in numerous ways for decades. And whatever South Dakota wants to sell to hunters, it can’t beat the word of mouth among friends and family when our visitors go back to Missouri or Texas or any of the states they might visit from.
Without data, we don’t know for sure how well our pheasant population is faring. When South Dakota has worked pretty hard for the last decade to build the pheasant population and its habitat, getting rid of a key scientific measurement of pheasants that we’ve used for seven decades seems like something our state will regret.