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A brutal winter calls for investments in habitat conservation

If pheasants have access to high quality habitat, they will bounce back from the toughest winters imaginable.

Action from opening day of pheasant season in South Dakota on Saturday, Oct. 15, 2022.
Adam Thury / Mitchell Republic

Finally. Old Man Winter is on his last legs (we think).

After several back-to-back mild years, the winter of 2022-23 made an old-fashioned return to the Northern Great Plains. The snow came early and often. The Dakotas, along with the surrounding upland bird strongholds like Minnesota, Iowa and parts of Nebraska, took the brunt of this trend.

The impact was no doubt felt by the state’s wildlife — a photo of a mule deer buck frozen into barbed wire fence that made the rounds on social media sticks out as a particularly poignant reminder of how unforgiving a prairie winter can be. The struggle is also real for the ring-necked pheasant, but as the South Dakota snow globe melts into springtime, it’s important to look forward.

The habitat implemented right now can make a big difference for summertime pheasant broods and defense against blizzards to come. There’s no better time than spring to take stock of current habitat conditions or make wildlife cover investments for the future.

The Stehly brothers manage a large farming operation with a heavy focus on soil health.

Here are a few recommendations from The Habitat Organization.


Undisturbed nesting habitat

Springtime in pheasant country is the most critical period of the year. Nesting season is when the story of next fall’s pheasant population, and your next hunting season, is written.

To that point, undisturbed nesting cover remains the number one limiting factor for pheasants across their range, which is why it should receive major attention for upland habitat projects. Nesting / brood rearing habitat should make up at least 65 percent of any acreage devoted to producing pheasants. This should consist of a diverse prairie planting of native grasses and wildflowers designed in blocks of 20-40 acres to maximize wildlife production.

The earliest nests occur in last year’s erect, residual vegetation (12-16 inches tall is perfect) found in CRP fields, fencerows, buffers, roadsides and waterways. Later on in the spring, new growth in those areas is important for nesting, as is growth in cool-season and native grass pastures, and even in small grain fields.

There are several different habitat programs currently open to help landowners establish nesting habitat, including the Conservation Reserve Program general signup which runs through April 7, 2023.

Robust winter cover

If your farm or hunting property was devoid of pheasants and other wildlife during the snowy months, lack of quality winter cover was to blame.

Winter cover should make up about 25 percent of a property, depending on the amount of total habitat available. Consisting of dense native grasses, woody/shrubby cover, cattails, or other dense, stemmy vegetation, “thermal” cover is extremely important during harsh winters. Well-designed winter habitat can save pheasants 28 percent in metabolic needs during cold and snowy conditions.

Shrubby habitat planted in blocks with a minimum of 12-15 rows including species such as cherry, current, dogwood, elderberry, gooseberry, hazelnut, Juneberry, plum, sumac and viburnum are great choices for thermal cover. Throw in short stature conifer/evergreen species to block wind and act as a snow catch and you’ve got a recipe for great winter habitat.

Food and cover plots are the final piece of the puzzle, filling the last 10 percent of land. Their purpose is simple: keeping hen pheasants in good body condition until spring arrives. Planting blocks of food sources (1-3 acres or bigger) such as sunflowers, sorghum, millet, or corn next to quality winter cover – putting the bedroom next to the kitchen – can help wildlife during extremely cold or snowy winters.


Hope springs eternal

For generations, pheasants and other wildlife in South Dakota have survived the harsh realities of living in a landscape where Mother Nature dishes out tough love — horrible winters, parched summers, flooded springs and the like. But wild pheasants are unbelievably resilient. And, as harsh as it may sound, the species is designed for high turnover.

So, keep the faith. If pheasants have access to high quality habitat, they will bounce back from the toughest winters imaginable. The birds were made to endure, which might be one reason why it makes us smile to see a rooster cross the road after a long winter — you’ve got to admire the tenacity.

Start Your Habitat Project

Looking to jumpstart the birds and other wildlife after a tough winter?

If you’re a wildlife manager, farmer, rancher, or landowner seeking guidance for habitat planning services, Pheasants Forever invites you to explore the “South Dakota Habitat Pays” website at Habitat.Sd.Gov. This one-stop-shop resource assists landowners in developing and funding wildlife habitat where it matters most by connecting with resource professionals, providing information on federal and state conservation programs, information for habitat cost-share, and much more.

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