As South Dakota’s preseason pheasant count dips to the third-lowest total in more than 30 years, state and wildlife officials hope the future will bring more promise.

The South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks Department is reporting a 17 percent decrease from last year in its annual pheasant brood survey, which was released Thursday. Officials are reporting a statewide count of 2.04 pheasants per mile.

In the past 30 years, only 2013 (1.52 pheasants per mile) and 2017 (1.68 pheasants per mile) had lower estimated preseason populations.

“South Dakota offers the greatest opportunity in the country for pheasant hunting,” said Kelly Hepler, department secretary for GF&P, in a press release. “Pheasant reproduction in 2019 is right in there with other years and lands open to public hunting are abundant, which means our second century of pheasant hunting will be off to a good start.”

The report says historic winter snowfall and spring/summer rainfall resulted in many water-filled ditches. Also, about 3.8 million acres of cropland went unplanted due to the wet conditions.

“Although it is unknown how these circumstances may have influenced pheasant behavior and visibility during this survey, the impact on the detectability of pheasants was most likely negative,” the report said.

The past five years the preseason average pheasant-per-mile index in South Dakota is 2.61. That’s far off from a 10-year average between 2003 to 2012, when South Dakota pheasant hunting was at a recent peak, averaging 6.18 pheasants per mile.

Nonprofit wildlife group Pheasants Forever, though, believes South Dakota’s “best days in the pheasant fields are far from over.”

Matt Morlock, South Dakota state coordinator for Pheasants Forever, said pheasant populations have always ebbed and flowed based on habitat, weather and other factors.

“This year provides a prime example,” he said in an email response. “Mother Nature gave us an upper cut with historic winter/spring weather patterns that have continued through present day; to see only a 17% decline is encouraging because it means habitat throughout the state is on a positive trajectory versus a catastrophic drop in bird numbers.”

Specifically this year, the Mitchell area saw a 36 percent decrease in its pheasant survey compared to last year. Ten of the 13 routes saw a drop in their pheasant numbers with the exception of the Aberdeen, Sisseton and western South Dakota routes. The 110-route survey, which covers about 30 miles on each route, was conducted from July 25 to Aug. 15.

GF&P focused its annual press release and public email not on the specifics of the report but looking at Gov. Kristi Noem’s Second Century Initiative that focuses on habitat and the next 100 years of pheasant hunting in South Dakota. The 2018-19 season was celebrated as the 100th season of pheasant hunting in state history and was also the first time since 1990 that total harvest was below 1 million roosters for two years in a row.

“Enhancing habitat in South Dakota touches every aspect of life in our state,” Noem said. “We must be responsible in protecting these resources, creating healthy habitats, and supporting growth and health in our natural populations. My Second Century Initiative is about families, introducing kids to the adventure of the outdoors, and conserving our outdoor culture for the next generation. Enhancing habitat is a crucial step in strengthening the next 100 years of our outdoor traditions.”

Morlock and Pheasants Forever backed the Second Century Initiative, calling it “wonderful because it is providing producers with a shorter-term option for excellent upland habitat while allowing producers to maintain their day-to-day operations and be profitable.”

“So if a producer wants to put nesting habitat on acres that are not well suited for row crops or plant woody cover for harsh winters like last year, this program has an option for them,” Morlock said.

Morlock also acknowledged successes with community based habitat programs sprouting in Mitchell and the Brule-Lyman counties region resulting in new habitat for outdoor enthusiasts to utilize.

He added there’s high demand for the conservation reserve program (CRP) and the conservation reserve enhanced program (CREP), and that Pheasants Forever is working to ensure availability for producers so the state can return to 1.5 million acres of CRP.

This year, the statewide pheasant season begins Oct. 19 and runs through Jan. 5. The three-day resident only season is Oct. 12-14. The limit is three roster pheasants per day with a possession limit of 15.