South Dakota pheasant numbers down, but hot spots remain


PIERRE, S.D. (AP) — Wildlife officials had to dig deep Thursday to find positives in South Dakota’s annual pheasant brood survey, which showed a 17% decrease from last year, mainly because of an abundance of snow and rain in one of the premier bird hunting states.

The state Game, Fish and Parks Department report showed that the pheasant-per-mile count was 43% lower than the 10-year average, with only three of the 13 local areas seeing increases from 2018. Four areas saw minor declines and seven had drop-offs in double digits.

While it’s typical for first-time, mostly non-resident hunters to make their plans around those numbers, Matt Morlock, the state coordinator for the nonprofit Pheasants Forever, said South Dakota is still a great place to hunt the birds and that visitors shouldn’t be scared away by the survey results. Minnesota and Wisconsin are historically the top two states for non-resident hunting licenses in South Dakota.

“It’s a mixed message but overall it’s positive considering what mother nature threw at us,” Morlock said of the survey. “Overall we’re down 17 percent, which is within the margin of error, so that’s positive. The rooster population actually increased a little bit from last year and then our bird sizes went up, which are all positive.”

North Dakota, which most wildlife experts consider to be a top-five state for pheasants, has also seen plummeting numbers in recent years but for different reasons. It has been hampered by drought and declining habitat exacerbated by farmers planting crops on millions of acres of idled land that had been enrolled in the federal Conservation Reserve Program. South Dakota has seen increased habitat in the last decade, Morlock said.

The South Dakota survey covered 110 routes, with 40 of them showing a higher pheasant-per-mile count than last year. The number of roosters statewide increased 2% from last year and the average brood size expanded by 3%. The number of hens fell by 21%.

There are some potential hot spots. The numbers were up 46% for the Aberdeen area, 12% for western South Dakota and 7% for Sisseton.

A news release outlining the report says “bird numbers are still plentiful” despite a tough winter and wet spring.

“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,” Game, Fish and Parks Secretary Kelly Hepler said .

The traditional statewide season opens Oct. 19 and runs through Jan. 5.