Last year, pheasant hunters shot 1,170,000 ringneck roosters in South Dakota. That figure was just down from 2015’s harvest of 1.25 million birds, but close to 2014’s take of 1.19 million roosters.
Almost 143,000 pheasant hunters walked South Dakota ground in 2016, with about 80,000 of them hailing from out-of-state. Nonresident hunter numbers have dropped in South Dakota since the recent heydays of the mid- to late- 2000s, when upwards of 100,000 visitors hunted annually.
Traveling hunters should take note of that data point: There’s more room to roam than ever, less competition for space … and 1+ million is still a lot of birds.
As summer takes shape, South Dakota’s fall pheasant prospects are still developing. I asked Travis Runia, Upland Game Biologist with South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks, what he thought looking ahead to this fall. It was too early to tell. “I shouldn’t speculate on this topic until our brood report is released around Labor Day,” he said.
In that regard, hunters should hope for figures better than the 5.91 to 6.17 average brood sizes seen in 2016 and 2015, respectively. Can it happen?
“Most of the primary pheasant range received 30-40 inches of snow, which is near normal,” said Runia. “An early thaw starting in mid-February melted most of the snow pack well before normal. The exception was the upper Missouri River Valley, which received much above normal snowfall. Some areas received 60 inches or more.”
“Overall, the pheasant population was probably not negatively impacted by winter, except for that north-central part of the state,” said Runia.
Nesting success is going to be key to this fall’s hunt, and Runia ventured some insights.
“Precipitation during the nesting and early brood-rearing period of April and May was 80% of normal state-wide, but only 40-60% of normal in central and north-central South Dakota,” said Runia. “North-central South Dakota had the fourth driest April-May on record. The lack of moisture in central and north-central South Dakota has resulted in poor vegetation growth which could reduce concealment cover for nesting pheasants and broods.”
“Many wheat fields failed due to drought conditions,” added Runia. “This will reduce the amount of nesting cover provide by this cereal crop. As of late June, 57% of South Dakota was under moderate drought or worse, with 31% suffering from severe drought or worse. The drought is intensifying during the brood-rearing period which can cause reduced chick survival.”
“The August roadside survey is the best gauge of the pheasant population,” said Runia. “Results of the survey will be available by Labor Day,” and will be included in Pheasant Forever’s Fall Hunt Forecast.
If you’re starting to think about a South Dakota hunt this fall, Runia offered some general guidelines.
“Pheasant harvest was highest in central South Dakota in the Missouri River Valley last year, followed by the James River Valley,” he said. “These areas traditionally boast the highest pheasant abundance. But far eastern counties and portions of western South Dakota also have locally good populations.”
“Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) grasslands are the most important pheasant production habitat in South Dakota,” concluded Runia. “Current acreage is slightly less than 1 million acres, about 500,000 acres lower than a decade ago. It is hopeful that the next Farm Bill will contain provisions to improve opportunity for South Dakota producers to enroll in this highly effective and popular conservation program.:
Tom Carpenter is Digital Content Manager at Pheasants Forever.