South Dakota Celebrates A Century of Pheasant Hunting

63184a82-b050-4f20-a046-4027b1aca056 By John Pollmann

This season marks the 99th opening day in the history of South Dakota's most popular game bird. Much has changed since hunters first took to the field in pursuit of pheasants nearly a century ago, but the excitement surrounding this bird most certainly remains.
 

EARLY HISTORY

South Dakota’s inaugural pheasant season in 1919 was made possible, in large part, because of the actions of three sportsmen — H.P. Packard, H.J. Schalke and H.A. Hagman — who released three pairs of ring-necked pheasants at Hagman’s Grove north of Redfield in 1908, marking the first successful stocking of the game bird in the state. With an abundance of cover and food, the pheasants quickly adapted to life in South Dakota, and on October 30, 1919, 1,000 hunters harvested 200 pheasants during a special one-day season in Spink County.

In the years since, the abundance of pheasants found by hunters each fall has followed in step with the amount of quality habitat on the landscape. Large areas of grass and an agricultural system dominated by small grains helped boost pheasant numbers to an estimated population of 16 million birds by 1945, when 175,000 hunters shot over 7 million pheasants courtesy of an 8-bird daily limit.

Habitat losses and severe winter weather would take a toll on pheasant numbers in the years to come, however, and by 1950, South Dakota’s pheasant population had dropped to just over 3 million birds.  Hunters had only 13 days to hunt pheasants during the 1950 season and shot just over 500,000 birds.
 

SOIL BANK BOOM

The pheasant population would experience a tremendous recovery a decade later with the arrival of the Soil Bank in 1956. Designed as a voluntary program to address a crop surplus and protect land vulnerable to erosion, the Soil Bank provided rental payments to producers in exchange for taking acres out of production; cost-share assistance was also made available for implementing conservation projects on those acres, including planting grass and trees.

The resulting increase in habitat across South Dakota led to a resurgence in pheasant numbers; over the course of a six-year period beginning in 1958, the preseason population estimate averaged over 9.8 million birds.

Pheasant numbers weren’t the only figures to soar thanks to the Soil Bank, as hunters flocked to South Dakota to take advantage of the tremendous hunting opportunities. Over the course of the same six-year period, more than one million residents and nonresidents walked the uplands and crop fields for pheasants, shooting over 16 million birds.
 

BUST AND RE-BOOM

As Soil Bank contracts expired and thousands of acres of habitat returned to production, dwindling bird numbers resulted in a dramatic decline in the pheasant harvest. By 1976, the pheasant population dropped to 1.4 million and hunters shot just 372,000 birds — numbers not seen since the very first years of pheasant hunting in the state.

The solution to the habitat problem would not arrive until 1985, when producers and pheasant hunters were blessed with the arrival of the most significant conservation initiative ever launched: the Conservation Reserve Program.

Signed into law in 1985 by President Ronald Reagan as a part of the federal Farm Bill, the long-term goal of the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) was to re-establish cover to help improve water quality, prevent soil erosion and reduce the loss of wildlife habitat.

The impact of the program on pheasants in South Dakota began to emerge as grasses and trees planted as a part of the program matured, and the pheasant population climbed upward as the number of acres of CRP in the state increased. At its peak in 2007, over 1.5 million acres of CRP could be found across South Dakota; that same year, the pheasant population hit a modern-day high at nearly 12 million birds.

Much like the Soil Bank of the 1950s, CRP helped draw hunters to South Dakota. Through the delivery of habitat, CRP literally changed the landscape of the state, helping landowners improve water quality, soil health and boost pheasant numbers to levels many hunters had never seen before. It is no exaggeration to say that CRP helped South Dakota cement its place as the undisputed “Pheasant Capital of the World,” where hunters typically contribute in excess of $200 million annually to the state’s economy.
 

CRP NEEDED NOW

In recent years, the number of acres of CRP in South Dakota has declined, contributing to a downward trend in pheasant numbers, but efforts are underway to make the program more readily available and appealing to producers. State leaders are also working to find ways to improve and increase habitat. If the past has taught South Dakotans anything, it is that habitat is needed to protect the future of pheasants and pheasant hunting.

The sportsmen who released the three pairs of pheasants at Hagman’s Grove so many years ago likely understood this connection as they watched the birds soar over the diverse habitat found near the confluence of Turtle Creek and the James River, setting in motion the beginning of a nearly century-old tradition of
Opening DayS.

And through the work of landowners, hunters and organizations like Pheasants Forever, South Dakota will see this tradition last for another century and more.
 

SOUTH DAKOTA PHEASANT TIMELINE

1908
First successful introduction of pheasants in South Dakota at Hagman’s Grove near Redfield

1911
SD GFP releases approximately 250 pairs of pheasants in Spink and Beadle Counties

1919
South Dakota’s first pheasant season, a one-day affair when roughly 1,000 hunters bag 200 birds

1924
The preseason pheasant population estimate tops 1,000,000 birds for the first time. TheThe number has not dipped below this point ever since.

1929
The tradition of a noon start-time takes root

1943
The pheasant becomes South Dakota’s official state bird
1945 Pheasant preseason population estimate hits its highest point ever at 16,000,000 birds

1946
Pheasant preseason population estimate hits its highest point ever at 16,000,000 birds

1956
The Soil Bank program creates millions of acres of habitat by paying landowners to idle crop ground.

1976
After years of consistent decline due to mounting habitat losses, South Dakota’s pheasant population bottoms out at 1.4 million birds.

1982
Pheasants Forever was formed.

1985
The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) is launched.

2006
The South Dakota state quarter with a flying ring-necked pheasant was minted and made available to the public.

2007
CRP in South Dakota peaks at just over 1.5 million acres and preseason pheasant population hits a modern-day high of nearly 12 million birds.

2013
Gov. Dennis Daugaard holds Pheasant Habitat Summit to address declining pheasant population and habitat base.

2018
Pheasants Forever’s National Pheasant Fest and Quail Classic arrives in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
 

SPECIAL ADMISSION OFFER

Show your 2017-2018 South Dakota pheasant hunting license at the main gates and you’ll get FREE admission to the National Pheasant Fest & Quail Classic at the Denny Sanford PREMIER Center in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, February 16-18, 2018.