South Dakota pheasants beat a bad winter and extremely wet spring/summer; 17% index drop could be worse, bright spots exist
By Tom Carpenter, Editor at Pheasants Forever
Yes that’s a pretty positive headline for a state – one might say THE state – that leads all others when it comes to pheasant hunting but experienced a 17% drop in its traditional pheasant roadside count / brood survey report.
But think back to last winter. It was one of the snowiest ones on record ever for South Dakota, with March and April blizzards lined up and swooping in relentlessly to hammer the state when birds should have been starting to step out onto Easy Street.
And then consider the historic, epic, biblical – you choose the adjective – rains that hit the Plains and did not spare South Dakota this spring and summer. Nests were certainly washed out, broods lost.
As we dive into the analysis, keep those thoughts in mind. Seventeen percent down statewide? We’ll take it. This hunter will, anyway. Long-term habitat loss is a bigger worry than weather – always – but we’ll talk about that. Bottom line, South Dakota still beats everybody else hands-down for wild bird numbers, and this fall will be no different. You may have to work a little harder, but what pheasant hunter isn’t used to hard work?
Weather and Conditions
“December through April precipitation was essentially all snow,” reports Travis Runia, senior upland game biologist for South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks (SDGFP). “Yes, it was in fact the 4th snowiest winter on record, and the worst for snow accumulation since 1985-86. Most of the primary pheasant range received double normal snowfall, which likely reduced pheasant winter survival.”
Spring and summer didn’t let up on the precipitation faucet. “May through July precipitation was the 5th highest on record and the highest since 1993,” says Runia. “The mean temperature for the same period was about 2 degrees below normal. That’s not as favorable for pheasant production as are more traditional weather patterns. Many nests in low-lying upland habitat were likely inundated during flooding rains.” If there’s a silver lining here, “respectable average brood size observed during the roadside counts observed this year suggest that the resulting lush habitat conditions may have compensated some for all the bad weather.”
Habitat, Broods and Counts
“Considering what mother nature dished out for weather over the past year, we were pleased to see pheasant abundance remain nearly unchanged for 7 of our 13 analysis regions,” says Runia. “The overall slight decline of 17% was not surprising, and is on par with surrounding states.”
While hard data isn’t there to support the idea, there are some important intangibles to consider when thinking about the survey route numbers drop. “It is unknown how the 3.8 million acres of unplanted cropland, much of which was in weedy cover, may have influenced brood observability during our survey,” says Runia. “Plus, the additional weedy cover on the landscape probably served as ideal brood habitat and could provide additional hunting areas where the cover remains into fall.”
With the dryer August South Dakota had, there’s always the real chance for late broods that weren’t counted as well.
The following chart outlines actual numbers from the brood survey. “Fewer hens and broods were counted overall, by about 21%, but statewide, but 40 of 110 survey routes actually had higher bird counts than 2018,” says Runia. In addition, rooster counts were essentially steady on routes statewide.
One final note before you let brood counts get you down. “The historic winter snowfall and abundant spring and summer rains have left many road ditches filled with water,” says Runia. “Those ditches likely affected the number of pheasants using the roadsides in August.”
“Additionally, those 3.8 million acres of unplanted cropland, much of which was weedy cover, may have influenced brood observability during our survey,” says Runia. “The additional weedy cover on the landscape probably served as ideal brood habitat and could provide additional hunting areas where the cover remains into fall.“
Pheasants are a fickle bird. Even where counts are generally down, pockets with exceptional numbers of birds exist where habitat is good. A look at the roadside count chart is a start to choosing an area to hunt in South Dakota this year. But I wouldn’t let it steer you away from any one area you may know … if you know there’s good habitat there.
If you’re looking for a place to expand your South Dakota pheasant hunting horizons, or thinking of hunting the king of pheasant states for the first time, here are three concepts to consider.
There’s no doubt that increased survey counts in the Aberdeen area are exciting to look at. Eight of the 14 routes in that area had exceptional bird numbers. Public access is good.
BRULE AND LYMAN COUNTIES
You can’t ignore absolute numbers of pheasants counted per route, and the Chamberlain area with 4.85 Pheasants Per Mile (PPM) wins hands down. And that’s’ only 8 percent less than last year.
With the good rain this year, habitat is extra lush in places west that are approaching, and beyond, the Missouri River. It’s a farther drive but that means fewer hunters. Public land is replete. Think Corson, Dewey and Stanley Counties, and even the next layer of counties west. It’s an adventure.
Runia provides some important insights for planning your South Dakota hunt this year.
“Hunters should expect a late corn harvest as a result of late planting this past spring,” he says. “As hunters know, roosters seek refuge in standing corn which can reduce hunter success until harvest occurs.”
“Also, many cattail sloughs contain standing water this year and will be difficult to hunt until the water is frozen,” he adds. “Therefore, hunting could be particularly good late season when corn harvest concludes and cattail sloughs are more accessible after freeze up.”
I think his advice is right on: Don’t be in a rush to hunt South Dakota early this fall, and be prepared for more water than you might otherwise expect. In fact, Runia points out that hunters should be prepared for some county and township roads to be inundated, washed away or otherwise closed due to flooding and the wet year.
“The 2019 pheasant population index is still higher than the lows of 2013 and 2017, when hunter harvest averaged 900,000 roosters,” says Runia. Nobody’s making predictions for this year’s harvest, but I will: I would bet South Dakota will surpass a million birds shot this year.
With 1.1 million acres of publicly accessible hunting land int heart of South Dakota’s pheasant range (and that includes the 20 percent of the state’s CRP acreage that is enrolled in South Dakota’s Walk-In Access program), the freelancing pheasant hunter will have a good year in South Dakota.
It’s habitat that matters. South Dakota has lost 553,000 acres less of CRP than in 2007. Hay land and small grain acres have declined by 5.5 million acres. Over 1.8 million acres were converted form grassland to cropland between just 2006 and 2013. As hunter-conservationists and Pheasants Forever Members, we all need to keep our eye on the habitat ball in South Dakota, as everywhere. That – habitat – is what will drive South Dakota’s pheasant numbers in the future, period.
Visit South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks' full Pheasant Brood Survey Report here