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2016 Dakota Pheasant Update

by Dakota Country Staff Report

Dakota pheasant hunters may have to work a bit harder this fall. Pheasant counts are in, and overall, numbers are down in South Dakota by some 20 percent, and 10 percent in North Dakota.

At first glance it might appear to be doom and gloom, but of course, it’s not. Pheasant hunters, especially the die-hards, will seek some positive news from the otherwise negative report.

The news caught many pheasant (and sharp-tailed grouse) hunters by surprise, in light of the mild winter and pleasant spring. But habitat, biologists point out, remains at the front of the problem, though that wasn’t entirely to blame is some areas.


South Dakota

The 20 percent decline is a statewide average, with some areas impacted less, some more.

There were no areas of the state where pheasant numbers increased over last year, according to the recent brood survey data released by Game, Fish and parks.

Hardest hit were Aberdeen, down 43 percent from 2015. That was followed by Yankton down 33 percent, Sioux Falls down 28 percent, and Huron, down 23 percent.

Areas of the state with marginal losses included Mobridge (no change from 2015), Brookings (down 4 percent), Sisseton (down 7 percent) and all of western South Dakota, down only 1 percent.

“After two consecutive years of substantial increases in the statewide pheasants-per-mile (PPM) index, a slight retreat was observed this year,” said Game, Fish and Parks Secretary, Kelly Hepler. “Of the 110 routes surveyed statewide, 38 showed an increase in PPM, while 72 decline from 2015.”

Both weather and less habitat on the prairie contributed to the decline, although Hepler didn’t specify which element was more responsible for the drop.

On the plus side, Secretary Hepler explained, “We want to remind hunters that this year’s index is twice as high as the 2013 index and higher than the 2.7 PPM observed in 2014, when hunters harvested 1.2 million roosters. Good pheasant hunting opportunities will exist in 2016.”

As South Dakota continues to try to develop programs to improve habitat, adequate cover on the land remains the top problem. Without cover to provide nesting and food supplies, wildlife of any kind has difficulty surviving.

“Habitat continues to be at the forefront of the conversation and still remains a crucial factor in pheasant numbers,” Hepler said. “Bird numbers are higher in parts of the state where quality habitat conditions still exist, primarily on grasslands including those enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program, as well as fields of cereal crops like winter wheat. We continue to work hard in our Habitat Pays outreach efforts and in cooperation with landowners and partner organizations to provide an improved future for wildlife habitat in our state.”

South Dakota’s statewide pheasant season opens on Saturday, Oct. 15 and runs through Jan. 1, 2017. Shooting is allowed beginning at 12 noon, Central Time for the first 7 days of the season, then 10 a.m., Central Time, to sunset the rest of the season. (Central Time is used for opening shooting hours statewide.)

North Dakota

Completed in early September, North Dakota’s roadside crowing count tally revealed a 10 percent drop, statewide, from 2015. Areas showing marked improvement included the northwest, which showed a 129 percent increase, and the central, with counts similar to last year.

The southwest, tradition prime pheasant area of North Dakota, showed a 21 percent decrease from last year, with the number of broods down 19 percent. There, survey observers counted 21 broods and 168 birds per 100 survey miles, with the average brood size at 5.5 birds.

The major issue in the southwest involved dry conditions last spring, which, while allowing for a good hatch, didn’t produce enough food for young birds to survive.

“The southwest didn’t get any rain until near the end of July,” said small game biologist Aaron Robinson in Dickinson. “Brood numbers were fine, but brood sizes were down, and chick survival was down. The little rain meant no food, and insect production was down.”

Interestingly, most hunters expected pheasant numbers, like last year, to display an increase, especially in light of the mild winter. But, as Robinson explained, other factors are involved.

“Actually, I would have preferred even more snow than we got (last winter),” he said of the southwestern part of the state. “That would have kept things wet enough in spring to provide a good hatch with good food. The (pheasant) population can rebound quickly from winter losses, but we need a good hatch in spring with good weather.”

Another problem for the future, most notably next spring, was the extensive haying of CRP in the southwest recently. While it isn’t a factor in nesting this fall, of course, it eliminated a lot of cover for hunters. That, Robinson said, will create some challenges.

“It will absolutely impact hunting this fall,” Robinson said. “A lot of that (cut) CRP was PLOTS land. It will increase hunting pressure on smaller places and put more hunters on available cover. It will be interesting.”

On the brighter side, there were improved rain conditions in the last half of summer in the southwest, which improved small patches of cover. Robinson said he expects birds will concentrate in these areas, but so will hunters.

Southwestern North Dakota is becoming more and more commercialized. PLOTS land is important, and with up to 50 percent of CRP acreage being cut for hay in recent weeks, hunters may find challenging conditions, not only for fewer birds but more hunters.

“You have to just about know someone,” he said, to get on private land. “There are some exceptions, but generally it’s hard to find places to hunt in the southwest if you’re just roaming.”

Aside from the northwest, the central part of the state on both sides of the Missouri River retained good numbers of birds, and Robinson said he expects favorable results in traditional areas, with a harvest similar to 2015.

Southeastern North Dakota showed a 4 percent decrease of pheasants from last year, with brood counts up 1 percent. Average brood size was 6.1 birds.

In the northeast, marginal pheasant country, reports showed 2 broods and 14 birds per 100 miles. Average brood size was 3.9 birds, with the number of birds observed about the same as 2015.

Robinson predicts a statewide harvest this fall at 500,000 to 540,000 birds, down from the 590,000 of 2015.

North Dakota’s pheasant season opens 30 minutes before sunrise, Oct. 8, and runs through sunset, Jan. 8, 2017.