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North and South Dakota Pheasant Update

by Dakota Country Magazine Staff

Pheasant numbers are up again in the Dakotas, with the exception of northern North Dakota. A couple of moderate winters allowed a significant number of carry-over birds to live into the next spring reproductive season, and that factor is huge. Though habitat losses remains a major factor in both Dakotas, mostly in the form of CRP, substantial by not crippling spring rains produced lush grasses along coulees and creeks and river areas, accounting for much of the habitat preservation.


South Dakota

Two years ago, it seemed as if the bottom fell out of the pheasant world in the Dakotas. South Dakota pheasants, in particular, suffered a 64 percent reduction in 2013, blamed on a severe 2012 fall drought (on carry-over birds), a prolonged wet spring in 2013 and continued loss of CRP.

The late summer 2013 brood survey report in South Dakota saw an index of 1.52 pheasants per mile, compared to 4.19 birds per mile in 2012.

The business community in South Dakota was highly concerned with the loss, with resident and nonresident pheasant hunters contributing $173 million to the local economy in 2012.

Much of the losses were recovered last year, when brood counts increased a welcome 76 percent statewide. And this year, the increase continues with a 42 percent rise, despite continued habitat losses.

The statewide pheasants per mile (PPM) this survey year was at 3.80, up from 2.68 last year and 1.52 in 2013. Good news for hunters as well as the business community.

This year, the PPM index is similar to 2011 when hunters killed 1.6 million pheasants in the state.

“The favorable winter and spring weather conditions for the second consecutive year contributed strongly to another large increase in pheasants-per-mile,” said Kelly Hepler, GFP Secretary. “This year’s population index is more than double the 2013 level when hunters harvested just under one million pheasants. Although the index continues to lag behind the 10-year average due to the extremely high counts from 2005 and 2010, a second straight year of substantial gains in the index is great news for the hunting community.”

The department surveys 109 thirty-mile routes across the state each July through mid-August. Though the survey is not a population estimate of birds, it does establish trends and reflects on bird survival and reproduction.

Game, Fish and Parks said survey results show that pheasant numbers will again be highest along the Missouri River broad regions around Winner, Chamberlain, Pierre and Mobridge. Significant pheasant abundance also exists in the James River Valley near Mitchell, Huron and Aberdeen.

Fewer pheasants were noted in the I-29 corridor, although the PPM in the Sioux Falls area doubled in the Brookings/Sioux Falls area.

Chamberlain had the highest PPM at 8.84 birds, followed by Pierre (7.48), Winner (5.97), Mobridge (5.02), Mitchell (4.55), Huron (4.02) and Aberdeen (3.21).

“Habitat continues to be at the forefront of the conversation and is a crucial factor in pheasant numbers,” said Hepler. “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 in cooperation with the Governor’s Habitat Work Group, landowners, partner organizations and agencies to provide an improved future for wildlife habitat in our state.”


North Dakota

Though North Dakota’s pheasant losses two years ago weren’t as severe as South Dakota’s, they still declined 30 percent from the previous year, enough to raise the eyebrows of hunters. Then, in the spring of 2014, due to a fairly cooperative winter, pheasant numbers rebounded 30 percent,

While summer brood counts were up 37 percent in 2014, the average brood size decreased by 4 percent.

North Dakota biologists conduct spring crowing counts (South Dakota does not), and last spring’s results were positive, showing a 10 percent increase in bird numbers over 2014.

Stan Kohn, upland game management supervisor said the number of roosters heard crowing last spring was up statewide, with increases ranging from 2 to 12 percent.

Kohn said a higher breeding population such as that found last spring is good for production if weather cooperates and nesting habitat is available. Last spring’s weather wasn’t ideal, he said, but it wasn’t a major cause for concern.

Recent completed brood counts, a more accurate tally of the population, in North Dakota indicated mixed results… a strong increase in bird numbers in the southern half of the state, declines in the north.

More specifically, statewide, pheasant numbers per 100 miles of survey were up 30 percent from 2014. However, breaking it down by district, the count was up 34 percent in the southwest, up 27 percent in the southeast quarter, but down 17 percent in the northwest and down 7 percent in the northeast.

As far as pheasant brood counts, similar results were noted in the tally conducted in late summer. The northwest and northeast brood counts were down 32 percent and 17 percent from 2014, respectively. In the southwest and southeast, brood counts were up 31 percent and 21 percent, respectively.

In addition, average brood size was up in all areas:

• Northwest -- 6.35 chicks/brood, up 23 percent

• Northeast – 4.35 chicks/brood, up 3 percent

• Southwest – 6.18 chicks/brood, up 8 percent

• Southeast – 5.50 chicks/brood, up 2 percent.


To achieve the necessary counts, 83 cooperators were assigned 105 pheasant brood routes, each running the route a minimum of 3 times. A total of 259 runs were made along the 105 routes.

As summarized by the North Dakota Game and Fish Department, there is a high contrast between the northern and southern half of the state regarding pheasant status. It’s noted, however, that the decrease in pheasant production in the northwest (-17%)will be off-set to some degree by an increase in pheasant brood size, up 23 percent from 2014.

Generally, the area south of Highway 200 saw strong increases, while north of Highway 200 showed decreases.

“Spring crow count data showed increases in adult males in all four districts, so one would expect better production in the northern half of the state,” said Kohn. “However, something affected last summer’s production in the northern half of the state. Even though many folks (counters) commented on the fewer acres of grasslands occurring on their routes, what habitat was available for spring nesting/summer brooding appeared to be in good condition. Field personnel did note hens with young chicks in late August, which would indicate that a fair amount of re-nesting occurred in some locations.”