Saturday, October 19, is the pheasant hunting opener in South Dakota, and it’s almost sure to be another successful season despite some of the most brutal weather the state has ever experienced.
South Dakota had one of the snowiest winters on record, followed by March and April blizzards that hammered our state birds. If that wasn’t challenging enough, heavy and frequent rains hit most of the state throughout spring and summer. Nests were washed out, and broods were lost.
Pheasant numbers in the Game, Fish and Parks’ brood survey aren’t as high as they were a year ago, but are surprisingly strong considering all of the challenges. Of the 110 routes included in the brood survey, 40 routes actually had higher bird counts than in 2018.
South Dakota continues to beat every other state in pheasant numbers, hands down. The brood survey determined there are 2.04 pheasants per mile statewide. Any other state in the country would love to have that number. The most densely populated area is near Chamberlain, where the count determined there are 4.85 pheasants per mile.
“When you look at our winter, it was one of the worst on record, the fourth-snowiest winter,” said Travis Runia, a Game, Fish and Parks senior upland game biologist.
Looking back at previous years with harsh winters, pheasant populations dropped much more dramatically than this year. For instance, following the winters of 1996-97 and 2009-10, pheasant numbers fell about 50%, Runia said. This year, the decline was estimated at 17%.
In addition to severe winter weather, excessive rains and flooding created more challenges in the spring, the most critical time for pheasant reproduction and nesting, he said. In addition, the cold, wet weather delayed egg laying for some pheasants.
Good, mature habitat offers weather protection for pheasants, and that’s where a partnership between Pheasants Forever and South Dakota Corn plays an important role. The two organizations teamed up in early 2018 to launch a project designed to restore vegetation to unproductive soil that has high saline or sodic content and in turn establish habitat for pheasants and other wildlife.
Runia said that project and other conservation efforts are a boon to the pheasant population.
“Undisturbed grassland in the spring is the bread and butter for pheasant habitat,” he said. “Any time, we can put grass in the ground in the spring, it’s a good for wildlife. And when it’s going into marginal lands, it also benefits farmers and the soil.”
Through the cooperative program, landowners with saline or sodic problems in their fields receive a one-time payment of $150 per acre and are given a free seed mixture they are responsible to plant in affected areas. Landowners retain the ability to either hay or graze the site between July 15 and March 1. July 15 was chosen because pheasants normally are done nesting by that time.
Establishing ground cover on unproductive soils is a win for wildlife, farmers and the environment. Vegetation reduces water runoff and wind erosion and over time will improve percolation into the soil.
Saline and sodic soils are no small problem. The Natural Resources Conservation Service reports that South Dakota has 2 million acres impacted by saline/sodic soils and an additional 10 million acres categorized as threatened.
There are other programs designed to increase grassland and provide wildlife habitat. Govenor Kristi Noem’s Second Century Project works similarly to the Pheasants Forever-South Dakota Corn project but contains a few additional restrictions. Also, Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever have a Build A Wildlife Area program that conserves habitat for wildlife and creates public access.
Another highly anticipated program is the Soil Health and Income Protection Program designed by U.S. Senator John Thune and included in the farm bill. Full details haven’t been released by the USDA but the program would provide participating farmers with a short-term acreage conserving-use program.
Another bonus for wildlife this year is an increased amount of cover crops on land where farmers were unable to plant.
With a variety of conservation programs designed to improve soils and expand habitat, there’s an opportunity to grow the pheasant population in coming years. Unfortunately, there’s not much people can do about the weather.