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Low pheasant count in the state is alarming

Published: Thursday, September 12th, 2013

Last week’s pheasant number estimates released by the state Game, Fish and Parks Department raised more than one eyebrow among conservationists, hunters and business owners in South Dakota. The annual survey shows there has been an estimated 64 percent drop in the population of the popular Ringneck Pheasant game birds in the state from last year.
This means that when pheasant hunters hit the fields again in October, there will be hundreds of thousands of fewer birds to shoot. The count numbers show there are just 1.52 pheasants per mile this year compared to 4.19 last year in the eastern part of the state. The reduction in numbers in the western part of the state wasn’t quite as bad at 1.01 pheasants per mile compared to 2.24 last year, for a drop of 55 percent.
It turns out that not just one factor contributed to this drastic decline in the number of pheasants this year. Because of the rise in crop prices the past several years, more and more acres are being converted from conservation reserve programs to crop production, so there are many  fewer acres of pheasant habitat.
Then there was the severe drought last year throughout the state that turned into a relatively cold and wet spring this year, which claimed a large number of pheasants at both ends. Dry weather was tough on all the birds while cold and wet weather was especially tough on the younger ones.
Typically the concern from drought is reduced reproductive success because of sparse vegetation and reduced insect numbers, which reduce nest success and chick survival, according to the survey report prepared by Travis J. Runia, Senior Upland Game Biologist for the state GF&P.
Runia’s survey report says that declines in pheasant numbers were most severe in the central and south-central part of the state where drought conditions were most severe. He says the scenario is rare and the mechanisms causing the mortality is poorly documented or understood. The extremely sparse vegetation conditions could have resulted in higher depredation rates, he further says.
Apparently there is not much that can be done about any of these scenarios that may have caused such a drastic reduction in the state’s game bird numbers. Farmers are going to continue to plow up their land as long as additional revenue from planting more crops outweighs any state or federal habitat conservation program. Weather extremes such as drought last fall and a cold and wet spring this year were detrimental to young birds especially.
There is one bright spot in the report. Runia says, “Given the very cold spring and presumed delayed pheasant nesting season, it is possible that the primary survey period of Aug. 1-15 occurred before newly hatched birds were visible from roadways.” Pheasant production conditions from late May through mid-August were favorable.
Let’s hope that’s the case for the good of the state’s important pheasant hunting economy.

Last week’s pheasant number estimates released by the state Game, Fish and Parks Department raised more than one eyebrow among conservationists, hunters and business owners in South Dakota. The annual survey shows there has been an estimated 64 percent drop in the population of the popular Ringneck Pheasant game birds in the state from last year.

This means that when pheasant hunters hit the fields again in October, there will be hundreds of thousands of fewer birds to shoot. The count numbers show there are just 1.52 pheasants per mile this year compared to 4.19 last year in the eastern part of the state. The reduction in numbers in the western part of the state wasn’t quite as bad at 1.01 pheasants per mile compared to 2.24 last year, for a drop of 55 percent.

It turns out that not just one factor contributed to this drastic decline in the number of pheasants this year. Because of the rise in crop prices the past several years, more and more acres are being converted from conservation reserve programs to crop production, so there are many  fewer acres of pheasant habitat.

Then there was the severe drought last year throughout the state that turned into a relatively cold and wet spring this year, which claimed a large number of pheasants at both ends. Dry weather was tough on all the birds while cold and wet weather was especially tough on the younger ones.

Typically the concern from drought is reduced reproductive success because of sparse vegetation and reduced insect numbers, which reduce nest success and chick survival, according to the survey report prepared by Travis J. Runia, Senior Upland Game Biologist for the state GF&P.

Runia’s survey report says that declines in pheasant numbers were most severe in the central and south-central part of the state where drought conditions were most severe. He says the scenario is rare and the mechanisms causing the mortality is poorly documented or understood. The extremely sparse vegetation conditions could have resulted in higher depredation rates, he further says.

Apparently there is not much that can be done about any of these scenarios that may have caused such a drastic reduction in the state’s game bird numbers. Farmers are going to continue to plow up their land as long as additional revenue from planting more crops outweighs any state or federal habitat conservation program. Weather extremes such as drought last fall and a cold and wet spring this year were detrimental to young birds especially.

There is one bright spot in the report. Runia says, “Given the very cold spring and presumed delayed pheasant nesting season, it is possible that the primary survey period of Aug. 1-15 occurred before newly hatched birds were visible from roadways.” Pheasant production conditions from late May through mid-August were favorable.

Let’s hope that’s the case for the good of the state’s important pheasant hunting economy.



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