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September 20, 2017 10:00 PM

Pheasant Numbers Down Again

In one month thousands of out of state hunters will fly into South Dakota for the opening weekend of pheasant hunting season. 

But this year the number of birds is down dramatically compared to a year ago. 

It's nothing to crow about.  According to the Game, Fish and Parks' annual statewide survey, pheasant numbers in South Dakota are down 45 percent from last year. 

"We'd sure like to see more habitat out there," Regional Supervisor Emmett Keyser said. 

Pheasant hunting is an economic shot to South Dakota.  It brings in millions of dollars to the state's economy, but for the second year in a row there won't be as many birds this year to hunt.   

"We run a 30 mile route," Keyser said. 

Each year in late July to early August, dozens of wildlife officials conduct the survey in the early morning hours when there's clear skies, heavy dew and light wind. 

"That time of year the birds like to get out of the wet grass, they come out on the road, much more visible to the surveyors as they drive down the road," Keyser said. 

They also use an app that easily allows game wardens and others to record the number of pheasants they see along the side of the road. 

Keyser says our hot, dry weather this summer played a dramatic role in the decrease, because the lingering drought killed off a lot of insects, which directly affects a young pheasant's survivability. 

"As those pheasants hatch, some of the first things they eat are insects, they're high in protein, they're really important for growth of those young birds," Keyser said. 

Plus, the hot weather just proved to be too much.

"First ten days of a pheasant's life, they don't have the ability to regulate their body temperature, so that's a big factor, especially if you have temps in the mid 90's in some of those areas like we did," Keyser said. 

The other contributing factor to a decrease in pheasant numbers this year has been an ongoing problem for years; the lack of habitat.  

For decades the government has paid farmers to take land out of production in what's called the Conservation Reserve Program or CRP.  It's perfect land for pheasants. 

But recently, a lot of farmers have been putting their CRP acres back into production. 

"On average it's been a loss of about 500 acres of that kind of habitat every day for the last 27 years, so the landscape in our state has really changed quite a bit too in terms of availability in nesting cover out there," Keyser said. 

Keyser hopes a new farm bill will provide some incentives for farmers to set aside acres for the CRP land.

Also, the Game, Fish and Parks and the Ag department have teamed up to create the new Habitat Pays program that targets landowners and pays them to produce wildlife habitat. 

While that program continues to grow, Keyser believes the pheasant numbers will grow right along with it.  But he wants to remind hunters even though the numbers are down by 45 percent, there are still plenty of birds out there to shoot.

"We're still projected to have somewhere just under a million pheasants, which is still pretty phenomenal," Keyser said. 

If you'd like to see what areas of the state have the most pheasants and to learn more about the Habitat Pays program .

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