There's great news for pheasant hunters and the businesses that support them in South Dakota. After a count earlier this month, the Game, Fish and Parks Department says bird numbers are up 76 percent from last year.
Last year, one of the lowest pheasant counts in decades led to a rough hunting season.
"Pretty steep decline in hunter participation last year," Travis Runia said. "I think we ended up having about 30,000 fewer hunters last year than we did the year before just due to the lower roadside counts last year. So seeing this bump in the numbers this year hopefully will attract a few more people to the state and help some of our local economies."
Runia, a member of Game, Fish and Parks Department's technical committee, says the pheasant harvest last year dipped below a million birds for the first time since the late 1990s.
This year, following 109 roadside surveys at the beginning of this month, he says the biggest winner is central South Dakota, where counts doubled from 2013.
"We saw the biggest increase in the central part of the state, kind of in that Mobridge to Pierre to Chamberlain to Winner area." Runia said. "Still pretty good increases in the James River Valley from Aberdeen to Huron to Mitchell. Then along the I-29 corridor, we didn't see near the increase we saw throughout the rest of the state."
While the increase is cause for celebration, the pheasant population is still down more than 50 percent over the past decade. Runia says the GF&P is working on different ways to encourage more production including a program in the James River Valley.
"We've established 83,000 acres of CRP grassland in the James River Valley in cooperation with the USDA and all of these lands are open to public hunting," Runia said. "So that's kind of a big success we've had here over the last four years to try to put good grassland habitat on the ground, both for pheasant production and for public hunting."
Runia is looking forward to the governor's habitat work group report coming out in the next few weeks. It will provide recommendations to the governor on how to maintain and improve the state's pheasant habitat.