SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) – Pheasant hunting season is right around the corner in South Dakota. 

For hunters, both resident and nonresident, pheasant experts say there’ll be plenty of birds as the season starts to kick off with youth-only hunt (Sept. 30-Oct. 8), resident-only hunt (Oct. 14-16) and traditional opener (Oct. 21-Jan. 31). 

Pheasants Forever, a non-profit organization dedicated to wildlife habitat for pheasants, released its annual pheasant forecast for 22 states, including South Dakota. This year’s report, written by Andrew Johnson, concludes the 2023 hunting season could match or even be better than 2022.  

Pheasants Forever South Dakota State Coordinator Matt Gottlob said the state continues to remain the pheasant hunting capital of the world. 

“Hunters had really good success last year bagging over 1.15 million birds all across the state,” Gottlob told KELOLAND News. “We did have a tough winter in some areas, but we’ve been really pleasantly surprised with how well birds have done and good nesting throughout the state.” 

Gottlob noted Pheasants Forever has 17 biologists across the state and will have up to 30 employees working in South Dakota. He also pointed out many of the 1.15 million pheasants harvested in South Dakota last year came before heavy snowfalls started in early December. 

“I know in some areas snow cover made it so you just couldn’t even access some of the good habitat out there,” Gottlob said. “We really expect this year to be similar and looking forward to another great Fall.” 

That positive outlook was echoed by Game, Fish and Parks Department Wildlife Division Director Tom Kirschenmann at the GFP commission’s September meeting. Kirschenmann said all the comments he’s heard from landowners, GFP staff, people in the public point to strong pheasant numbers this summer. 

“Habitat conditions are fantastic. We’ve had a lot of rain, good vegetation out there, brood survival, brood habitat was fantastic,” Kirschenmann said during the GFP commission meeting. “That all leads to optimism and very high encouragement for the fall hunting season.”

Pheasants Forever Farm Bill Biologist Tom Zinter, who lives in Bowdle, said the weather was good in spring and summer months. 

“We kind of dodged a bullet with some of the winter mortality,” Zinter said. “We definitely lost some, but that’s to be expected every winter. The birds pulled through the winter as good as we could have hoped. Some favorable conditions have things looking promising.” 

Zinter said access to food sources can be hard when there’s a lot of snow on the ground for long periods of time and a lack of “thermal habitat” that keeps the pheasants warm. He said successful pheasant nesting starts with widespread growth of cool season grasses early in the spring. 

“That creates that cover that they need,” Zinter said. “They can gain that energy back and get the resources that they need to build a successful nest.” 

Since 2020, there’s been more than 1 million pheasants harvested in hunting seasons that last more than 100 days. In 2020 and 2022, it was estimated by the GFP there were 9.1 pheasants harvested per licensed hunter. 

Zinter said the previous year’s harvest doesn’t hinder future pheasant populations. 

“Pheasants are built to bounce back quickly,” Zinter said. “Having multiple good years in a row with good conditions is what’s going to get us back to where we really want to be population-wise.” 

Upcoming rain may delay harvest 

Rain started to fall in many areas of South Dakota Thursday morning and more rain is expected through the weekend, according to the KELOLAND Live Doppler HD Storm Center. 

KELOLAND Meteorologist Brian Karstens said rain totals across parts of South Dakota will be measured in inches. 

Gottlob said a weekend full of rain won’t impact the pheasant population but should benefit habitats. 

“That way, things don’t dry out too much,” Gottlob said. “At the same time, that moisture will have an impact on the crops being harvested across the landscape. If we get too much rain then farmers have to make that decision if they want to try and pull the corn out early.” 

He said the moisture will be good for the birds but it might impact hunters pursuing birds in the short term. 

PATH program aims to expand hunting access 

Last month, Pheasants Forever announced its Public Access to Habitat (PATH) program that aims to accelerate statewide enrollment of lands in long-term conservation programs along with helping the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks’ Walk-In Area program. 

The PATH program has $250,000, funded by onX Hunt and South Dakota Tourism, to pay to landowners to enroll starting Sept. 1. The money adds to the current GFP Walk-In area program for an additional sign-up incentive of up to $25 per acre in return for 10 years of undisturbed habitat and access on private land. 

Gottlob said public access to hunting can be a limiting factor for hunters. 

“With current commodity prices and land prices what they are, it’s not really cost-effective in South Dakota to buy land,” Gottlob said. “This kind of is the best of both worlds where we provide public access and get people out there in the field, but yet maintain that respect of the landowners in their property ownership.” 

According to the GFP, 80% of land in South Dakota is privately owned and most hunting occurs on private land. Each year, the GFP prints and updates a South Dakota Public Hunting Atlas to identify the more than 5 million acres of game production areas, walk-in areas, waterfowl production areas, school and public lands, national forests and grasslands.