EUREKA, S.D. (KELO) — The driest June in South Dakota history doesn’t worry Tom Kirschenmann too much when it comes to the state’s pheasant population.
Drought conditions have sparked some moves that typically have an impact on the state’s money-making ring-necked pheasant. From ditches open to mowing earlier than normal to some habitat land being opened for cattle grazing, there’s enough concerns for Eureka Mayor Dennis Heilman to wonder how the wildlife will fare.
Heilman estimated 25% of Eureka’s population in the fall is pheasant hunters.
“With no water, it’s going to affect the wildlife,” Heilman told KELOLAND News this week. “We really rely on that income in the fall. I have a feeling that’s going to be pretty minimal also.”
But Kirschenmann, also a native from Eureka and the Wildlife Director for the Game, Fish and Parks Department, said it’s always a balancing act when it comes to pheasant habitat. He stressed the importance of a mild winter and good spring nesting conditions.
“Even though we’ve had a very dry, really warm month of June, the best thing they can have is dry, warmer weather versus wet, colder weather from a survival standpoint,” Kirschenmann said. “From that perspective, it was a positive thing.”
After a mild winter, Kirschenmann said the birds, especially hens, enter the breeding season in better physical condition.
“That typically leads into a very successful spring nesting season and a productive one,” Kirschenmann said. “They’ll be having larger clutches in the number of eggs they lay. Hopefully and typically it leads to more broods and more chicks.”
When projecting how the pheasant population will look from year-to-year, Kirschenmann said each season plays a vital role. One bad month can have an impact, but he stressed keeping the full year in perspective.
“We had good spring nesting conditions,” Kirschenmann said. “Where the drought and the dry conditions can have an impact is that vegetation is really deteriorating.”
According to Kirschenmann, most of the state had decent habitat conditions until the dry and hot June hit. When it comes to a lack of rain and water, he said pheasant chicks rely heavily on insects for the first eight weeks of their life.
“Your main focus is on the chicks themselves. They rely 100% on insects and they rely on those insects for their water also,” Kirschenmann said. “A lot of their water sources come from the insects they eat.”
The biggest impact moving forward is on the habitat and vegetation. For birds renesting, Kirschenmann said a lack of vegetation will make the process tough.
And while ditches do provide nesting areas for pheasants, Kirschenmann stressed Gov. Kristi Noem’s state of emergency about the drought and an Executive Order allowing the mowing of roadside ditches before July 10 was only for the state highway system.
“That’s not all road ditches across the state,” Kirschenmann said. “It’s a balancing act between habitat and the forage that the same habitat can provide for livestock. A lot of our farmers and ranchers are struggling to find the hay and forage.”
Preparing for the fall
Heilman is keeping an eye on the drought’s impact on small town government budgets. Recent rains have provided some hope for corn and soybean crops, but as cattle producers continue to struggle the last thing he wants to see is a down pheasant hunting season.
“That’s a big thing for Eureka. We have pheasant hunters come in and deer hunters,” Heilman said.
Longtime Eureka community member Judy Dohn said she took a phone call this week about a man looking for a place to stay during hunting season. She called that an encouraging sign for the fall hunting season.
Last year, hunters harvested more than one million birds across South Dakota. While nonresident pheasant hunters declined, resident licenses increased.
A combined pheasant marketing program is targeting out-of-state hunters in Minnesota, Nebraska, Iowa and Colorado, with some emphasis also on Michigan and Texas, officials said in a commission meeting earlier this month.
In summary, Kirschenmann highlighted the fall outlook for pheasants is “very positive right now.”
“We’ve got a long time before now and October when the season starts,” Kirschenmann said. “We’ve heard a lot of good reports, positive reports across the pheasant range in the state of a high number of broods, good-sized broods. There’s a very high optimism that this fall could be fantastic.”