Outdoor Life editor shares his ‘reality check’ on S.D. pheasant hunting

KELOLAND.com Original

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — Alex Robinson has hunted all over North America. 

Big game, waterfowl or upland birds, Robinson has traveled the country for various hunting trips of all kinds. He’s also written for Outdoor Life for 11 years and now serves as the longstanding hunting and fishing publication’s Editor In Chief. While Outdoor Life doesn’t produce magazines, its digital content and website remains a go-to source for outdoor enthusiasts. 

Based in Minnesota, Robinson says he spends some of his free weekends pheasant hunting in South Dakota. This year, Robinson drove west with his dog, Otis, with the goal of hunting all public lands for South Dakota’s traditional pheasant opener.

Two weeks ago, he shared his experience in an opinion article for Outdoor Life called “A reality check on South Dakota Hunting” with a sub headline that read: “Hunting in the pheasant capital of America has changed, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.” 

In nearly 2,000 words, Robinson summarized the shifting demographics South Dakota has experienced with pheasant numbers and pheasant hunters as well as his Saturday walking fields before reaching his daily limit of three roosters just before sunset. 

“I wrote it because I really enjoy pheasant hunting in South Dakota,” Robinson told KELOLAND News. “There is also a little bit of change in upland bird hunting culture that kind of runs in parallel with some of the things going on in South Dakota. There’s been a lot of great local reporting coming out of South Dakota that’s hit on these topics as well. A lot of those stories kind of lined up with what I’ve noticed and others have noticed over the years.”

Among those topics are declining numbers of nonresident pheasant hunters, fewer wild pheasants harvested, a shifting trend for out-of-state hunters turning to pheasant lodges on private lands, weather impacts and changes in habitat.

Specifically hunting on the pheasant opener, traditionally the third Saturday in October, Robinson said he was surprised he didn’t see as many “orange armies” as he thought he’d see. 

“I was able to find places where other people weren’t hunting,” Robinson said. “That was a pleasant surprise. From a state perspective, I imagine you all want to see the big numbers and see lots of people coming to the state for the pheasant opener.” 

He said the annual fanfare and celebration that comes along with South Dakota’s start of pheasant hunting season is a good social event and called it “good for hunting in America in general.” 

Robinson cited the aging generation of Baby Boomers as one of the reasons fewer hunters are buying nonresident licenses. In 2020, South Dakota hosted the fewest nonresident pheasant hunters since 1998. The 62,289 nonresident licenses were down from the 2010 third-highest of 100,189 nonresident licenses. 

Robinson also cited declining pheasant populations for the falling trend of out-of-state hunters and the increased interest in private hunting lodges. 

“You go out there a couple years and you still love pheasant hunting and you still love being in South Dakota but you’re not putting up birds — those outfitted operations are going to look a lot better,” Robinson said. “It’s walking that fine line of having enough available habitat and public lands that everyone can have their little spot but also having enough hunters in the field to make it a culture, social event.” 

That fine line South Dakota may have already perfected in 2007 when more than 2 million pheasants were harvested and 180,836 total licenses were sold. Now into the second decade from that highwater mark, Robinson said his published story brought plenty of feedback. 

“People have real strong opinions and they also have strong experiences,” Robinson said. “Everyone is coming at this from a different background.” 

Robinson said all discussions usually come back around to habitat. He said quality native grasslands, cover and food always comes up at the forefront of any discussion around pheasant numbers.  

“The controversial part is how do you get to that habitat,” Robinson said. “Who is going to pay for it? What’s the value of it? Where’s the funding? The part that you can’t argue is if you want to have birds, you need a lot of quality habitat.” 

The future of South Dakota’s pheasant hunting 

Of the factors impacting pheasants and pheasant hunters, Robinson said more extreme weather impact should be considered a given. With more harsh weather impacts likely, Robinson said that should give additional weight to adding more natural habitat. 

“The smart biologists, folks places like Pheasants Forever and a lot of the folks managing pheasants in the state would say the key to having stronger bird numbers and better bird numbers in the long run overall really just comes down to habitat,” Robinson said. 

He said he believes there’s a surge in younger upland bird hunters looking for the challenge of fewer birds, working a dog, eating wild game or enjoying good public hunting lands. He noted many states offer a variety of private pheasant farm experiences, but stressed South Dakota should protect the resource of hunting wild birds on wildland. 

“For me personally, when I’m coming to South Dakota, I’m interested in hunting the best habitat that I possibly can,” Robinson said. “Our access to public lands is not as vast as what’s available in South Dakota. The walk-in access program you all have is amazing and that’s why I go out there.” 

Counting pheasants 

South Dakota’s Game, Fish and Parks Department has shifted from annual brood counts to Department of Tourism-led marketing campaigns. Robinson questioned if the pheasant brood count would return after ending with the 2019 report. 

“I think the more data you can provide to the media and to the public about what’s going on with bird numbers and habitat, the better,” Robinson said. “If it’s possible for there to be a count, I’d love to have a count.”

Robinson said he plans to keep finding time for hunting trips in South Dakota regardless of bird counts. But he also understands for people choosing to travel great distances to hunt in South Dakota or somewhere else, results of a population estimate could sway that decision. 

“I know some people really watch that count and if it doesn’t look good, they don’t go,” Robinson said. “More and more, they’re going to more private, out-fitted operations that can guarantee a certain number of birds.” 

Robinson said like or not, wildlife is managed through data in harvest numbers and population counts. And despite the discussion around pheasant numbers, he said everyone understands the hunt is about much more than the numbers. 

“I like pheasant hunting because I get to run my dog,” Robinson said. “You end up in a place where there aren’t many birds and you kill one or two, you feel really good about those. That’s an accomplishment.” 

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