SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — Another winter storm will bring another set of challenges for wildlife in South Dakota. 

Many areas in western, central and northeast South Dakota could see more than 6 inches and some areas could see more than 12 inches of snow through Wednesday. That’ll be on top of the more than 50 inches and sometimes more than 60 inches of snow seen in many areas this winter. 

Two pheasant experts in South Dakota told KELOLAND News winters with heavier snowfall typically correlate to lower pheasant survival rates. 

“I’m sure everyone could guess it’s been kind of a tough one,” Pheasants Forever Senior Farm Bill Wildlife Biologist Cody Rolfes said. “There’s no doubt, we definitely lost a few to starvation or the cold.” 

Game, Fish & Parks Regional Wildlife Supervisor Emmett Keyser said the winter has been “memorable” and caused challenges. 

During the GFP’s March 9-10 regular meeting, Keyser said the normal winter survival for pheasants is 65%. However, pheasant survival in severe winters, even areas with good habitat, can get as low as 35%, Keyser said. Keyser said those numbers are based on research and studies conducted over the years. 

He pointed out eastern South Dakota averages around 35-40 inches of snow during the winter and many areas surpassed that number this winter. 

“Pheasants are having a tough time making a living out there,” Keyser said during the meeting. “The good news is pheasants have great potential to recover, almost astoundingly so.” 

Both Rolfes and Keyser noted pheasant populations continue even after hard winters. 

“We’re lucky to be in South Dakota, where the landowners and citizens and the state care about them,” Rolfes said. “They do their part and trying to implement what they can to keep the birds alive.” 

Deep snow covers food supply 

The biggest problem for pheasants and other wildlife during the winter months is food supply. Deep snow covers up most of the plants pheasants depend on for food. 

In many cases, it’s not uncommon for people to see large groups of pheasants gathered near roads looking for food. 

While it is good to see pheasants that have survived the winter so far, Rolfes said pheasants out in the open are more vulnerable to changing weather conditions and predators. 

Pheasant in Boone County . (Courtesy: Bob Tate)

“The reason you’re seeing them out is just because some of those cover areas that they are used to being in are full of snow,” Rolfes said. “They’re having to eat more food, find more resources. So they’re always out and about looking for that which isn’t a good thing.” 

Keyser said a cold, wet spring would not be beneficial to the pheasant population after a hard winter. Rolfes agreed and said pheasant populations are designed for high turnover. 

“We don’t shoot hens in the fall and that allows more of them to come through to spring,” Rolfes said. “Roosters can breed as many as there are out there and as much as time allows.” 

Help and habitat 

The depth of snow also correlates with calls to protect livestock feed from other animals, like deer that are searching for more food. 

In early March, the GFP said there had been more than 450 calls for service on animal damage this winter. That’s up from 245 requests in 2020, according to a wildlife damage management report by the GFP. 

In the winter time, deer herds of more than 100 can form and cause feed issues for cattle producers. 

Keyser said the GFP constantly will take calls from the public about how to help wildlife in a tough winter. He said a feeding program is not practical, but he thanked agriculture producers who do throw out extra feed for pheasants and deer. 

“Almost every plant is covered up by a foot of snow,” Keyser said. “I think in a lot of cases we’ll be surprised. We appreciate all the concern and we appreciate our wildlife in South Dakota.” 

Rolfes said bad winters are the reason for how habitat should be planned. 

“We always say plan your habitat for the one out of 10 bad winters,” Rolfes said. “The 2018-19 winter was pretty tough too so we need to get some of these winter habitats going.” 

He pointed people to the South Dakota Habitat Pays website which led the GFP to help farmers and ranches find what habitat resources are out there.