GFP leader says he’s working on a new way to gauge South Dakota’s pheasant numbers

Capitol News Bureau

SPEARFISH, S.D. (KELO) — South Dakota needs a different approach for estimating each year how many pheasants there are, the head of the state Game, Fish and Parks Department said Friday.

Secretary Kelly Hepler’s comments came one day after state biologists had released a report suggesting the population is down 17 percent.

The traditional statewide season opens on the third Saturday of October. South Dakota has a reputation as the top hunting spot for pheasants in North America.

What Hepler has in mind, he’s not saying — not yet.

“We are trying to come up with something a little more meaningful for hunters,” he told state Game, Fish and Parks Commission members.

Last year’s report on the other hand showed a 47 percent increase over 2017.

“We’re trying to wean people out of this ’17 percent’,” Hepler said. “We’re trying to figure out a better way to translate this information for you.”

State conservation officers have driven the same set of routes each morning during the first 15 days of August for decades and count the roosters, hens and broods of chicks they see.

The report this year said the number of roosters spotted was about the same as in 2018. State law bans shooting hens.

Non-resident hunters first outnumbered South Dakota hunters in 2002. That streak hasn’t stopped since. Last year however the number of resident hunters fell below 60,000 for the second in a row. The two-year period had the fewest resident sales since the 1930s.

Tom Kirschenmann is deputy director for the state Wildlife Division. He said pheasants in the past year dealt with a tough winter, a wet spring and now a summer so unusually wet that farmers in their 70s say they’ve never seen the hillsides so green so late in their lifetimes.

Kirschenmann said more than three million acres of South Dakota cropland weren’t planted because there was so much moisture, including some ground that normally would have held a lot of pheasants.

He stressed to commissioners that the brood survey is an index. He said ditches were still flooded in many places, and bare agriculture fields meant pheasants could stand out there and get dry in the mornings, rather needing to get out of the thick cover onto the open road banks.

He said South Dakota probably is in the same situation as it was the past few years. He said GFP staff have been hearing people say they’re seeing more birds than in recent years.

Kirschenmann’s suggestion was that hunters talk with landowners about what they’re seeing for birds on their places. He acknowledged acres in pheasant habitat have declined during the past decade as farmers planted more ground to crops.

“Bottom line, we anticipate it being similar to last year,” he said. He added, “At the end of the day there’s going to be plentiful birds for people to pursue.”

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