Pheasanomics: Pheasants Forever’s hunting forecast for the Dakotas

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Table courtesy SDGFP

By Tom Carpenter/Pheasants Forever

Editor’s Note: The annual state-by-state hunting forecast from Pheasants Forever was originally posted online at pheasantsforever.org. The forecast for the Dakotas is reprinted here with permission.

South Dakota

South Dakota’s pheasant counts have dropped, but there are still roosters to be had for those willing to scout and hunt hard.

“The statewide Pheasants Per Mile index for the 2017 pheasant brood survey decreased 45 percent compared to the 2016 statewide index,” reports Travis Runia, senior upland game biologist with South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks. In 2016 the statewide PPM was 3.05, while in 2017 it dropped to 1.68, according to survey data.

“This year’s index is 65 percent lower than the 10-year average,” Runia continues. “Compared to 2016, fewer roosters, hens and broods were counted throughout the 110 survey routes we run in the state. Statewide, 16 routes of the 110 surveyed showed an increase in PPM from 2016.”

Since we’re diving into tough numbers here before we look for better insights, let’s make two points clear right off the bat:

1. South Dakota game managers are sure routes were conducted under good conditions.

“Many routes were surveyed more than once in an attempt to get at least one survey completed under prime conditions — clear skies, heavy dew, light winds,” says Runia.

2. Rooster numbers remained similar to 2016 while hen counts decreased 35 percent and brood counts by 44 percent. Brood size was very low, at 4.99 chicks per brood.

Yes, the news may be rough out of South Dakota, and there is no sugarcoating it. A bad winter, a drought and habitat loss — the biggest killer of all — have South Dakota pheasant numbers down. But the state still has more birds than anywhere else, as well as regions and zones with good cover. Pheasant hunters will do well to come, work hard and hunt with purpose.

Jared Wiklund, public relations manager for Pheasants Forever, offers the following insight.

“In 2013, South Dakota witnessed its modern-day-low pheasant roadside survey index at 1.52 pheasants per mile, a preseason population of 6.2 million pheasants, and a rooster harvest of just under a million birds,” Wiklund says. “To put it all in perspective, the roadside counts for 2017 are higher than several years ago and are foreshadowing a rooster harvest statistic most likely around the 1-million-bird mark that should have upland hunters itching for the season to start. It’s still the pheasant capital of the world, and I, for one, will be making the annual pilgrimage over the border with my dogs to take part in South Dakota’s legendary upland traditions.”

Runia’s thinking falls right in line.

“Although pheasant abundance is below last year and the 10-year average, there is still opportunity for quality pheasant hunting across the state,” Runia says. “At the statewide level, pheasant abundance is similar to 2013, when the pheasant harvest was a respectable 980,000, and the Pierre, Chamberlain, Winner and Mitchell areas are above 2013 levels this year. “

“Hunters have harvested more than 1 million birds in each of the last three years, or 9.5 birds per hunter, per year,” adds Jim Hagen, secretary of the South Dakota Department of Tourism.

In short, the 2017 total pheasant harvest could — read could — still approach a million birds, if hunters come and hunt, that is.

“Another bright spot is the addition of 8,000 acres of high-quality habitat to our 1.2-million-acre Walk-in Area Program, which opens private lands to public hunting,” Runia adds. “Most of the additions are enrolled in CRP. Enrollment was partially funded by an NRCS Voluntary Public Access grant.”

Runia notes that hunters might see some changes on the landscape this year in the Rushmore State.

“With the drought conditions, emergency haying and grazing was necessarily authorized on most CRP,” he says. “Hunters should spend some time scouting their intended hunting areas this year. Birds could be concentrated in remaining cover which should reward the well-prepared hunters.”

If you an encounter a mowed or grazed field, remember three critical ideas:

1. The farmer or rancher needed that grass to feed his or her livestock and make a living.

2. Pheasant hunters always need to partner with farmers and ranchers, and this is part of the conservation deal — the wise use of resources.

3. That disturbance is going to allow grass to come back stronger and more vibrant, which means better habitat for the future when rains return and South Dakota’s pheasant counts improve.

Still, Runia puts it bluntly, and it’s a call-to-action for every Pheasants Forever member to stay engaged.

“Loss of upland habitat has been a major contributing factor to the decline in the pheasant population,” Runia says. “Without improvements in habitat loss trends, we should not expect major improvements in the pheasant population, even when environmental conditions are favorable.”

That said, Runia had some pointers on how pheasant hunters could tip the odds in their favor this fall.

“The traditional opening day on the third Saturday in October is the most popular weekend to hunt pheasants,” he says. “However, hunting success improves later in November as crops are harvested and birds become more accessible.”

That tidbit could be an especially important concept this year, as scarcer bird populations concentrate in blocks of good cover.

North Dakota

The news is also tough out of North Dakota. There is no sugarcoating it. Winter slammed parts of the state hard, and drought — especially in the southwestern part of the state, the primary pheasant range — provided a second strike.

“Summer brought extreme drought to the majority of the state,” reports R.J. Gross Jr., upland game management biologist with the North Dakota Game and Fish Department. “This had a negative effect on brood survival and chick development.”

North Dakota’s roadside pheasant survey, conducted in late July and August, confirms that total bird numbers and the number of broods are down statewide from 2016.

“The survey shows total pheasants observed per 100 miles are down 61 percent from last year,” Gross says. “In addition, brood observations were down 63 percent, while the average brood size was down 19 percent. The final summary is based on 279 survey runs made along 103 brood routes across North Dakota.

“Brood data suggests very poor production this spring when compared to 2016, which results in fewer young birds added to the fall population,” he continues. “The majority of the state was in extreme drought conditions during critical times for pheasant chicks. This resulted in poor nesting and brood habitat and more than likely a less than ideal insect hatch.”

Here is a district-by-district summary for North Dakota:

Southwest

Statistics from southwestern North Dakota indicate total pheasants were down 59 percent and broods observed down 60 percent from 2016. Observers counted eight broods and 68 birds per 100 survey miles. The average brood size was 4.3.

Southeast

Results from the southeast show birds are down 60 percent from last year, and the number of broods down 70 percent. Observers counted two broods and 24 birds per 100 miles. The average brood size was 4.7.

Northwest

Statistics from the northwest indicated pheasants are down 72 percent from last year, with broods down 76 percent. Observers recorded three broods and 24 birds per 100 miles. Average brood size was 5.2.

Northeast

The northeast district, generally containing secondary pheasant habitat with much of it lacking good winter cover, showed one brood and six birds per 100 miles. Average brood size was 3.5. The number of birds observed was down 54 percent, and the number of broods recorded was down 63 percent.

So, with all that in mind, what’s a North Dakota pheasant hunter, or one heading there, to do?

“Get out there and hunt.” Gross says. “Be prepared to scout and walk plenty of spots to find pheasants this year. Look to the southwest — Adams, Hettinger and Stark counties.”

In 2016, hunters bagged about 500,000 birds. That number is sure to fall this year, but North Dakota could still produce a couple hundred thousand pheasants in 2017. There are birds for those willing to hunt hard.

“Some areas no doubt had good production and other areas had poor production, so hunters who want to find better hunting opportunities may need to move around,” Gross advises.

Like South Dakota, drought meant that there was some early haying of some CRP grasslands in North Dakota, as well. Hunters should keep the following in mind this fall when they visit a mowed or hayed WMA or PLOTS tract: While there is a short-term loss in the public recreation aspect, those acres will likely see a long-term gain in the quality and diversity of habitat due to the mowing and disturbance.

Maintaining good relations with farmers and ranchers making their livelihoods is in a sportsman’s best interest to ensure that hunting opportunities continue to exist on private property throughout North Dakota.