Pheasanomics: Closing in on a milestone

Increasing habitat’s footprint across South Dakota will ensure the pheasant hunting tradition will be carried on for another hundred years. Here, the author holds his son Miles’ BB gun as they admire a wild South Dakota bird.

— By John Pollmann

When South Dakota’s pheasant season kicks off Oct. 20, it will mark the 100th opening day in the state’s history. Much has changed since hunters first took to the field in pursuit of pheasants nearly a century ago, but the excitement surrounding the state’s most popular game bird most certainly remains.

South Dakota’s inaugural pheasant season in 1919 was made possible in large part because of the actions of three sportsmen — H.P. Packard, H.J. Schalke and H.A. Hagman — who released three pairs of ring-necked pheasants at Hagman’s Grove north of Redfield in 1908, marking the first successful stocking of the game bird in the state. With an abundance of cover and food, the pheasants quickly adapted to life in South Dakota, and on Oct. 30, 1919, 1,000 hunters harvested 200 pheasants during a special one-day season in Spink County.

In the years since, the abundance of pheasants found each fall by hunters has followed in step with the amount of quality habitat on the landscape. Large areas of grass and an agricultural system dominated by small grains helped boost pheasant numbers to an estimated population of 16 million birds by 1945, when 175,000 hunters shot over 7 million pheasants courtesy of an eight-bird daily limit.

Habitat losses and severe winter weather would take a toll on pheasant numbers in the years to come, however, and by 1950 South Dakota’s pheasant population had dropped to just over 3 million birds. Hunters had only 13 days to hunt pheasants during the 1950 season, when they killed just over 500,000 birds.

The pheasant population would experience a tremendous recovery a decade later after the arrival of the Soil Bank program in 1956. Designed as a voluntary program to address a crop surplus and protect land vulnerable to erosion, the Soil Bank provided rental payments to producers in exchange for taking acres out of production. Cost-share assistance was also made available for implementing conservation projects on those acres, including planting grass and trees. The resulting increase in habitat across South Dakota led to a resurgence in pheasant numbers, and over the course of a six-year period beginning in 1958, the preseason population estimate averaged over 9.8 million birds.

Pheasant numbers weren’t the only figures to soar thanks to the Soil Bank, as hunters flocked to South Dakota to take advantage of the tremendous hunting opportunities. Over the course of the same six-year period, more than 1 million residents and nonresidents walked the uplands and crop fields for pheasants, killing over 16 million birds.

As Soil Bank contracts expired and thousands of acres of habitat returned to production, dwindling bird numbers resulted in a dramatic decline in the pheasant harvest. By 1976, the pheasant population dropped to 1.4 million and hunters shot just 372,000 birds — numbers not seen since the very first years of pheasant hunting in the state. The solution to the habitat problem would not arrive until 1985, when producers and pheasant hunters were blessed with the arrival of the most significant conservation initiative ever launched — the Conservation Reserve Program.

Signed into law in 1985 by President Ronald Reagan as a part of the federal Farm Bill, CRP’s long-term goal was to re-establish cover to help improve water quality, prevent soil erosion and reduce the loss of wildlife habitat. The impact of the program on pheasants in South Dakota began to emerge as grasses and trees planted as a part of the program matured, and the pheasant population climbed upward as the number of acres of CRP in the state increased. At its peak in 2007, over 1.5 million acres of CRP could be found across South Dakota. That same year, the pheasant population hit a modern-day high at nearly 12 million birds.

Much like the Soil Bank era of the 1950s, CRP helped draw hunters to South Dakota. Through the delivery of habitat, CRP literally changed the state’s landscape, helping landowners improve water quality, soil health and boost pheasant numbers to levels many hunters had never seen before. It is no exaggeration to say that CRP helped South Dakota cement its place as the undisputed “Pheasant Capital of the World,” where hunters typically contribute in excess of $150 million annually to the state’s economy.

In recent years, the number of CRP acres in South Dakota has declined, contributing to a downward trend in pheasant numbers, but efforts are underway to make the program more readily available and appealing to producers. State leaders are also working to find ways to improve and increase habitat.

Central to the tools being promoted for upland habitat are the partnerships between hunters, landowners and different players, including the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department, Pheasants Forever, South Dakota Corn Growers Association and more. Together, these groups are working together to implement best management practices, such as cover crops, forage, pollinator habitat and other wildlife-friendly practices, on unprofitable acres in a joint effort to increase habitat statewide, for if the past has taught South Dakotans anything, it’s that habitat is necessary to protect the future of pheasants and pheasant hunting.

The sportsmen who released the three pairs of pheasants at Hagman’s Grove so many years ago likely understood this connection as they watched the birds soar over the diverse habitat found near the confluence of Turtle Creek and the James River, setting in motion the beginning of a nearly century-old tradition of opening day. And through the work of landowners, hunters and organizations like Pheasants Forever, South Dakota will see this tradition last for another century and more.

Increasing habitat’s footprint across South Dakota will ensure the pheasant hunting tradition will be carried on for another hundred years. Here, the author holds his son Miles’ BB gun as they admire a wild South Dakota bird.

SD Pheasant Hunting Timeline

  • 1908 — The first successful introduction of pheasants in South Dakota took place at Hagman’s Grove near Redfield.
  • 1911 — SDGFP released approximately 250 pairs of pheasants in Spink and Beadle counties.
  • 1919 — South Dakota’s first pheasant season was held — a one-day affair when roughly 1,000 hunters bagged 200 birds.
  • 1924 — The preseason pheasant population estimate topped 1 million birds for the first time. The number has not dipped below this point ever since.
  • 1929 — The opener’s traditional noon start time was established.
  • 1943 — The ring-necked pheasant was named South Dakota’s official state bird.
  • 1945 — The pheasant preseason population estimate hit its highest point ever at 16 million birds.
  • 1946 — The Red Cross and USO end the program in Aberdeen that fed pheasant sandwiches to traveling servicemen. During course of the program, over 586,000 troops were served.
  • 1956 — The Soil Bank created millions of acres of habitat by paying landowners to idle crop ground.
  • 1976 — After years of consistent decline due to mounting habitat loss, South Dakota’s pheasant population bottomed out at 1.4 million birds.
  • 1982 — Pheasants Forever was formed.
  • 1985 — The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) was launched.
  • 2007 — CRP in South Dakota peaked at just over 1.5 million acres, and preseason pheasant population hit a modern-day high of nearly 12 million birds.
  • 2013 — Gov. Dennis Daugaard organized a Pheasant Habitat Summit to address the state’s declining pheasant population and habitat base.
  • 2018 — Pheasants Forever’s National Pheasant Fest and Quail Classic arrived in South Dakota.
  • 2018 — South Dakota will celebrate its 100th opening day of pheasant season.