Minnesota pheasant hunters who trek by the thousands each year to South Dakota have been expecting bad news for months about 2017 bird densities. According to a key report released Friday, it’s worse than many expected.
Ringneck numbers statewide plunged 45 percent and average brood sizes are the lowest they have been since at least 1949, when South Dakota originated its annual Pheasant Brood Survey Report.
In key hunting areas around Mobridge, Pierre and Winner there are half as many birds on the landscape as there were in 2016 — itself a down year. Moreover, this year’s telltale Pheasants Per Mile (PPM) index is 65 percent lower than the 10-year average and the second lowest ever in the past 15 years. Survey crews counted just 1.68 pheasants per mile statewide this summer compared to 3.05 last year.
“You are always looking for the positives,” said Casey Weismantel, executive director of the Aberdeen Convention and Visitors Bureau. “It’s hard to see the positive in these numbers.’’
He said the community of Aberdeen, including boosters who annually serve pheasant sandwiches to out-of-state hunters arriving at the local airport, is digging deep to keep pheasant hunting tourism as a vital regional trade.
“We’ve got our work cut out for us,” Weismantel said.
South Dakota’s biggest challenge to remain a mecca for visiting ringneck hunters is to halt conversion of grassland into cropland. A study found 1.84 million acres, or about 37 percent of grassland pheasant habitat in the state, were lost primarily to conversion to cropland from 2006 to 2012. The overarching problem this year was harsh weather.
Ice storms and record snowfall over the winter were followed by an insufferable drought that parched the nation’s most bountiful pheasant territory. The climatic double-whammy suppressed the food supply for pheasants and scorched their nesting grounds, leaving the birds malnourished and with less thermal cover and less vegetation to hide from predators.
Stressed-out hens produced smaller clutches of eggs and the chicks struggled to find protein in the critical first eight weeks of their lives. That’s because there wasn’t enough moisture to lace the bottom of the food chain with insect populations, biologists said. Travis Runia, a South Dakota upland game biologist, said it was so dry in parts of his state that some grasslands and small grain crops never greened up, exposing nests and leaving chicks hungry and sweltering on some days.
Under similar conditions in the prime pheasant lands of southwestern North Dakota around Dickinson, hens are being observed this summer with broods of only one to four chicks, said Pheasants Forever state coordinator Rachel Bush. In a normal year, those broods would contain six to eight chicks, she said.
“The amount of snow covered up a lot of food sources,” Bush said. “Hens came into the spring in worse body condition.”
In South Dakota, Runia said brood sizes were down 12 percent in central and western South Dakota. Far larger declines were surveyed in the northeast and southeast regions of the state, where the weather wasn’t as bad, according to the report. Runia said he honestly doesn’t know what factors worked against pheasants in those areas. The eastern side of the state has suffered the steepest declines in habitat, but there’s still enough habit near the Minnesota border to support higher populations of pheasants, Runia said.
Both Runia and Bush said weather extremes have hurt pheasant numbers in past years. But with all the shrinkage in habitat, populations of the birds will be slower to rebound, they said.
In Aberdeen, Weismantel said a group has been formed with leadership from Pheasants Forever to pay Brown County farmers to convert marginal cropland into grassland. They hope to stem the trend where farmers are returning idled Conservation Reserve Program acres to production of corn and soybeans.
The Brood Survey Report is derived from observations along 110, 30-mile pheasant brood routes across South Dakota where pheasants are found in sufficient number for surveying.
Runia noted that the number of roosters surveyed was nearly unchanged from last year. That information is consistent with other evidence that South Dakota’s roosters-only hunt isn’t damaging the overall population of pheasants.
Historically, Minnesota has accounted for nearly 25 percent of the out-of-state hunters who buy a South Dakota pheasant license. Two years ago, the total number of visiting hunters was 85,000. Out-of-state hunters outnumber South Dakota residents in the state’s harvest of more than 1 million pheasants a year.
In Minnesota, the Department of Natural Resources is set to publish pheasant population data after Labor Day. Early signs have indicated stability in Minnesota’s ringneck numbers compared to a year ago.