The north-central South Dakota town of Mobridge historically ranks as one of the top pheasant-producing areas in all of the United States.
Over the past 10 years, the local pheasant index has averaged 6.75 birds per mile, double or triple the ringneck populations of many other areas in the nation’s best pheasant hunting state.
But on the brink of this year’s pheasant hunting season, opening Saturday, Mobridge stands as one of the places hardest hit by 2017’s severe drought. Bird numbers — stunted also by a winter of habitat-damaging snowfall — have shriveled to one-third of the 10-year average and stand at less than half of last year’s levels.
“The drought was pretty severe everywhere, but there it was worse,” said Travis Runia, senior upland game biologist for South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks.
Further south along the Missouri River, pheasant meccas like Pierre, Chamberlain and Winner suffered comparable losses and the state is bracing for what could be a repeat of 2013. That’s when low, preseason brood counts dashed enthusiasm for the hunt and nonresident hunter participation plunged by 20 percent.
Even if this season’s turnout sinks by only half of the 2013 drop-off, South Dakota would lose $15.6 million in economic activity in its most important hunting season. In past years, around 20,000 Minnesotans have been drawn to South Dakota’s pheasant hunt, joining 65,000 to 75,000 hunters from elsewhere in the country.
Leading into this year’s hunt, the South Dakota Department of Tourism has confronted the reality of fewer pheasants with an upbeat information campaign.
“Still the nation’s best pheasant hunting,” one flier announced this week. “Even though the pheasant brood count is down this year, South Dakota still boasts the highest bird counts in the nation.”
But Christian McHugh of Big Bear Outdoors adventure filming in Mobridge said hunters in his area are almost certain to be disappointed by the pheasant downturn. Even non-hunters who live around Mobridge have recognized the shortage, he said.
“You used to drive and see pheasants everywhere, all over the road ditches,” McHugh said. “People would say ‘Damn birds are all over the highway.’ But not this year.”
Even if hunters buck the trend and show up in good numbers this year, McHugh said he fears they won’t come back in 2018 based on the experience.
“I think it’s going to be a rough year,” he said.
Kerry Konold of Outrageous Adventures, also in Mobridge, said he can’t help but agree with state wildlife officials who estimate there’s roughly half as many pheasants this year. But he also said he believes this year’s hunt will be decent by national standards. Even in the 2013’s downslide, when the ringneck harvest crashed by 31 percent, South Dakota hunters bagged nearly 1 million roosters.
“For the guys who like to hunt, they’re gonna like it this year,” Konold said. “For the pure killers, they’re not going to like it.”
South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks publishes a Pheasant Economics report with county-specific spending estimates. In 2016, six counties — Brown, Tripp, Brule, Lyman, Spink and Beadle — generated at least $10 million each in spending on pheasant hunting to top the list. This year they all share low preseason pheasant counts ranging from 78 percent below the 10-year average in Aberdeen (Brown County) to 64 percent below the 10-year average in Winner (Tripp County).
Chris Goldade, regional habitat manager based in Aberdeen for Game, Fish and Parks, said the local buzz among farmers who rent their fields to nonresident hunters is that interest has fallen off. The drought decimated the 2017 hatch, Goldade said, and veterans of South Dakota’s pheasant opener know that those first-year birds make up 70 percent of the overall bag on the first two days of the season. Hunter participation declines on each successive weekend.
“Those are the easiest, least-educated birds, and they’re usually the first ones to go,” Goldade said.
He cautioned hunters who still plan to participate that many young roosters will be hard to identify because they were born during summer renesting activity. In the past two weeks, Goldade saw many birds so young that the roosters only had a little red showing around their eyes and virtually no tails.
“I predict seeing some really small ones,’’ Goldade said. “The further west you go, the worse it is.”
Lots of standing row crops also could hamper hunters during South Dakota’s pheasant opener. Runia said rains late in the growing season kept corn growing, delaying the harvest. Goldade said that while 60 to 65 percent of soybeans have been harvested in the Aberdeen area, the corn harvest barely has started.
Runia advised hunters during the opening week of the season not to miss the final hour of each day afield when the game birds are most likely to leave crop fields to roost overnight in adjacent grass.
He said Monday it was too early to tell how the season will play out in terms of nonresident participation. Most hunters generally wait until the hunt is imminent before buying a license online.