An estimated population of 12 million ring-necked pheasants.

An annual rooster harvest of roughly 2 million birds, taken by 170,000 wingshooters from across the world.

Those are the vital pheasant hunting statistics for "The Pheasant Capital," and it begs the question: Why does South Dakota have so many pheasants? The answer might surprise you.

It DOES boil down to quality and quantity of habitat, and South Dakota – for the time being – has plenty of it, including 1.1 million important Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) acres. But Iowa, a state where pheasant numbers have been in a precipitous decline, still has 1.6 million CRP acres. Illinois (1 million CRP acres) has nearly as many, and comparing that state's pheasant numbers with South Dakota is like comparing the black of night with the light of day. So what gives?

According to Ben Bigalke, Pheasants Forever Regional Wildlife Biologist in South Dakota, there are three habitat influencing factors that help South Dakota pack in the pheasants:

• Winter Wheat.  Whereas corn and soybeans dominate the rural landscapes of Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota and other Midwest states, winter wheat is a staple on South Dakota's ag lands. This cash crop provides pheasants with enough cover to successfully nest in. The limited availability of nesting cover in other states is what drives down pheasant numbers.
• Cows. South Dakota is ranch country. Where there are cattle, there are grasslands. And where there are grasslands, there are pheasants.
• Wetlands. Essentially endangered species in most states, South Dakota and its thousands of prairie potholes play a crucial role in pheasant production. Interspersed among grasslands, wetlands produce and provide pheasant chicks with the insects they need in the summer.

South Dakota isn't resting on its laurels, either. Though CRP acres have been expiring, the state, led by South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks and with help from Pheasants Forever, recently unveiled a targeted Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program which will ultimately enroll up to 100,000 acres of eligible agricultural land located in the James River Watershed. Acres enrolled in this program will also be enrolled in the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Walk-In Area Program for hunting and fishing access. Translated, that means more pheasant habitat and more pheasant hunting access.

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