The common reason we’ve heard in recent years from state Wildlife Division biologists is that fewer acres in the federal Conservation Reserve Program have contributed to the decline in South Dakota’s pheasant population.
Perhaps, but perhaps not. It depends upon how far back you look.
Here is the packet released Wednesday by the state Department of Game, Fish and Parks. See Figure 6 on the final page. Nearly every year in the late 1980s and 1990s, CRP acres exceeded their current level but pheasant numbers were below their current level. Not until about 2002 did the pheasant population really take off.
The mystery, in my opinion, is why the pheasant population didn’t respond for approximately 15 years to so many acres in CRP.
Now CRP acres are dropping, as the chart shows. Pheasant numbers are dropping too. It looks like a correlation. But if so, why did it take so long for the birds to rise in numbers?
Sure, there’s weather. That is a concern every year. But it seems like something more is at work.
When CRP was at its peak for nine years, the pheasants per mile seen along brood routes fluctuated in much the same sub-six range as they have the past few years.
We essentially have returned to what appears to be the real normal. The big populations of 2003 through 2010 now seem to be the exception.
I don’t disagree habitat is important to pheasant populations. But the experience over the life of the CRP program, from 1987 through now, suggests there are other factors that are as important or more so.
Take a look at the harvest data, hunter numbers and brood data in this other wonderful historical chart from GFP.
The average brood size has been less than six during three of the five most-recent brood surveys including this summer. That is nearly unprecedented.
The only other period when this happened during the modern era was 1959-64, when there also were three years of less than six per brood.
The commission and the Wildlife Division staff haven’t taken any steps to reduce harvest in response to smaller brood sizes in recent years. I haven’t seen any studies about a relationship between brood size and harvest. What we do have are the same number of days in the season and the same bag limit and a decreasing brood size.
South Dakota residents have taken their own steps to reduce harvest. Thousands have stopped hunting pheasants. The resident licenses sold during the past three seasons are the lowest since 1940.
For GFP, and for many landowners, and motels, and restaurants, and guide services, and spoting good shops, pheasants are good business. GFP likes to publish reports on the economic importance of pheasants to South Dakota.
Based on resident license numbers, however, pheasants seem to mean less and less to South Dakota hunters. Why?
The answer might rest, at least in part, in the ratio of non-resident hunters to resident hunters. As recently as the early 1990s, resident hunters outnumbered non-residents by approximately 2 to 1 or more.The tipping point came in 2002. There were 70,821 residents and 74,873 non-residents. Since then, non-residents have outnumbered residents every year, often by large margins.
Non-residents set a record high 2007 of 103,231. And in 2013, we hit a modern low in residents, with 57,677, while non-residents numbered 74,424. Both increased slightly in 2014. Last season, we had 65,135 residents and 84,901 non-residents.
There’s another set of numbers that catches the eye. It’s the percentage of roosters seen on the brood surveys. Five of the six most-recent summers, the percentage of roosters has been 50 percent or higher. The previous time something close to that happened came in 1947-51.
And so that’s our other mystery. What’s suddenly happened to the hens?