The mystery of pheasants and CRP in South Dakota

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?

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About Bob Mercer

I am a newspaper reporter in Pierre where I cover state government, issues and politics for the Aberdeen American News, the Black Hills Pioneer, the Mitchell Daily Republic, the Pierre Capital Journal, the Rapid City Journal, the Watertown Public Opinion and the Yankton Press & Dakotan. I began covering the Legislature in 1985 and have lived in Pierre since December 1986. I grew up in Wisconsin, worked my way through college, took my first full-time newspapers jobs in Wyoming, and have lived in South Dakota since the summer of 1984 when I moved to Aberdeen to join the American News. I worked for the Rapid City Journal as its state government reporter in Pierre from late 1992 through late 1998. I spent four years as press secretary and a senior aide to Gov. Bill Janklow during his fourth and final term from late 1998 through 2002. I returned to journalism in January 2003 as a self-employed reporter, providing state government coverage to the Mitchell, Watertown, Spearfish, Pierre and, depending on the year, Aberdeen newspapers. In 2008, the Aberdeen American News offered to hire me as full-time member of the AAN staff, with my reports continuing to be available to the Mitchell, Watertown, Spearfish, Pierre, Yankton and Rapid City papers. The new arrangement has been in effect since January 2009 as the seven papers continue their remarkable dedication to their readers and the general public, as the only South Dakota news outlets with a full-time reporter covering state government in Pierre throughout the year. In addition to focusing on the Legislature during the annual winter session and its various activities during the interim periods between sessions, I spend many days throughout the year -- traveling as often necessary -- to cover state government boards and commissions which oversee the state universities, technical institutes, outdoors, water, environment, business, public schools, banking, agriculture, utilities, health care and various other areas of public interest. I purposely don't register to vote because of my profession; the last time I recall voting in a presidential election was the first time, 1976, when I had just turned 18. I think I voted for Jimmy Carter over Gerald Ford. Make of that what you want, just don't make much of it.

4 thoughts on “The mystery of pheasants and CRP in South Dakota

  1. Casual Observer

    There is no place for residents to hunt anymore, especially for anyone with a license plate that starts with 1. Pheasant hunting is now primarily for out of staters with deep pockets who open those pockets.

    For the past few years I have hunted a couple of heavily worked patches of public ground north of Mitchell with a few other landless guys. Opening day, maybe one other Saturday. Same ground. Done. It didn’t used to be that way. Will the kids take up hunting under that circumstance? Doubtful.

  2. Professor

    You asked: “Based on resident license numbers, however, pheasants seem to mean less and less to South Dakota hunters. Why?” I have lived in South Dakota for over 40 years. When I decided to move here, it was for employment. I had no plans to stay in South Dakota – until I discovered it is an excellent state for hunting and fishing, my favorite leisure activities. So, I stayed, despite the availability of employment and higher salaries elsewhere.
    Since then, about ten years ago, I gave up pheasant hunting because there were few public lands available, and what was available was being inundated early by “guided” hunters and commercial operations. The establishment of an early “residents only” weekend pheasant season was “political genius;” but totally inadequate for the increasingly urban/ nonfarm South Dakota population. The walk-in areas helped, but have been inundated again by commercial “guides” and other operations. As South Dakota becomes more urbanized and hunting becomes more commercialized; it will become a much different endeavor than when I moved to South Dakota. If it were like this 30 or 40 years ago, I don’t think I would have stayed.

  3. Charlie Hoffman

    Whoa Casual Observer. We have 35,000+ acres of Public Hunting ground in McPherson County alone and the FF&W and GF&P are doing some great things to improve Habitat in and around those acres. I actually hunt some public ground later in the season because it has Sharptail Grouse and Deer and lots of ground. Pheasants are like expensive Homes, Habitat, Habitat, Habitat= Location, Location, Location.

    Grow nesting cover and you will have birds. Cut everything every Spring and Summer and you will have ZERO birds. This is not Rocket Science–I am doing it! Cheers!!!

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