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Drought, Habitat Reduction Coincide with Fewer Non-Resident Pheasant Hunters

Back in October, the press reported that decreased pheasant numbers weren’t deterring hunters from coming to South Dakota. That boostery assertion turned out to be wrong. Poor pheasant hunting has washed out the revenue gains from state parks and then some. The bird-reducing drought contributed to an 18% drop in sales of non-resident small-game licenses:

Sales look to be down about 18 percent from last year, when South Dakota sold 82,522 of the licenses to out-of-staters. As of Dec. 11, the 2017 total came to 67,651.

Leif said the effect on the division’s budget would be “substantial” at about $1.7 million or $1.8 million less than a year ago.

“This is the one license we keep a pretty close eye on,” he said.

The cost for a non-resident license is $121. It’s good for two five-day periods. The season opened Oct. 21 and runs through Jan. 7, 2018 [Bob Mercer, “Thousands of Out-of-State Pheasant Hunters Stayed Away from South Dakota This Season,” Watertown Public Opinion, 2017.12.18].

A $1.8-million drop in hunting license revenue is two and a half times the increase in Game Fish and Parks’ revenue from park permits and lodging this year.

In August, GF&P’s 2017 pheasant brood survey showed 45% fewer pheasants per mile than in 2016 and 65% fewer than the ten-year average. You know what else is down 45%? Since 1990, good pheasant habitat:

The steady decade-long decline in PPM is likely related to upland habitat loss. Lands enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) represent the premium nesting habitat in the state and have declined by 37% or 580,000 acres since 2007 (Figure 6). The combined availability of hayland, small grains, and CRP has declined by 45% or 4.9 million acres since 1990 (Figure 7). This represents an average daily loss of 500 acres for the past 27 years. During the 15-year period of 1982 – 1997, 1.82 million acres of grassland were converted to cropland (U.S. GAO 2007). A more recent study found 1.84 million acres of grassland were lost, primarily to conversion to cropland, from 2006 – 2012 (Reitsma et al. 2014). Environmental conditions will always contribute heavily to year to year changes in pheasant abundance, but the long term erosion of required habitat will undoubtedly result in lower lows and lower highs [Travis J. Runia, “Pheasant Brood Survey Report—2017,” South Dakota Game Fish and Parks, 2017.08.25].

Runia/GF&P, 2017.08.25.
Runia/GF&P, 2017.08.25.

GF&P data from last week’s Game Fish and Parks Commission meeting show that hunting and fishing license purchases shrank in nine out of thirteen resident categories and nine out of sixteen non-resident categories:

SD GF&P Commission agenda book, 2017.12.14, p. 54.
SD GF&P Commission agenda book, 2017.12.14, p. 54.

We may not be able to make it rain for the pheasants, but now that Kristi Noem should be done stretching the truth about her family’s 1994 estate tax to sell the Trump Tax for her rich friends, maybe she can go back to House Agriculture and tell them to boost CRP in the 2018 Farm Bill so we have more pheasants to shoot and eat.


  1. John 2017-12-19 08:36

    South Dakota ignored it’s pheasant seed corn for decades. Habitat. Habitat. Habitat.
    Grassy strips. Too early and unenforced cutting of the ditches. Planting of the ditches. Oh, you ask, what’s the enforcement mechanism. Confiscate the hay or crop. Possession transfers after the lawful cutting date.
    The state lost over a million in license revenue and probably hundreds of thousands – or more – in lost sales tax revenue. This will be the new normal.
    Ignore habitat at great peril.

  2. jerry 2017-12-19 09:01

    True that John, as recent history has shown, it makes economic sense to break up pasture land to get your base up to collect the “safety net”. You buy some pasture, put in something that will or will not grow, slap some insurance on it and there you go, successful farming for the rich. Your base increases and that is that what makes the so called gamble of farming, almost eliminated.

    The closer you farm to the watersheds or habitats, the less cover and food for the birds. All a predator has to do is make a run up the creek and down the creek for a belly full.

  3. David Newquist 2017-12-19 11:25

    I have written about this for a couple of years. Phesants aren’t the only wildlife in decline. At certain times I drive the 18 miles between Aberdeen and my work studio on the James River on a daily basis. There has been a decline in livestock. I used drive past a number of pastures with thriving populations of pleasure horses, sheep, and cattle. All of those pastures are gone.

    The drive also contained a number of potholes of various size where waterfowl thrived. Most of the potholes have been filled in and turned into cropland, but the remaining ones host no waterfowl.

    Industrial agriculture is making drastic changwildlife es to the land and to the presence of animal life, both wild and domestic. What potholes are left seem to be catch basins for run off full of glysophate and a host of insecticides. Wildlife won’t or can’t live in them.

    The integration of agriculture into the corporate structure–including “family farms” through production contracts and the licensing restrictions on the seeds they plant and the chemicals they spread–is almost universal.

    You want to see a wood duck or a pheasant or a jack rabbit? Your best bet is a zoo.

  4. mike from iowa 2017-12-19 12:58

    How much better would S Dakota be if the buffer strip measure was passed and fully implemented? Nesting cover and shelter galore for all types of critters. How about CRP lands being put back into row crops?

  5. Vance Feyereisen 2017-12-19 13:47

    I grew up on the edge of the Missouri River breaks. The way the crow flies about a mile from the river. Before the Dams there were islands and ever-changing sandbars. Ducks and geese loved the sandbars because of the safety they provided.

    At that time the Missouri was a major migratory flyway for ducks and geese. There were simply millions of birds. In the late fall evenings large flocks,actually clouds of ducks would come bursting up over the hills, heading out to feed. Many cornfields and wheat fields provided great hunting. After Fort Randall Dam was built the bird count slowly dwindled down. Without the sandbars there was no safety.

    At that time, late 40’s/early 50’s you could fill your limit of pheasants within a mile of road hunting. Road ditches were full of weeds and many low spots filled with coarse grasses and cattails Now, if it grows, it goes into the grain bin or the bale.

    The poor pheasant has no friends. Man, coyote, coon, hawk, owl and house cats all wish to do him in.

  6. mike from iowa 2017-12-19 14:36

    By the time wingnuts blow threw this term of congress, the only museums to see those animals will be restricted to white wealthy people.

    Wake up you stoopid party line voters. Your country is being stolen and you are helping the thieves.

  7. Clyde 2017-12-20 11:23

    You shouldn’t be blaming the farmer. All we are doing is trying to survive….get big or get out. I’ve heard that since I was little. You need to blame the “Cheap food at any cost” game we have in this country. Cattle don’t pay all that well when we throw our borders open to cheap imports any time it look’s like beef will be getting expensive. Small farms don’t work,regardless of the rhetoric, if you can get some guy to go deep in debt and farm every inch he can lay his hands on. They want him to keep thinking he’s getting ahead when the next government decision can do him in. There isn’t a problem with big vertical integrator’s taking there wealth they have made at the top, the supermarket, and gobbling up the industry at the bottom.

    I’ve hunted pheasants since I was big enough to carry a shotgun and this is the first year I haven’t gotten one. I really miss the game and the habitat that we have lost but all we are left with to make a living out here is growing program crop’s for a constantly decreasing margin.

  8. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2017-12-21 09:42

    Blame the farmer, blame the system—regardless of where the blame goes, Clyde, you appear to agree that modern industrialized farming has crowded out pheasants and other wild game.

    Does South Dakota really have to choose between agriculture and hunting? Couldn’t we promote farming that would work symbiotically with hunting and recreation?

  9. Chip 2017-12-22 09:49

    To be clear, producers have been trying to get land back into CRP after a government mandated reduction in CRP acres. Many are no longer able to get in.

    Another issue is something called Prevent Plant. A producer gets paid through crop insurance for acres that were too wet to plant in the spring. This program was really cracked down on a few years ago. Consequently these trouble spots were tiled. Had they just left well enough alone, there would be more habitat.

    Regardless, I don’t believe that the problem is habitat. Something is afoot with our ecosystem. There’s an excuse every year as to why our bird numbers are dwindling. Too wet. Too dry. Too cold. Too hot. These birds have been around for centuries (I’m assiming) and have been just fine. We’ve had weather extremes in the past. What’s the difference?

  10. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2017-12-27 15:25

    Isn’t there a difference between natural weather extremes and human alteration of the landscape? What else could it be other than pheasants having fewer places to nest?

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