PIERRE | Mike Bollweg wants his clients to experience the quintessential South Dakota upland bird hunt experience: wide-open prairie landscape, camaraderie and, of course, the birds.
"While pheasant is king, we offer the grand slam of the Dakotas: sharp-tail grouse, Hungarian partridge and prairie chicken," said Bollweg, who owns the Tumbleweed Lodge in Harrold.
An important part of giving his customers that ideal hunt is operating one-fourth of his roughly 12,000-acre property as a private shooting preserve to complement the private hunting that brings in half his family's income.
Bollweg is not alone. This year there are more than 200,000 acres of land across the state operating as 201 shooting preserves, nearly half of which are in the Missouri River corridor. Many are linked to local farms and ranches. The flexible schedules and harvest limits attract hunters, while the chance to make extra income does the same to operators.
The preserves' appeal boils down to two things: more time and more birds. The hunting season is extended from Sept. 1 until March 31, between sunrise and sunset. There's no possession limit and a possible harvest of 20 birds per day until the end of the regular season, and then 15 per day until March.
But with the perks come serious responsibilities for operators. They must keep meticulous daily records of both wild and raised birds harvested on their land. Every year they have to release a minimum of 600 pheasants onto the property — 300 if it's their first year — in addition to replacing the ones they've harvested. And once the birds are harvested, they must be marked with a preserve tag supplied by the state Department of Game, Fish and Parks.
Every preserve that applies must go through a rigorous application process and training. The process is so in-depth that GFP starts taking applications in January, but permits won't go out until June.
This season there are 201 preserves, ranging from 160 to 2,560 acres. It's not the highest amount on record - the number of preserves reached 220 back in 2010 — but it's still substantial. The heaviest concentration are found in Gregory, Brule, Lyman, Hughes and Sully counties, which make up roughly 42 percent of the state's total.
For each preserve GFP charges $100 plus 40 cents per preserve acre for a one-year permit, and $300 and $1.20 per preserve acre for a three-year permit.
And then there are the individual hunting licenses. In 2011, GFP sold 10,716 preserve-only hunting licenses, which range between $35 and $85 depending how long the licenses are valid for. However, this is an incomplete number, as anyone with a small-game license can also shoot on preserve land.
For Bollweg and others, despite the costs, setting up preserves is a smart business move. The ability to hunt the full day and having greater flexibility to plan vacations is a major draw for hunters.
"A vast majority of my guests would not come to South Dakota if not for the preserves," said Bollweg, who has an average of 400 guests a year.
Then there are the economic impacts. In addition to the larger good hunters' money does for the economy as a whole, it more directly allows Bollweg to create jobs. His lodge employs 15 lodge staff members, more than 20 guides, and a full-time chef.
And the preserve's impact doesn't stop at the fence line. The lodge releases a five-year average of 7,500 birds and Bollweg pointed out there is no way to tell the pheasants they need to stay on preserve land. That means more birds on the adjoining public land, he said.
Keith Krull, who operates the Krull Lodge east of Pierre with his wife, brother and sister-in-law, said the 5,000 acres of preserve on his property has been in place since the lodge's inception a decade ago for simple financial reasons.
"To do a lodge we pretty near have to have a preserve. You've got to extend your season and extend your shooting hours," he said. "Most of the guys who want to come do this sort of thing want to shoot a few more birds."
The lodge attracts roughly 200 guests a year and employs five guides and 10 part-time helpers. Like Bollweg, Krull finds that up to 90 percent of his business is repeat customers who enjoy the experience.
Using the land for a preserve rather than ranching or farming — or "cash-flowing the habitat," as Krull put it — is a way to reap money while still being wildlife friendly, he said.
"Instead of planting corn, we are harvesting birds, but all the wildlife benefits from the habitat we leave," he said.
Janelle Blaha, the private shooting preserve and permits coordinator for GFP, said private shooting preserves are not unique to the state — Montana and Minnesota have similar operations — but South Dakota's system is the standard.
"A lot of the other states look to South Dakota. We're kind of a model for them, just because our model works so well," she said.
In fact, preserves are set up to keep that distinct South Dakotan flavor. Only a resident or a business licensed in the state can apply. Plus the origin of most preserves are down-right domestic, even for the larger businesses. Many start from farms that just needed some more money during the winter, Blaha said.
"I would say about half are corporations, but when you look at the corporation, it's tied back to a ranch or a farm," she said, "At the root of it, a lot of it comes back to that farming or that ranching operation and that's how it gets it start."
Blaha said the system has been around for nearly 50 years, but there were only a handful of preserves across the state until the 1980s. A combination of the introduction of CRP land and tough economic times for farmers led many to apply to become preserves.
But before anyone rushes to turn their land into a preserve, Blaha said there are some considerations to be made.
"They really need to treat this as a business," she said. "Some people look into as 'Oh, it (is) just way to make an extra buck,' but with the rules and regulations that are established for preserves, it's a little bit more involved."