A recent survey of South Dakota's pheasant numbers didn't offer good news for the state's bird population.

The Game, Fish & Parks' (GFP) annual brood survey report showed that bird densities across the state have dropped 45 percent from last year. The average bird count per mile this year is 1.68 pheasants; in 2016, the survey counted 3.05 pheasants per mile (PPM).

This is an important development for South Dakota, which prides itself as the pheasant capital of the world. With that title and reputation come hunters — either in-state or from out of state — and their money, which creates a large boost of tourism revenue for the state.

Still, the news is not surprising. GFP cited a tough combination of the hard winter last year and the drought conditions that have enveloped much of the state this summer. These conditions have reduced the food supply and exposed nesting grounds.

"You are always looking for the positives," Casey Weismantel, executive director of the Aberdeen Convention and Visitors Bureau, told the Star Tribune of Minneapolis. "(But) it's hard to see the positive in these numbers."

Another factor that may also be contributing to the toll — either on its own or in tandem with the weather elements — is the dramatic loss of grassland, more of which has been converted to cropland in recent years. A study reported that about 1.84 million acres of grassland pheasant habitat had been lost primarily to cropland conversion between 2006-2012. While that may not by itself be a primary contributor to the current pheasant decline, it could be aiding and abetting the fall-off when combined with weather factors.

Indeed, weather extremes have taken a toll in past years, but the birds have always managed to rebound. However, some of the reasons for that was the availability of habitat that provided nourishment and cover, allowing the numbers to recharge. With the shrinkage of that habitat, a rebound may be more difficult to achieve.

The short-term good news for hunters is that the number of roosters counted in the survey remained mostly unchanged, so that might spur hopes of a good hunting season this fall.

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However, a decline of hens and chicks spells trouble down the line, unless conditions change.

Since humans can't really change the weather, the only thing they can do is change habitat management that gives the birds a better chance to thrive. That's where grasslands, shelter belts and CRP programs come in.

For now, outdoorsmen can hope that weather conditions improve this winter and next spring. And perhaps they can encourage more efforts to provide habitat to help boost the pheasant population back to more encouraging numbers.

— Yankton Daily Press & Dakotan

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