South Dakota's tourism department on Tuesday sent out a news release making the case that the state remains the best place to hunt ring-necked pheasants.

The tourism department's news release makes a point of saying hunters have killed more than 1 million pheasants in each of the last three years. Also, it said the 20-year average pheasant population is about 7.4 million birds. In the same period, the release notes, each hunter has harvested an average of 9.5 birds.

Still, this year is going to be tough for pheasant hunters. The annual August brood survey conducted by the Game, Fish & Parks Department found 45 percent fewer pheasants in 2017 than in 2016. The average brood size is the lowest since 1949. This year, the state's pheasant-per-mile index, an estimate of the number of birds per mile, is just 1.7.

The drought this year and its effect on pheasants underscores a long-term trend not covered in the news release. The pheasant population has been on a downward slide for 10 years. The number of pheasants counted in the 2017 brood count survey was 65 percent below the 10-year average.

The last time numbers were this low was in 2013, when the estimated number of pheasants per mile hit 1.5. The state's pheasant-per-mile index hasn't topped 5 since 2010 when it was 6.4. Prior to that, you've got to go back to before 2003 to find a year when there were fewer than five birds per mile.

As to why the pheasant population is trending downward, the biologists at GF&P blame the loss of nesting habitats such as hay land, small grain crops and land planted to grass as part of the Conservation Reserve Program, which pays landowners to take land out of crop production in favor of wildlife habitat. Since 1990, about 4.9 million acres of such habitats were lost, according to GF&P. A study published by the South Dakota State University Extension Service in 2014 found that between 2006 and 2012, South Dakota lost 1.84 million acres of grassland primarily to corn and soybean production.

The pheasant-per-mile index hasn't topped four birds per mile since 2012.

The phenomenon of high numbers of nonresident hunters, meanwhile, is fairly recent. Between 1963 and 1994, according to GF&P license data, the number never surpassed 45,500. The number of birds per mile during the same period never rose past 3.8.

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In 1994, the pheasants-per-mile index hit 4.13 and nonresident hunters rose to 65,200. With few exceptions, the number of pheasants stayed high for the next 10 years and by 2007, when the index hit 7.85, there were more than 100,000 nonresident hunters visiting South Dakota.

In 2013, the number plunged from 93,419 in 2012 to 74,413. If one uses the price of a 2017 nonresident hunting license, that represents a shortfall of $2.2 million just for GF&P. The cost of a license is one of the smallest expenses visiting hunters have.

Since 2013, the number of nonresident hunters visiting the state hasn't surpassed 85,000.

We can do something about this. If the state decides that wildlife habitat is a priority and starts doing more to encourage landowners to leave more wildlife habitat on the landscape, we can get higher pheasant numbers back. We also can encourage our congressional delegation to fight for more CRP spending in the 2018 Farm Bill.

We can have an impact on pheasant numbers if we choose. Everyone in the state benefits from these birds and everyone needs to be involved.

— Pierre Capital Journal

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