SIOUX FALLS -- Pheasant hunters should have another good season in South Dakota despite an estimated 46 percent drop in bird numbers from last year, state wildlife officials said this week.
The drop is from historic highs, as roadside counts from 2003 through 2010 were at levels not seen in 40 years, said Tom Kirschenmann, chief of wildlife for the state Game, Fish and Parks Department.
But last year's harsh winter was tough on hens, cutting into reproduction and reducing the population.
Kirschenmann said it wasn't just the cold. Having the ground covered with snowpack for much of the winter stresses birds by making it more difficult to find food and forcing them to use more fat reserves, he said.
"To get through those hard difficult times, after a while it takes a toll on those birds," Kirschenmann said Friday.
Statewide brood surveys estimate 3.55 pheasants per square mile statewide, down from 6.54 of the birds per mile in 2010. The 10-year average is 6.04 pheasants per mile. Drops were documented in Pierre, Chamberlain, Mitchell, Aberdeen, Yankton, Huron, Watertown and Sioux Falls.
Declines were most pronounced in the east, where grassland nesting habitat is being lost to crops.
Acres enrolled in the Conservation Resource Program are currently at 1.17 million, down from 1.56 million acres in 2007. The reduction equates to more than 600 square miles of grassland habitat.
"Without grassland habitat, you just don't have the reproduction recruitment from the nesting standpoint," Kirschenmann said.
But officials said the pheasant population in the main part of South Dakota's pheasant range still will provide quality hunting opportunities during the season that runs from mid-October through the end of the year.
The counts in the main pheasant range are similar to or higher than the counts in 2002, when hunters bagged 1.2 million pheasants. Pheasant hunters harvested 1.8 million pheasants in 2010.
There's still going to be some very good pheasant hunting opportunities across the state," Kirschenmann said.
North Dakota's numbers are also likely down, according to that state's spring pheasant crowing count survey.
Roadside brood surveys to be released later this fall will give biologists a better insight into what to expect, but the crowing count released in June showed a 6 percent drop statewide from last year.
Officials there said many adult birds did not survive the winter before last and fewer adult birds and poor chick production the following spring due to cool, wet weather also hurt the population.