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2017 South Dakota Pheasant Hunting Brood Count Survey

August 15, 2017 by

About this time every summer avid pheasant hunters await the coveted road count survey produced by South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks.  Let me save you some time.  Birds will be down!  This is easy to assess because fundamentally the GFP system is flawed for determining total birds in the state. 

For one thing we need to ask ourselves.  Is forecasting bird population even possible and secondly is it even wise?  What produces pheasants?  Habitat!  We should just do a habitat report and that would serve us much better!  Here is an attempt at just that very thing.

Flawed Survey

GFP biologists will tell you “the birds are moving west”.  This is nothing new as they have been moving west for decades and no longer naturally occur where they use to as in Michigan, Illinois, Iowa and Wisconsin to name just a few states.  We can attribute this to the success and proliferation of the Roundup Ready corn and Soybean System.  It has cleaned up farm fields and replaced small grains in the rotation across the Midwest.  This is happening in Eastern South Dakota where fertile soils are causing a shift in pheasant friendly cropping systems to the roundup ready corn and soybean rotation.  When GFP setup their survey and survey route system in the early 1900’s that route system has not moved or changed in the last 100 years.  The majority of routes driven each August are in the eastern part of the state where the majority of pheasants naturally occurred.  Now the cropping systems found in the central and western part of the state are more pheasant friendly and are producing good bird numbers but the forecast won’t reflect that.  While the GFP survey is statistically accurate it may not serve the public very well.  If the birds move west and the survey routes are not there to count them then the overall state numbers will not reflect those pheasants in the survey

Regional vs. Local

In the summer of 2017 the news of major drought hit the national news media.  “Drought affects bird numbers” was the headline.  There is much speculation about what impacts the drought might have on pheasants yet there is no objective evidence that supports this claim to date.  The US Drought Monitor Tool will show regional data about areas lacking moisture.  This is a very helpful tool but it is important to realize that it is a regional tool and not very local.  Meaning, it may be able to reflect regional rainfall shortages but does not do a very good job at assessing detailed local rainfall events which can vary greatly across the state.

Habitat and pheasants are very local meaning what happens in a 2 mile radius can have a dramatic impact on bird numbers in that local area.  There is not very good data or tools to drill down to that level of local detail.  But the following offers some different thinking on how to make your own assessment of “where the birds are”.

20 years of Public Hunting and Motels

Hunting public in Iowa for 20 years in the 80’s and 90’s gave me some great insight into what landscape held birds.  You learned to look for a few certain items that would be conducive to attracting and holding pheasants.  You can do the same thing from your desk in New York via computer when assessing where the best places to hunt in South Dakota are this fall.  Here’s a run down of the UGUIDE Toolkit.

Drought Monitor

Obviously too wet for pheasants can be a problem and too dry can also be a problem too if no dew or bugs are present during peak hatch months of June and July.  Use the great weather tools available out there to watch weathers conditions at local levels in the state.  Making some local contacts in the state can also support what you are seeing online as well.  The state is currently receiving some nice rains but the drought monitor is delayed and won’t reflect that for a while.

CRP Enrollment

CRP is down from the high enrollment of 1.5 million acres to just under 1 million acres.  What they don’t tell you though is that the quality of remaining acres and newly enrolled replacement acres is better than ever and producing birds at a better rate.  Use this CRP statistic’s site to review info about which areas of the state have more CRP acres.  CRP produces birds and I would concentrate on counties that have a high number of CRP acres.

What happened to my GFP (public) honey hole?

Many hunters had a great hunt last year at a certain location and come back this year expecting to have the same results this year.  While that can happen you should be aware of what can happen to that ground.  With the drought impact causing a hay shortage the USDA has opened all CRP acres to being hayed at 50% of total acres.  For example:  The James River CREP offers 85,000 acres of private land CRP open to public hunting.  The landowners can harvest hay off 50% of those acres this year and so expect that much to be cut from what is available.

Additionally both state and federal lands are being more aggressively managed for habitat productivity and that means increased burning and grazing to improve grass stands.  Any of these practices can caused your hunting to decline at your spot those years they are conducting them but in the long run keep them in mind for near term future because those will turn into great hunting spots.

All CRP acres are required to be burned or hayed every 5 years now for the same reasons.  While not all is open to public access those new management activities produces high pheasant numbers in the long run.  So use a longer time horizon to assess landscape impacts both in the short run and long run.  This is your one stop shopping for public hunting in the state of South Dakota.

Beware of the guy who hunts a lot of ground in South Dakota and knows the public areas well but never has anything good to say about pheasants.  Many locals love the bad pheasant reports from the state because it means more people will stay away and that means "more for me!"

Develop Your Own Success Formula

Regardless of what the buzz is about bird number are this year there is one thing most everyone will agree on.  And that is that South Dakota is the King of King of Gamebirds State.  No other state will harvest more birds than South Dakota this year.  It’s why the Ringneck Pheasant is the state bird of South Dakota.  We at UGUIDE have learned it is very difficult and unproductive to try and speculate about “how the birds are doing”.  I tell people I will know in December when all the crops are out and the cold weather forces birds into high quality habitat.  Then we know what we got!

Today, if I was trying to focus in on the best areas to hunt pheasants on public ground I would look for these elements.  1.)  CRP:  I’d look for a county that not only has the highest amount of CRP acres but also the newest.  Recent CRP grasses mixes are much more productive and diverse than say 10 year old ones.  2.) Look for counties that have the magic mix of grass (CRP or pasture acres) and row crop and small grain crop production.  Corn, wheat, milo, sunflowers is what I would look for.  Soybeans are not conducive to high pheasant numbers.  You need the mix of corn, grass and small grains.  3.) look for public ground in areas that have #1 and # 2 above and make sure you are hunting the right areas at the right time of day.  4.) Don’t overlook woody cover as well as slough and creek bottoms as well.  All will hold pheasants during certain times of the fall.  5.)  After hunting hard all day spend some time road hunting and looking for road ditches with good cover next to gravel and areas like 104 above.

In Summary

UGUIDE started doing our own harvest surveys years ago because what our hunters were seeing was not in line with what Game and Fish was “forecasting”.  I’m not sure forecasting is even possible.  Habitat produces ALL the time so look for habitat and put roosters in front of your dog every season.

Posted in: UGUIDE News, SD GFP News, Upland Bird Hunting, Pheasant Hunting in South Dakota, South Dakota Pheasant Outlook, Unguided South Dakota Pheasant Hunting, Pheasant Harvest Report Survey, Self Guided Pheasant Hunting


Reader Comments

1 Comment on 2017 South Dakota Pheasant Hunting Brood Count Survey


  • Chris, I think your report is right on the money! I hope that the state and more farmers will wake up and start making positive habitat change for the future.

    Grant August 18, 2017 12:00 AM

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