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Pheasant Numbers – Past and Future

March 26, 2021 by

The following is a story that culminates data and experience from the time I began hunting pheasants in 1980 to when I became a private land owner in 2002.  I have 40 years experience as a hunter, 20 as a private land owner and have actively managed for pheasants these past 20 years.

The Problem

Not enough birds, right?  Whether you hunt pheasants in South Dakota, or any other state in the pheasant belt, we can probably agree that current pheasant numbers are at or close to all-time lows.  Or at the very least they are not at where we would like them to be.  One simple metric supporting this fact would be the number of resident and non-resident small game license sales in South Dakota.  Small game licenses sales have been declining for the past decade.  And consequently, so has habitat.

The Solution

Release more birds right?  No, no, no, no, NO!  Shoot more predators then? No, no, no, no, NO!  How about create more habitat?  Yes, yes, yes, yes, YES!  The overwhelming data that follows in this article will support the fact that the only real game changer in growing bird numbers is the amount of habitat acreage available to wild game birds.  All else are distractions from the end game.

Old Data & New Evidence

Over the past several years our hunting guests have been gracious enough to provide us with their group's hunting success. Namely, counts of their harvested birds put in the game bag.  We have rolled this up and publish it weekly and also do a year end summary.  I’m aware of no other outfitter in the state that does this or anything remotely close to it.  Last year our 2020 rollup summary shows our per hunter harvest “in the game bag” was 2.1 birds per person per day.  Up from 1.6 the year prior.

I would surmise that, to our guests, 1.5 birds per person per day (BPPPD) would be unacceptable to the group and would give cause to look elsewhere or not even return to the state for a pheasant hunt.  I would also surmise that 2.0 BPPPD (or better) would be acceptable.  That half bird per day makes a big difference.

Keep in mind I am referring to “naturally produced pheasants” born strictly and purely from habitat.  This is also known as “Fair Chase” hunting.  From the numbers above and tied to my own pheasant management practices we have arrived at a metric that ties one acre of pheasant habitat to 1 pheasant in the game bag per season.  If I have 700 acres of habitat one might assume that we could harvest 700 roosters in a season.  Both Mother Nature and surrounding habitat play a role in these outcomes.

The National Pheasant Management Plan also supports this one common metric and they roll it up on a state by state basis.  They actually came up with a formula that calculates the number of CRP acres to produce one wild harvested ring-necked pheasant.  There are 20 states listed in the outcomes and varies from a low of 2 acres for Iowa all the way up to 55 acres for Colorado.  South Dakota ranks third coming in at around 3 acres of CRP needed to produce one harvested pheasant.  This is known as the National Plan Model.  Check it out!

In the National Plan, on page 94, it shows all the data to arrive at the harvested birds per acre of CRP.  This is truly amazing as it totally quantifies what is needed to arrive at acceptable pheasant numbers and what exactly is required to produce them.  In addition to CRP, you have hay, alfalfa, small grains and other landscape types that help account for overall pheasants numbers.

South Dakota also has its state level Pheasant Management Plan (2016-2020).

As far as accurate harvest data goes, I am concerned with South Dakota’s recent harvest data because of the large number of pheasants released by outfitters.  I am not talking about licensed preserves because those released numbers and harvest data would be totally separate.  It is estimated some 750,000 pen reared pheasants are released by non-preserve outfitters.  Technically, when that pen released pheasant hits the soil in our state, by law, it becomes a wild bird under Game and Fish jurisdiction.  So when a hunter receives a survey on hunting success from the state, there is no way to delineate between naturally produced pheasants and pen reared pheasants.  This would obviously skew the harvested bird per acre of habitat model for obvious reasons.

Summary, Challenges & Opportunities

On page 53 of the Plan it states that we need a minimum of 40 million enrolled acres of CRP, nationally, to meet state goals.  Currently we are at about 21 million acres on a farm bill stating we should be at 27 million acres (according to current Farm Bill).  The problem is that there were no more dollars budgeted for the new acres so the incentives are not enough to compete with cash rent or, in other words, it pays more to farm that ground.

I highly recommend reading the book, “Ring-necked Pheasants – Thriving in South Dakota”.  In it, it states that in the last 100 years of pheasant numbers and hunting, there have been four peaks of bird numbers.  Three of these peaks have been supported by federal taxpayer land set aside programs and the 4th surge was during WWII when much land was idled due to the draft and war overseas.  South Dakota has enjoyed two peak enrollments of CRP of 1.8 million acres each and, of course, bird numbers surged right along with those acres.

In addition to CRP, a number of other factors exist to manage such as hay land, pasture, small grains and a host of other management practices.  The bottom line is that we know CRP is the most productive and biggest bang for the buck, but what it comes down to is “who is going to pay for this”?  SDPGF discontinued its famous Road Count Survey Report which used to come out every labor Day.  In replacement of this report I would advocate to see an annual report out which shows all the land acre metrics which impacts pheasant production.  This we can measure and control!  Weather we cannot!

It is truly phenomenal that we have great annual outcomes based metrics we can report on and manage to.  This may truly be the basis for ultimate success.  Additionally, we should not overlook all the great benefits CRP produces beyond great pheasant numbers.  Endangered species, enhanced biologic activity, soil preservation, grain price support, carbon sequestration, climate change reduction and a host of other monetary benefits.

Lastly, the biggest elephants in the room that nobody wants to take on are indeed the major contributing factors: agricultural production, the agricultural producer and Big Ag.  These factors have had the single biggest impact to the landscape.  The data would support that it’s a battle for every acre.  I want to make a point that we should not demonize the producer by any means.  But if you are truly going to get 40 million acres enrolled in CRP, you will have to change producer behavior in a big way.  And that usually means $$ in the way of incentives.