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2018 Pheasant Season End Conclusions - Final Report

December 25, 2018 by


The state's forecasting system remains useful as a long term statistical measurement tool.  As a former heavy public lands hunter, I would not find it as useful to help pinpoint regions of good bird numbers.  Our suggestion here is for hunters to always source information locally from multiple sources like store owners, farmers and others with strong daily connection to the land.  At the state level, I would support that the state's pheasant forecasts are fairly accurate and show a decline of 50% in 2017 over 2016 numbers and roughly an increase of 50% in 2018 numbers over last year.  The long term averages show we are closer to all-time lows for bird numbers rather than all-time highs like in 2007.

Across all UGUIDE Pheasant Camps we experienced the following Harvest Birds Per Person (HBPP) averages for the last 3 years/seasons:

2016 – 2.1

2017 – 1.3

2018 – 1.6

The current trend as compared to the 2007 numbers is quite contrasting and exposes some interesting feedback you will want to ponder below.  The conversion of grassland to cropland since the $7 corn prices only several years back along with a farm bill that lowered the CRP Cap from 32 million acres down to 24 million are the biggest residual impacters we are fully feeling the effects of now.  It appears that “naturally produced pheasants no longer occur on the landscape” but for those managers and outfitters that want to farm for pheasants, there are still good results.

Some of the more hopeful signs of a comeback are the flooded grain markets and low farm profitability in cash grain sales and the recent passing of a new Farm Bill with some new conservation enhancements.  The new Farm Bill has a long way to go in its potential impacts for wildlife production in South Dakota.


1.  Higher rooster to hen ratios early season and harvest of immature roosters supports that a more robust hatch persisted in 2018 than in 2017. Some would say “we just had a hatch” but not a great hatch.

2. As the season progressed, the crop harvest did not in many areas.  The fact that some of our groups did better later season than mid-season may support this.

3. Very few limits were taken across the season.  South Dakota is known for producing limits of pheasants and even early limits historically.  This is the “norm” for the state and also that which draws visitors to it.

4.  2018 will go down as one of the years with the latest crop harvest completion which always impacts hunting success.

5.  Quality of habitat was good as most of the state experienced adequate rainfall.

6.  We had issues with our food cover plots this year.  We are still learning.  We got great Dekalb Corn seed from Pheasants Forever.  The only problem was that it was 110 day corn maturity.  We don’t have enough growing days in South Dakota for that.  Especially when installed as food plot seed which is normally late planted.  Some outfitters had major failures in this area.  I attribute this to the learning curve of farming for pheasants.  We also experienced the shortfalls of grain when overpopulating seed counts in plots and under fertilizing.  We had based some of our past strategies on advice from producers planting cash grain crops which we are finding is a mistake.  Fortunately we have some pheasant hunters in our system who are agronomists as well and have provided some much needed advice in this area.

7. We found that some groups had good success while other struggled.  Compared to 2007 pheasant numbers the current numbers really exposed groups that had limited resources in the areas of dogs, shooting and hunting skills.  Hunter age as well as fitness levels can have a direct impact to the HBPP they experience.



The UGUIDE harvest data from week 6 on shows some decent group success indicating the fact that some good bird numbers did exist.  In some areas there was still a fair amount of standing crop in the fields at our season conclusion.

Many outfitters wanting to remain in the business have chosen to supplement birds.  UGUIDE will always remain in the naturally produced (Fair Chase) pheasant business.

Some longtime customers will leave UGUIDE camps with excellent habitat in search of better bird numbers which supports why many outfitters in the state, outside of the UGUIDE system, are left with no choice but to supplement with raised pheasants or go out of business.  Historically many in this business were dependent on what was produced on adjoining landscape acres and pulled into their acres through the establishment of high quality habitat acres.

We have a new farm bill in place and its impact in conservation will not be felt for a few years.  Most would agree it is not what they had hoped for, but once again we are happy to have one in place to guide us for the next 5 years.  There is hope of some incremental reform such as long term stream buffering programs.

Other factors like low total CRP acres, increased Roundup Ready Corn and Soybean acres, and reduced small grain and grassland pasture acres have also had a major impact. Watching recent farm shows, the grain marketers claim we are in a grain glut and are overproducing demand.  Nobody mitigates supply and demand for the producer.  The chemical based cropping systems are not helping wildlife either. Big Ag companies will continue to look for acres to spread their products over in hopes of returning value to their shareholders while promising better returns for producers.

For sure there is no question that agriculture and pheasants go hand in hand.  When mismanaged and out of balance, not only pheasants but much wildlife will suffer.  The case that the state of South Dakota has mismanaged its historically unique commodity (Ring-necked Pheasants) could easily be made.

The good news is much is happening to optimize the habitat acres and even the working land crop acres the state has.  Even with the good habitat we have at our camps, we still depend on good weather to deliver a bumper crop of pheasants.  But the effects of this are not yet being felt or seen.  One longtime outfitter outside the UGUIDE system has been in business since 1985 and never supplemented with raised birds until these last 2 seasons.  Another outfitter in the UGUIDE system has some of the best habitat on the ground ever yet its longtime customers are looking elsewhere to seemingly find better bird numbers.  They will say “it is not all about the birds” but in the end we have the data that suggests there is a fine line between having enough naturally produced birds in the state and, when not enough, visitors looking for something else to do with their time in the fall.

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