South Dakota's tourism department on Tuesday sent out a news release with a fancy infographic, making the case that the state still is the best place in the world to hunt ring-necked pheasants.

That claim is pretty hard to refute. Our humble state has enough public land that, on most days, most people can find a place to hunt where a pheasant or two is likely to be found. We grow a lot of pheasants and harvest more pheasants each year than anywhere else. And no, Mr. and Mrs. Naysayer, that total doesn't count all the birds harvested at private shooting preserves.

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

Still, this year is going to be tough for those folks who like hunting pheasants. Drought has taken a toll on pheasant chicks and all the signs are pointing to a down year. The annual, August brood survey conducted by the Game, Fish and Parks Department found 45 percent fewer pheasants in 2017 than it did in 2016. The average brood size counted in this year's survey was the lowest since 1949. This year, the state's pheasant-per-mile index, which is an estimate of the number of birds per mile, was just 1.7.

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

The last time pheasant 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 five 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 in the state.

As to why the pheasant population is trending downward, the biologists at GF&P are pointing to habitat loss. To be specific, they blame the loss of nesting habitats such as hay land, small grain crops such as winter wheat 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 number of pheasants in our state matters. It matters in a big way. You see, the phenomenon of high numbers of nonresident hunters actually is fairly recent. Between 1963 and 1994, according to GF&P license data, the number of nonresident hunters never surpassed 45,500. The number of birds per mile during the same period never rose past 3.8.

In 1994, the pheasants-per-mile index hit 4.13 and the number of nonresident hunters rose to 65,200. The pheasants-per-mile index fell back to around 2.6 for the following three years but in 1998 rose to 5.08. With few exceptions, the number of pheasants stayed high for the next 10 years and by 2007, when the pheasants-per-mile index hit 7.85, there were more than 100,000 nonresident hunters visiting South Dakota.

In 2013, the number of non-resident hunters 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 worth of revenue just for GF&P. The cost of a license is one of the smallest expenses that visiting hunters have.

Also in 2013, the number of residents with a hunting license that allowed them to kill pheasants fell to 57,647, from 68,337 in 2012. Again, the cost of a resident hunting license pales in comparison to the gas, ammunition, gear and snacks all hunters wind up buying on their way to and from the field.

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

The thing is, we can do something about this. Habitat is the key and if, as a state, we decide that wildlife habitat is a priority and we start doing more to encourage landowners to leave more wildlife habitat on the landscape, we can get higher, more-stable 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 so choose. Everyone in the state benefits from these birds and everyone needs to be involved.

The Capital Journal, Pierre, South Dakota, Sept. 19

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