Risk of inaccurate pheasant numbers remains since end of South Dakota's brood survey

Dominik Dausch
Sioux Falls Argus Leader

Editor's note: This story is part of "100 Eyes on South Dakota," an investigative initiative driven by reader questions and news tips to help hold public officials accountable and shine light on truth within the region, culminating impactful reporting and resources between three newsrooms: the Argus Leader, the Aberdeen American News and the Watertown Public Opinion.

For two years, bird baggers traveling to South Dakota's pheasant fields have had to rely on anecdotes to get a sense of the pheasant season's game numbers.

This follows a controversial change made by the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Commission, which was decided without taking public comment, to end the annual brood survey in 2020, according to previous Argus Leader reporting. This study, which started in 1949, provided a detailed dataset of pheasant numbers in various regions of the state, but the GFP Commission was critical of the survey's accuracy and scrapped it.

Since then, GFP's seasonal reports, like this year's Upland Outlook, provide a general overview of how weather and other factors could impact the ring-neck populations.

"Overall, things are shaping up to have another great pheasant hunting season this fall in South Dakota," the 2022 forecast reads.

More: It’s pheasant hunting season in South Dakota: What you need to know

But Zachary Hunke, president of the South Dakota Wildlife Federation, told Farm Forum the lack of a brood count means hunters may end up misled on hunting conditions during this and in future seasons.

"We don't have any scientific information to go off of anymore in order to accurately tell individuals what we feel the pheasant population is looking like," Hunke said. "I think the brood counts gave us an overall idea of the general health of our wildlife."

Can there be the promise of a good pheasant hunt despite no brood surveys and drought conditions?

Casey Weismantel is one hunter who's optimistic about this year's pheasant season. His attitude is partly because of his position as executive director of the Aberdeen Area Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB) — it wouldn't do well to speak badly of his city's hunting features. And partly, because he claims to be a skilled shot.

"You don't have to worry about hitting water for me," Weismantel said, jokingly.

In his neck of the woods, Weismantel echoed GFP's stance that the state's pheasant habitats benefitted from spring and summer rains, meaning the number of ring-necks on the range should rise.

"We are not — in capital letters, N-O-T — not in drought conditions, whereas some of the rest of the state is still feeling the after-effects of the least few years of drought conditions," Weismantel said. "This is the best habitat that I've seen in the last 10-plus years."

Comparison of drought conditions between July 12 and Oct. 11 in South Dakota.

The U.S. Drought Monitor shows differently, however. Since mid-July, drought conditions have worsened in South Dakota, with nearly 95% of the state experiencing some form of abnormal dryness and moderate to extreme drought in the primary pheasant range.

Since the abandonment of an annual brood survey, Weismantel said providing adequate habitats for pheasants has ultimately become a greater focus than the birds themselves.

"We've always had that focus on habitat. We've just decided that if we can't report on the brood counts or if the report's not going to be given," Weismantel said. "… the best thing we can do is enhance our habitat. We know if we have the enhanced habitat, we're going to have the birds."

On the other hand, the lack of a numbers-based brood survey means the pheasant forecast becomes a little more speculative in nature, Hunke said.

"Everything is so anecdotal," the wildlife federation president said. "You may have individuals going out hearing that it's going to be fantastic and yet it's not because they don't have any evidence to base that on. That may discourage them in the future from hunting [in South Dakota]."

Accountability in counting birds and inconsistent data

A chart showing pheasant densities between 2008 and 2017.

Part of the reason the brood count was valuable to hunters, Weismantel said, is that it disclosed the ebb and flow of the pheasant population.

Previous pheasant reports, like the 2017 pheasant brood survey, were closely tracked by hunters as they were released in order to determine the best places to bring in a ring-neck.

However, Hunke admitted the data in past brood counts were vulnerable to some variability due to the inconsistent factors that could make the pheasant season look discouraging to hunters.

"There [were] years where the data isn't always great. There's a lot of factors that go into doing the brood survey. You want to get conditions that are perfect for counting pheasants. There's certain conditions that allow for better count or worse count depending on the year," Hunke said. "The big question mark was: 'Are we discouraging hunters from either coming to the state or encouraging residents to [hunt out-of-state] if the pheasant brood count is low?' So I think, at the end of the day, that's why the brood survey was done away with."

A graph showing the total number of hunters during South Dakota's pheasant seasons compared to the number of pheasants harvested per hunter.

GFP data reflects such a decline: The total number of pheasant hunters dropped by 32% between 2007 and 2018 - from 180,836 to 122,595 — while the number of birds bagged dove from about 2,000,000 harvested to just under half that. While pheasant season metrics hit their lowest point in 2019, hunter and harvest numbers have steadily increased since the end of the brood survey.

"When it comes down to that, yeah, the bird numbers might be down as a result of the habitat and the weather conditions, but the bird numbers are going to be stronger here in South Dakota than anywhere else they're ever going to dream," Weismantel said.

More: Zebra mussels are threatening this fish hatchery. Experts say it's how SD is spending money.

This is a point Hunke agrees on — the state does, after all, typically harvest two or three times as many birds as other states in the Midwest, according to GFP's Pheasant Harvest Summary — but he added that gathering brood data - however difficult or flawed - is better than relying on anecdotal forecasts.

"If the pheasant brood count is low, yeah, it's adversely affecting the number of individuals who may participate, which affects the economy," Hunke said. "[But] I think being honest with people on what their expectations should be is the best policy. When it comes to the economy, I think it's always best to give people the best scientific information that you have so they know what to expect."

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