South Dakota pheasant producers preserve pheasant population

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Farm Forum

STICKNEY, S.D. (AP) — Row by row, Randall Kuyper drove past thousands of birds waiting for their meal, stopping every few yards to fill a bin with feed.

With his dog, Toby, by his side, Kuyper cares for his poultry like any other farmer, but his birds have one extra step before they end up on someone’s plate.

Kuyper was feeding nearly 20,000 pheasants soon to be released into the wild, which he sees as crucial to maintain South Dakota’s place as the pheasant capital of the nation.

“South Dakota wouldn’t have very good hunting if it wasn’t for that,” said Randall Kuyper, owner of Kuyper Pheasant Hatchery southwest of Stickney. “There’s just too much hunter pressure for the birds than the wild can produce.”

Kuyper Pheasant Hatchery has approximately 14,000 roosters and 4,000 hens, and Kuyper said he is among the five largest pheasant producers in the state. He sells roosters for $16 and hens for $12, and while he has sold quite a few birds already this fall, he expects sales to pick up quickly after season opener.

Private shooting preserves, which purchase many captive game birds, may host hunts from Sept. 1 to March 31. For the 2015-16 pheasant season, 432,304 birds were released on 200 private shooting preserves, according to South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks (GF&P), but there was no record of how many were roosters or hens, The Daily Republic reported.

For the same season, 276,383 birds were harvested, 243,000 – 88 percent – of which were formerly captive, usually identifiable by a hole through both nostrils where a blinder was attached to avoid pecking in captivity.

In 2015, hunters harvested 1.26 million birds, meaning pheasants released on shooting preserves accounted for more than 19 percent of the total pheasant harvest. GF&P has approved 203 shooting preserves for the 2016-17 season, making up 193,463 acres.

But while GF&P keeps detailed records about birds released and harvested on shooting preserves, purchases and hunting on other lands are harder to track, meaning the percentage of the harvest made up by released birds is likely higher.

According to Janelle Blaha, GF&P private shooting preserve and permits coordinator, 623,026 captive pheasants, including hens, were sold last year by 95 commercial game breeders in South Dakota and 15 from Wisconsin, Minnesota, Nebraska, Kansas and North Dakota, but that doesn’t mean they were all released.

“Not all of these birds are released into the wild. Some are breeding stock, some are butchered and sold, some are used for display mounts,” Blaha said. “However, I would guess that a majority of them are released into the wild.”

But because the department doesn’t track captive birds released on non-preserve lands, a landowner could supplement his own pheasant population, and GF&P has no way to track the number.

“I am sure that there are more birds released by individuals or by unpermitted captive game breeders, but we do not have a way to track them at this time,” Blaha said.

Kuyper believes the number may be much higher than GF&P estimates. He believes as many as 1.2 million birds are sold in South Dakota each year, based on estimates of approximately 10 other pheasant farms in South Dakota and major exporters from other states.

According to Todd Tedrow, with the South Dakota Animal Industry Board, 390,166 pheasants and pheasant-hatching eggs were imported into South Dakota from July 1, 2015, to June 30, 2016.

Add that total to the GF&P count, and more than one million game birds were sold in South Dakota. But Tedrow expects some or all of those birds have already been counted in the 623,000 birds sold by licensed breeders.

In addition, a bird may have been purchased from a breeder and then sold multiple times to other breeders or landowners, adding to GF&P’s total each time, but GF&P Law Enforcement Administrator Andy Alban believes the number is an accurate count of the number of birds sold.

There are also some breeders who raise pheasants with a non-commercial license, meaning they are not sold to others, and anyone holding a captive game bird for just a few days does not need a license, Alban said, making some activities difficult to track and keeping the department from knowing exactly how many farm-raised pheasants are released or harvested each year.

Plus, Alban said, the department has investigated instances of people selling game birds illegally, so there may be more birds released than recorded as sold.

“I can’t say that number is, with a great deal of confidence, that it’s accurate just because of all the nuances that come into that,” Alban said. “Certainly, the actual number would be higher than that.”

Still, GF&P Upland Game Biologist Travis Runia said the state was committed to improving habitat and production of wild pheasants, and he believes those make up a much greater percentage than farm-raised ones.

“I am confident our pheasant harvest estimate is dominated by wild birds, but I cannot estimate the exact breakdown,” Runia said.

Runia said GF&P develops both grasslands and taller habitats, like food plots or cattails, to protect pheasants at different times of year, and the department allows cows to graze on the lands every five to seven years to disturb the grass and promote the growth of other plants, making the land more productive.

GF&P makes habitat improvements using money from license sales. In 2015, GF&P sold 93,240 resident small-game and combination small-game/fishing licenses for $3.9 million and 89,576 non-resident small-game licenses for $10.6 million. There were more than 65,000 licensed resident pheasant hunters that year and almost 85,000 nonresidents, bringing in a total of $14.5 million.

According to Habitat Program Administrator Paul Coughlin, GF&P spends about $3.5 million per year on habitat improvements on public lands, but 75 percent of that money is provided by the Pittman-Robertson Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act, which collects an excise tax from arms and ammunition. That means $850,000 of the $14.5 million license money is spent on improving public habitat.

The department also works with private landowners on habitat improvements through the Wildlife Partners Program and walk-in areas, Coughlin said, spending $625,000. Again, the programs are supplemented by Pittman-Robertson funds, bringing the total to about 2.5 million.

Runia said the department will continue to use funds to improve habitat, but he said there are no plans to buy captive birds to release in public hunting areas. Runia said he sees people harvesting pheasants on public lands well into the season, and while it may not be a shooting-preserve experience, he said there are enough public land opportunities to continually find success.

“If hunters want to have that experience of shooting tame birds, they can do that on preserves or buy those birds on their own. Right now, our priority is definitely to try to manage for the wild birds and that wild-bird hunting experience,” Runia said.

He also cited studies claiming released birds produced three broods from every 100 hens, compared to 30 broods from 100 wild hens, meaning releasing birds is not an effective way to increase population.

Kuyper believes the birds can adapt to the wild more successfully within a day or two. He said it’s not unusual to see an escaped bird with a blinder survive year-round and reproduce.

And to ensure his pheasants act like wild birds, Kuyper said he waits until birds are 18 weeks old before selling them. Although the industry standard is to wait 15 weeks, Kuyper said many sell them younger, when they cannot fly as well.

Wayne Haines, a farmer and hunter from White Lake, doesn’t believe there are enough pheasants on public lands throughout the season. He said a large portion of pheasants harvested in South Dakota were originally pen-raised.

“The fact that the state provides the birds is more of a hoax than it is a reality. Public shooting areas don’t have any birds. It’s that simple,” Haines said.

Haines didn’t complain about the cost of licenses because hunters that travel to South Dakota “can afford it or else most of them wouldn’t do it.” Instead, he is concerned that private landowners are providing more birds than the state.

“After the first two or three trips through that (public) property, the birds are either gone or dead, and the state still says, ‘Hey, we got plenty of places for you to hunt,’ “ he said. “The only places where the birds are left is the private property that makes sure they provide for the hunters that come to their farm year after year.”

Haines operated a shooting preserve 20 years ago and planted 40,000 trees on his 3,000-acre property. He decided to leave the program, but he still buys 1,000 pheasants every year to supplement his population.

Wild birds usually provide strong hunting during opening weekend, but with roughly 200 guests stopping by throughout the season, the natural population cannot stand up to the pressure.

“We have four sons, and when they come back and bring friends, we have to make sure they have something to shoot,” Haines said. “You won’t find it on state and federal grasslands.”

But what upsets Haines most is road hunting. South Dakotans who own land next to a highway pay taxes on land up to the center of the road, but they are not allowed to plant crops or make improvements on either side of the asphalt.

Landowners are allowed to cut the grass in the ditch for agricultural benefit, but Haines thinks he should have the exclusive right to hunt the pheasants there as well.

“They’re not shooting the state’s bird. They’re shooting the farmer’s bird. The bird grew up on the farmer’s land and we farmed for them,” Haines said.

Runia disagreed, and praised landowners who provide habitat. But, Runia said, as soon as a bird is released, it changes from poultry to a wild animal and is regulated by the state.

“We obviously have a lot of landowners doing a lot of great things for wildlife as far as providing habitat and doing things to manage those birds, but pheasants are a public trust resource, and they are not owned by any individual. Those birds are on public property, and they are certainly available for harvest by anybody,” Runia said.

Runia said hunting quality may be better on private lands with good habitat that are hunted less frequently than state lands, but according to a 2012 public opinion survey, 55 percent of hunters said public lands were important, very important or critical to their ability to hunt pheasants.

Additionally, 58 percent of hunters utilized public land during the season and 64 percent hunted road right-of-ways. Private shooting preserves had the lowest percentage with 13.

The survey did not ask hunters to rate the quality of public hunting lands, but Runia said that could be a question for hunters in the future.

Equally frustrating for Haines is the method some use to road hunt. He’s seen several people drive up the road, quickly pull over, hop out of the vehicle and shoot a pheasant before quickly driving off.

The vehicle is supposed to be parked and hunters are required to stay 660 feet away from livestock, churches or occupied dwellings, which Haines called an “unenforceable rule.” Prosecuting such cases is difficult because if a law enforcement officer doesn’t see it occur, there’s typically no way to prove it.

“It’s not road hunting. It’s drive-by shooting,” Haines said.

Alban expressed frustration with “run-and-gun” shooting as well, but said 50 citations were issued for the offense last year. Including the offense of shooting from a vehicle, he said close to 100 citations were issued, and those numbers do not include anyone who was simply given a warning.

But if anyone sees a hunter breaking any game law, Alban urged them to call the Turn in Poachers hotline.

While farm-raised pheasants may play a large role in South Dakota’s most well-known pastime, Runia said population indexes show wild pheasants are still more abundant than in all other areas in the nation and populations have responded positively to conservation programs. So, Runia said, GF&P will continue to seek new opportunities to provide public hunting access and produce a sustainable population of wild birds.

“There is a lot of research that shows we can successfully manage wild pheasants through habitat management,” Runia said. “Just like the hunters, we certainly like to see more public hunting opportunities, both the habitat and that access, and we’re constantly exploring opportunities to add more.”