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Pheasant numbers are down across the state this fall, but when hunters take to the field for the state-wide opener on Saturday expectations are that the birds will be plentiful.

The cooler and wetter than average June resulted in a higher than average loss of pheasant chicks this summer. The average number of chicks counted was 15 percent lower than a year ago and slightly below the 10-year average, and the overall population counts indicated a nine percent drop over 2003. Brood counts are done over 110 30-mile survey routes throughout eastern and central South Dakota.

"We are coming off near-record numbers from 2003 and were not surprised to see a decline in pheasant counts," said Ron Fowler, game management program administrator for the Department of Game, Fish, and Parks. "The 2003 counts were the

highest since 1963, and to only see a nine percent drop holds great promise for the 2004 hunting season."

Even though numbers declined this fall, the 2004 count still ranks as the second highest, behind last year's total, since 1963.

"While the 2004 numbers are once again some of the best observed in many years, hunters are reminded that routes showed quite a variation in bird numbers," noted Fowler. "Various weather patterns, including some locally heavy rains in eastern South Dakota in late May and June, and only spotty precipitation in more western counties, will result in some local declines in pheasant numbers."

Fowler credited the habitat produced through the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) as a key to the continued health of the South Dakota pheasant population.

"The benefits of the 1.4 million acres of prime wildlife habitat in our state from CRP continue to pay huge dividends for wildlife populations," Fowler said. "This is especially true with nesting habitat for pheasants. It is because of CRP that we continue to enjoy pheasant numbers at these high levels."

Conservation Officer Aaron Kahre said that brood counts in Marshall County this summer did not drop from a year ago.

"The brood survey this summer was nearly identical to 2003, almost to the chick," said Kahre. "I really expected the numbers to be a little higher, but I wasn't disappointed by any means that they didn't go down any."

The brood count was down 27 percent in the Aberdeen area, but at 5.9 pheasants per mile it was still 108 percent above the 10-year average. Sisseton's numbers were down eight percent over last year but 134 percent above the 10-year average, while Watertown's numbers showed a 16 percent decrease from 2003 but still a 163 percent increase over the last 10 years.

Kahre said the pheasant harvest during the special residents-only season last weekend was considerably down over last year, but he said it isn't for lack of birds.

"There's a lot of corn in the fields yet, and the birds were hard to find," said Kahre. "That's going to be a problem this weekend, too. We also only have a few walk-in areas in the county that are good for pheasant hunting, so that cut down success."

Public and private land is available for hunting this weekend, but Kahre advised hunters in CRP to wait until later in the day.

"If you're hunting CRP I think you'll have to wait until the last three or four hours of the afternoon to have any success," Kahre said. "Right at noon you'll need to walk corn and that sort of thing. I think the pheasant numbers are pretty similar to last year, and once the corn is harvested guys will do a lot better."

Nearly 150,000 hunters are expected to be tromping state fields this weekend, and Kahre urged hunters to be careful.

"Most of our hunting accidents happen during the pheasant season," said Kahre. "The biggest thing is to just be careful."

The season in the main pheasant belt (including Marshall County) runs from Oct. 16-Jan. 2. Sand Lake Refuge and the Renziehausen Game Production Area will also be open from Dec. 13-Jan. 2.

Hunters may bag three roosters daily with a possession limit of 15. Shooting hours are noon to sunset through Oct. 30. When daylight savings time changes back to standard time on Oct. 31 hunters may begin shooting at 10 a.m.

©Marshall County Journal 2004

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