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Drought has minimal influence on South Dakota pheasant numbers

PIERRE, S.D.—South Dakotans have been wondering for months what effect the state’s lingering drought would have on the pheasant population. According to the Game, Fish and Parks Department’s annual Pheasant Brood Survey Report the answer for most of the state is: not much.

Pheasant numbers set a 40-year record in 2005 and the 2006 survey shows an overall drop of just 6 percent. “All things considered, these are solid numbers and higher than anticipated in some areas, especially with the habitat conditions created by the drought of 2006,” said Thomas Kirschenmann, a senior wildlife biologist for GFP stationed in Huron.

GFP surveys pheasant broods on 110 30-mile routes throughout the state where pheasants are found in sufficient numbers for surveying. Surveyors saw 35 percent more roosters and 9 percent more hens than in 2005. Numbers of broods counted also increased by a nominal 2 percent but the average size of those broods declined by 10 percent.

Smaller broods were found across much of the state and, in particular, those areas hit hardest by the drought. “Poor habitat conditions, created by the lack of precipitation and extreme hot conditions, resulted in limited cover and minimal insect production,” Kirschenmann said. “The combination of these two factors was the most likely cause of the lower chick survival that we observed in 2006.”

A historical comparison of pheasant numbers shows that there will be plenty of birds in the fields this fall. “The James River Valley corridor north of I-90 and south-central South Dakota continue to be the stronghold of the state’s pheasant population,” Kirschenmann said.

Brood surveys are measured in a pheasants per mile index and the 2006 estimates compare favorably to the 10-year average. Eleven local areas measured a PPM greater than the 10-year average with significantly greater numbers seen in the Aberdeen, Huron, Sioux Falls, Brookings, Watertown and Sisseton areas. The Winner, Pierre, Mobridge, Mitchell and Yankton areas also registered PPM numbers higher in 2006 than the 10-year average.

The north-central area of the state was hit hardest by the drought and the survey documented a drop in pheasant numbers for this area. Despite the drop, the number of pheasants observed along the survey routes was still in line with the 10-year average. The ability of South Dakota to continue to produce large numbers of pheasants in a drought year is due in a large part to the Conservation Reserve Program.

“Once again we see how critical it is to continue the CRP in the next Farm Bill,” said GFP Secretary John Cooper, “or, in its place, institute a program that duplicates the standing residual cover that’s so important for wildlife.”

A mild winter and an extraordinary number of pheasants carried into the spring breeding season set the stage for South Dakota to break the 40-year record set in 2005. Drought conditions, however, brought the pheasant numbers up just short of making history again.

“Despite the marginal decrease in pheasant numbers,” said Cooper, “South Dakota continues to enjoy some of the best pheasant numbers this state has seen since the early 1960s.”

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