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Dry conditions challenge South Dakota pheasant hunters

January 05, 2013 at 10:33 AM

The Associated Press

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — Pheasant hunting guides say dry conditions have made for a difficult season in the fields despite summer brood counts showing that bird numbers were up across the state.

Steve Bublitz, a guide with Fair Chase Pheasants, said early-season hunts in the Huron area were challenging because the birds would escape into the dry, heavy weeds and the crunch from hunters’ boots would give the pheasants a heads-up.

“You’d come in one end and no matter what you do, the birds would hear you coming 200 miles away and flush wild,” said Bublitz, who’s been hunting birds for more than a half century. “So the hunting wasn’t as good as I was expecting it to be. We saw birds, but we didn’t kill as many as we would have in a normal moisture year.”

Bublitz said conditions improved with the first significant snowfall, but freezing rain a week later had hunters crunching again.

South Dakota’s pheasant season ends Sunday.

Pheasant hunting has always been a state pastime, but tourism officials over the past decade have turned the season into a nationwide draw. In 2002, the number of nonresident pheasant hunters exceeded residents for the first time. In 2011, the state licensed more than 95,000 nonresident pheasant hunters and about 69,000 resident small game hunters.

Hunters killed more than 1.5 million pheasants last year, when brood counts showed a pheasants-per-mile index of 3.57. Surveys conducted this summer show a pheasants-per-mile index of 4.21, said Travis Runia, senior upland game biologist with the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department.

The pheasant population had taken a hit over the past few years, especially east of the James River and along eastern South Dakota’s I-29 corridor, Runia said.

“We’re not where we want to be over there yet. We definitely want to build for a few more years,” Runia said. “But it was encouraging to have folks saying that they’re seeing a few more birds over there than they did last year.”

Brood counts for the area around Huron, which sits about 130 miles northwest of Sioux Falls, showed a 38-percent jump in birds — though not everyone buys that figure.

“I would say that was slightly inflated,” Bublitz said based on his observations. “I’d say the bird numbers were more up like 10 percent.”

Guide Mike Kuchera said bird numbers also seemed down in the Mitchell area due to the summer’s extreme heat and lack of water.

“The numbers are off, probably half,” Kuchera said.

Runia said the department waits to speculate on the success of a hunting season until getting its harvest data. Staff will start sending surveys to hunters next week, and officials should have county-level harvest data later in the winter, he said.

“Even during the good years, I get hunters saying that that maybe bird numbers were down or up or it wasn’t what they expected,” Runia said. “But without having that data in hand, it’s just really hard to get a grasp on overall how successful the hunting season was.”

Hunters worry that a continued decrease in land enrolled in the federal Conservation Reserve Program could pose a longer-term threat. The voluntary program encourages farmers and ranchers to enter into multi-year contracts with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to plant vegetation cover suited for wildlife.

Some 225,000 acres of CRP in the state expired Aug. 1, Runia said.

Bublitz said if the state has a normal winter and a not-so-dry spring, the 2013 season could bounce back well.

“We haven’t had a bad enough winter to kill off,” he said. “I haven’t noticed any bird loss in our area.

“With any luck, we’ll have a good year next year.


Follow Dirk Lammers on Twitter: .

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.

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