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More birds likely to greet pheasant hunters in South Dakota

October 18, 2012 at 08:36 PM

The Associated Press

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — Consider it Black Friday for hunters.

Sure, the day before South Dakota’s pheasant opener doesn’t result in lines around the corner or incite customers to trample over each other to grab low-priced orange vests, but it’s still something of a shopping event for avid hunters.

“It’s what I call our tan-and-blaze Christmas,” said Mike Fox, general manager of Cabela’s in Mitchell. “Without doubt, it’s the best day of the year for us.”

South Dakota’s pheasant season, which opens Saturday and runs through Jan. 6, is expected to draw thousands of hunters. Most are likely to have a good year, with an estimated 18 percent more birds than last year.

“Any time we have a mild winter, we almost always follow that up with an increase in population, just because we have better winter survivability by those hens,” said Travis Runia, senior upland game biologist with the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department.

Pheasant hunting has always been a South Dakota 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. Last year, the state licensed more than 95,000 nonresident pheasant hunters and about 69,000 resident small game hunters.

Hunters who flock to Huron, about 130 miles northwest of Sioux Falls, are excited about the 38 percent jump in the area’s pheasant count, said Megan Benker, convention and sales director for the Huron Area Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Bureau.

“Our hotels are already all full, and we’re looking for a great season this year,” Benker said.

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, according to the wildlife department.

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

Brookings, which has seen heavy winter snow and big spring rains, saw its brood count numbers jump by more than 71 percent to 1.93 pheasants-per-mile this year. Fields around Watertown and Aberdeen are seeing 50-percent jumps.

The increases are more tempered in the central part of the state, where a dry spring failed to produce the new spring grass growth the birds like for nesting.

Outdoor enthusiasts said the short-term trends are great, but they 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.

Runia said some 225,000 acres of CRP in the state expired Aug. 1, and most of that acreage will be plowed in late fall or the spring for crop production.

And in August, the U.S. Agriculture Department approved emergency haying and grazing on additional CRP land in an effort to help drought-stricken farmers and ranchers who needed livestock feed.

The USDA emergency order came after the pheasant hens’ main nesting season, so the cut CRP hay shouldn’t negatively affect this year’s population, Runia said.

“But we might see a little bit of an effect next year,” he said.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.

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