David Lias

South Dakota's extreme weather tested the resiliency of the state's pheasant population in 2019.

The state saw a 17 percent decrease compared to last year and a 43 percent lower than the 10-year average in its pheasant brood survey, according to the Game, Fish and Parks Department's annual report last fall.

The number of roosters increased by 2 percent from last year and the number of hens decreased by 21 percent from last year, according to the report. In the Sioux Falls area, the number of pheasants counted per mile was down 19 percent compared to last year and was 14 percent below the 10-year average, according to the report.

These numbers follow the first season of South Dakota’s new nest predator control program.

The South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Commission unanimously approved, with little discussion, an administrative rule regulating the state's new program on April 5, 2019 after holding a public hearing on the proposed program on Thursday, April 4, 2019.

The state put a bounty on the heads of certain varmints in 2019 in hopes that fewer varmints will eventually mean more pheasants.

State officials use a bit more polished language to describe what’s going on.

“The South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks is focused on increasing participation in trapping from all ages while at the same time, reducing localized populations of nest predators as a way to enhance pheasant and duck nest success,” stated a GF&P web page in 2019 about the program. It also notes that this is a new program, but just like our governor, the state info sort of pooh poohs that by stating “we’ve always done this.” (Those are my words by the way, not the state’s).

So, to review:

South Dakota in 2019 implements Gov. Noem’s idea to trap predators as a way to boost the state’s pheasant population.

The result:

The state saw a 17 percent decrease compared to last year and a 43 percent lower than the 10-year average in its pheasant brood survey, according to the Game, Fish and Parks Department's annual report last fall.

So what does South Dakota do?

The South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Commission agreed earlier this month to fund a second year of governor’s idea to pay bounties for some species of mammals that raid the spring nests of pheasants, ducks and other birds.

The vote was 6-2 for a trimmer version. KELO News reports that key changes are:

The state Game, Fish and Parks Department won’t give away live-traps this year. The department distributed about 16,000 last year at a cost of more than $1 million for traps and staff time.

The program will have a $250,000 cap and will pay $5 per tail from a raccoon, striped skunk, opossum, red fox or badger. Last year the cap was $500,000 and the bounty was $10 per tail.

The program starts April 1 and goes to July 1. A bounty will now be paid whether a predator was shot or trapped. Last year the bounties covered only trapped predators.

Only South Dakotans can participate, as was the case last year, but those age 18 and older will need to have a license of some sort.

According to KELO’s report, GF&P Commission members Gary Jensen of Rapid City and Mary Anne Boyd of Yankton voted against continuing the trapping program.

Jensen, the chairman, said science didn’t support the program, more than $1.7 million had been spent to support a sector — trappers — that he said was “doing well,” and the department receives about $109,000 a year from sales of trapping licenses.

“We’ve spent generously on that. We have some other needs, higher needs,” Jensen said. He noted the department doesn’t have a budget for marketing pheasant hunting. “We could spend the money there,” he said.

Jensen relayed difficult questions that several people had raised and the department’s deputy secretary, Kevin Robling, gave candid answers.

“It isn’t just about kids. It's about creating outdoors families,” Robling said about the program’s broader purpose.

Jensen said the 50,000-plus predators’ tails turned in last year represented about one per 1,000 acres. Robling said the figure came down to about one per 300 acres, because most of the tails came from the eastern third of South Dakota.

Jensen asked for the science that would support the program. Robling acknowledged there weren’t any studies that the department chose to do.

Jensen asked for proof that the program made a positive difference for the pheasant population. Robling replied that thousands of predators were removed from areas where pheasants nest.

Recent declines in the state’s pheasant population may be due much less to our predator population and much more to recent weather. Counts typically decline following harsh winters, and cool, wet weather may have shortened the nesting season.

The change in pheasant numbers between 2018 and 2019, according to an Argus Leader report, may be due to flooded roadside ditches and unplanted crop fields reducing the number of pheasants using roadside habitat, according to last fall’s report.

The pheasant numbers remained nearly unchanged in about half of the areas counted around the state and several areas saw an increase, according to the report. The Aberdeen area saw the biggest jump in the number of pheasants — an increase of 46 percent — but GFP cautions that that may not be applicable to the entire Aberdeen area.

I admittedly am showing my age as I issue a desire for “the good ol’ days” to return. About five or six decades ago, you never heard a battle cry each spring to us kids to “go out and trap some varmints.”

There really wasn’t a need to worry about varmints, at least in terms of the pheasant population. There was no need to put a bounty on the heads of raccoon, striped skunk, badger, opossum, and red fox, because pheasants had lots of natural habitat in which to live all through the Midwest, including South Dakota.

It all started with the Soil Bank that was introduced by the Eisenhower Administration at about the time I was born. The Soil Bank got its start when a surplus of wheat and feed grains led to the government-supported program that paid farmers to idle acres of cropland in exchange for fields of grasses.

It was a philosophy in ag management that persisted through my younger years. The federal government established programs to pay farmers to keep some of their land out of production.

It created a veritable pheasant mecca.

Long-time South Dakotans remember those days. It was a time of brushy fence lines and areas of grassy cover where ring-necked roosters used to erupt and fill the sky like a flock of blackbirds.

Statistics from the state GF&P show that at the height of the Soil Bank Era between 1958 and 1964 the average pheasant population in the state rested at just over 9 million birds. At only two other periods of time has the state enjoyed a higher average of pheasants over a six-year period of time: from 1941-1946 (13 million) and 2003-2008 (9.4 million). Collectively, those three chunks of time represent the Golden Age of the pheasant in South Dakota, and, interestingly enough, they all reached an end in similar fashion.

According to the Outdoor Forum, agriculture production increased after World War II and the amount of habitat available for pheasants decreased. By 1950, the state’s pheasant population had bottomed out at just over 3 million birds, and hunters were relegated to a hunting season only 10 days in length. Slowly, the number of pheasants began to inch upward, but the Soil Bank Act of 1958 was the catalyst for the pheasant’s full return to glory.

Pheasant numbers rebounded in South Dakota seemingly overnight from 5.9 million birds in 1957 to over 11 million the next year. And South Dakota’s pheasants were not alone in their recovery. When at its peak of nearly 28 million acres nationwide in the early 1960s, the Soil Bank Act supported large populations of pheasants all over the country, and hunters everywhere basked in an abundance of gaudy roosters and heavy game bags.

It wasn’t foxes or raccoons or other predators that were the direct cause of dropping pheasant numbers. It was lack of habitat and I’m guessing that’s the same situation we’re in today.

An article published by the Federal Reserve of Minneapolis notes that the number of acres enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) – which is sort of today’s version of the Soil Bank – has been declining.

CRP was initiated in 1986. Its goal was to pay farmers a modest rental fee to take marginal, highly erodible land out of production to reduce erosion and improve soil health and wildlife habitat. It also targeted acreage around water – like riparian buffers, grassed waterways and contour grass strips – in more productive fields to prevent sediment and nutrient runoff and to protect water quality.

The program proved popular with farmers, quickly ramping to 35 million acres nationwide by 1993. By 2007, CRP acreage peaked at almost 37 million acres nationwide.

But then commodity prices began to rise. Corn and soybean prices, for example, more than doubled from 2006 to 2012, thanks to increasing corn consumption from ethanol and higher exports for soybeans.

Starting in 2007, farmers began pulling acreage out of CRP and returning them to production as 10-year contracts expired. By 2017, total CRP acreage in the Federal Reserve’s Ninth District states declined by 52 percent, with individual district states seeing drops between 37 percent (South Dakota) and 60 percent (Montana and Wisconsin).

To put it bluntly, there’s your problem regarding pheasant numbers.

Gov. Noem has recognized that component of the problem -- to a degree. Last year, she got lawmakers to approve $1 million to put into habitat restoration on marginal land. After it failed several times, the measure passed last session.

I can’t help but think that the best way to boost South Dakota’s pheasant population is to abandon the predator trapping program and focus on our somewhat limited resources on doing what we can to increase pheasant habitat.

Pheasants Forever, an organization that promotes ringneck hunting throughout the Midwest, notes that predator removal is a small scale remedy.

Trapping is effective for small areas, according to the organization, but is dependent on three important factors.

Trapping efforts must reduce nest predator populations during the key period of recruitment—beginning, prior to, and continuing throughout the entire pheasant nesting season (approximately 100 days).

Trapping needs to extend beyond the boundaries of the controlled area. Most nest predators have large home ranges and if trapping efforts fail to account for this, predators from surrounding areas will still negatively impact nesting success within the controlled area.

Most importantly, a successful removal program is a professional, full-time effort. The occasional removal of individual animals by hunters has very little impact on predator populations and trapping efforts that rely on bounties are destined to fail.

“It is important to understand that sustained trapping efforts tend to stimulate reproduction by predators (compensating for artificially low densities) and create populations with proportionately more juveniles that wander more across the landscape thereby increasing the chances of encountering pheasants,” the organization writes in an article entitled “Effects of Predators” on its website.

It ends the article with this summary: “While predator removal and exclusion methods can increase nesting success on small areas, these methods are too expensive for use on a landscape basis and do not significantly increase the number of nesting birds over the long term. Through the addition and management of habitat, we not only decrease the impact predators have on existing nests, but also increase the number of nests and population size in an area. Predators will continue to eat pheasants and their nests, but weather and habitat conditions will drive population fluctuations.”

Pheasants are tough birds, but it’s likely that better habitat, not a scattering of traps to capture predators, would help them the most right now and into the future.

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