If you’re an upland bird hunter who loves crisp fall days, as well as the smell of a shotgun’s burning gunpowder curling up against a cobalt blue sky, how about some good news for the 2020 season?
Good news seems to have been on the endangered species list in recent months, but orange-clad upland bird hunters planning to flock to South Dakota in a few weeks will have more to enjoy this fall.
That news came on Sept. 3, 2020, when the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Commission voted to give the state’s unparalleled pheasant hunting a boost with more days afield and more hours to shoot this season.
Specifically, according to a news release from GFP, the Commission voted to extend the 2020-21 season until the end of January, moving the ending date from the first Sunday in January.
Second, the state modified the hours upland hunters can begin chasing roosters from the noon to 10 a.m. local time, beginning this fall, including the resident-only season, slated to begin Oct. 10.
The GFP Commission did turn down a proposal to up the late-season daily bag limit starting next year, steering clear of the proposed move to four birds beginning on Dec. 1, 2021. Instead, the Commission voted to keep the South Dakota daily bag limit at three roosters.
The Commission also voted to adopt unrestricted harvest opportunity for hunters on private shooting preserves, a move that goes from Sept. 1 through the end of the state’s pheasant season. That vote came after the original proposal was amended, giving non-resident preserve hunters the increased opportunity if they have purchased a statewide nonresident small-game license and habitat stamp. Since license money and habitat work is king in wildlife conservation, resident preserve hunters have the same opportunity if they have a South Dakota combination license and habitat stamp, too.
The moves come after the Commission examined several key ideas rising out of the work from the state’s pheasant marketing workgroup and ensuring that their proposals fell within the framework of conservation and hunting opportunity goals supported by GFP.
A look at the GFP’s PDF document referenced above indicates that over the years, the season ending dates for upland game birds have been extended at times. In doing so, the GFP Commission has made such decisions to extend hunting seasons to maximize hunting opportunities for both residents and non-residents, as long as such opportunities stay within landowner tolerances and department goals.
Add in the fact that biologists say over the past five years, the South Dakota pheasant population has remained steady and that there were no associated biological concerns with these proposed 2020 season changes.
According to GFP, the bottom line is that these new season boosters will help bring the state's rooster hunting opportunities in line with surrounding pheasant rich states like Nebraska and Kansas.
"It's very exciting to offer these expanded opportunities to those who want to experience the greatest pheasant hunting in the nation," said Kelly Hepler, Secretary of South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks, in a news release.
"Behind Governor Noem's Second Century Initiative, this is one more way we are working to secure South Dakota’s great outdoor heritage and the next 100 years of pheasant hunting in our state."
As popular as the move is sure to be among hunters, the regulation changes aren’t without some controversy.
Part of that is because pheasant population figures and hunter-success rates have been slowly declining in South Dakota during recent years. Case in point is the state’s Pheasant Brood Survey Report for 2019, which notes that a variety of factors were in play leading to reduced harvest figures.
"Last year we celebrated the 100th pheasant season in South Dakota and for the first time since 1990, total harvest was below 1 million roosters for two years in a row," stated the report. "In fact, harvest in 2007 (2.1 million) was higher than the last two years combined (1.8 million). As we celebrate 100 years of pheasant hunting, it is also important to acknowledge the steady decade-long decline in PPM (Pheasants Per Mile) is likely related to upland habitat loss."
Another part of the controversy was a move by GFP earlier this year to shift away from its traditional method of monitoring pheasant numbers on the ground, opting to use methodology that examines weather conditions at key times on the ring-necked pheasant’s yearly breeding calendar. To figure out what the upcoming season will look like, GFP will now use such weather information as compared against data sets from previous years.
Since 1949, GFP biologists had conducted brood surveys each summer to determine the status of pheasant populations and to predict numbers as compared to previous years. But not this year.
"Data from this survey is not used to manage the pheasant population or to set season structure and bag limits," Hepler said back in June 2020 when the decision was announced. "The research and data presented in the marketing plan represent the better opportunity to increase participation in pheasant hunting, both for residents and nonresidents of all ages."
Commissioner Russell Olson added his agreement with the decision to move away from the brood count survey.
"If ever there was a year to conduct this survey, this is it," he stated in June. "We’ve had great weather this spring, no major storms and things are looking excellent. This goes to show we have nothing to hide by discontinuing the survey at this time. We’re operating a business here, and our decisions need to reflect that."
Such a move, while helping to save money from a process that reportedly costs the state as much as $90,000 annually to produce, was met with criticism that the move was marketing-based, not scientific-based. One North Dakota news outlet went as far as to trumpet the idea that the state was now “flying blind on its pheasant numbers.”
Whether it’s a good decision or a bad move is debatable, perhaps, but it does come against a slow, steady decline noted in recent years. In the GFP's 2019 Brood Survey Report, the state's pheasant indices, which came from 110 30-mile long routes examined between July 25 and Aug. 15 each year, found a two-percent reduction of roosters from the 2018 survey data (813 vs. 798 roosters observed) and a 21-percent decrease in hens (955 observed vs. 1,216 hens the previous year).
Those declines were counter-balanced by the fact that the statewide average brood size increased by three percent from 2018 to 2019 (6.24 in 2019 vs. 6.08 chicks per brood in 2018), with the 2019 figure being up slightly against the 10-year average of 6.24 chicks per brood. That comes, in large part, because of an eight-percent brood size increase in 2019 in the northeastern part of the state against the rest of South Dakota holding steady in the same department.
Here’s what the state’s Brood Survey Report in 2019 said about pheasant numbers: "The observed slight decline in the overall pheasant population index was expected given the historic winter snowfall and spring/summer precipitation patterns. Even with very unfavorable weather conditions, the PPM index remained nearly unchanged (less than 15 percent decrease or increase) from last year for seven of the 13 local areas.
"The 2019 pheasant population index is still higher than the recent lows of 2013 and 2017 when hunters harvested an average of 900,000 roosters. Lands enrolled in CRP have steadied over the past few years with many open to public hunting. In fact, approximately 20 percent of the state's CRP acreage is enrolled in the WIA program. With 1.1 million acres of public hunting land within the heart of SD's pheasant range, great opportunities remain for freelance pheasanthunting."
With that, you can see glimpses of the philosophical shift that has taken place in the GFP. The numbers may speak to biologists and scientific types, but in the end, hunters want to know the answer to one simple question:
What kind of hunting season will hunters have when they head to South Dakota this fall and turn the dogs loose out of the back of the truck?
While the answer to that question is always a bit complex and challenging to come up with, the one thing that is certain is this: in a year where most news is challenging to say the least, there's at least more pheasant hunting opportunity than ever before in the state of South Dakota.And for that, the orange army preparing to invade the state in a few weeks can be glad, for this year at least.