SD Flying Blind on Pheasant Numbers

By Nick Simonson


At a meeting of the South Dakota Game Fish & Parks Commission (GFP) on June 4, the agency declared it would be discontinuing its summer pheasant brood surveys, suggesting that the numbers  – which have trended significantly lower in recent years due to decreasing habitat on the landscape of the Rushmore State – were not as important as maintaining and marketing the state’s title of “The World’s Pheasant Capital” and its new “Hunt the Greatest” tagline.
In an era where the value of science has been eroded and knowledge has been knocked from the top position by the recycled buzz floated on social media, it isn’t surprising that such a lean toward spin and spectacle has occurred.  What is shocking however, is that an agency which should be basing everything it does on science and math in the interest of serving the hunters and anglers which fund it, has eschewed that information which not only is obtained in a far less expensive manner than its marketing studies, but also provides hunters with details on where to go, what to expect, and how to get the most out of the natural resources the GFP is entrusted to protect and advance. The decision was reached without a public comment session traditionally offered in such instances by the GFP and other public-facing game and fish entities, according to Travis Runia, GFP Upland Game Biologist.
“[Sportsmen] certainly have the ability to comment and request the survey and have an opinion on it,” Runia advises, adding “our department leadership did not think this needed to go through a public comment period, so there’s not necessarily a mechanism for the public to weigh in on this, unless they just send us an email.”
Making Adjustments
Where other states, such as North Dakota, invest heavily in pheasant surveys across all four seasons – a sex ratio survey in winter, a spring rooster crowing count, the summer brood count survey and a hunter harvest survey at the end of autumn – South Dakota will now only utilize the latter to tally up the take at the conclusion of the season.  It’s a scenario that doesn’t sit well with Chris Hesla, Executive Director of the South Dakota Wildlife Federation.
“We’re opposed to [the discontinuation of the brood survey] and quite frankly kind of surprised at it, just from the standpoint that it’s thrown science out and now there isn’t going to be any type of survey on them, except a survey of how many have been shot each year,” he laments, adding, “it’s not the best scenario because we should be monitoring to see if the flock can handle the hunting pressure of three birds a day, and you don’t know that after they’ve all been shot.”
In place of the actual brood count data, which costs about $90,000 per year to accumulate, GFP will rely on weather modeling to predict how well pheasant populations survived the winter and then guess at how successful the spring hatch was, considering rain and temperature history during the nesting and brood-rearing season. Runia addresses the lack of the primary survey data to help with the pheasant season forecast in 2020, and possibly years down the road.
“One component of my job is doing forecasting so pheasant hunters know what to expect in the fall, traditionally that has relied heavily on the results of the brood survey, so moving forward those forecasts will be based more on weather models and looking at how in the past weather has impacted our pheasant populations,” Runia stated, however, the GFP does not track those factors for pheasants, and will rely on outside data to survey snowfall and winter conditions.
Hiding the Problem
Along with South Dakota’s dubious bounty program which pays those who turn in tails from notable pheasant nest raiders such as skunks, badgers and raccoons at five dollars a piece up to a total statewide cap of $250,000, the removal of the state’s most important predictive pheasant survey comes with a continued shift in mentality toward treating hunting, habitat and the birds themselves as more of a product to be sold and less of a resource to be protected. The discontinuation of the summer brood survey by GFP continues a smokescreen of headline-grabbing and marketing-focused activities by the state which disguise the greater problem it has yet to remedy: declining habitat on the landscape.  Other states, such as North Dakota, have utilized the brood survey data to track the absence and addition of CRP and other reserve acres and how those changes historically affect pheasants seen on the routes that agents run in July and August, according to North Dakota Game & Fish Department (NDG&F) Upland Biologist RJ Gross.
“The main reason we do [summer brood surveys] is to track the population because we are a game and fish agency, that is our duty, that is our responsibility to hunters and to the wildlife itself, so we can see what’s going on and get a handle on the population,” said Gross, who fields hundreds of inquiries in late summer and early fall from hunters wanting to know the status of pheasants in North Dakota; but he adds that the brood survey data does more than predict, it helps set habitat goals, “a lot of times we’ll use that in our Private Lands section focusing on places that are losing CRP and we’ll have data that’ll back up that pheasants are not responding well in those areas, so we can shift funds there and get more habitat on the landscape,” he suggested, adding that the NDG&F summer brood surveys will continue in North Dakota for the information they provide the public and the agency.
That loss of information gathered from the summer brood surveys in South Dakota and the scientific value of it in relation to habitat and game management, is what’s most objectionable to many when viewed in the light of the agency’s primary duty of managing the state’s natural resources for the general public.  The focus on marketing to draw hunters into South Dakota, as evidenced by GFP’s Pheasant Hunting Marketing Workgroup conducted with the state’s Tourism Department, sets a dangerous precedent of treating statewide hunting as a business, according to Hesla.
“The one thing they shouldn’t do is take the science out of the management, that’s the most important thing on any game animal or any animal there,” Hesla explains, balking hard at Commissioners’ comments that pheasant hunting is big business in South Dakota, “that’s true, they are running a business, but it’s the people’s business, it’s funded all on sportsmen’s and women’s dollars [and] license sales, there’s no general tax money that goes into the GFP.”
Information on the joint GFP-SD Tourism Department’s Pheasant Hunting Marketing Workgroup, which cost approximately $300,000 to conduct according to Runia, can be found at:


Featured Photo: Lost Count.  The South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks is discontinuing its summer pheasant brood count for fears that continued lower numbers are unattractive to would-be visiting hunters.  Along with the loss of information for the public, comes missing data that could be used for improving habitat programs. 


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