You will work for your birds this year in drought-stricken South Dakota, but there will be pheasants
By Andrew Johnson
After the sun set January 31 on last year’s pheasant season, the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department (SDGFP) reported 121,331 licensed hunters had an excellent season, even by South Dakota’s lofty standards.
Now, the bad news. Extreme drought settled across the Upper Midwest starting last fall, and South Dakota was no exception. To make things worse, during the peak hatch period in June every corner of the state experienced days-long heat waves, sometimes in the triple digits.
While there’s no doubt the combination of severe drought and record-setting temperatures had a negative impact on pheasant production this spring, field reports from around the state all point to the 2021 season being better than one might anticipate.
Habitat, Broods and Conditions
You don’t hear the word drought mentioned in the same breath as winter often, but the lack of snow and abnormally dry conditions may have helped South Dakota’s pheasants.
“The birds came through the winter really well, and there was minimal mortality,” says Matt Morlock, acting director for Pheasants Forever in South Dakota. “We didn’t have any significant snow events, so birds could get out and feed in open fields and then tuck right back into thermal cover during the few cold snaps we had.”
“Things were really looking up heading in to breeding and nesting seasons,” says Travis Runia, SDGFP’s senior upland game biologist. “We had such a nice winter, and bird populations almost always increase after a mild winter. But it’s been a few years since we’ve had a drought at this level. Many areas of the state were extremely hot and dry in May and especially in June, right during that peak-hatch period.”
While extreme drought, lack of bugs and severe heat hurt chick survival, Morlock says farmers he’s talked to from across the state remain optimistic about the number of birds and broods they’ve seen throughout the summer months.
“I’ve been out and about quite a bit, and I’m seeing birds. In fact, in some spots I think we’ll actually see an increase compared to last year. I know that sounds surprising, but that’s what I’m seeing and also hearing from the farmers I talk with who really understand birds and habitat,” he says.
Pheasants are persistent re-nesters, and Morlock says that fact coupled with some timely rains has improved the outlook through late summer.
“We were set up to have an explosion of birds this year,” says Morlock, almost whimsically. “While we did lose some productivity, I think we’re going to be surprised with how the birds came out of it. We were at a tipping point in July, but then a couple storms rolled through the state in early July that got us a bug hatch that helped production a lot.”
The rains haven’t stopped, either, as August precipitation totals were at or above 100% of average throughout a majority of the state. The drought is far from over, but Morlock says the recent rainfall will help the chicks on the ground survive till fall and that it provided a much-needed boost for both warm-season and cool-season grasses.
The heavy rains came too late, however, because in early August the Farm Service Agency opened CRP ground to emergency haying and grazing to support drought-stricken producers. That means private ground leased by the state for public hunting, such as Walk-in Areas and CREP ground (found in the James River watershed in the eastern part of the state), that you’ve hunted in the past will likely look different this fall.
“You hate to see all the CRP come out due to drought because of what the means for the producers, but at the end of the day many CRP sites were getting older and needed management,” says Morlock, who also believes hunters should be aware of the positive, unintended consequences that crop up when CRP is hayed.
“Any mowing or cutting reduces the amount of cover, condenses birds and creates another edge that hunters can use to their advantage,” he notes. “Plus, thanks to the recent rainfall we’ve already seen those hayed areas grow quite a bit. It seems the whole state is experiencing a green-up here in August and early September, and anything planted to cool-season grasses should actually see some really good growth again this fall before the frost hits.”
Because of the drought and the emergency haying, Morlock says scouting will be more important than ever to find areas of quality habitat that will hold birds. Additionally, more corn has already been cut for silage, and small grains like wheat that didn’t head out have already been cut and baled.
“It’s probably a safe assumption that there’s going to be some cutting that’s happened on most places you hunt. Everything will likely look a little different this fall,” Morlock states.
Regional Field Reports
“Habitat conditions aren’t terrible, but we were awfully dry there for a while,” says Nick Cochran, SDGFP conservation officer for Brown County. “Peak hatch up here is usually in mid-June, and during that time we were over 100 degrees for three or four days.”
Cochran believes variable habitat conditions and the haying of CRP and CREP ground in the area will force hunters to bounce around more than usual to find birds. Overall, however, he thinks hunters can still find good numbers of birds in the area.
“We didn’t have a great hatch, but we still have pheasants,” he says. “We did have a good carryover of adult birds, so they might be a little tougher to outsmart.”
Northern Missouri River Corridor
In the north-central part of the state, PF Farm Bill Biologist Isaac Full thinks good numbers of adult birds will make up the lion’s share of the pheasant harvest this fall.
“We didn’t have a real bad hatch, but we didn’t have a banner hatch, either” says Full, who has worked with landowners in Potter, Walworth and Sully counties for the past five years.
“Honestly, we’re not doing that bad. I’d say the pheasant population in this area is just below what it was last year and that most of the birds we’re going to see this fall are coming out of last year’s hatch. Now, if you ask the locals who’ve lived here their whole lives and have seen the heyday of pheasant hunting, they’re going to say we’re far below what’s considered really, really good for bird numbers.”
Full says emergency haying and grazing has had a large impact on habitat availability in the north-central part of the state heading into fall hunting seasons.
“We have a lot of managed hay in this area, so we lost a lot of habitat in early August,” he says. “I can’t remember the exact total, but it’s safe to say we lost upwards of 3,000 acres of grass. There’s still large tracts of public land both here and then further west on the other side of the Missouri River where hunters willing to grind it out and wear out some boot leather will have plenty of opportunities to get their birds.”
Central South Dakota
Further down the Mighty Mo in the central/west-central part of the state, PF Farm Bill Biologist Derek Hartl, who works with landowners in Jones, Stanley, Haakon and Jackson counties, says that the primary pheasant habitat looks good for fall.
Hartl also reports that the broods he’s seen this year have been smaller than average and seem to have hatched later than normal, perhaps during a second or third nesting attempt. Interestingly, similar reports came in from across the state, where newly hatched or week-old chicks were seen well into the month of August.
“We believe that the nesting season was pushed back a little bit due to the drought, so we expect to see a lot more younger birds this fall,” says Hartl. “With everything considered, I still expect a good turnout of birds for this fall. Hunting might not be like past years, but you should have some good opportunities.”
South-Central South Dakota
“In talking with landowners, it seems that numbers might be down some this fall,” says Kendall Hettick, a PF Farm Bill biologist covering Lyman, Tripp, Gregory and Stanley counties. “While doing fieldwork, I’ve seen a fair number of adult birds but limited broods, some of which still have a long way to go to reach maturity. I’ve seen a lot of variation in brood size and age this year, suggesting there were a lot of re-nesting efforts from hens after a failed first clutch.”
“While numbers are down, there are still birds around, and they will be more concentrated with a lot of the habitat being hayed this year,” Hettick continues. “All things considered I think pheasant hunters will still be able to harvest birds this fall if they’re willing to work a little bit for them.”
Further east along the I-90 corridor, landowners in Aurora, Davison, Sanborn and Hanson counties couldn’t buy a drop of rain through June and July, but places with high-quality habitat still produced birds.
Tim Kromminga and Kirk Waugh own a hobby farm by Stickney that they manage primarily for deer hunting, but they also shoot a pile of pheasants each fall. Their habitat complex has trees, wetlands, food plots and CRP, and Kromminga believes pheasants fared well this year in spite of the drought.
“We are concerned about the lack of bucks we are seeing,” Krommenga admits, “but I think it’ll still be a pretty good year for bird hunting. I have seen quite a few broods, and the last time I was out there at the end of August I was seeing last year’s birds running around, too.”
An hour to the northeast in Miner County, SDGFP Conservation Officer Evan Meyer believes pheasant hunting will be comparable to last year.
“Overall I think we had a good spring, but we some CRP acres were hayed in August in the western part of Miner County over into Sanborn County,” Meyer states. “I’ve also seen a lot of smaller birds later in the year compared to normal, so I think plenty of hens re-nested after they lost their first nest or two.”
South Dakota’s pheasant season is open October 16 to January 31. It’s tempting to head out early, but given the drought conditions have dried up many wetlands across the state, consider a late-season, cattail-busting hunt to increase your odds of finding birds.
“With our water dropping down the cattail beds have taken off, so later in the season that’s where the birds will be,” advises Cochran.
Morlock agrees, saying he rarely hunts pheasants until after Thanksgiving.
“It’s going to be tough early on, so don’t hunt in October or early November and write the year off,” he says. “Come back when the crops are out, snow is flying, birds are grouped up and young birds are fully colored out. The dogs work better in cooler weather, and it’s just a better all-around hunt.”
South Dakotan Andrew Johnson reports on a variety of important topics for The Habitat Organization.