GFP Pheasant Brood Survey Shows High Numbers

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The South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks (GFP) has completed their annual pheasant brood survey. The survey results indicate the highest number of pheasants per mile in the past 40 years, surpassing the previous high in 2003.

Overall, the statewide survey shows pheasant numbers increased 21 percent from 2004. The 2005 pheasant index is 74 percent higher than the statewide average of the past 10 years.

Game, Fish and Parks uses the pre-hunting season brood survey as an early estimate of the pheasant population in the state. The statewide total pheasant population estimate is calculated after statistics from the hunting season are finalized.

"The significant increases in pheasants observed on our survey routes resulted from a combination of increased observations of hens and broods counted, plus an increase in the average size of pheasant broods," said GFP Upland Game Biologist Tom Kirschenmann of Huron.

Survey information is gathered on 109 pheasant brood routes, each 30 miles in length. The routes are spread around the state based in these areas: Chamberlain, Winner, Pierre, Mobridge, Aberdeen, Huron, Mitchell, Yankton, Sioux Falls, Brookings, Watertown, Sisseton and western South Dakota.

Aberdeen, Watertown, Sisseton, Brookings, Huron and Pierre all had posted substantial increases in the number of pheasants seen per mile in comparison with 2004. Almost every survey area had more pheasants seen per mile recorded in the survey than at any time in the past 10 years.

One of the significant findings from this year’s survey results was a relatively even distribution of pheasants across the state. Kirschenmann pointed out that nine of the 13 areas surveyed had an average of more than five pheasants per mile. In typical years there will be a few areas with more birds, and several areas where the population of pheasants is moderate to low. With the increase in pheasant numbers in 2005, many areas will have similar pheasant densities.

"It is important to note how sensitive these surveys can be," Kirschenmann said. "The brood counts are most successful at dawn when there is heavy dew on the grass. At this time, pheasants are out near the road, very visible, and it is possible to get an accurate count."

Kirschenmann said that dry conditions in parts of south central and western South Dakota made counting very difficult and may have kept the population estimates from those areas conservative.

In western and central South Dakota, only 22 of 39 routes were conducted under conditions that were good for observing pheasants. While conditions were dry in some routes, GFP staff encountered some of the best survey conditions in recent years in the eastern part of the state. In contrast to western and central South Dakota, almost all of the 70 routes in the eastern part of the state were surveyed under optimal conditions.

Kirschenmann noted that that pheasant population levels benefited from another mild, open winter and timely spring rains throughout most of the state that lead to good habitat conditions for nesting and brood-rearing.

"In the 1960s, South Dakota’s pheasant population attained some of the highest levels ever recorded in the United States, due primarily to habitat provided by Soil Bank set-aside acres," Kirschenmann said.

The statewide survey index was an astonishing 11.1 pheasants per mile in 1963, the last year for the Soil Bank program. The next year the index was less than four birds per mile, and by 1969 it was less than two birds per mile for a statewide average.

The statewide survey index dropped as low as one pheasant seen per mile in 1976. In comparison, the 2005 survey stands at 6.6 pheasants seen per mile.

"The Conservation Reserve Program is the modern equivalent to Soil Bank," Kirschenmann said. "It is the habitat cornerstone for our pheasant population. The habitat private landowners provide through this program played the biggest role in this year’s excellent production."

Kirschenmann also cautioned hunters that brood survey route information is based on specific areas and local pheasant populations may vary depending on local habitat and weather conditions. "I think it is important to note that densities of pheasants alone do not make for high or low hunter success and satisfaction. Access to hunting opportunities is equally, if not more important to pheasant densities when considering success and satisfaction."

For those who have planned and prepared before taking the field this fall, pheasant hunting holds the promise of another banner season.