Some traditional hunters feel left out by the state’s pheasant tourism efforts

Hunters travel to the South Dakota prairie each year for fall pheasant season. It can be a lifestyle or a vacation. But now hunting on public lands faces a challenge, and some say the state is redefining the tradition.

John Cooper has been hunting pheasants for over half a century. He was a field officer for the US Fish & Wildlife Service for over 20 years. He then served as manager of the South Dakota Game Fish & Parks department for over a decade.

Cooper says South Dakota has created a national reputation for hunting wild birds in wild places. But he says that’s changing.

“When people push to market the resource, or promise in their fancy brochure that you come to ABC Lodge and have the ‘guaranteed pheasant hunt’ – well, once you pull it off of the “hunting” – what you have done, you have appealed to a whole different aspect of this “hunting”. And that is ‘shooting. They want to “shoot”.

the Associated Press reported in 2017 that the state was adding nearly 20 additional private firing reserves. But the growing popularity of canned food isn’t the only thing changing.

Cooper sees fewer wild pheasants when he hunts. He says there is a disconnect with the state’s tourist material promising lots of pheasants.

“But the only place you could guarantee that now is on the penned bird side of the ledger — on the other side, no,” Cooper says. “And, to my way of thinking, and the vast majority of people I hunt with, they won’t go to a reserve because they recognize that the hunt is the essential thing they love, and it’s kind of like kissing your sister when you go to the pen-raised bird area.”

Pen-raised pheasants are raised on a farm – like chickens. Producers usually sell the birds to a game reserve.

Pheasant counting controversy

Efforts to promote the sport come as questions continue about the number of wild pheasants in the state.

In 1978, South Dakota reduced the “bag limit” for wild pheasants from three to two birds. This decision came because the number of pheasants in the state had dropped to 4.5 million birds. John Cooper says it was a red flag.

“It’s economically alarming for South Dakota. This is alarming from the perspective of our hunting heritage. Right now we’re probably in that 4 or 5 million bird area,” Cooper says.

But it’s hard to prove.

The state stopped counting wild pheasants — called a brood count — in 2019. State employees previously traveled the same routes each year and counted the number of pheasants they saw. They extrapolated an estimate of the total population from this.

Pete Bauman is an outdoor enthusiast and natural resources and wildlife specialist at South Dakota State University. He says the number of pheasants was valuable to researchers.

“And so without that, how come this state keeps saying, you know, ‘Come here. We’ve got more pheasants. And then all of us who hunt birds are like, ‘Yeah, not so great.’ Not in recent years.

Find the Best Pheasant Hunting in South Dakota

In early 2020, the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks partnered with the state Department of Tourism. Together they developed a marketing plan to increase pheasant hunting in the state. Each department invests $350,000 a year until this year.

An executive summary of the program also explains why the brood count ended: “…to ensure that South Dakota does not unwittingly deter hunters from coming to our state based on media headlines reporting of a small number of birds.”

SDPB News has requested an interview with the governor for this story. The Governor’s Office referred the SDPB to the Department of Game, Fish and Parks.

Department secretary Kevin Robling responded by email. He says the marketing effort has never been more than an increase in hunter numbers or license sales.

“Marketing efforts are more about investing in storytelling what South Dakota has to offer and making sure there’s room for everyone to participate,” Robling writes.

Chris Hesla has been executive director of the South Dakota Wildlife Federation for 24 years. He says the state’s rationale doesn’t match up.

“They threw it out the window and now they’re asking [producers] who earn money with pheasant hunting, they ask them how their [pheasant numbers] are. Well, what do you think they’ll say? “They are great, the best I’ve seen!” I just think we’re on the wrong track. We need to keep science in our wildlife and we need to manage it for everyone.

Hesla says successful pheasant seasons are now defined by the number of hunters who purchase a permit.

“They don’t want quality hunting here. They want to bring the masses,” says Hesla. “And that’s why we saw them stop the brood investigation when they entered the tourism department.”

The state is trying to increase wild pheasant numbers while bringing in more hunters. A predator bounty program pays people to trap pheasant predators.

Hesla says these are unnecessary expenses.

“If you want more wildlife, put the habitat there. Kids will go out and trap whether they get free traps or not – the secret is having a place to go.

But the bounty program isn’t the state’s only approach. Governor Kristi Noem wants to convert more land into habitat through the Second Century Initiative. She spoke about it at a conference earlier this year.

“And we have had great success with this program. So my goal is to develop this program.

The effort is to recruit acres, but critics say many acres are in areas unsuitable for pheasant habitat. And acres can be harvested for hay every two years.

In an email, Secretary Robling says that by providing access through conservation programs, the department is ensuring hunters have plenty of public hunting opportunities.

“There are plenty of pheasant hunters who want to take advantage of ‘Do-it-Yourself’ hunts,” writes Robling. “To ensure that every hunter has these ‘Do-it-Yourself’ opportunities, GFP is constantly working to improve habitat and state access.”

Jon Locken serves on the Game, Fish & Parks Commission, a group appointed by the Governor to oversee the department.

Locken points to new revenue generators for publicly accessible land.

“One of the best tools we currently have is the Habitat Stamp. We can get more money to facilitate these programs. And that’s been a wonderful thing for the department.

The habitat stamp is something that hunters purchase with their license. Revenue goes directly to improving and developing more public land for hunters.

However, people who purchase a license to hunt in a private reserve are not required to purchase a habitat stamp.

Wild bird hunters say it’s unfair at a time when they see fewer wild birds.

Changing approaches

Recent administrations have dealt with the issue of low pheasant numbers differently.

The 2013 pre-season survey of pheasant broods showed a 64% drop from the previous year. It also reported a 76% drop from the 10-year average.

These statistics caught the attention of the governor at the time. Denis Daugaard. In response, the governor gathered a summit.

“I’ve asked my planner to rearrange my schedule today and move other appointments – I’m going to be here all day,” Daugaard said at the summit.

There were hours of panel discussions, insights from experts, and opportunities for public comment.

John Cooper helped write the final summit report. He says the Noem administration doesn’t seem to be using the results.

“How prepared are we to subvert what is fundamentally traditional hunting ethics and hunting enjoyment? And how much do we put it in some kind of Disneyland? »

Cooper alleges there is an effort to blur the line between pen-raised pheasants and wild birds.

“They really don’t want the customer to know that these are caged birds,” says Cooper. “These birds are put in the field three or four hours before the party goes to the field, and a lot of guys who hunt there don’t understand that.”

Just outside of Winfred, South Dakota is a 1,200-acre pheasant preserve. Trevor Reil launched the operation a few years ago. He says game reserves and hunters on public lands are not in competition.

“We actually help with bird counts because we’re required to replace every bird that’s shot,” Reil says. “And there is no way we can control where the birds go when we release them.”

Wild birds can also be shot in reserves.

Reil says his clients confirm the reality of wild bird numbers.

“We’re starting to have people who don’t normally go to reserves starting to turn to us because they can’t find the birds on public land,” Reil says.

And he sympathizes with the hunter who can’t afford to stay on a reserve – where packages range from $200 to $2,000 per person.

“Not everyone wants to spend money to go hunting on a reserve,” says Reil. “I can certainly relate to that. For some people, it’s quite expensive to go and shoot three birds.

South Dakota’s game preserves are not required to clearly identify penned pheasants with a marker. And according to pheasants foreverthe chances of these birds surviving their first winter are much less than wild birds.

For many hunters, canning has become part of the annual tradition. Much like the hunting of wild pheasants, those who prey on caged birds contribute to a multi-million dollar industry.

South Dakota shooting reserves also play a role in conservation efforts. The earth is home to many species. Deer, ducks, butterflies, and bees all take advantage of habitats that might otherwise be drained, plowed, and planted.

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