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Some traditional hunters feel sidelined by state's pheasant tourism efforts

This video is from SDPB's news program, South Dakota Focus.

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

John Cooper has hunted pheasants for over half a century. He was a field agent for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service for more than 20 years. Then he was in charge of the South Dakota Game Fish & Parks Department for more than a decade.

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

“When people push the commercialization of the resource, or they promise in their fancy brochure that you come to ABC Lodge and you'll have ‘guaranteed pheasant hunting’ — well, once you move it out of 'hunting' — what you've done is you've appealed to a whole-other aspect of this ‘hunting.’ And it is 'shooting'. They want to 'shoot.'”

The Associated Press reported in 2017 that the state was adding almost 20 more private shooting preserves. But the growing popularity of preserves isn’t the only thing changing.

Cooper sees fewer wild pheasants when he hunts. He says there’s a disconnect with state tourism material promising plenty of pheasants.

“But the only place you could guarantee that now is over on the pen-raised birds' 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 preserve because they recognize that the hunt is the critical thing that they like, and it's a little bit like kissing your sister when you're going over into the pen-raised birds area."

Pen-raised pheasants are bred on a farm — like chickens. Producers typically sell the birds to a shooting preserve.

Pheasant-counting controversy

Efforts to promote the sport come as questions continue over the state’s wild pheasant numbers.

In 1978, South Dakota reduced the wild pheasant “bag limit” from three birds to two. The move came because the state’s pheasant count had dropped to 4.5 million birds. John Cooper says that was a wake-up call.

“That's alarming economically to South Dakota. It's alarming from the standpoint of our hunting heritage. Right now, we're probably in that 4 or 5 million bird area,” Cooper says.

But that’s hard to prove.

The state stopped counting wild pheasants — called the brood count — in 2019. State employees formerly drove the same routes every year and counted the number of pheasants they saw. They extrapolated a total population estimate from that.

Pete Bauman is an outdoorsman and natural resources and wildlife field specialist with South Dakota State University. He says the pheasant count was valuable to researchers.

“And so, without that, how is it that this state continues to say, you know, ‘Come here. We've got more pheasants.’ And then all of us that hunt birds are like, ‘Yeah, not so great.’ Not the last few years.”

Find the Best Pheasant Hunting in South Dakota | South Dakota Hunting | Travel South Dakota

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

An executive summary of the program also touches on why the brood count ended: “ ensure that South Dakota is not unintentionally deterring hunters from coming to our state based on the media headlines reporting of low bird numbers.”

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

Department Secretary Kevin Robling replied via email. He says the marketing effort was never just about an increase in hunters or license sales.

"The marketing efforts are more about investing in the storytelling of what South Dakota has to offer and ensuring there is space for everyone to participate,” Robling writes.

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

“They threw it out the window and now they're asking [producers] who make money off of pheasant hunting, they're asking them how their [pheasant numbers] are. Well, what do you think they are going to say? ‘They're great, the best I've seen!’ I just think we're going down the wrong path. We need to keep science in our wildlife, and we need to manage it for everybody.

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

“They don't want the quality hunting here. They want to bring the masses,” Hesla says. “And that's why we saw them stop the brood survey when they entered in with the Tourism Department.”

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

Hesla says it’s wasteful spending.

“If you want more wildlife, put the habitat out there. The kids are going to go out and trap if they get free traps or not — the secret is having a place to go.”

But the bounty program is not 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 a lot of success with that program. So, my goal is to grow that program.”

The effort is enrolling acres, but critics say many acres are in areas not suitable for pheasant habitat. And the acres can be harvested for hay every other year.

In an email, Secretary Robling says that by providing access through conservation programs, the department ensures hunters have abundant public hunting opportunities.

”There are many pheasant hunters that wish to enjoy 'Do-it-Yourself' hunts," Robling writes. "To ensure every hunter has these 'Do-it-Yourself' opportunities, GFP is constantly working to enhance habitat and access across the state.”

Jon Locken sits 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 lands.

“One of the great tools that we have is the Habitat Stamp now. We’re able to access some more money to facilitate those programs. And that’s been a wonderful thing for the department.”

The Habitat Stamp is something hunters purchase with their license. The revenue goes directly to improve and develop more public land for hunters.

However, people buying a license to hunt on a private preserve are not required to buy a Habitat Stamp.

Wild bird hunters say that's unfair at a time when they are seeing fewer wild birds.

Changing approaches

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

The 2013 pre-season pheasant brood survey showed a 64% drop from the year before. It also reported a 76% decline from the 10-year average.

Those statistics caught the attention of then-Gov. Dennis Daugaard. In response, the governor called together a summit.

“I asked my scheduler to rearrange my schedule today and move other appointments out of the way — I'm gonna be here the whole day," Daugaard said during the summit.

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

John Cooper helped write the summit’s final report. He says the Noem administration does not appear to be using the findings.

“How far are we willing to subvert what basically is the traditional hunting ethics and the enjoyment of hunting? And how much do we put it into some kind of a 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 pen-raised birds,” Cooper says. “Those birds are placed out in the field three or four hours ahead of the party going out into the field, and a lot of guys that hunt there don't understand that.”

Just outside of Winfred, South Dakota, there’s a 1,200-acre pheasant preserve. Trevor Reil started the operation a few years ago. He says hunting preserves and public land hunters are not in competition.

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

Wild birds can also be shot on preserves.

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

“We’re starting to get people that don't normally go on preserves that are starting to turn to us because they're not finding the birds on public land,” Reil says.

And he empathizes with the hunter who can’t afford to stay at a preserve — where packages range from $200 to $2,000 per person.

“Not everybody wants to spend money to go hunt on a preserve," Reil says. "I can definitely understand that. For some people, it's pretty expensive to go shoot three birds.”

South Dakota hunting preserves are not required to clearly identify pen-raised pheasants with a marker. And according to Pheasants Forever, the odds of those birds surviving their first winter are far less than wild birds.

For many hunters, preserves now play a role in the annual tradition. Just like the wild pheasant bird hunt, those who go after pen-raised birds contribute to a multi-million-dollar industry.

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

Joshua is the business and economics reporter with SDPB News.
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