Heaven, Mecca, Valhalla – South Dakota is all three to fanatical upland hunters like me. With millions of birds, countless places to hunt, and great people, it’s one of the finest places on earth to find yourself walking behind a hunting dog with a double barrel in your hands.
Part of what makes South Dakota so special to me is its “wildness” (or what suburbanites like me think is “wildness”) and part of this comes from the birds I hunt: Wild, long spurred ringneck pheasants. That’s what I travel thousands of miles see and that’s what I want to draw a bead on when I’m in the fields.
But every year I hear rumors about stock pheasants and the state of South Dakota releasing pen-raised birds. Several years ago I saw crates of pen-raised roosters stacked on a flat bed driving west towards Pierre. This makes me wonder: just how wild are South Dakota’s pheasants?
The answer is……drum roll………it depends. One thing I want to make absolutely clear is that I’ve never seen any evidence that the state of South Dakota stocks ringneck pheasants. None. And if you’re on land open to the public, your pheasants are probably 100% wild. But if you’re paying to shoot, especially on what the state calls a “private shooting preserve”, that may not be the case.
South Dakota’s Private Shooting Preserves are hunting operations licensed by the state. Right now, there are 198 of them in South Dakota ranging in size from 160 to 2500 acres (1018 acres is average). According to the state’s, these preserves released 356,727 roosters in 2010-2011. Over the same period of time, these preserves killed 242,705 stocked birds and 57, 611 wild birds. So in 2010-11, the chances that a person killed a wild pheasant on a licensed SD Private Shooting Preserve was roughly 1 in 4.
Of course, some operations release more birds than others. Some probably get by on the state’s minimums (300 roosters the first year of your license, 600 a year afterwards), while a few must stock hundred of roosters a week at the peak of the season.
(BTW: Here are all the numbers and here’s SD’s rule on stocking.)
Now that we know the answer to “Do they release pheasants?”, lets ask another question: “Is stocking a bad thing?” I don’t think so. First of, I’m sure some commercial operations need to do just to stay open. Hunting the same ground, day after day, kills a lot of birds. The only way to guarantee a great experience is to stock roosters.
Stocking also gives hunters more options. SD’s Private Shooting Preserves have long seasons. According to the state: “The shooting preserve season runs from September 1 until March 31 of the following year.” The upcoming pheasant season goes from Oct. 20, 2012 to Jan. 6, 2013. So Private Shooting Preserves gives guys 16+ more weeks of hunting.
That’s a long time, and it’s not just more days to shoot birds. It’s more time for folks to spend time with friends, firm up business contacts, experience a great sport, and even to spend time in the field with bird dogs. On top of that, more time and more hunting adds up to more jobs for people in the area and more revenue for land owners and the state. Regardless of how wild the birds are, all this is 100% positive.
Of course, if you want wild pheasants, South Dakota is still one of the best places in the world to find them. Last year, 189,000 hunters killed 1.55 million South Dakota pheasants. About 16% of these birds were stocked. The rest were as wild as a summertime thunderstorm. Those are the birds I’ll be chasing the next time I’m out that way.