Watch: Hunting Wild Pheasants in a Winter Wonderland – South Dakota 2020

From 2000 to around 2012, the highlight of my year was the week I hunted in South Dakota. That was back during peak pheasant (see chart below), and it was to see a few hundred of those birds a day along with dozens of sharptails and huns.


Most years I went out for the season opener in October. One year I held off until November, once the crops were out of the fields all the hunters had gone home.

The day after I arrived, temperatures dropped from the 50s to the 20s and a blizzard  rolled in and buried us. I spent the rest of the week hunting in conditions like you see in this video. I had a 12g Fox Sterlingworth and a chocolate Lab named Jack. For four days, we had thousands of acres of land, and thousands and thousands of pheasants, to ourselves.

Hunting Wild Pheasants in a Winter Wonderland - South Dakota 2020
Hunting Wild Pheasants in a Winter Wonderland – South Dakota 2020

Watch this: Chasing Pheasants in Fresh Snow – South Dakota 2019

This video captures the thrills and excitement of pheasant hunting in South Dakota. Check it now. The flush at 1:52 is just plain awesome. Chasing Pheasants in Fresh Snow – South Dakota 2019

Watch this: Chasing Pheasants in Fresh Snow - South Dakota 2019
Watch this: Chasing Pheasants in Fresh Snow – South Dakota 2019

Watch Tom Brokaw’s Opening Day: The kickoff of a SD pheasant season…

Ah – opening day in South Dakota. I used to look forward to it every year. Tom Brokaw’s documentary Opening Day explores the economic, social, cultural, and emotional impact this day has on people, families, and businesses throughout the state. It’s a great show, and I suggest checking out the whole thing.

Tom Brokaw's Opening Day, chronicling the impact of pheasant hunting on SD
Click to watch Tom Brokaw’s Opening Day, a documentary chronicling the impact of pheasant hunting on SD

Will the birds be back? South Dakota’s 2014 pheasant opener…

Pheasant o2008 Pheasant opener in South Dakotapener in South Dakota
2008 Pheasant opener in South Dakota

Will the birds be back? That’s the big questions thousands of hunters will be asking as they head  today for the opening of South Dakota’s 2014 pheasant hunting season.

Last year’s opener was a bust for a lot of people. Back-to-back years of poor rain and thousands of acres of loss CRP took their toll on gamebirds throughout the state. This raised concern across the state and throughout the country: Was South Dakota dying? It sure looked like it.

I hear much of SD has had plenty of rain this year, and early reports from the state say bird numbers are better (even though numbers are still way down from the 10-year average).

South Dakota used to be the best place in the world to hunt wild ringneck pheasants. I hope it regains that title this season — and holds onto it in the years to come.

BTW: If you’re heading out for the opener, please let me know how you do. Stay safe — and I hope you see a ton of birds.

The Dakotas are dying…

This tree line used to hold flocks of pheasants. I wonder if it's still there.
This tree line used to hold flocks of pheasants. I wonder if it’s still there.

My first trip to South Dakota was in 2000. I was stunned by the number of pheasants, grouse, and partridge I saw. In four hours of hunting we moved hundreds of wild birds – hundreds. I wonder if anyone will have a similar experience this fall.

Pheasant numbers are falling across South Dakota. While complex forces are behind this, the result is easy to understand: less habitat = less game. Across the upper mid west, thousands of acres of habitat are being dug up, dried out, and plowed under. Every time it happens, the future for wild gamebirds grows bleaker.

I’m not sure when The American Prospect published this piece, but I encourage you to click through and read all of it.

Plowed Under

By Jocelyn C. Zuckerman

Across the northern plains, native grassland is being turned into farmland at a rate not seen since the 1920s. The environmental consequences could be disastrous.

The Dakota's are Dying, quote from Plowed Under, The American Prospect
The Dakota’s are Dying, quote from Plowed Under, The American Prospect

“On a rainy Monday in mid-October, six middle-aged men in denim and camouflage sat bent over coffee mugs at the Java River Café, in Montevideo, Minnesota. With its home-baked muffins and free Wi-Fi, the Main Street establishment serves as communal living room for the town of 5,000, but the mood on that gray morning wasn’t particularly convivial. The state’s pheasant season had opened two days earlier, and the hunters gathered at the café for what should have been a brag fest were mostly shaking their heads. “You didn’t see anybody out there who was over the limit, did you?” a guy in a baseball cap asked with obvious sarcasm, to sad chuckles all around. The region’s game birds are in serious trouble.

The region’s game birds are in serious trouble. Driving across South Dakota the following afternoon with the radio on, I learned that Governor Dennis Daugaard had just announced an emergency pheasant-habitat summit. Last summer, the state’s Department of Game, Fish and Parks recorded a 64 percent decline in the number of pheasant broods from the already record low levels of 2012. Though a rainy nesting season and an early fall blizzard hadn’t helped matters, the region’s problems involve more than inclement weather—and extend far beyond the birds…”

Please read the entire piece now.

Read more about what’s going on in SD and across the upper midwest at these links:

South Dakota is Dying

You’re Killing off SD’s Pheasants. See how.

Habitat in crisis: Conservationists worry about factors driving grassland conversion

South Dakota is Dying: Here’s Your Chance to Help…

Pheasants Forever
Pheasants Forever

If you’ve read my posts about disappearing gamebird habitat in South Dakota (South Dakota is Dying & You’re Killing off SD’s Pheasants. See how.), you know that pheasants, ducks, and other wildlife are facing tough times across the state.

To try and tackle this problem, South Dakota’s Governor Dennis Daugaard is holding a Governor’s Pheasant Habitat Summit on December 6, 2013 in Huron. Find out more about it below, and if you care about what’s happening in SD, please attend. Unless action is taken soon, South Dakota will loose many more acres of prime habitat. As it does, more and more pheasants — and the great times, cherished memories, and big dollars they bring — will disappear.

Governor’s Pheasant Habitat Summit
PIERRE, S.D. – Gov. Dennis Daugaard announced today that he will host a Pheasant Habitat Summit to discuss the future of pheasant habitat and hunting in South Dakota. The summit is scheduled for Friday, Dec. 6, at the Crossroads Convention Center in Huron.

“Pheasant hunting is extremely important to the culture and economic well-being of South Dakota,” Gov. Daugaard said. “South Dakota’s pheasant hunting experience is second to none and draws hunters from around the world. We want to do what we can now to ensure these opportunities for future generations.

The Governor’s Pheasant Habitat Summit will provide a forum for landowners, sportsmen, members of the tourism industry and other interested individuals to learn about the current state of pheasant habitat in South Dakota. The summit will include panel discussions and public input as a means to explore ways to maintain and enhance pheasant habitat.

The Governor’s Pheasant Summit is open to the public and pre-registration is required. Individuals may register online here. Information and registration is also available by calling the Game, Fish and Parks Department at 605.773.3387.

Save South Dakota: The crop insurance connection…

It's pretty simple: Loose the cover, loose the birds.
It’s pretty simple: Loose the cover, loose the birds.

If you read this post from yesterday, you know that you’re paying for a federal program that’s having a devastating impact on pheasants and other animals  across the midwest. The federal Crop Insurance Program encourages farmers to plant land they used to set aside for conservation, and as more acreage goes under the plow, there are less area where wildlife can thrive.

Part four of the Capital Journal’s excellent series on habit loss in South Dakota’s talks about this program, and lays out some pretty stunning info on what lies ahead for the state.

The Crop Insurance Connection by Allison Jarrell

“When Lyle Perman was younger, in a different era in farm policy, he and his father converted some of their grassland into crops.

Perman, now a Walworth County rancher and crop insurance agent, recalls government agencies assisting them with designing drainage ditches and blowing holes in wetlands.

“You have to understand that this is the environment that a lot of us were raised in,” Perman said. “We were raised draining wetlands. Farming and erosion were just part of the business. You didn’t like it, but it was just part of what you did.”

That grassland conversion is part of what made South Dakota what it is today. But researchers, ranchers and conservation organizations have found that high commodity prices are driving today’s farmers to plow land that yesterday’s farmers deemed unsuitable for planting….”

Read the entire piece now: The Crop Insurance Connection. Then ask yourself  a simple question: Is this something you and I should be paying for?

Habitat in crisis: Hunters: Disappearing CRP acres threaten South Dakota way of life…

Now disappearing in SD-- pheasant cover....
Now disappearing in SD– pheasant cover….

I don’t remember anything unusual about South Dakota’s 2007 pheasant opener- blue skies, great dogs, memories made with family & friends, and hundred and hundreds of wild pheasants. But even though I didn’t know it, 2007 was a turning point for the state. In that year, the amount of land set aside by South Dakota farmers in the federal government’s Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) peaked at 1,600,000 acres.

Today, South Dakota has around 1,000,000 acres in the CRP, and the state is on track to have just 600,000 acres in it by 2020. This loss is on top of the thousands of acres of shelter belts, wet areas, and other important wildlife regions that have gone under the plow in the last few years.

In an excellent five-part series, the Capital Journal in Pierre, SD, reports on what changes like these will mean for the state. Here’s part 3 of 5:

Habitat in crisis: Hunters: Disappearing CRP acres threaten South Dakota way of life. By Justin Joiner

The clutch was touchy in the bus and the suspension almost nonexistent as a group of dove hunters scraped across the prairie into the middle of Darrel Reinke’s land northeast of Pierre.

The destination was a tract of land where grassland and grainfields stood side by side – good habitat for hunting doves, or, come the third weekend in October, pheasants. But as the sun sank low over the Great Plains that September day, the conversation turned somber. Some of the hunters on the bus worried that the sport they love, and South Dakota’s reputation as the pre-eminent state for upland game hunting, may be in jeopardy because habitat such as this is becoming harder to find…

If you care about South Dakota, read the entire piece now.

Important: a call to action from Pheasants Forever…

If you love pheasant hunting, please watch this video. Upland game habitat is being destroyed at accelerating rate across the midwest. Since 2006, 1.3 million+ acres of once conserved land have gone under the plow. The result is far fewer bird. Pheasant numbers in states like Iowa are already collapsing. If the trend continues, the Dakotas will be next. But you don’t have to sit by and let this happen. Watch this video to learn more.

Heartbreaking – is the golden age of pheasant hunting is over?

Upland birds are in trouble in the midwest. In the Dakotas, Minnesota, Iowa and Nebraska, the grasslands that pheasants, sharptails, and huns depend upon are being ground under the plow. As these birds loose these vital areas, their populations will plummet. Guaranteed.

I’ve written about this problem before. The article below from NPR puts up some hard numbers up show just how much ground has been lost. The number is startling: 1.3 million+ acres from 2006-2011. And since 2011 this process has accelerated. This is a huge, sad blow to the birds, and to all the people who love to hunt them.

by February 19, 2013
Hot spots of grassland conversion: This map shows the percentage of existing grasslands that were converted into corn or soybean fields between 2006 and 2011.
Hot spots of grassland conversion: This map shows the percentage of existing grasslands that were converted into corn or soybean fields between 2006 and 2011.

For years, I’ve been hearing stories about the changing agricultural landscape of the northern plains. Grasslands are disappearing, farmers told me. They’re being replaced by fields of corn and soybeans.

This week, those stories got a big dose of scientific, peer-reviewed validation. A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows actual pictures — derived from satellite data — of that changing landscape. The images show that farmers in the Dakotas, Minnesota, Iowa and Nebraska converted 1.3 million acres of grassland into soybean and corn production between 2006 and 2011.

“This is kind of the worst-kept secret in the Northern Plains. We just put some numbers on it,” says Christopher Wright, from South Dakota State University, who got funding from the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy to take a close look at this phenomenon. Earlier studies from the Environmental Working Group and the USDA’s Economic Research Service have also looked at it, each using slightly different methods.

Still, Wright’s images are striking, and these changes are having profound effects on the environment of this region. For instance, it’s bad news for wildlife, because corn fields are much less inviting habitat for a wide range of wild creatures, from ground-nesting birds to insects, including bees. Corn and soybean fields are increasingly encroaching into the Prairie Pothole region of the Dakotas and Minnesota, the most important breeding habitat for waterfowl in North America.

In southern Iowa, Wright says, much of the land conversion is taking place on hillsides. The soil of those fields, without permanent grass to hold it in place, is now much more likely to wash into streams and ponds. And on the western edge of this region, farmers are taking a chance on corn and soybeans in places that sometimes don’t get enough rainfall for these thirsty crops.

Why? There’s one very simple reason: Corn and soybean prices are high, so farmers can earn a lot of money growing those crops. Meanwhile, funding has been declining for one important alternative — the government’s Conservation Reserve Program, which pays farmers to protect wildlife and water quality by keeping land in grass.

Another reason, however, is getting increasing attention: crop insurance. The government subsidizes private insurance policies that cover the risks of poor harvests, or even that prices will fall. Because farmers don’t pay for the full cost of this insurance, critics of crop insurance say that it encourages risky behavior: planting crops in areas that don’t drain well, where rainfall is unreliable, or on hillsides where soil erosion is a problem.

Critics say that the government should drastically reduce its subsidies for such insurance. Not only is it fiscally irresponsible, they say. It’s encouraging farmers to destroy the grasslands of the northern plains, a priceless and increasingly scarce natural treasure.”

Real bad news for South Dakota’s wild pheasants…

Bye, Bye, Bird Cover. From John Pollman's piece Big Changes on the Prairie
Bye, Bye, Bird Cover. From John Pollman’s piece Big Changes on the Prairie

Iowa used to have some of the best pheasant hunting in the world. Today, the bird’s numbers have collapsed to the second lowest number on record.

While the disappearance of these birds is caused by a number of factors, the biggest  is habitat loss. As more land goes under the plow, there are fewer places for the pheasants.

This same phenomenon is now underway in South Dakota. In his post Big Changes on the Prairie, writer John Pollmann talks about what he’s seeing in his home state and how it’s laying waste to what used to be one of the greatest places in the world to hunt wild birds. If you care about hunting wild birds, I encourage you to read the excerpt  below and click through to the rest of his piece.

Big Changes on the Prairie

“The majority of South Dakota lies covered in snow these days – welcome precipitation for a state that has been locked in a drought for more than a year.

I count myself among most South Dakotans who enjoy having snow around, as long as it stays in one place. Those moments are fleeting however, as our big prairie sky is almost always producing a big prairie wind. Give us all a day or two of blowing snow, and we soon begin to long for spring.

Invariably, when South Dakota is gripped by a frozen blast of cold and snow, my mind drifts to those pioneers who settled this land in the latter half of the 19th century. How did they make it through the winter on a treeless prairie? And when those first warm southerly breezes arrived in March, what possessed them to stay?

The U.S. Government was probably thinking the same thing when it doled out land to those individuals from around the world who took advantage of the Homestead Act and other land acts. Part of the agreement was that for a 160 acre claim, a person had to work the land, build a house and live on the homestead  for five years.”  Read the rest here.




You know it’s opening day when…

South Dakota’s 2012 pheasant hunting season starts tomorrow, noon. I’m sure folks are going bird crazy just thinking about it.

South Dakota's Pheasant Opener
South Dakota’s Pheasant Opener

I’ve hunted SD’s opener a handful of times. For me, the day always meant lots of birds, lots of shooting and experiences I’ll always remember (and the night meant lots of drinking). Regardless of how thing went, getting together with my brother and his folks & family was always the best part of the trip.

To what the opener means to other folks, check out this list, pinched from Andrew Vavra’s blog The Over/Under on Pheasants Forever:

-While you were physically at work last week, you’ve been mentally absent the past three days
-That quiet, little gas station in the Middle of Nowhere suddenly has more traffic than the Vegas Strip
-You find yourself rubbing dirt on your shiny new chaps just so no one can possibly confuse you for a rookie
-There’s so much unnecessary gear packed in the back of your truck, you had legitimate concern over suffocating the dogs
-Various blaze orange militias have been staking out properties so early in the morning that even duck hunters would blush

Read all of this post here.

So…does South Dakota stock pheasants?

100% Wild South Dakota Ringneck Pheasants
100% Wild South Dakota Ringneck Pheasants

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.


Is South Dakota the next Pennsylvania?

Back in the late 1960’s, Pennsylvania was the South Dakota of pheasant hunting. Sportsman harvested over million pheasants a season from this eastern state and in 1971 over 1.3 million of them were taken by Pennsylvania hunters. But by the mid 1990s these numbers had crashed and fewer than 255,000 pheasants were being killed a year.

South Dakota, 2012
South Dakota, 2012

In 2006, South Dakota hunters killed over two million pheasants. I hunted out there last fall and while the birds numbers are down, there were still plenty of pheasants around. But this may not be the case in the future.

StarTribune reporter Dennis Anderson filed this story on changes going on in  South Dakota and how these changes are impacted one of America’s favorite upland birds. Here’s an excerpt:

“Anyone who thinks South Dakota can continue to produce the pheasants, ducks and other wildlife it has in the past just doesn’t know what’s going on here. You’re quite possibly witnessing the end of an era. Some of the nation’s last, best prairies and potholes are going away.” Read the full article now.