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– A line of six hunters and four dogs zigzagged through rows of densely planted trees, shrubs and tall grass, pushing a group of hens and roosters forward into an ambush.

Shots rang out early as a few of the birds flared up and out of the cover. Several hens and one rooster sailed away, but a second cock tumbled out of the sky before it could surmount the tree tops. The uphill march continued in a commotion of shotguns, banter, birdy dogs, cackling and pheasants darting through the grass.

Scott Ward of Inver Grove Heights listened and braced himself. He was positioned just over the hill in an open field. As the pheasants were flushed out of the 600-foot-long strip of ground shelter, three ringnecks arced into the overcast sky to his right. With an economy of movement, Ward squarely shot all three.

“Way to go Scotty boy!” wailed Blake Fish, one of the hunters who led the drive.

In past years when South Dakota’s pheasant population wasn’t decimated by drought, similar scenes played out with relative frequency on this annual trip with family and friends. The credit goes to Tony Julik, a conservationist and hunter who owns more than 1,000 acres of Edmunds County farmland that he manages with an emphasis on pheasant habitat.

As guests returning to Julik’s land, we tested the theory that a blue-chip mosaic of managed game bird habitat could harbor an isolated, bountiful population of birds.

In occasional spurts, the land performed like a diamond in the rough. But our three-day hunt last week ended like a lot of other South Dakota pheasant excursions this year: long days of walking with little to show for it. Ten of us bagged 30 roosters, an average of one pheasant per day per hunter.

“Even the good habitat is lacking in birds,” said Eric Rasmussen, a soil conservationist for the National Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) office in Ipswich. “It’s one of the first years when guys like Tony Julik are seeing it.”

North-central South Dakota is one of many areas still reeling from lack of rainfall. Signs of distress are everywhere: dried-out swamps, a sickly corn crop, cattle grazing on the thinnest of stubble and baby pheasant hens so small they look like doves.

In the region west of Aberdeen around Hosmer, Roscoe, Bowdle and Eurkea, the pheasant population suffered doubly from a glaze of ice left from a December storm that put lots of winter food out of reach. Statewide, ringneck numbers plunged 45 percent and average brood sizes were the lowest they have been since at least 1949. The year weakened South Dakota’s prized pheasant resource at a time when natural habitat for the birds is on a pronounced slide because of agriculture.

“We’ve seen more deer than roosters this morning,’’ Ward said after a couple of long, fruitless pheasant drives last Friday.

He and three of his sons — Chris of South St. Paul, Mike of St. Paul and Steven of Minneapolis — were joined on the hunt by Fish, of Clutier, Iowa; Joe Heckman of Chicago; Jesse Poznikowich of Minneapolis; Tyson Kinkaid of Emily, Minn.; Jeff Blaido of Eagan, and myself. The best shooting opportunities arose amid rows of planted trees separated by long corridors of native grass. Pheasants also showed themselves when we combed swamp bottoms, especially those located near small plots of standing corn.

Julik invested in South Dakota real estate to indulge his passion for pheasant hunting. After years of working with conservation partners from Pheasants Forever, NRCS, Farm Service Agency and other groups, at least half of his enjoyment comes from planting grass, expanding food plots of winter wheat and nursing stands of eastern red cedar, Juneberry or other trees and shrubs. If hunters who visit him tread lightly on the birds by shooting holes in the sky, so much the better.

“Half the time I am rooting for the pheasants,” Julik said. “I tell my relatives, ‘I didn’t design it to make it easy for you to hunt. I made it to hold birds.’ ”

After years of tinkering and adding to his habitat plan, Julik has achieved a mix of 15 acres of pheasant cover for every 37 acres of corn, soybeans or wheat. He’s a transplanted Minnesotan, retired from a career at 3M, who can afford to break even on his farming.

“It does become a passion,” Julik said. “I probably hunt 15 times a year, but all I want to do is see birds.”

He said the value of his property to the local pheasant population is best seen when all the crops are down. Last year, after a season of subpar hunting, Julik’s shelter belts and food plots were jammed with hens and roosters.

“The real test on how this benefits [pheasants] happens over the winter,” Julik said.