Dennis Anderson
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To anyone who has ever held a scattergun in pursuit of a ring-necked pheasant, sharp-tailed grouse, prairie chicken or Hungarian partridge, South Dakota is the Helen of Troy of all states.

In Greek mythology, Helen was regaled as the world's most beautiful woman and the trigger point for the Trojan War.

Similarly, South Dakota is the most beautiful state — if not during every month, then certainly from the third week of October through the end of November, the primary time for North American upland bird hunting, the best of which occurs in South Dakota.

Or did.

And perhaps still does.

Meaning the Mount Rushmore State isn't the bountiful pheasant destination it once was for bird hunters. But it's still the best there is.

Consider:

During a six-year period beginning in 1958, when the federal Soil Bank farmland-set-aside program was in force, South Dakota was home to nearly 10 million pheasants, according to state wildlife officials, with annual harvests during the period exceeding 3 million ringnecks.

By 1976, with Soil Bank long since expired, South Dakota's estimated pheasant population had plummeted to 1.4 million, with a relatively scant 372,000 falling to hunters.

The federal Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) started in 1985 marked the beginning of the state's most recent pheasant boom. By 2007, more than 1.5 million South Dakota acres had been planted in bird-friendly cover crops, with producers profiting from direct U.S. payments and in some instances from higher commodity prices.

Hunters benefited as well, with an estimated state ringneck population in 2007 of almost 12 million.

In the years since, the federal government has reduced the number of acres eligible for CRP, and as a consequence, croplands have expanded and South Dakota bird numbers have fallen, as have non-resident hunter participation and hunter harvests.

In this decline, which has been mirrored proportionately in other bird-hunting-destination states, two other important South Dakota developments have occurred:

Its hunting-preserve industry has grown and now numbers 210 such clubs, or preserves, in the state, and the number of game-farm-reared pheasants released by these clubs has increased to nearly 500,000 annually (about half of which are harvested).

And last year for the first time, due to pressure from a new marketing team intent on attracting more pheasant hunters to the state, the South Dakota Department of Game Fish and Parks (GFP) was directed to end its August roadside wildlife survey.

The annual count provided a kind of crystal ball for pheasant hunters to predict the success they might have in the coming season — a service that was particularly useful for non-residents deciding whether a trip to South Dakota would be worthwhile, measured by license cost and other expenses, and birds likely to be encountered.

The marketing team worried that if an August survey showed a bird-population falloff from previous years, the decline would counteract the marketer's "come to South Dakota and hunt the state's bountiful pheasants'' promotional campaigns.

. . .

No one knows yet what to expect for pheasant numbers this fall. Minnesota's August roadside count isn't complete, and North Dakota has only reported its spring crowing counts, which were essentially flat statewide from a year ago.

Mild weather last winter and a dry spring should have yielded bumper ringneck crops. But then came the regional drought, which likely — in fact, almost surely — reduced insect numbers, which are key to chick survival.

"We're being somewhat optimistic about pheasant numbers for this fall,'' said Chad Switzer, South Dakota GFP wildlife program administrator.

Minnesotans are the largest contingent among non-resident South Dakota pheasant hunters. But many stayed away last year. In fact, South Dakota licensed only 62,289 non-resident pheasant hunters in 2020, a modern-day low and down significantly from the 100,189 out-of-state wingshooters who trekked to South Dakota in 2010.

Notably, of the 62,289 non-residents who hunted the state last year, 16,794, or about 27%, chased birds on shooting preserves.

Other states offer similar commercial pheasant shooting opportunities. But none matches South Dakota's Helen-of-Troy-like-beauty, manifested by its golden prairies, horizon-blanketing moons, friendly smiles in small-town cafes, and the cackle of gaudy roosters rising into autumn skies.

Which in large part explains why sporting types from throughout the nation will travel to South Dakota to hunt released birds, when many could do the same in their home states at considerably less expense.

Of course, to pheasant hunting purists, or traditionalists, the idea of paying hundreds of dollars a day to stay in a lodge and shoot released birds, usually in a large group, is akin to, well, shooting fish in a barrel.

Far better they believe, as do I, to tramp either public or private land, perhaps with a buddy and a favorite dog or two, in search of wild pheasants.

. . .

Pull up South Dakota's 2021 Ringneck Outlook online and you'll find no shortage of superlatives describing the state's coming pheasant season.

"The 2020 pheasant season was spectacular in South Dakota, with hunters harvesting over 1.1 million birds(excluding the 253,000 killed on preserves — ed.).While 2020 was incredible, 2021 is shaping up to be even better!''

Let's hope so.

But let's hope also that more factions of South Dakota's pheasant-hunting machine, wildlife managers and marketers alike, come to realize that — notwithstanding the financial benefit shooting preserves provide to the state— the surest way to increase non-resident pheasant hunters in South Dakota is to increase wild-bird numbers.

Which means significantly increasing the habitat that birds need to nest, rear broods and evade predators.

Should that again occur in South Dakota, it truly would be "spectacular'' and "incredible.''