PIERRE, S.D. — Under mounting doubt about the health of South Dakota's pheasant population, a state official on the eve of the residential pheasant season says the Rushmore State is still the place for pheasant hunting.

But Nick Harrington, a communications specialist with South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks, also cautioned dry conditions from an ongoing drought will necessitate hunters use every caution and even scout locations to see a successful hunt.

"They're going to be older birds, wary birds," Harrington cautioned. "But you've got a really good chance to get out and bag a nice number of roosters."

Harrington gave the encouraging, if restrained, report to the GFP Commision on Thursday, Oct. 7, at a meeting in the Black Hills.

In August, a column in the Star Tribune cast doubt on South Dakota state government's decision to end an annual pheasant brood count, a roadside tally of wildlife, that historically forecast conditions for hunters coming into the state from across the nation.

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South Dakota "isn't the bountiful pheasant destination it once was for bird hunters," wrote columnist Dennis Anderson. "But it's still the best there is."

A national decline in pheasant habitat, precipitated by narrowing eligibility for federal Conservation Reserve Program funding, has seen wildlands converted to farmland, according to Anderson. Moreover, state officials have come up short in proving the Gov. Kristi Noem-sanctioned nest predator plan, which pays kids and adults $10 for every trapped raccoon and skunk, has helped boost pheasant numbers.

At the August GFP meeting, Secretary Kevin Robling dodged questions about the count, citing a decade-old graduate thesis to suggest the predator program would prove beneficial to pheasants.

On Sept. 8, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources released the annual pheasant forecast, showing a 25% decrease from 2020 with roughly 40 birds per 100 miles, compared to 54 birds over the same stretch a year earlier. The report's author, Tim Lyons, a wildlife research scientist, blamed "widespread drought," but noted the numbers still exceed the 10-year average.

Similarly, North Dakota officials count a 23% decrease over 2020 numbers.

But at the behest of a marketing work group, GFP ended the pheasant count in 2020, meaning out-of-state hunters are dependent on assurances from state officials that they'll have a good harvest.

Harrington on Thursday provided such, saying a farmer in Moody County told him he'd yet to see any birds, "But he started combining, and he hasn't seen as many birds in 15 years."

The state resident pheasant hunt opens this weekend with the nonresident hunt — what Harrington called "the super bowl" — begins the following weekend. Last year, GFP claims that 1.1 million birds were taken, averaging nine birds per hunter.

Overall, South Dakota brings in roughly $287 million during the annual pheasant hunt, according to numbers from the Department of Tourism. This year GFP has also contracted with 605 Magazine, a multimedia company in Sioux Falls, to create content promoting hunting amongst a younger demographic.

One video showcases a rancher north of Belle Fourche in northwestern South Dakota who maintains a walk-in hunting area on his property, while another video highlights so-called CHAP (Controlled Hunting Access Program) land in southern Bon Homme County along the Missouri River.

GFP did not respond to a query on the price of this advertising campaign. But the state agency has said they will evaluate the videos' effectiveness after this hunting season.