South Dakota is split in the middle by the Missouri River, and the east half has a more fertile soil, higher precipitation and many more people. Other than Tripp County (Winner area), the east side of the State has been, historically speaking, recognized as the area to hunt pheasants. However, over the past decades the pheasant population has shifted west. The pheasant population in the eastern half of the State has suffered by weather but, moreso, by the loss of CRP habitat. With the price of grain these past years being, on average, twice as high as the past decades, farming is much more attractive, so as CRP contracts expire, landowners are not removing so many of those acres to make more off the land by farming it. As we all know, the CRP acres are the largest influence on the pheasant populations. On the west side of the river, there has also been a reduction in CRP acres, but much less significantly than on the eastern side.
Another reason this year that the eastern half of the state’s bird counts are significantly lower is due to a snow storm around February/March in which one storm fed into another with no reprieve in between, thereby filling up the shelterbelts and foodplots. Once that takes place, bird mortality follows quickly. During that same time, west of the river saw sunshine and snowmelt in between storms, and the snow didn’t get to those death levels as seen across the Missouri.
Follow that up with an extremely wet spring and early summer. Once again the eastern side, as always, received much more rain. That half of the State also is more flat. The heavy flooding was very difficult on the nesting on the eastern side. West of the river, the land is more rolling. That, in conjunction, with lesser flooding, allowed for a drier and more successful hatch. The extra rain led to thick cover for the birds to hide better and a great hatch of insects, which the chicks rely on nearly completely for their diet, so the chicks thrived.
Look at the chart at www.ringneckshuntinglodge.com/pheasant.html to see a breakdown of the State’s pheasant population.