MITCHELL, S.D.-Here's a bit of a rooster rush. The South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks Department is reporting a 47 percent increase from last year in its annual pheasant brood survey, which was released Monday, Aug. 27.
Officials are reporting a statewide count of 2.47 pheasants per mile, which is similar to 2014's survey at 2.68. That year, an estimated 1.2 million pheasants were harvested.
"I don't think anyone is going to argue there are more birds this year," said GF&P Upland Game Biologist Travis Runia on Monday morning. "All the reports from the public were really encouraging really before we started our survey. There was a lot of optimism, and that was really cool to see."
The Mitchell and Huron regions each saw significant increases from last year's survey. Mitchell's 16 routes calculated a total of 4.28 pheasants per mile, second-best in the state behind Chamberlain's 5.29 pheasants per mile. The report shows Huron at 3.61 pheasants per mile and Pierre at 3.72.
GF&P each year in late-July through mid-August surveys 110 routes that each span 30 miles. They are spread across South Dakota with about 70 GF&P observers collecting data.
There are 13 regions in South Dakota for the survey. Twelve of the 13 regions saw increased counts this year compared to 2017. Western South Dakota, which includes Bennett, Haakon, Perkins, Butte and Fall River counties, saw a 5 percent decline.
Runia explained it's difficult to get good survey conditions in the western part of the state. That's because of dry conditions and a lack of morning dew-when pheasants are more active.
This year's 47 percent increase was a sigh of relief for South Dakota hunters and businesses that depend on the tourism of nonresident hunters. Due to significant summer drought, the 2017 preseason forecast showed a count of 1.68 pheasants per mile. That was a 45 percent decrease from 2016.
With the difficult outlook prior to the season, fewer hunters came to South Dakota. GF&P estimated a 17 percent drop in nonresident hunters from 2016 to 2017. That led to a total of 828,707 roosters harvested last year, the lowest total since 1990.
"I know we were down with hunters last year with the dismal forecast," Runia said. "I'll be curious to see how many of those folks maybe come back this year, but we usually see a pop in hunters when we see better brood counts, for sure."
Another highlight from this year's survey, Runia said, was the increased size of the broods, which is another name for pheasant families. While the number of roosters declined 11 percent from last year, the number of hens increased 24 percent and total broods counted increased 38 percent. The statewide average brood size jumped 22 percent, from 4.99 to 6.08 chicks. Runia explained the "driving force behind the population" is the number of broods.
In a statement Monday morning, GF&P secretary Kelly Hepler called the overall report a "substantial increase" and "an exciting prospect for South Dakota's 100th pheasant hunting season.
"Weather conditions continue to play a significant role when it comes to bird numbers and better weather helped this year with the average pheasant brood size increasing 22 percent over last year," Hepler said.
South Dakota's traditional statewide pheasant season opens Oct. 20 and runs through Jan. 6, 2019. The limit is three rooster pheasants with a possession limit of 15.