- Associated Press - Thursday, August 27, 2015

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) - Pheasant hunters in South Dakota should have a better season this year thanks to an estimated 42 percent jump in the number of birds, state wildlife officials said Thursday.

The pheasants-per-mile index is at 3.8, up from 2.68 last year and 1.52 in 2013, when hunters harvested slightly less than 1 million pheasants.

This year’s index is similar to 2011, when hunters bagged 1.56 million birds, said Travis Runia, a senior upland game biologist for the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department.

“There should be ample opportunity for hunters to encounter birds this year,” he said, due to a second consecutive year of favorable winter and spring weather conditions and lower snowfall totals that gave hens a better opportunity to survive and breed.

South Dakota’s pheasant season runs from Oct. 17 through Jan. 3, and state wildlife officials hope to see increased demand for pheasant hunting licenses in response to the encouraging survey. Birds have been difficult to stir up in the past couple of years, leaving many hunters discouraged.

“There are a lot of folks out there in which 2013 is the last year they hunted,” Runia said.

Pheasant estimates are up across the state, with surveys indicating hunters will find more birds along the Missouri River corridor across Winner, Chamberlain, Pierre and Mobridge.

The Sioux Falls area doubled its average from 1.06 pheasants per mile in 2014 to 2.11 this year, while the Aberdeen area had the smallest gain of 17 percent, increasing from 2.74 to 3.21.

Chamberlain boasts the highest average at 8.84, but it remains below the area’s 10-year average of 13.32. Pierre’s 7.48 pheasants per mile still lag behind the 10-year average of 9.03.

Wildlife officials and conservationists say the long-term drop across the state can be attributed to the loss of habitat.

South Dakota has more 700,000 acres enrolled in the federal Conservation Reserve Program, which pays farmers a yearly rental payment if they remove environmentally sensitive land from agricultural production and plant species that will improve environmental quality. In 2007, when pheasants were abundant across the state, farmers had nearly 1.6 million acres enrolled in the CRP program.

Hunters will find the best pheasant numbers in areas that offer birds plenty of places to hide and escape the elements, according to Mike Stephenson, South Dakota regional representative for the conservation group Pheasants Forever.

“Great habitat provides cover,” Stephenson said.

State wildlife officers conduct their annual pheasant outlook, which is not a population estimate, by surveying 109, 30-mile routes from late July through mid-August.

Youth resident hunters in the state can get a jump on finding pheasants with the state’s annual youth hunting extended weekend from Oct. 3-7. A residents-only pheasant weekend runs from Oct. 10-12.

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Follow Dirk Lammers on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ddlammers

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