- Associated Press - Thursday, October 16, 2014

PIERRE, S.D. (AP) - A year after the lowest harvest season in more than two decades, South Dakota officials and hunters are optimistic that this weekend’s pheasant opener will be booming as usual and the start of a better season.

Pheasant numbers have fallen statewide in recent years and the state saw an unusual decline last year. Hunters killed about 980,000 birds in 2013 - the lowest since 1990 - and with that the state licensed the lowest number of pheasant hunters since 1997, according to data provided by the wildlife department.

But hunters are hopeful this year, especially following a positive survey of young birds in August. The state’s annual brood count survey found an average of 2.68 pheasants per mile, a 76 percent increase from 1.52 in 2013.

Regardless, Tony Leif, the director of the Game, Fish and Parks department, said he expects the usual crowd of thousands of resident and non-resident hunters to be in South Dakota this weekend, noting that the opener often sees the same influx of annual hunters every year.

For many in the state, he said, the pheasant opener is the biggest weekend of the year.

“It’s a day that many residents put in the same category of many of our national holidays, even Christmas and Thanksgiving,” he said. “To some it’s probably even more important.”

In rural towns and pheasant hotspots, such as Gregory, the opener is a gold mine for local businesses.

Holly Glover, the executive director of the chamber of commerce for Gregory and Dallas, said both hotels in the area are booked well into the season and most hunting lodges are as well.

Glover said for Gregory, everything from grocery stores to retail will see a sharp increase in business this weekend.

“I don’t know that there is an industry that isn’t touched,” she said.

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