Farmers and ranchers won’t be the only South Dakotans hit hard by the drought conditions found throughout the state. Hunters, too, likely will feel the pinch this fall.
While it is hard for the state’s wildgame managers to say just how big a problem the drought will be for pheasants, deer and grouse, similar conditions have led to population declines in past years. The northcentral portion of the state in particular may be in rough shape when October rolls around. The spring of 2017 was the sixth driest on record for the region.
The area around Mobridge, which already had to deal with the effects of heavy winter snows, now is bearing the brunt of the drought, said Travis Runia, senior upland game biologist for the Game, Fish and Parks Department.
“It’s definitely a concern,” Runia said of the drought.
The years 2002 and 2006 had similar climate conditions to what South Dakota has seen so far in 2017. The number of pheasants counted during the August road-side brood count, a key measure of yearly pheasant production, fell in 2002 and in 2006 in the Mobridge area.
Another area of concern is the westward shift of South Dakota’s pheasant range. Around 15 years ago, counties along the James River valley usually boasted the state’s highest concentrations of pheasants. Starting around 2008, changes in land use started causing a change in which counties produced more pheasants. The counties in the Missouri River valley now boast the state’s highest pheasant production.
The problem is that central and western South Dakota counties tend to experience drought more often and more severely than counties to the east. That adds a bit more volatility to South Dakota’s pheasant population, Runia said. Because drought’s biggest effects are on the plants that make up pheasant habitat, there’s not much that can be done in the way of mitigation, he said.
What can be done, Runia said, is to provide good foundations for habitat that in good years provides excellent places for pheasants to nest and raise broods. In bad years, that same habitat can still provide at least some of a pheasant’s needs.
One of the newest GF&P programs aimed at creating those types of habitats is the brood-plot program. The program gives landowners free seeds for flowering plants than can be used for wildlife food plots. Before 2015, the department’s food-plot program was only handing out traditional food-plot staples such as corn.
The flowering plants provide two things: the first is a canopy for pheasant chicks to hide under and move through, and the second is a buffet of insects for the chicks to eat. Those insects are incredibly important.
“Pheasant chicks exclusively eat insects for the first eight weeks of their lives,” said Brian Pauly, a private land-habitat biologist for GF&P. “Brood plots are basically a bug buffet.”
Pauly oversees the department’s food-plot program. The brood plots consist of commercially available plant seeds such as sunflower, mustard, buckwheat and clover. Since it started in 2015, the brood-plot program has grown rapidly, Pauly said.
He said that about half of the roughly 900 to 1000 landowners who annually participate in the food-plot program, plant at least one acre of brood plot. That amounts to about 2,500 of the roughly 10,000 food-plot acres for which GF&P provides seed.
Another advantage that the brood-plot plants have over corn or sorghum is that many of the plants varieties mature quicker and require less water to grow, which can be pretty handy in dry years or dry climates, Pauly said.