South Dakota holds the undisputed top spot for pheasant hunting, in both numbers of birds killed and pheasant hunters. But the just-released state pheasant outlook reveals that last winter’s brutal effects and a significant decline in CRP acres have taken a toll on the state’s bird numbers.

From this story in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune:
_Read it and weep. Minnesota’s pheasant hunters might be in for a tough fall. Not only is the pheasant population expected to be down, possibly significantly, in Minnesota, but the numbers don’t look good in South Dakota, a destination for many Minnesota ringneck lovers. The South Dakota pheasant index was down 46 percent from last year, and 41 percent below the 10-year average.

__Still, the counts in the main pheasant range are similar to, or higher than the counts in 2002 when hunters bagged 1.2 million pheasants. Last year hunters harvested 1.8 million pheasants. Blame a nasty winter and poor nesting weather for the declines in both South Dakota and Minnesota.

“We observed abnormally high mortality of hen pheasants during the brutal winter of 2010-11,” explained Jeff Vonk, Secretary of the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department, “The loss of that reproductive potential inhibited the ability of our pheasant population to rebound to the record levels that we have enjoyed in recent years.” Declines in the counts were consistent across the state and most pronounced in eastern South Dakota, where winter’s grip was tightest and grassland nesting habitat is diminished. “We knew this day was coming when important pheasant habitats provided by the cover in Conservation Reserve Program fields were lost,” Vonk said. CRP enrollments in the state are currently at 1.17 million acres, down from 1.56 million acres in 2007. The reduction equates to over 600 square miles of grassland habitat._