Business boom: Pheasant season is make-or-break for many SD communities
WINNER, S.D. — Beginning in mid-October, thousands of hunters from around the United States will converge here, a small town in the rolling farm and ranch country of south-central South Dakota.
Hunters flock annually to the Tripp County community to pursue the celebrated ring-necked pheasant, renew friendships and have fun.
Winner, about 2,900 population, is among several communities in South Dakota and other states in the region that periodically claim the title “pheasant hunting capital of the world.”
South Dakota, as a whole, is the real pheasant hunting capital. Even in down years, South Dakota typically has more pheasants than any other state.
“The numbers bear out there is no place even close to what we have in South Dakota,” said Tony Leif, director of the Wildlife Division of South Dakota’s Game, Fish and Parks Department.
Nearly 983,000 pheasants were harvested in South Dakota in 2013, which by historic standards was a down year in a series of concern-raising off years. In the record year of 2007, more than 2.1 million birds were shot.
For recreational as well as economic reasons, state government, the advocacy group Pheasants Forever and others are taking steps they hope will improve the pheasant population in the long term.
Hunting the wily ring-neck is a big deal in much of South Dakota. It’s a popular social activity that contributes significantly to the state’s economy.
Statewide, pheasant hunters spent nearly $141 million in 2013, according to GF&P estimates. The spinoff benefit of the money rippling through the economy to be spent again makes the overall impact even greater.
The local impact of hunting varies from community to community, but it’s especially noticeable in smaller towns.
“Many of those small communities really try to roll out the red carpet. That’s the comment I always hear from hunters — how welcome they feel,” Leif says.
Communities throughout the eastern half of the state, such as Aberdeen, Chamberlain, Redfield and Howard, also are known as pheasant-hunting hotspots. The state’s largest city benefits significantly from hunting, too.
Teri Schmidt and her staff at the Sioux Falls Convention & Visitors Bureau festively welcome thousands of pheasant hunters each year at the Sioux Falls Regional Airport. The annual welcoming event began nearly two decades ago with one table and a chair. Now there are about 15 booths and a waiting list of businesses that would like space in the lobby of the airport for the two days before the start of the season.
“Although the hunters don’t hunt pheasants in Sioux Falls, the hunting season has a huge impact on our community,” Schmidt says. “We know literally thousands of people fly into Sioux Falls during hunting season. We know hundreds of cars and vehicles are rented and used during pheasant hunting.”
Many hunters also stay overnight and shop in Sioux Falls, too. Schmidt especially enjoys helping hunters find “guilt gifts” for the wives and girlfriends that they left behind to go hunting.
Community Impact Winner is the hub of Tripp County, which attracted more than 5,400 nonresident hunters in 2013, according to the GF&P data. That was more than any of the state’s other 65 counties.
More than 1,900 South Dakota residents also hunted last year in Tripp County. Together, resident and nonresident hunters harvested nearly 59,000 pheasants in the county. In the process, they spent about $9.3 million.
Isabel Diaz manages the Warrior Inn, one of a half-dozen motels and hotels in Winner that welcome hunters. The 39-room inn will board more than 1,000 guests during this year’s season, which will run from Oct. 18 to Jan. 4, 2015.
Opening weekend, especially, is “crazy good” for Winner, Diaz says. “It’s a big thing around here. Really big,” she says.
Tony Naatjes, manager of Gary’s Gun Shops in Winner and Sioux Falls, says roughly a third of the stores’ business can be attributed to pheasant hunting. In addition to shotguns and shells, the stores sell a variety of hunting accessories.
“When there’s a lot of birds, everyone wins. When there’s not, we all fight for scraps,” Naatjes says.
Pheasant hunting is Winner’s primary tourist attraction and the main reason that many people visit town, says Karla Brozik, executive director of the Winner Area Chamber of Commerce.
“That is our bread and butter around here,” Brozik says. In addition to motels, hunters keep more than 20 rural lodges in the area busy through Thanksgiving, she says.
Other businesses enjoy increased business, too.
“The food places are always packed during hunting season. It’s usually a 30-minute to an hour wait,” Brozik says.
Regulations allow hunters to shoot up to three male pheasants a day and possess up to 15 roosters after five days of hunting. Out-of-state hunters are allowed two, five-day hunting stints. They pick the dates in advance.
To encourage more hunters to return to the Winner area after an initial hunt early in the season, the Winner Chamber started the December Sharpshooter Classic. Twenty, six-member teams pay $1,500 per team to participate in a four-hour hunt, which this year will be held Dec. 13. Land to hunt, a box of 25 shells, and two meals are provided.
Resident as well as non-resident hunters participate. This will be the fourth year of the special event, which sells out every year. This year’s 20-team quota was filled July 2, Brozik says.
In the past few decades, hunting has developed into a significant business opportunity for many farmers, ranchers and landowners in rural South Dakota.
Cody Jorgensen, along with other members of his family, farm about 10,000 acres and have 8,500 acres of rangeland in the Winner area. They also run a hunting lodge near Ideal, the Lazy J Grand Lodge, which sleeps 42 people.
Agriculture isn’t just about raising cattle and growing crops any more, Jorgensen says. It’s also about taking advantage of commercial opportunities such as hunting.
“We’re just so blessed to have wild pheasants in our area,” he says.
Helping the habitat The importance of the pheasant to South Dakota is symbolized on the commemorative state quarter issued by the federal government in 2006. The coin shows the image of a pheasant flying above the four presidential faces of Mount Rushmore.
The Ring-Necked Pheasant was designated South Dakota’s state bird in 1943, even though it’s a species not native to the United States. Pheasants were imported to South Dakota from China more than a century ago, and the state’s habitat proved to be a good fit for the birds.
Pheasants are tough and resilient, Leif says. The availability of good nesting areas is a crucial factor in annual bird numbers. The attractiveness of government land-conservation programs significantly impact the bird habitat. Crop prices also are a factor. The higher the price farmers are offered for crops, the more tempted they are to put fringe land into production.
Exceptionally harsh winters can take a temporary toll on pheasant numbers, too.
“Hunting seasons have little or no impact on future populations. The reason is that you only need a few roosters for a whole bunch of hens,” he says. Hunters are only allowed to shoot roosters.
Pheasant boosters have been concerned about the steady decline of bird numbers in South Dakota since 2007, and they are trying to reverse the trend.
Gov. Dennis Daugaard created a Pheasant Habitat Work Group in December. The panel is expected to pass along recommendations in late August to help improve habitat on public and private land. Group members won’t discuss the specifics of possible proposals until they have finished work on their report.
The 13-member work group includes farmers, outdoors enthusiasts, government officials and others. The panel is chaired by Pam Roberts of Pierre, who held cabinet-level positions for five governors before retiring from state government in 2013.
“I’ve been proud with the way the group has responded. It’s gone well,” Roberts says.
Meanwhile, the national nonprofit group Pheasants Forever also is stepping up its efforts to help. The organization, which has 140,000 members nationwide, is in the process of opening a regional office in Brookings, S.D. The presence of South Dakota State University and related wildlife and agricultural resources were factors in locating the new office in Brookings.
Dave Nomsen, vice president of government affairs for Pheasants Forever, is moving from Minnesota to Brookings — where he attended college and formerly taught at the university. He is taking on the additional title of director of the regional office.
Obviously, the pheasant population is an issue of critical importance to South Dakota, Nomsen says. However, the issue also is important to Pheasants Forever, which considers South Dakota prime pheasant country.
Increasing habitat will not hinge solely on renewing interest in federal, land-conservation programs, Nomsen says. The state also needs to do more, and he’d like to see businesses help.
“The key to all of this is the focus on habitat. In my view, there isn’t a single farm or ranch in the state that couldn’t benefit from pheasant-related conservation of some type,” Nomsen says.
South Dakota won’t have a good forecast of pheasant numbers for the coming season until brood counts are made in late summer.