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South Dakota hotel reservations sink with pheasant numbers

MITCHELL, S.D. - In Mitchell, pheasant hunting is more than a pastime. It's a business.

In 2012, in-state and out-of-state hunters spent a combined $5.5 million in Davison County and $172.5 million statewide during the pheasant hunting season, according to estimates by the South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks Department.

But with fewer birds to go around this year, at least according to a recent GF&P report, some out-of-state pheasant hunters have canceled travel plans to Mitchell.

"Every hotel and every business in town should be a little bit concerned," said Dave Halder, manager of the Kelly Inn, where a handful of hunters have already canceled reservations this year.

"It's very important to the whole community," Halder said, referring to pheasant hunting season. "It's a big factor, just like our summer tourism season."

According to a report the GF&P released last month, the number of pheasants spotted during an annual statewide survey dropped 64 percent this year compared to last year.

The GF&P estimated the state to have about 7.6 million pheasants last year. With the estimated 64 percent drop, that means the pheasant population could be down to 4.864 million.

Dave Helleloid, manager of the Days Inn and the Comfort Inn, said at least three groups, with 12 to 15 hunters each, have canceled reservations at his hotels because of the reportedly low pheasant numbers.

"We have openings on the first and second weekend, which is usually unheard of," he said.

The statewide pheasant hunting season opens Oct. 19 and runs to Jan. 5 with a daily limit of three rooster pheasants and a possession limit of 15 roosters. The resident-only season runs Oct. 12-14 with the possession limit of nine roosters.

The dip in pheasant numbers hasn't deterred all hunters from making the trip, Helleloid said.

"There are some who are still planning on coming just because it's an annual trip for them," he said. "They like the camaraderie."

At Thunderbird Lodge, owner Matt Culhane is still expecting a strong pheasant hunting season for his business. On Wednesday, Culhane said a group of hunters from California and another group from Missouri each booked a stay at his motel.

Still, Culhane is concerned with the drop in pheasant numbers and the impact it could have on the city's businesses.

"Expectations are tempered because of the news," he said. "I'm not worried. Yet."

Brian Dixon, owner of the Coach Light Motel, will still have rooms filled during opening weekend -- the same two groups of hunters have stayed at his motel for the past 20 years. But after that, Dixon predicts his business will decline by as much as 25 percent due to the low pheasant numbers.

Dixon hopes the decline in pheasant numbers was exaggerated in the GF&P report.

"I'm hoping the cover is thick and they're just not seeing the birds," he said.

Regardless of how many birds there are for hunters, the pheasant hunting season is always an important time of year for the city's hotels and motels, Dixon said.

"It's kind of the last hurrah going into winter," he said. "We need that business."

In an attempt to attract pheasant hunters to Mitchell despite reports of fewer pheasants, the Mitchell Convention and Visitors Bureau has gotten creative.

"We overhauled the message to focus less on bird numbers and more on the experience you have while hunting," said CVB Director Jacki Miskimins.

To help the cause, the CVB secured a $13,000 grant from the South Dakota Department of Tourism, which the CVB used along with $13,000 from its own budget for advertising related to pheasant hunting season.

The CVB's campaign used print, radio and outdoor advertising to target hunters in Minnesota by promoting the variety of restaurants, hotels and other amenities available in Mitchell compared to other, less populated hunting destinations, Miskimins said.

"You get more when you come to Mitchell," she said. "We really focused on that."