Pheasant season keeps local businesses flying high as hunters spent $170.1 million across South Dakota last year, the highest total in three years.
Hunters spent more money in Tripp County in 2015 during pheasant hunting season than in any other South Dakota county, with Brule and Lyman counties following closely behind.
According to South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks, hunters spent $10.9 million in Tripp County last year, $10.1 million of which came from 6,117 non-resident hunters, the highest non-resident total in the state. Residents made up 1,807 shooters in the county, bringing in $800,000.
“It is no accident that the places where the most money is spent by pheasant hunters are the places where large tracts of quality habitat exist,” said GF&P Secretary Kelly Hepler. “Ag producers know that quality habitat means high pheasant numbers, which results in thousands of visitors wearing blaze orange.”
Brule County came in second place with $9.7 million spent. Although 380 more South Dakota residents hunted in Brule County than Lyman County, Brule’s non-resident number was 842 people lower.
Lyman County was fourth — after Brown County — with $9.3 million spent by 7,051 hunters.
More than 150,000 people hunted pheasants in South Dakota last year, harvesting more than 1.25 million birds.
Tripp County has topped the list every year since 2013. In 2014, pheasant hunters spent $154.5 million in South Dakota, with $10.8 million spent in Tripp. Brown County came in second that year with Brule and Lyman in third and fourth.
“South Dakota is a hunting destination for people across the country and the world,” Hepler said. “Pheasant hunting plays a big part in our quality of life, and it continues to be an economic driver for businesses across the state.”
‘A shot in the arm’
Tonja Horton, owner and operator of Country Club Motel and RV Park in Winner alongside her husband, Stan Horton, said pheasant season is very important for her town, and Winner would not have as many motels without the tourism boost.
“Hunting season is an awesome, awesome shot in the arm for everyone around here. It is very much needed,” Horton said.
Some Country Club patrons have returned to the campground for 40 years, Horton said, and they reserve their places as early as February. That makes it tough for new customers to reserve one of the 20 RV sites, 10 motel rooms and five kitchenettes available, leading Horton to create a waiting list.
“It is a good feeling. The only problem is everybody wants opening weekend,” Horton said.
Fortunately, Country Club has started seeing more people visiting Winner through November, not just the first three weeks of pheasant season.
And they’re not just coming for birds. Hunters have started staying at Country Club looking for deer, coyotes, even prairie dogs, but pheasant opener still brings the most business. During the offseason, the motel is supported by traveling nurses coming to work in the nursing home or hospital.
While Country Club is turning people away, Labelle Gross, owner of recently closed Winner Westside Motel, said business has dropped, as there is more competition in town than when she and her husband opened the motel 33 years ago.
“There’s so many lodges now that take (business) away from us,” Gross said. “If it wouldn’t be for pheasant season, there wouldn’t be that many motels in our town.”
Although the hunters continued to arrive, the Grosses decided to retire in December and closed down Winner Westside Motel. They are still looking for a buyer.
Pheasant numbers are on the rebound after a drop in population a few years ago. According to GF&P, there were 5.97 pheasants per mile in the Winner area in 2015, according to an annual preseason count. That’s a 58 percent increase from 2014’s 3.78 pheasants per mile, but it’s still 15 percent below the 10-year average for the area.
The Chamberlain region saw an increase of 35 percent last year to 8.84 pheasants per mile, but it is still 34 percent lower than the 10-year average. Pheasants in the Mitchell area jumped by 49 percent to 4.55 birds per mile, 18 percent below the 10-year average.
Pheasant numbers in areas across the state were below 10-year averages — the lowest is Watertown at minus 54 percent — except Yankton at 47 percent above average and Sioux Falls at 7 percent above average.
Statewide, the 2015 preseason pheasant population was estimated at 7.7 million, the highest since 9.8 million in 2010. Birds harvested has also increased since 2013, when the total fell below 1 million for the first time since 1997.
In 2013, only two pheasants per mile were in the Winner area before hunting season, a sharp drop from 7.4 in 2012 and a 10-year high of 11.4 in 2009.
Towns all over South Dakota followed a similar trend, with 2013 being the lowest number of pheasants per mile in the last 10 years in most areas.
Two years of tough weather hit pheasants in 2012 and 2013. The population dropped, and Gov. Dennis Daugaard committed himself to boosting pheasant numbers with the Pheasant Habitat Summit in December 2013 and a work group dedicated to improving pheasant habitat.
Pheasant populations in South Dakota peaked in 2007 at 11.9 million, the highest point since 1942. There was $88.9 million spent that year.
For a complete list of counties by dollars spent, number of hunters and pheasants harvested, go to gfp.sd.gov/hunting/small-game/pheasant-economics.aspx.