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Dennis Anderson: Severe, prolonged drought threatens pheasant chicks in Dakotas [Star Tribune (Minneapolis) :: BC-OTD-ANDERSON-COLUMN:MS]

Curt Korzan didn't think he would spend his summer hauling water.

But that's what Korzan, owner with his wife, Lorie, and adult sons of a pheasant hunting lodge near Kimball, S.D., is doing this week - drawing water from three 1,000-foot-deep wells and transporting it to the vast pheasant-habitat plots that blanket his 3,500-acre spread.

Korzan is hoping to keep the wildlife cover plants alive until rain comes. The grasses and shrubs are needed to help pheasant chicks hatched in recent weeks survive the parched conditions that prevail this summer not only on his property, but across much of South Dakota.

"This drought is the worst I've seen in my lifetime," Korzan, 58, said. "We would give anything for a daylong rain. Or even an inch of rain."

Last month, Gov. Dennis Daugaard declared a drought emergency across South Dakota, allowing farmers and ranchers to cut and bale state highway ditches adjacent to their properties.

A similar federal declaration opened state Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) acres on an emergency basis to haying and grazing, removing valuable cover that pheasant chicks need for predator protection and insect production.

What's more, morning dew, which can help regulate a young pheasant's body temperature while supporting populations of the tiny bugs it needs to eat, has been almost nonexistent.

South Dakota corn and soybean crops also are struggling or have been written off altogether, as have countless spring and winter wheat fields.

And some ranchers, unable to secure affordable feed, or any feed, have sold off their livestock. Fully a month ago, nearly 50 trucks were lined up at a sale barn in Aberdeen, S.D., waiting to unload cattle. This was hours before the auctioneer's gavel would fall, beginning the clearance sale.

North Dakota might be worse off still. As many as 15 of its counties have been designated primary drought areas.

Amid the maelstrom, the fate of an important South Dakota cash crop - pheasants - hangs in the balance. (The pheasant hatch in Minnesota has not been affected by drought and, so far, is expected to be without complication, said Nicole Davros, the Department of Natural Resources lead pheasant researcher.)

"I'm keeping my fingers crossed that the young chicks find enough morning dew, or that we get some rainfall, so they can make it through the next few weeks," said John Cooper of Pierre, S.D., retired secretary of the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department.

Pheasants and pheasant hunting are big business in South Dakota, supporting 4,130 jobs and adding more than $202 million to the state's economy annually. Pheasant hunters alone spent more than $170 million in South Dakota in 2015, with $140 million coming from nonresidents.

About 20,000 of South Dakota's approximately 85,000 nonresident pheasant hunters are Minnesotans.

So when pheasants struggle, so do many people, not just farmers, ranchers and lodge owners, but motel operators, gas station proprietors and other business owners who worry that if relatively fewer wingshooters show up in South Dakota in October and November, they'll lose money.

South Dakota's senior upland game biologist, Travis Runia, said South Dakota had a good carry-over of birds from last fall owing to a mild winter.

"But in some areas of the state we haven't had measurable rain in quite a while," he said. "North from Pierre through Mobridge to the North Dakota border is particularly bad."

In a more typical South Dakota summer, spring and winter wheat fields provide cover for many nesting pheasant hens and their hatched chicks. But in the parched conditions that prevail, many of these fields didn't germinate or were destroyed with chemicals because they weren't going to mature.

And some wheat fields, Runia said, were baled early.

"Disturbance to these fields concerns us because in addition to the loss of cover for chicks, we could have lost some hens," he said.

The dry conditions are particularly disappointing, said Pheasants Forever state coordinator Matt Morlock, given that the ringneck hatch appeared promising.

"Going into spring we were really optimistic because our bird numbers looked good and conditions were good for an excellent hatch," Morlock said.

But insects provide about 95 percent of a pheasant chick's diet during the first two months of its life, Morlock said.

"And when you don't get rain, and you don't have dew, you don't have insects," he said. "In drought, the only insects we have are grasshoppers, which are too big for pheasant chicks."

The next week or two will be make-it-or-break-it time for the little birds, Morlock said.

The good news, he said, is that some large pheasant broods are being spotted.

Korzan, the hunting lodge owner, agreed. "I saw a brood of 22 chicks the other day," he said.

Meanwhile, predicted high temperatures next week are in the 90s across much of South Dakota, with scant chances for rain.

So Korzan will continue to do what he's done in recent weeks: Haul water.

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