The hunters tramp through neck-high prairie grass with a pair of golden retrievers named Moe and Buck, flushing out birds in a freezing autumn drizzle.
When one flutters from the South Dakota grassland, Dick Schmith, 58, calls “rooster!” Guns rise and a long-tailed pheasant drops. Moe bounds through the meadow to pick it up.
Such successes, key to the state’s $172 million pheasant season, are getting harder to come by. Bird numbers are down almost two-thirds from last year.
A number of reasons are cited for the decline, ranging from harsh weather to a boom in commodity prices that has encouraged farmers to plow grassland and plant crops, reducing habitat for pheasants and other wildlife.