VIVIAN, S.D. — Savanah Hendricks wants to rewrite the rules of South Dakota’s storied pheasant hunting tradition.
Wearing a camo-patterned fleece jacket, the 13-year-old girl from West River speaks calmly, yet passionately about the future of getting kids like her to enjoy the outdoors.
It’s crucial, she says, but it’s not necessarily easy. Considering the importance of academics and the focus for many on athletics, there’s always just so much to do.
“South Dakota’s hunting industry depends on this generation,” she said. “We have to have more kids involved in hunting, whatever the hunting is. It just has to happen.”
That’s why later this week, Hendricks will stand in front of the South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks Department Commission to petition for a change in the youth pheasant season. She’ll present on Thursday, March 5, in Pierre during the commissioners’ regular monthly meeting.
She admits she’s nervous, and had yet to practice her speech. Her main point is that the youth pheasant season should include two full weekends, whereas the season’s setup now runs from Saturday through Wednesday in early October.
The Jones County School eighth grader has good reason to advocate for the change, being a busy student.
Hendricks submitted an official petition for rule change form to the GF&P Commission, saying she’s involved in Pheasants Forever, 4-H Prairie Rangers, 4-H Shooting Sports, volleyball, basketball, track and band.
She’s also an honor roll student and is active in her church.
“As we all know, technology has exploited our youth,” she wrote. “It is crucial to instill a passion for hunting and outdoors in our youth at a very young age. Any youth who are either academically or athletically inclined are unable to utilize the Monday, Tuesday, or Wednesday of the current Youth Pheasant Hunt Season.”
A supportive family
Hendricks is growing up in a house that supports all things hunting. There are deer and pheasant mounts, coyote furs and photos capturing great memories displayed throughout the house.
With their mother, Diana “Dee,” and father Travis, the family of five lives on a ranch in rural Vivian, south of Interstate 90. Getting to Jones County School in Murdo is 25 miles one direction. Her parents, grandma, and brother, Cyrus, 12, and sister Sierra, 6, welcomed this reporter into their home for a lunch of grilled buffalo burgers, baked beans and peach pie to discuss Savanah’s efforts to improve youth hunting in South Dakota.
It’s clear why she feels the way she does — it’s in her blood.
Travis and Dee helped start the West River Pheasants Forever chapter in 2009. The next year, they hosted a youth hunt on their ranch and welcomed kids to learn safety, practice trap shooting and venture into the field to chase roosters.
“Part of the reason we started it is because after having her, we realized there wasn’t really anything going on for kids other than sports and if you’re basketball-driven,” Dee said.
Over the years, the site of the youth hunt has been held primarily at the Hendricks’ ranch, although the group has used another chapter member’s land and public land to hunt.
Savanah’s first actual hunt was when she was 10, and she clearly remembers getting her first pheasant at age 11.
They take in 15 to 20 kids each year, mainly due to the adult help and dogs that are available. They want family involvement — meaning no kid can just be dropped off without mom or dad participating — and they’re adamant that the annual event continues.
“All of us enjoy that day of hunting more than every other day of the year,” Dee said of the annual hunt.
Before Dee could finish her sentence, Travis interjected: “It’s very rewarding.”
It’s a special weekend when there’s no adult competition in the field, the hunt goes at a slower pace and there’s one-on-one time with the child.
Most importantly, they say, it sets up the future of hunting in South Dakota.
“Teach them ethics, talk to them about what type of ground they’re hunting, and pass that on that ethics are so important,” Dee said.
Making time to hunt
When the West River Pheasants Forever chapter started in 2009, South Dakota was riding its 12th straight year of harvesting at least 1.4 million pheasants. That same year, there were about 70,000 resident adult pheasant hunters.
As the annual harvest total has dropped to fewer than 1 million pheasants in 2017 and 2018, hunting interest has dwindled as well. The most recent statistics available show 2018 had about 53,600 resident pheasant hunters. That’s a drop of 23% in hunting participation and millions of dollars in revenue lost to license sales for the state.
Pheasants Forever and South Dakota GF&P have both been active in supporting a national R3 movement, which was started by the Council to Advance Hunting and the Shooting Sports. R3 stands for recruitment, retention and reactivation in hopes to stop a trend of declining hunting participation.
South Dakota is no exception. Last year, the youth-only pheasant season overall participation rate was approximately 5.5%. Travis and Dee say some years they need to “beg, borrow and steal” some years to get 15 kids to the youth hunt.
“A kid that’s outdoors is just not getting into trouble,” Travis said. “Whether it’s fishing, camping, hunting or picking up rocks. We need them involved.”
Dee explained there are 174 students in Jones County School District, about 70 of whom are eligible for the youth hunt. Resident youth pheasant season participants must be between 10 and 17.
The Hendricks family says they host their annual youth hunt on Sunday because that’s the lone day when kids are mostly available. The family says the Monday through Wednesday days “only make the state look good,” and the current format penalizes the kids who set their academics bar high.
“We never have time to go hunt after school with the homework and sports,” Savanah said.
It was those feelings that sparked her to chase this petition change. That, and as a member of South Dakota 4-H, Savanah is seeking the Citizenship Medal, of which some of the criteria is looking into a current event topic that she’s passionate about and, as her mom describes it, “can put her whole heart into.”
Savanah has written a letter to Gov. Kristi Noem, who has pushed her “Second Century Initiative” since her first State of the State address in 2019. Part of the initiative includes getting families and youths out in the field.
“I’m so proud of Savanah for engaging in our government process and advocating for something that means a lot to her," Noem said in a statement. "I will certainly be watching this decision as it is discussed within the GFP Commission.”
Savanah has also written to all of the GF&P commissioners and received support letters from some of her classmates. The brochure she’s assembled says Youth Pheasant Hunt Season has not been reviewed since 2008 and that the state should support more hunting days for just youth in the field to support R3.
She wrote: “As a student and athlete, I truly feel that if you have not been taught at a young age to hunt pheasants that you will miss out on learning to appreciate what CRP is, what shelter belts do, what fence lines provide and why sportsmen and women feel so strongly about gun rights.
“Please support changing the youth pheasant hunting season to include two weekends!”