Governor Dennis Daugaard is looking for ways to ensure that South Dakota’s pheasant hunting tradition continues to grow. State officials, landowners, sportsmen, members of the tourism industry and others met in Huron last week. They discussed ways to conserve the state’s pheasant population while maintaining the strength of the agriculture economy.
In South Dakota, especially in the eastern half of the state, pheasant hunting is a pretty big deal. Tony Leif is the Director of the Wildlife Division of the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks. He says over the past ten years, more than one and a half million pheasants are harvested each year on average. He says hunters have harvested 138 million pheasants in South Dakota’s 95 pheasant seasons.
“South Dakota is the perfect place for the perfect game bird,” Leif says. “Everything aligns just right in South Dakota as far as the weather conditions and the habitat conditions when you look at a place for this bird to prosper. It’s an ideal mix of grassland and cropland.”
But a reduction in habitat and less than ideal weather conditions in 2012 and this past spring impacted brood counts. This year’s report shows just over one and a half pheasants per mile, down from just over four pheasants per mile last year.
Leif says there is a very strong link between agriculture and habitat. Much of the discussion at the pheasant summit revolved around how agriculture has changed over the past several years, and the different ways producers are choosing to utilize their land. Barry Dunn is the dean of the SDSU College of Agriculture and Biological Sciences. He notes that in recent years cropland has increased, and CRP acres have decreased.
“Over this last five to seven years there’s been about two million acres of grassland converted to cropland,” Dunn says. “The factors are economics, of course, it’s been very profitable. An array of policy, technology, choice, lifestyle choices, but first and foremost it’s been dynamic because all of those things are changing.”
One conservation and agricultural expert says a key to finding solutions lies in sustainable intensification. Bruce Knight is the Principle and Founder of Strategic Conservation Solutions. He says farmers need to look at producing more on the very best land. That means no longer farming by acre, but by inch, and maximizing water, fuel, nutrients, sunlight, and space.
“Now, here is the conundrum with sustainable intensification,” Knight says. “These are thousands of micro decisions that each of us make as an individual farmer about how to make more money to sustainably feed our own families. But when we roll this all up, there are policy, there are conservation, there are societal challenges associated with this movement.”
Knight says decision makers need to rationally sort out the right balance between acres used for growing crops and acres used for conservation programs.
The Vice President of Governmental Affairs for Pheasants Forever says recent trends and current efforts in Congress indicate a smaller CRP program in the future. Dave Nomsen says in South Dakota the program is half the size that it was a few years ago. But he is hopeful that stakeholders can find some solutions to preserving the state’s pheasant population.
“We’re excited about the opportunities,” Nomsen says.” It’s our view that the days of frankly pheasant management as an incidental benefit to various other policies and practices are over. Changes in technology, the land intensity and land use issues that are before us now, but if we make a conscious decision that we want to preserve, protect, and expand the South Dakota pheasant hunting tradition, we can do that.”
Small group sessions provided time for stakeholders at the summit to begin discussing some answers. Attendees suggested creating incentives for conservation, developing dedicated funds for habitat preservation through tax dollars or license fees, and many other options. Governor Dennis Daugaard says the important thing now is coordination and communication.
“Addressing the question of habitat is not a simple thing, obviously,” Daugaard says. “But when you get landowners together with sportsmen and policy makers at local and state and federal level, it’s a good thing because communication is key. And nonprofits like Pheasants Forever, involving all those folks I think helps us all get a sense and understand one another.”
Daugaard says he plans to form a working group to take the ideas discussed at the summit and create a plan of action.