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Pheasant Experts: Planned Habitat Vital, Worth The Effort

The pheasant is not only important in South Dakota for its cultural value, but also for what it contributes to the economy. In 2015, more than 150 thousand hunters harvested more than one point two million pheasants in South Dakota. Nearly 85 thousand hunters came from out of state. They poured millions of dollars into local economies. South Dakota isn’t a pheasant destination by accident.

Pheasant experts say that habitat always starts with grass. Brian Pauly is a biologist with the South Dakota Game Fish and Parks Department . He says there won’t be pheasants in the fall if their nests don’t survive the spring. Some grassy areas are better than others. Take, for example, this 12 acre patch of land just outside of Huron.

Some of the grasses here will grow six feet tall, which Pauly says is great cover for pheasants. Wildflowers will bloom throughout the summer, punctuating the vibrant green with patches of white, yellow, pink, and purple. Pauly says this grassland restoration project contains 30 to 40 different species of native plants.

 “It’s an ever changing environment as different species start to bloom, and different species of grass start to grow,” Pauly says.

Credit Matthew Grunig, SD GF&P
This grassland restoration project near Huron contains 30 to 40 different species of plants.

That diversity is important, because it helps ensure a steady diet of insects as pheasant chicks grow. Pauly says people in his office can help provide technical guidance and support for projects like this. There’s a variety of programs landowners can access to help put or keep grassland on the ground. Another example near Huron: state funds paid for part of the fencing materials around a portion of land in exchange for an agreement from the landowner to not grow crops there for ten years. The farmer is still allowed to use it for grazing and haying. Pauly says the idea is to farm the best and leave the rest.

“Almost every producer has some acres on their property that don’t produce as well as the others,” Pauly says. “But those are often the acres that perform best for growing grass. And so it can be a real symbiotic relationship between conservation and farming practices. It doesn’t have to be just a one or the other type of scenario.”

Day County farmer Jamie Reetz is putting that idea into practice. He’s got food plots and a pollinator habitat. He also has land in the Conservation Reserve Program. When enrolled in CRP, farmers take land out of production and plant species to improve the environment, in exchange for a rental payment from the federal government. Reetz says he loves wildlife and wants his sons to experience the benefits that come with ample habitat. But, he says, it’s work. And farming is a business. He says sometimes high commodity prices drive farmers to put land into production, rather than leave it in CRP.

“At the time of the high corn, especially, so many of these CRP acres which is the poorer ground got takenout and put into production which probably never should have happened,” Reetz says. “But I don’t blame people for doing it. They saw the big dollars with the seven, eight dollar corn. Now we’re back in check with the three dollar corn, that I think a lot of this poorer ground is going to go back into a CRP program, or some type of program.”

This food plot is one type of pheasant habitat Jamie Reetz cultivates on his farm.

Reetz says when commodity prices are lower it makes sense economically to put the poorer ground into CRP because it carries more income in the long run.

“It has to be common sense, the price has to be right, and there can’t be too much red tape or too many stipulations on these programs,” Ben Lardy says.  

Ben Lardy is a biologist with Pheasants Forever, in partnership with the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the South Dakota Game Fish and Parks Department. Part of his job is to help educate farmers about conservation options. He says while some programs don't have a financial benefit, there are several that help the bottom line as well. He says he understands the need for balancing land use.

“Anything we can do whether it’s an acre or a hundred acre is still going to be beneficial,” Lardy says. “CRP for pheasants is king for habitat there. But down the road, you know, we have to feed the world. I mean we have an increasing demand for production. They’re not making any more land. We have to get creative with how we can target our habitat strategies and try to maybe shift it towards a working lands system. But there’s no question, there’s still going to be room for CRP, for idle lands. It’s finding those right spots that maybe aren’t ideal to farm.”
Lardy says there’s currently a high interest among farmers to put acres in CRP. Travis Runia is the senior upland game bird biologist with the Game Fish and Parks Department. He says CRP grassland is the most important pheasant habitat in the state.
“Back in 2007 we had about 1.5 million acres on the ground. Right now we have about 950,000 acres,” Runia says. “And our pheasant population has declined over the last five years as some of these CRP acres have declined.”
He says there are limited acres allowed to enroll in the program and a ranking system that gives priority to other states. This is hindering the presence of CRP land in South Dakota.
“If this trend continues we’re going to see CRP acreage decline by probably another 150,000 acres here over the next two to three years, which is extremely alarming and very much concerning for the future of pheasants in South Dakota,” Runia says.
Experts say there are two main reasons why all of this matters. First, the pheasant is the state bird, and an icon of South Dakota. And second, pheasants bring the state money. Game, Fish and Parks statistics show pheasant hunters spent over170 million dollars in the state in 2015. More than 140 million came from out of state hunters. Biologist Brian Pauly says that’s a good reason for all South Dakotans to care about pheasant habitat.
“A lot of that money is going to some of our small communities that really rely on that as a major boost to their local economies,” Pauly says. “So not only are we talking about a significant amount of money economically, but it’s a significant amount of money for these communities as a whole.”
Experts add there’s at least one other reason to care about pheasant habitat in South Dakota: what’s good for the state bird is also often good for other animals, like butterflies, bees, and deer. They say good habitat can positively impact water quality and soil health as well.

For more information, visit the SD Habitat Pays website.

Click here to view the 2016-2020 pheasant management plan.

Click here to visit the SD Game Fish and Parks website.

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