The clutch was touchy in the bus and the suspension almost nonexistent as a group of dove hunters scraped across the prairie into the middle of Darrel Reinke’s land northeast of Pierre.
The destination was a tract of land where grassland and grainfields stood side by side – good habitat for hunting doves, or, come the third weekend in October, pheasants. But as the sun sank low over the Great Plains that September day, the conversation turned somber. Some of the hunters on the bus worried that the sport they love, and South Dakota’s reputation as the pre-eminent state for upland game hunting, may be in jeopardy because habitat such as this is becoming harder to find. Thousands of acres of Conservation Reserve Program land continue to disappear as farmers and ranchers respond to a market that pays them more to farm fragile lands than it does to keep them set aside in grass that protects soil and offers ideal habitat for wildlife.
In 2007, there were almost 1.6 million acres of CRP land in South Dakota, but in the span of just six years, that number dropped to less than 1 million. At the end of September 2013, another 3.3 million acres of CRP land expired nationwide. In South Dakota, the number of acres is predicted to keep falling to less than 600,000 acres by 2020, said John Cooper, who sits on the Game, Fish and Parks Commission.
Cooper has been working in the state for about 40 years and said he has never seen this degree of change in the South Dakota landscape.
“I’ve never seen the rate of grass conversion over to crop, or draining wetlands for crop, or plowing up pastures for crop,” he said. “I’ve never seen the rate of change that has occurred over the past six years.”
He said the problem is spurred in part by the high price of corn and other crops and by the fact that taxpayer-subsidized crop insurance makes it easier for farmers to shoulder the risk of converting marginal lands to cropland.
In addition, Cooper said, there is more at work than farmers making independent decisions about how to run their farms – special interest groups are also involved. What happens is farmers are encouraged by a large agribusiness lobby to plant marginal land that might otherwise be used as cover for game, he said.
That lobby – which includes giant companies such as Monsanto, Dow Chemical, ConAgra and others – doesn’t necessarily stand to profit if fragile land is kept under careful stewardship, he said.
“They want that marginal land to be planted because it sells more tractors, it sells more implements, it sells more fertilizer, it sells more seeds,” he said.
Cooper said the downward spiral of CRP land has a direct effect on wildlife, which in turn will affect the way of life for the many in-state and out-of-state hunters who frequent the prairie.
The decline in CRP acres has a clear effect on the game that South Dakota is so well known for, said George Vandel, former Game, Fish and Parks chief biologist and assistant director of technical services.
Fewer CRP acres means fewer pheasants and other game.
“There just is a direct correlation,” he said.
Pheasant harvest numbers have varied greatly since 1919 with years of decline and growth. In 1945, more than 7.5 million pheasants were harvested during the season. The pre-season pheasant population that year was at 16 million, its highest since 1919. In 1966, during more than a half decade when harvest numbers were less than 1 million, the harvest bottomed out at 409,00 with a preseason population of 2.2 million. Although the pheasant population climbed after that, hard times hit again in the 1970s. In the drought year of 1976, the preseason pheasant population was the lowest it had been since 1924 and the harvest was equally poor with 372,500 pheasants bagged that season. The best preseason population and harvest in the last decade was in 2007. The population was 11.9 million and the harvest was more than 2 million.
The future of pheasant habitat in South Dakota is also of concern to Gov. Dennis Daugaard. He announced recently that he will host a Pheasant Habitat Summit on Dec. 6, at the Crossroads Convention Center in Huron to discuss the future of pheasant habitat and hunting in South Dakota.
“Pheasant hunting is extremely important to the culture and economic well-being of South Dakota,” Daugaard said. “South Dakota’s pheasant hunting experience is second to none and draws hunters from around the world. We want to do what we can now to ensure these opportunities for future generations.”
The summit will provide a forum for landowners, sportsmen, members of the tourism industry and other interested individuals to learn about the current state of pheasant habitat in South Dakota. The summit is open to the public and pre-registration is required. Individuals may register online at https://gfp.sd.gov/applications/gf66pheasanthabitat/PheasantSummitSignup.aspx. Information and registration is also available by calling the Game, Fish and Parks Department at 773-3387.
Although Cooper said many people are unaware of the changes happening to the South Dakota landscape, there are hunters who are worried about the future of their hobby.
Tim Kizer, a hunter from Arkansas, who works for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Program, has been coming to South Dakota for 25 years. He has hunted all over the state, but something about the Tulare area and the Fort Pierre National Grassland have made those areas a recurring trip. He said during his visits he keeps an eye on the habitat.
“We’re old enough and experienced enough to see the connection,” he said. “It’s not so obvious to other people. If you don’t have the habitat, it’s quite simple, you just don’t have the fish and game.”
That game is especially important to South Dakota. It is the state’s variety of birds and other game that makes it a popular destination for hunters.
Earlier this year Pheasants Forever unveiled its latest list of the 25 best places for bird hunting in the country and ranked Pierre No. 1. Other South Dakota communities were also on the list, as Huron, Eureka and Redfield made the fourth, 13th and 15th slots, respectively. South Dakota earned more spots on the list than any other state. Only Minnesota, North Dakota and Montana had more than one location on the list, but each only had two.
Pheasants Forever said Pierre’s No. 1 ranking on the list is due to the fact that it’s possible to get a South Dakota grand slam in the area: Pheasant, sharp-tailed grouse, prairie chicken and Hungarian partridge.
“The abundance of game, historically, has always been the main thing,” Kizer said. “The presence and abundance of game simply because of habitat has just been so spectacular. It’s also the variety of game. The Dakotas are one of the only places in the Great Plains that you’re going to find multiple species of upland birds.”
Reinke is also a long-time hunter and it is a love that he has passed along. His son hunts and his grandsons hunt. That love is why he purchased the 562 acres of land northeast of Pierre for hunting and has re-made the area for that purpose. What was once cropland is now a mix of CRP, tree belts, dams and come crops. Reinke knows what makes a great area for habitat, but the number of land owners willing to devote tracts of land to that kind of habitat is shrinking quickly and he is worried.
As pheasant populations diminish, Cooper said people could hunt pen raised pheasants, but that isn’t the best option.
“I’m telling you, the vast majority of people don’t come to South Dakota to hunt pen-raised pheasants,” he said. “They can do that in their own states. They come to South Dakota for the wild, free-ranging bird that is in these kinds of habitats under this blue sky and in this wide-open space. Wild birds are what South Dakota is famous for.”
Cooper said anytime in South Dakota’s history that the number of pheasants has been high, there has been some major farm program to back those numbers.
The pheasants, because of their short life span, especially need secure nesting cover, Vandel said.
“What people don’t appreciate is how short-lived the pheasants are,” Vandel said. “You can’t carry them over from one year to the next. Most of them die.”
He said pheasants need standing cover that is left over from the previous year. If the vegetation is mowed down and then South Dakota experiences a drought or early spring, there is little to no nesting cover for the birds.
“So that is why they have to have residual vegetation that is left over from the previous year, and in my opinion, we need a million acres of that,” Vandel said.
Pheasants will generally live and die within a mile and don’t have the ability to search for better habitat.
“They will make some movements to winter cover, five miles, 10 miles to winter cover, but most of them will live and die within a mile,” Vandel said.
This year’s pheasant population, which is said to be down 64 percent, is a combination of last year’s drought and the loss of CRP land, Vandel said. Biologists also believe a cold, wet spring may have been a factor.
“We’ve had droughts with CRP, but the birds were kind of always able to hold and they had nesting cover to go back into,” he said. “What happened last year is it was dry and we lost a lot of CRP. A fair amount of CRP got utilized during the drought so this year we had a lack of nesting cover.”
Cooper said to hold the state’s population of birds between 6-8 million, the state will need to get back into the habitat business.
The state needs 1 million acres of secure nesting cover, but due to management, drought and other factors, more would need to be set aside.
“We will have to have a million and half to two million acres of CRP in order to maintain that million acres of secure nesting cover cause of management and because of drought and other releases of CRP,” he said.
As cover continues to decline, Vandel said, the state could be looking at pheasant populations like it had in the 1970s, when hunting was poor.
The declining cover also affects other types of game, including ducks. But they’re not feeling the pressure that upland game species such as pheasants are facing.
“Ducks are a little different, because many of them nest in Canada and at least it appears so far that there is sufficient habitat,” Vandel said.
But many ducks also nest in that portion of the Prairie Pothole Region that lies in North Dakota and South Dakota, and there are years when Canada turns dry. The ducks in North America in such seasons have often been produced in North and South Dakota.
Vandel said CRP acres in the state contribute 2 million ducks to the annual fall flight.
“If Canada goes dry again, we don’t have the cover to support the population that we used to,” he said. “That is what I am worried about.”
Cooper said when the ducks come to the area and it is dry, they have the ability to just keep looking for good habitat. But that concerns Kizer when he watches what is taking place in South Dakota.
“My ducks are born where you live. That’s why it matters so much to me,” he said.
Cooper said the bottom line is if CRP continues to decline, fewer hunters will come to the state – and that means a hit to the South Dakota’s economy.
Hunters flowing into the state make purchases of ammunition, gas, food, lodging and other goods and services.
“When we have around seven to eight million pheasants in South Dakota, we have around a $220 million impact,” he said.
Reinke said even this year there is talk of an economic hit from the lower pheasant numbers.
“I have already talked to a couple of guys who have long-standing groups that have come from wherever that just called and told them, ‘I wouldn’t come this year,’” he said.
With habitat in crisis, the problem is that there are fewer and fewer places to come face to face with the wild. That leaves fewer opportunities to hunt and enjoy wildlife, even in states such as South Dakota that are famous for their wildlife resource. But sources say South Dakota could preserve its hunting resource by helping push for policies that could help preserve habitat.