The South Dakota Department of Tourism doesn’t pay Frank Beck for advertising South Dakota attractions, but it might as well.
Beck’s Nebraska license plates proclaim “LK OAHE” to anyone else on the road.
“People ask me, ‘What does that mean?’ I tell them, ‘Well, there’s this lake in South Dakota that’s called Oahe,’” Beck says. Then if they have the time, Beck tells them about the hunting and fishing.
For 15 years Beck has been coming to Lake Oahe to fish in the summer and hunt pheasants in the fall – ever since someone all those years ago invited him to come along on a hunting trip to South Dakota. He figures he spends maybe $300 to $400 every time he’s here for the pheasant opener – and he probably spends less than many hunters because he has a cabin in South Dakota.
“I came up here the first time and I thought, Oh, my God. I couldn’t believe all the pheasants,” Beck said. “We don’t have many pheasants back home and what we do have get hunted out in the first couple of weeks.”
But South Dakota is different. On a Pheasants Forever list released earlier this year of the 25 best places to hunt gamebirds, including pheasants, South Dakota had four communities on the list – Pierre at No. 1, Huron at No. 4, Eureka at No. 13 and Redfield at No. 15.
That’s why once again on Saturday, opening day of the South Dakota pheasant hunting season, Beck was on hand at a public shooting area north of Pierre with his yellow Labrador retriever, Buddy, and his German shorthair, Chance.
They took to the fields as the clock struck noon and 10 minutes later kicked up a hen pheasant; then another hen; then two roosters, too far away to shoot.
Then, not quite a half hour into the hunt, three roosters flushed from cover a good distance away, but in range. Beck dropped one of them with one shot from his Benelli semi-automatic 12-gauge.
The German shorthair and the yellow Lab found it in the grass a few minutes later and Beck popped it into his vest – one more reminder of why he has those personalized license plates, and why he and his wife dream of retiring to South Dakota someday. It’s because South Dakota has traditionally had an extensive mix of grassland and cropland across the state that provides ideal habitat for game birds such as pheasants to rear their young. It’s something South Dakotans could easily take for granted if they haven’t lived in other places, Beck suggests.
“They’ve got a lot of habitat – holy cow,” he says. “They have so much more up here than we have back home. They have big fields of wheat and low areas that hold water. Back home the CRP is all going out.”
Habitat in crisis?
But the CRP, or Conservation Reserve Program, is dwindling in South Dakota, too. That federal program that first started contracting with farmers back in 1985 to take highly erodible land out of crop production and sow it to cover crops such as grass is now at about 800,000 acres in South Dakota, down from well over 1 million acres a few years ago.
In addition, farmers are converting some other pastures and hayfields into crops, drawn largely by the prices for row crops such as corn.
That loss of habitat – and the stress on wildlife populations from the drought of 2012 – were factors in last year’s hunt. Beck pounded the fields for four days and shot four pheasants – the worst year he’s ever had. But that came after 2011, one of his best years ever for hunting success.
“It’s just been unreal until last year,” Beck said.
Beck may have done better than some.
Game officials announced Sunday that reports from the opening day show South Dakota hunters were averaging about a half bird to one bird each in central South Dakota; one to one and a half birds in McPherson, Faulk and Spink counties; and half a bird per hunter in the northeastern and southeastern parts of the state.
Wildlife managers say the drought of 2012 and a wet cold spring combined with a loss of prime pheasant habitat, including the dwindling number of CRP acres, has hampered pheasant reproduction, resulting in lower brood counts.
Hunting sites gone
Coming up to fish Lake Oahe this year, Beck said he could tell South Dakota’s pheasant population was ailing from his own informal marker of how the game bird population is doing: He had to dodge fewer pheasant chicks on the highways.
“Not seeing the chicks on the road, I knew it wasn’t going to be as good as two years ago.”
Then, as he drove up this year from his home in St. Paul, Neb., for the pheasant opener, Beck saw a place between Winner and Interstate 90 that used to be grassland when it was posted for walk-in access.
“For a couple years we hunted there,” Beck said. “They disked that out and put in corn. Maybe people are thinking with corn prices the way they are, they should just take it out and put it in corn.”
Beck – with one pheasant for his trouble after his first hour in the field – is optimistic that South Dakota will still be a good place to hunt in comparison to other parts of the country. He thinks after-effects from the drought of 2012 are still hurting populations, but that South Dakota will recover.
But game officials and hunters, and even South Dakota’s chief executive, are concerned about what is going on with habitat in South Dakota – and what it could mean for South Dakota’s citizens and its business sector. Gov. Dennis Daugaard announced Oct. 15 that he will host a Pheasant Habitat Summit to discuss the future of pheasant habitat and hunting in South Dakota. The event is set for Friday, Dec. 6, at the Crossroads Convention Center in Huron.
Other states such as North Dakota have also worried about the loss of habitat as CRP acres decline. The Natural Resources Conservation Service there issued a guide for landowners and pheasant enthusiasts that says the ideal mix of habitat for pheasants is a landscape made of about 70 percent cropland – or ideally, 30 percent row crops and 40 percent small grains – and 30 percent hayland or grassland.
But while conservationists can agree on what makes ideal habitat, keeping such a mix in place is difficult in the face of attractive prices that are convincing farmers to grow more crops such as corn.
Gov. Daugaard’s South Dakota summit will include panel discussions and public input to explore ways to maintain and enhance pheasant habitat.
The Governor’s Pheasant Summit is open to the public and pre-registration is required. Information and registration is available by calling the Game, Fish and Parks Department at 605-773-3387.