For as long as I can remember the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks has been preaching habitat is the key to more pheasants. I agree. But it’s more than just habitat.

I look at the pheasant population as a triangle with the weather at the top of the triangle. That’s something we have no control over. Then there is habitat. Last, but not least, is predator control, which is something we’ve done very little about the past 50 years with the exception of Gov. Noem’s ground predator program the past 3 years. We can do something about predator control.

The Game, Fish and Parks Department has had a predator damage control program, but it is commercial in that it deals with damage done by predators to commercial interests. If a coyote eats your lambs or calves, call the GF&P and they will try to help you.

Back to habitat. The top pheasant years in our state were during the heydays of the old federal Soil Bank Program and then later the Conservation Reserve Program.

Those conservation programs came down to our 46,000 producers and the 32,000 farmers and ranchers who lived on the land. We still have CRP, but not in the number of acres of the past. The good news now is that CRP acreage is up. But the even better news is the state habitat stamp revenues. In the fiscal year 2020-21, revenue from 68,260 non-resident hunters and 130,635 resident hunters was more than $3 million dollars. Non-residents paid $25 for the stamp and residents $10.

This has resulted in 101 projects to date in 43 counties, with more in the planning stage, according to Paul Coughlin, GFP’s program administrator.

Coughlin said projects range from native grass seeding, woody cover planting to food plots and waterfowl access trails.

Tom Kirschenmann, GF&P’s wildlife division director and a long-time proponent of more habitat, said, “We recognize the key to strong pheasant and other wildlife populations is habitat. Looking back on history, there always has been a strong correlation between high bird numbers and a high level of grassland conservation acres enrolled in programs like Soil Bank and CRP.

“Habitat funds will be used to conduct numerous habitat projects on GF&P’s Game Production Areas,” he said, “and will also be used to enroll land in the James River Watershed CREP.”

Kirschenmann also said, “the targeting of some habitat stamp dollars to enroll more acres within the James River CRP will allow us to reach the maximum enrollment of 100,000 acres, which will also include free access to the public.”

Habitat monies collected from fishing license sales amounted to about $300,000 and those dollars are being spent on projects like repair on the Fairfax dam in Gregory County and a public access trail at the Platte Creek recreation area.

Simply put, our greatest leap forward was the 2020 passage of the habitat stamp program, a piece of legislation supported by all of the wildlife groups in our state. That’s only happened one other time in the past 20 years that I am aware of.

Pierre resident Steve Nelson is a longtime outdoor writer and photographer.

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