In 1908 on a quiet farm in Redfield, SD, my great-great-grandfather had an intrepid idea. He raised money and, with his neighbor, traveled halfway across this new nation to bring the first pheasants to South Dakota. It was an enormous sacrifice of time and money, and it was unlikely to succeed.
But we know how the story turns out – South Dakota pheasant hunting is nearly a $1 billion industry. And, within his lifetime, my great-great-grandfather’s experimental foreign species became the state bird.
Through all this effort and unexpected success, he never profited … because that wasn’t the point. The point was to expand a sport he loved for a people and a place he loved. This cooperative spirit was necessary to bring pheasants to South Dakota, and it’s what’s required to prevent losing them.
Over the last decade, there has been a dramatic and concerning drop in pheasants, hunters, and the economic benefit they create for all South Dakotans. The cause is simple: there are fewer hunters because there are 61 percent fewer pheasants. There are fewer pheasants because 47 percent of pheasants’ home (“nesting habitat”) has been converted to cropland. And this nesting habitat has been decimated because the financial incentive (the Conservation Reserve Program, or “CRP”) for farmers to create nesting habitat has been slashed by Congress.
This, ultimately, is the root cause – farmers need more incentive and support to allow nesting habitat that benefits pheasants, which attracts hunters, who fund South Dakota. CRP also has enormous benefit to water and soil quality for all residents.
For those less familiar with the topic — every year, farmers have to decide what to do with marginal cropland – grow on it or use it for other means, like grassland for pheasant hunting.
When crop prices are low — or land is very poor — it’s more appealing to grow grassland in order to receive payment from CRP and hunters. Thus, with less money for CRP incentives, farmers are choosing less grassland and, in turn, fewer pheasants.
While more federal CRP funding is the most impactful solution, the state has other near-term options to pursue. That is why I am requesting Governor Noem reconvene/form a permanent Pheasant Work Group to explore additional solutions, including:
Self-fundDrastically increase prices for hunting licenses for out-of-state residents. Out-of-state hunters (70k each year) are 56 percent of SD’s pheasant hunters. Having them pay an extra $70 (the price of their baggage fee) would generate an extra $5 million
Create pressure for higher CRP funding in Congress’ next Farm Bill
Fund stronger enforcement of CRP stipulations and hunting permits
InvestPass state legislation to fund stronger SD Game, Fish, and Parks incentives for
farmers to use off-season cropland as habitation
Add stipulations on any funding to require certain cover crops; disallow grazing,
haying, and tilling; and prevent crop insurance from causing habitat conversion
Use some existing state funds to buy and convert land to public wildlife refuge areas
Have an outreach program so farmers know how to fully utilize CRP and wetland reserve easements in order to take advantage of habitat funding
Non-monetary solutionsManage existing public land in pheasant-encouraging ways. This can be as simple as changing what’s planted along certain roadways
Consider hedging price of crops. The ratio of cropland-to-grassland is largely dependent on crop prices, yet Farm Bill funding does not take this into account. If the program began hedging crop prices, it would be able to provide a more competitive incentive to not farm certain land when crop prices are high
Could these measures be inconvenient? Potentially. But they outweigh the lost status and economic benefit as the Pheasant Hunting Capital of the World. Sacrifice and determination brought pheasants to South Dakota; it’s required to keep them in South Dakota.
Tory Schalkle (great-great-grandson of Henry J. Schalkle), Wayzata, MN