“We’ve Seen This Movie”

Dear Capitol Journal Editor:

I noted, with much interest, Governor Noem’s recent remarks in the State of the State and Budget Address about pheasant hunting in South Dakota and I applaud her enthusiastic support for pheasant hunting in this great state. I also noted that she has referred any remarks/comments to the state agency website: http://habitat.sd.gov/. While that may be the proper protocol, I believe it is more appropriate to respond publicly to the Capitol Journal so that more landowners and sportsmen can get a historical perspective on pheasant hunting and habitat in South Dakota.

I am a “baby-boomer” (1946 model) originally from Watertown, SD who grew up with a single mom in my grandpa’s house (Bud Hoy), where hunting and fishing was a ritual and a rite of passage. I was raised with a pop gun, BB gun, shotgun, rifle, fishing pole and hunting dog as my “best friends”. Grandpa and I hunted and fished from Clear Lake to Hayti to Sisseton to Redfield to Conde to Webster and to Aberdeen. My grandpa was an “expert” having been a waterfowl market hunter after WWI and a pheasant hunting guide for top military/political officials out of the Army Air Base in Watertown during WWII. If it could be caught or shot, he knew how to do it with expertise. Moreover, he had great landowner relations and spent many days each year cultivating those relationships with landowners because of his respect for their land. “Commercial hunting” was buying the landowner dinner or a simple “thank you” in his farm yard.

In the late 1950’s, Soil Bank came about when 28 million acres of farm ground was voluntarily set aside on a 10 year program as part of the Farm Bill. As the program developed, virtually every species of wildlife exploded. My grandpa used to say, “Sonny, these are the GOOD OLE DAYS” (meaning that the pheasant hunting was as good as it was during WWII when many of the active hunters were at war and pheasant populations ranged from 6,000,000 to 16,000,00 birds.)

As Soil Bank land gradually came out of the program in the early 1960’s, wildlife populations began to fall dramatically, especially ring-necked pheasants. In 1963, the estimated statewide pheasant population dropped from 10,000,000 birds to 5,000,000 (50%) in one year because of a habitat loss and bad weather. In 1963, the pheasant season was 74 days with 4 bird limit dropping to 23 days with a 2 bird limit by 1975. In 1976, statewide pheasant numbers had dropped to a low of 1,400,000 birds, the lowest number since 1925. All of my favorite hunting spots began to look like a barren farmed up desert with little or no habitat for wildlife and only over-hunted public areas remained.

During mid 1970’s, a prominent outdoor writer/broadcaster and Sioux Falls businessman began an aggressive statewide bounty program called the “SD Pheasant Congress” designed to eliminate and put a bounty on the red fox. The red fox and other nest predators were being exclusively blamed for the devastation of the pheasant population, in spite of huge statewide habitat loss. Thousands of red fox and other nest predators were killed during the program. In spite of the bounty effort, the pheasant population began to stabilize around 2,000,000 birds, which, according to wildlife experts, is not a sustainable hunting population without adequate habitat. The bounty system had little or no effect on the pheasant population, while hundreds of thousands of sportsman’s dollars were spent on the bounty program. That bounty system didn’t work then and it won’t work now. It’s about habitat!

In 1985, the Conservation Reserve Program was introduced as part of the Farm Bill and pheasant numbers gradually climbed from around 3,000,000 pheasants to a high of 11,900,000 birds in 2007, which was roughly the time when some CRP contracts began to expire. At the same time, corn, soybean, and other crop prices rose and it became more profitable for farmers and ranchers to plow up the CRP to plant crops. Since the devastating loss of CRP habitat began in South Dakota in 2007, the pheasant population has, again, begun to drop and was reportedly 8,200,000 in 2016 dropping to 4,600,000 birds in 2017. Due to habitat loss and weather, that’s a 44% drop in the pheasant population in one year! If the current habitat loss trend continues, South Dakota pheasant hunters will soon be facing season length restrictions and possibly a daily limit of 2 birds………..or less!

In 2000, I ran out of private places (because of commercial hunting) to take my kids hunting like my grandfather did for me. I decided to borrow some money and buy my own place so that I could teach my kids about nature, hunting and how the land, farming and wildlife can all work together in harmony. Since 2002, I have been a landowner in Tripp County, South Dakota and have dedicated the better part of my life and financial resources to “giving back to nature” by converting an overgrazed, over farmed, eroded piece of dirt into a wildlife friendly farm which is 30% wildlife habitat, 30% farm ground, and 30% pasture. Based on my limited experience as a “city farmer” and life-long sportsman, my opinion here is intended to start a conversation so that we do not lose our pheasant hunting heritage which has been in place for over 100 years. So here we are today, we’ve seen this movie before………habitat goes away, weather goes bad, pheasant populations crash, everybody panics, and there’s an imposition of a bounty on predators. It happened in the 1970’s and it’s happening again. We’re at the same movie, in the same theater, and watching a rerun!

It’s all about Habitat.

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