History will be made Friday in South Dakota when about 450 people from throughout the state trek to Huron to collectively concern themselves with a bird.
Which is admirable enough. That the pilgrimages will be made at the invitation of the state’s governor makes the event a bigger deal still.
The bird in question is the pheasant, which underscores the importance, socially and economically, of the ringneck to South Dakota, a state widely regarded as among the nation’s last best places for prairies, prairie wildlife and prairie hunting.
Unfortunately, South Dakota’s pheasants have been in what has been described as a death spiral in recent years. Loss of more than a half-million Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) acres is one reason, a consequence of rising commodity prices and the resulting conversion of grasslands to croplands
A summer-long drought in 2012 didn’t help. Nor did recent, successive cold, wet nesting seasons.
Were it only money associated with pheasants that is at stake — some 21 percent fewer nonresidents hunted birds in the state this year, representing a $2 million loss to the Department of Game, Fish and Parks — the ringneck’s 62 percent population decline would be worrisome enough.
But South Dakota’s self-image, and the image it projects to the nation, is also taking a hit. This is big prairie country, after all, and with it is widely associated the good life, and good living, in the nation’s heartland, with all of its outdoor recreation opportunities.
Yet even here the conflict between modern agriculture and natural-resource conservation has come home to roost. As occurred long ago in Indiana and Illinois, then Iowa and Minnesota, wetlands in the eastern part of South Dakota are being drained, or are threatened to be drained, as never before.
Pattern tiling also has taken hold in the state to further rush surface water from the land, as farmers act to make their properties as corn- and soybean-friendly as possible.
So is “South Dakota fast becoming Iowa,’’ as is commonly claimed, a reference to Iowa’s once robust-but-now decimated pheasant population?
If so, ringneck lovers everywhere are in danger of losing their favorite pastime, and their favorite autumn haunts, as even the New York Times noted in a story published last year:
“The pheasant, once king of Iowa’s nearly half-a-billion-dollar hunting industry, is vanishing from the state. Surveys show that the population in 2012 was the second lowest on record, 81 percent below the average over the past four decades.’’
Credit, then, South Dakota governor Dennis Daugaard with calling Friday’s meeting at the Crossroads Convention Center in Huron.
“We are going to focus on habitat. We’re not looking at predators, disease, weather. We’re going to look at habitat — are there things we can agree on that people would all support?’’ Daugaard told the Argus Leader newspaper of Sioux Falls.
Some observers might think the governor’s call to action, or at least his call to discuss a call to action, is a political ploy.
Doubtless politics play a part. But in a nation in which natural resources too often are given short shrift by politicians as they compete for survival with various industries, not least agriculture, the governor’s effort is laudable and an important first step in the bird’s recovery.
And make no mistake: Pheasants will recover in South Dakota — even without the return of the 1.5 million CRP acres that helped boost their numbers to record levels a handful of years ago.
Weather is one reason: Dry nesting seasons historically outnumber wet ones in South Dakota.
Additionally, Pheasants Forever, among others, will begin to further intensify management of the state’s remaining private grasslands — properties that represent the origin of some 60 percent of South Dakota’s birds, and intensify as well management of state and federally owned wildlife properties.
What’s more, it says here the federal farm bill now congealing in Washington 1) will become a reality, and 2) will link crop insurance to compliance with federal conservation programs, which is critical to proper land stewardship in South Dakota and nationwide.
But perhaps most important to the coming recovery of South Dakota pheasants is the simple validation Friday in Huron by Gov. Daugaard of the importance of this bird to the state.
Ringneck hunters pump almost $175 million into South Dakota’s economy each year, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
But more important to retention of the state’s admirable and storied heritage, South Dakotans have a very good sense of who they are — and who they don’t want to be.
And they don’t want to be another Iowa.