How important are pheasants and pheasant hunting to South Dakota? Just look at the state’s 25-cent piece: Winging over iconic Mount Rushmore is a ring-necked pheasant — a species not even native to the state, but one long-embraced.
Up to 100,000 hunters from around the nation, including 20,000 from Minnesota, flock there each fall to hunt ringnecks, routinely harvesting 1.5 million or more birds, making South Dakota the Pheasant Capital of the Nation and pumping millions of dollars into the state’s economy.
“Our pheasant opener is like the fishing opener in Minnesota — it’s a big deal,’’ said Chris Hesla, executive director of the South Dakota Wildlife Federation.
Pheasant hunting is so important that Hesla and more than 400 others skipped what would have been a frigid day of pheasant hunting on Friday and instead gathered in Huron for an unprecedented “pheasant habitat summit” called by South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard in response to the state’s declining wildlife habitat and plunging ringneck population. Since 1997, the state has lost more than 1 million acres of grasslands once enrolled in the federal Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). And the state’s pheasant population fell 64 percent this year and is 76 percent below the 10-year average.
Now South Dakota state officials, business owners, conservation groups and hunters worry that their state is starting down the slippery slope that battered Iowa. There, hunters once killed 1 million pheasants a season, but loss of habitat and poor weather has reduced the harvest to one-tenth of that.
South Dakota’s situation hasn’t gone unnoticed by hunters: The state has sold 20,000 fewer nonresident hunting licenses and 7,000 fewer resident licenses this season, resulting in a $2.75 million loss of revenue for the Game, Fish and Parks Department.
The intent of South Dakota’s summit was to gather agricultural, business and wildlife interests to brainstorm about ways to save pheasant hunting in South Dakota.
“The plan was to bring a cross-section of interests together to focus on how we can do a better job of creating habitat on both private and public lands,’’ said Jeff Vonk, Game, Fish and Parks Department secretary.
Dave Nomsen, Pheasants Forever vice president of government affairs, was one of the few Minnesotans at the summit.
“I called for a comprehensive plan, because if you’re going to be serious about saving pheasant hunting in South Dakota, you’ve going to have specific plans for on-the-ground activities,’’ he said.
Not surprisingly, many ideas offered by participants involved finding money, including a source of dedicated funding for wildlife habitat, similar in concept to Minnesota’s Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment. Among them: Create a new habitat stamp, divert sales tax for habitat, create a $5-per-acre tax for nonresident landowners or boost hunting license fees by $10 for residents and $20 for nonresidents. (South Dakota already raised nonresident small game licenses $10 this year, to $125. A resident small game license is $32.)
Other ideas: Round sporting goods purchases up to the next highest dollar and tax commercial hunting lodges.
Participants also suggested changing the state tax structure to provide more incentives for landowners to retain grasslands, improving food plots on state and federal lands; promoting the planting of small grains and maximizing existing habitat for wildlife production.
The governor will appoint a panel to review the ideas and develop an action plan. But Vonk acknowledged that developing a plan is one thing; implementing change is more difficult. Politics undoubtedly will have an impact. Proposing tax increases in conservative South Dakota likely wouldn’t be popular.
Acquiring lands for wildlife habitat might not be, either. Daugaard came into office in 2011 and fulfilled a campaign promise by imposing a moratorium on land purchases by the Game, Fish and Parks Department. That moratorium was lifted earlier this year, but doubts remain that South Dakota will buy its way out of the habitat problem.
The state has just 295,000 acres of Game Production Areas, compared to Minnesota’s 1.3 million acres of Wildlife Management Areas. Minnesota has added 26,000 acres to its public land program in just the past five years, reflecting the difference in philosophy between the two states.
Meanwhile, state officials are hoping Congress eventually will approve a new federal Farm Bill that will include conservation provisions, such as extending or expanding CRP, which pays landowners to take marginal cropland out of production and plant it to grass. The program once had 32 million acres but now is down to about 25 million. Landowners are pulling out of the program because they can make more money planting crops.
But a pheasant bailout funded by the federal government also is unlikely.
“The state, private and corporate sectors have to step up — it can’t all come from the federal government,’’ Nomsen said.
The time for action is now, he said: “There’s too much at stake here. If we can’t save pheasants in South Dakota, how can we possibly do it anywhere else?’’