Pheasant summit: Can South Dakota save its 'big deal' tradition?

  • Article by: DOUG SMITH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 16, 2013 - 7:23 AM

Pheasant hunting has a long, rich tradition in South Dakota — and means millions to the state economy. Here, Jack Rendulich of Duluth showed off a rooster bagged in October.

Photo: DOUG SMITH •,

CameraStar Tribune photo galleries

Cameraview larger

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?’’


Doug Smith •


  • get related content delivered to your inbox

  • manage my email subscriptions

Click here to send us your hunting or fishing photos – and to see what others are showing off from around the region.


Tampa 6 FINAL
Philadelphia 2
LA Clippers 96 FINAL
Chicago 86
Cleveland 103 FINAL
Houston 105
Golden State 106 FINAL
Boston 101
Philadelphia 74 FINAL
Indiana 94
Portland 110 FINAL
Sacramento 99
Charlotte 98 FINAL
Orlando 83
Oklahoma City 108 FINAL
LA Lakers 101
New Orleans 99 FINAL
Denver 92
Los Angeles 2 FINAL
Winnipeg 5
Tampa Bay 3 FINAL
Florida 4
Columbus 3 FINAL
Pittsburgh 5
Toronto 0 FINAL
Washington 4
Anaheim 3 FINAL
Dallas 1
St. Louis 5 FINAL(SO)
Vancouver 6
Connecticut 81
Quinnipiac 65 FINAL
Manhattan 69
Fairfield 56 FINAL
Niagara 57
Marist 49 FINAL
Rider 59
Iona 60 FINAL
Saint Peters 68
Oregon State 56 FINAL
California 73
South Florida 55 FINAL
Houston 72
Marquette 66 FINAL
Providence 77
Michigan State 61 FINAL
Wisconsin 68
Siena 57 FINAL
Monmouth 63
Pittsburgh 66 FINAL
Wake Forest 69
Oregon 73 FINAL
Stanford 70
Purdue 61 FINAL
Ohio State 65
Arizona State 81 FINAL
Colorado 87
Washington St 67 FINAL
Georgetown 66 FINAL
Providence 81
Binghamton 50 FINAL
Elon 65 FINAL
Hofstra 58
Virginia Tech 47 FINAL
Boston College 49
(8) Louisville 59 FINAL
Virginia 75
Texas 69 FINAL
West Virginia 76
Creighton 53 FINAL
Villanova 61
Seton Hall 85 FINAL
Butler 76
UNC-Wilmington 76 FINAL
Coll of Charleston 65
(5) Maryland 69 FINAL
(25) Northwestern 48
Saint Josephs 67 FINAL
La Salle 55
Louisiana Tech 53 FINAL
TX-San Antonio 60
Rhode Island 70 FINAL
Massachusetts 78
Richmond 55 FINAL
VA Commonwealth 49
Davidson 46 FINAL
Fordham 54
St Bonaventure 43 FINAL
Duquesne 51
George Mason 45 FINAL
(22) George Washington 80
Indiana 60 FINAL
(20) Rutgers 71
(12) Texas A&M 63 FINAL
LSU 80
Ole Miss 47 FINAL
(11) Miss State 55
Clemson 56 FINAL
Pittsburgh 61
Maine 47 FINAL
New Hampshire 61
Vermont 48 FINAL
Albany 76
Quinnipiac 87 FINAL
Monmouth 48
Saint Peters 47 FINAL
Siena 64
(4) Notre Dame 67 FINAL
NC State 60
Wisconsin 62 FINAL
Penn State 56
Stony Brook 49 FINAL
Hartford 56
Northeastern 47 FINAL
William & Mary 62
St Johns 61 FINAL
Xavier 74
James Madison 74 FINAL
Delaware 71
Towson 45 FINAL
Drexel 50
Illinois State 50 FINAL
Bradley 60
Southern Ill 74 FINAL
Loyola-Chicago 70
Northern Iowa 54 FINAL
Wichita State 66
Minnesota 76 FINAL
(17) Iowa 92
(15) North Carolina 80 FINAL
(16) Duke 81
Alabama 73 FINAL
Auburn 80
(9) Florida State 69 FINAL
Miami-Florida 55
Arkansas 41 FINAL
Missouri 57
Georgia 52 FINAL
Florida 45
Dayton 95 FINAL
Saint Louis 68
Drake 57 FINAL
Missouri State 86
Colorado 46 FINAL
(10) Arizona State 59
(19) Stanford 55 FINAL
Oregon 62
Marquette 82 FINAL
DePaul 99
Southern Miss 66 FINAL
Texas-El Paso 60
Vanderbilt 49 FINAL
(6) Tennessee 79
(2) South Carolina 56 FINAL
(13) Kentucky 67
Utah 41 FINAL
Arizona 64
Ohio State 78 FINAL
Nebraska 60
Connect with twitterConnect with facebookConnect with Google+Connect with PinterestConnect with PinterestConnect with RssfeedConnect with email newsletters





question of the day

Poll: Should the lake where the albino muskie was caught remain a mystery?

Weekly Question