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LETTER: Pheasant issue comes back to quality of life

To the Editor:

The ring-necked pheasant has been a boon to hunters and state game departments in the bread basket of the nation, including South Dakota, for a long time. It has provided an adaptable substitute for the native prairie chickens and grouse that were extirpated as their grassland habitats were changed to croplands.

The amount of grassland converted to cropland annually has varied over the years, but has never stopped. It is now being driven by genetically modified varieties of corn and beans that have allowed farmers to plant these crops in formerly unsuitable areas, and because of the increased prices resulting from the government-mandated production of corn ethanol. Increased corn prices and economic pressure on farmers to become more efficient have encouraged them to eliminate fence rows, plow up the ditches, clean up abandoned farmsteads, tear out shelterbelts and tile the wet spots. These activities have changed the rural landscape, eliminating small refuges for wildlife, including pheasants, in the mostly sterile (weed free) cropland landscape.

If the pheasant had stayed a local game bird that was hunted by residents each fall for a little recreation, there wouldn’t be so much concern. Unfortunately, the pheasant has become a symbol of the state, like Mount Rushmore, and many people’s livelihoods now depend on tourists visiting the Black Hills and an influx of out-of-state pheasant hunters every fall.

Personally, I wish Mount Rushmore had never been carved, the pheasant had never been introduced and that all the farms were like the one I grew up on: small, inefficient operations leaving neglected refuges of wildlife habitat all over the farm. But, there is no reset button on the world. Can we have a thriving agricultural economy and abundant wildlife today and tomorrow?

I think Barry Dunn, dean of ag and biological sciences at South Dakota State University, speaking at the Pheasant Summit has it right: “You can’t monetize everything about this issue. I honestly think that the biggest concern for me is quality of life, not only for current South Dakotans, but for future generations.”