MERCER: Fewer pheasants? South Dakota has faced cliffs before
PIERRE — Remember when South Dakota wasn’t labeled as America’s best place for hunting pheasants?
We’ve been blessed the past 25 years. But there is real worry this autumn.
The annual brood survey indicates the statewide population after the hatch was down 64 percent from 2012 and down 76 percent from the 10-year average.
The average of 1.51 pheasants per mile along the routes was the smallest since 1.81 in 1986.
That would put South Dakota below 3 million for the first time since 1989’s estimated population of 2.7 million pheasants.
And so Gov. Dennis Daugaard plans a summit Dec. 6 in Huron.
During the early 1960s, South Dakota had 10 million or more birds three seasons in a row. But by 1965, it was down to 3.3 million. The low point of modern times came in 1976 with 1.4 million.
The story of how South Dakota rebuilt as the pheasant center has many heroes. Mostly they are farmers and ranchers who put grassland into the federal Conservation Reserve Program established in 1985 by Congress.
Another reason why pheasants prospered again was the man South Dakota voters chose for governor in 1986.
George Speaker Mickelson loved to hunt and fish. Under the banner of Pheasants for Everyone, he put his shoulder behind programs for rebuilding rural South Dakota as an autumn Mecca for pheasant hunters.
The walk-in program, started in 1988 by the state Game, Fish and Parks Department, pays landowners to allow public hunting on private land.
Another was the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program. It provided cash for many farmers and ranchers to reduce debt and invest in their operations.
Landowners received lump sums and pledged future proceeds from their federal CRP payments.
Mickelson put Clint Roberts in charge of CREP. The program was Robert’s idea.
Clint was a rancher who served one term in the U.S. House, before finishing second to George in the four-way primary for the Republican governor nomination in 1986.
After the election, George and Clint went to Washington, D.C., for approval of CREP from U.S. Agriculture Secretary John Block, whom Clint knew while in Congress.
Through CRP, CREP, GFP and a variety of other federal programs, plus the spread of local chapters of the Pheasants Forever organization that began in Minnesota in 1982, pheasant hunting grew into a new golden age in South Dakota.
By 2007, state biologists estimated South Dakota had 11.9 million pheasants.
What’s happened since then is rural economics.
A 2008 analysis by South Dakota State University faculty put the economic benefits of returning CRP land to production at four to six times more than remaining in CRP.
CRP enrollments declined from a peak of 1.8 million acres in 1997 to less than 1 million acres currently.
The small tracts — 20 acres here, 500 there — still being put into pheasant habitat through GFP and federal programs can’t match the sweeping bottom-line decisions of producers converting grasslands to crops.
Agricultural management marches forward and rural South Dakota looks its most prosperous in decades.
Management of pheasant habitat now needs to innovate too, just as George and Clint did some 25 years ago.