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No simple solution to farmer/hunter divide

Attendees break into small groups to discuss ideas after listening to speakers Friday during the Governor's Pheasant Habitat Summit at the Crossroads Hotel and Convention Center in Huron. (Sean Ryan/The Daily Republic.)

HURON — Hunters are competing for land with farmers, and there is no simple solution.

At the center of it all is a small, colorful bird, struggling to thrive with declining habitat in South Dakota’s often harsh, unpredictable weather.

In his opening remarks, Gov. Dennis Daugaard said the purpose of Friday’s Pheasant Habitat Summit in Huron was to help the state’s agriculture and pheasant hunting industries develop a more balanced relationship that will allow both sides to be successful.

“We want ag to be successful,” he said, “and we want pheasant hunting to continue here.”

But farmers and hunters have been increasingly at odds in recent years as higher demand has pushed farmers to use more land for crops, often resulting in the destruction of grassland that serves as valuable habitat for pheasants.

“There is a very strong link between agriculture and habitat,” said Tony Leif, director of the Wildlife Division of the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department. “Nothing will impact pheasants more than agriculture.”

In the past 10 years, hunters have harvested an average of 1.8 million pheasants per year in South Dakota, according to Leif.

In August, the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department reported the number of pheasants spotted during an annual statewide survey dropped 64 percent this year compared to last year. That is the second largest drop in the history of the state’s survey, dating to 1949, and it means the pheasant population is probably below 3 million after being as high as 12 million in 2007.

The future of the state’s pheasant population, given the apparent decline, will hinge on one thing, Leif said.

“It all depends on that all-important habitat,” he said.

Barry Dunn  South Dakota farmers have added 1.5 million acres of cropland since 1959, when farming acres totaled 44.5 million, according to an estimate presented by Barry Dunn, dean of agriculture and biological sciences at South Dakota State University.

Meanwhile, Dunn said, the land dedicated to conservation has decreased as farmers expand their operations to meet higher demand for crops, particularly corn and soybeans.

“This is a very, very complex and dynamic situation,” he said.

Bruce Knight  Bruce Knight, founder of Strategic Conservation Solutions LLC and a Gann Valley-area landowner, said that increasing demand is largely due to a growing, global middle class.

“Their purchasing power is exploding,” he said. “And they want to live the same way you and I do.”

In 1940, each farmer in the U.S. fed 19 people, Knight said. Today, each farmer feeds 155 people.

“The good news is we are extraordinarily productive,” he said.

Technology, Dunn said, has presented farmers with new opportunities and made them more productive than ever before. As a result, the average net income per farm in South Dakota has increased from $64,000 in 2007 to $154,000 in 2012. In that same time, farm real estate values have at least tripled, Dunn said.

“If there was a period in our history where there was that much wealth creation, I’d love to know,” he said. “I don’t think there ever has been.”

That wealth has been created largely at the expense of the state’s pheasant habitat and wildlife diversity, he said. If farmers could close the growing gap between their potential and actual yields, Dunn said, they could continue to be productive without destroying additional habitat.

“We can do a great job of producing corn for the world and for the state with the acres we have under tillage right now,” he said.

Knight also said farmers will have to work to increase production on the land already in their operations to be sustainable in the future.

“The next generation, we’re no longer farming by the acre, we’re farming by the inch,” he said.

Dave Nomsen, vice president of governmental affairs for Pheasants Forever, said more programs should be developed to give both sides the tools to be sustainable. Pheasants Forever is a national advocate group for hunting and habitat.

“We believe there is a place for wildlife conservation on every farm, on every ranch in the state of South Dakota,” Nomsen said.

Farmers should work to maximize every acre of productive land, while also setting aside land for conservation and wildlife habitat, Nomsen said.

“If we make a conscious decision that we want to expand, conserve and protect the South Dakota pheasant hunting tradition, we can do that.”