Pheasant panel hopes to keep birds thriving
By Peter Harriman
Sioux Falls Argus Leader
SIOUX FALLS (AP) — The harmony among farmers and ranchers, conservationists and sportsmen that prevailed at Gov. Dennis Daugaard's pheasant habitat summit in December in Huron provides a valuable foundation for the work group the governor appointed after the event, say several of its members.
The diverse, 13-member group is charged with developing a strategy for the state to stabilize and rebuild pheasant numbers that declined 64 percent in the past year and are down an even steeper 76 percent from the 10-year average.
The work group is supposed to report its findings by late summer or early fall, the Argus Leader reported.
"The great thing about the Huron meeting is I loved the tone established by the governor and (Department of Game Fish and Parks) Secretary (Jeff) Vonk, that this isn't about agriculture and hunters being opposed," said Jan Nicolay of Chester, a work group member, former legislator and conservation advocate.
Some group members see the challenge as primarily financial. The fundamental solution, they say, is to secure a stable and sufficiently large revenue source for the state to replace a significant portion of more than 500,000 acres of federal Conservation Reserve Program grassland that farmers have converted to crops in the past half-dozen years.
Others look at the problem from landowners' perspective and seek to advance proposals that would entice farmers to leave land in grass and to adopt farming practices that benefit wildlife.
Congress is stalled in its effort to pass a new farm bill with a conservation title, and "we all recognize the amount of money that has come from the federal government probably is not going to be there in the amounts they have been in the past," said John Cooper, South Dakota Game Fish and Parks commissioner and retired GF&P secretary.
Cooper said he thinks money focused on watershed improvements in the federal Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program still will be available in a new farm bill, and it will provide opportunities to improve pheasant habitat adjacent to waterways such as the James, Big Sioux and Vermillion rivers and their tributaries.
But he said the key is to find a steady $7 million to $10 million annual revenue source devoted to pheasant habitat. He suggests a dedicated sales tax might do it. Cooper also pointed out that hunters and anglers already contribute when they pay federal taxes devoted to wildlife programs on guns, ammunition and sporting equipment and when they buy hunting and fishing licenses. But retailers who are major beneficiaries of the $200 million annual economic effect of pheasant hunting in South Dakota don't contribute proportionally.
"Very few people on Main Street and in high-end box stores such as Scheels and Cabela's have really paid an equal, fair share," he said.
Nicolay agrees states that are successful in stabilizing wildlife habitat have a dedicated source of revenue for the purpose. The source differs from state to state, she said, and it will be part of the committee's responsibility to find what works for South Dakota.
Steve Halverson, a Lyman County farmer who also offers premier wild pheasant hunting through his Halverson Hunts, said he thinks the Legislature can have a substantial effect on reversing the loss of grassland by changing the way the state taxes agricultural land. Now, it is taxed at the highest potential use, which is often as cropland.
"That's the driver that has led to more ground being broken up than anything," he said.
If land were taxed on what it is actually used for, Halverson said, more landowners would be willing to keep it in grass.
"For a lot of these guys, their taxes have tripled on some of their grasslands." Halverson said. "At some point, a farmer said, 'I just can't keep it in grass anymore.'"
Cooper also sees advantages to changing the way land is taxed. However, he points out to make such a change revenue-neutral "you'll have to have taxes higher on cropland."
Another farmer in the work group, Jason Frerichs of Wilmot, also is the state Senate minority leader. He is not enthusiastic about efforts to restore extensive blocks of grassland. But he said targeted land-use changes can yield a big bang for the buck.
"I'm not a fan of vast acres of CRP, quarter-sections and half-sections. I'd like to see a new approach with localized efforts with adequate water, maybe leave some acres idle, but limited," Frerichs said. He pointed to seeding cover crops such as radishes and turnips that could benefit wildlife. He talked about leaving longer wheat stubble and adjusting alfalfa mowing schedules to minimize the effect on nesting pheasants as useful farming practices the state should promote to enhance wildlife.
With the possible exception of white-tailed deer, no animal in the Midwest has been as closely studied by wildlife biologist as the pheasant, according to Barry Dunn, dean of the South Dakota State University College of Agriculture and Biological Sciences. Grounding the committee's recommendations in science would lend them weight, and Dunn said he can best serve the work group "by bringing access to science-based information. I think that will be important. If I don't have it, I can get it very easily."
While Nicolay suggested the committee should promote short-term solutions that would have a limited but immediate influence on boosting pheasant numbers at the same time the state works toward long-term solutions, Halverson said the timeline on anything the committee proposes is likely to be much longer.
"In my mind, it's going to take a while to implement whatever we come up with and start reaping the benefits. I think we're looking six years down the road to see a continual increase in pheasant numbers."
The work group is scheduled to begin meeting in February. Cooper, Frerichs, Dunn, Nicolay and Halverson all suggest their efforts to devise a strategy to improve pheasant habitat in South Dakota will be productive.
"I am very optimistic and very excited," Dunn said. "This is the best of us. Open discussions, public meetings, public dialogue. This is where we shine."