SD pheasant boom headed for a bust?
As a Pheasants Forever farm bill biologist stationed in his hometown of Mitchell, Mike Blaalid spends his days helping area landowners create conditions ideal for wildlife habitat. He logs countless hours in the field and sees how the landscape is rapidly changing.
Drain tile is being installed in rural fields. Wetlands are being burned away so they can be farmed. Rocky, erodible, native sod that's never been turned is being converted to cropland.
Blaalid says that from a wildlife habitat standpoint, South Dakota is becoming the next Iowa, and that's not a good thing.
"We're not headed in the right direction, I can tell you that," Blaalid said. "I hate to say it, but I truly believe we are headed for a worse place. It might be awhile until we get back in the right direction again."
Not unlike the Black Hills gold rush of the 1870s or the North Dakota oil boom of today, South Dakota has enjoyed a pheasant boom over the past two decades. There were approximately 2.1 million pheasants in the state in 1986, but the population jumped over the next 20 years due to changes in land management and a better understanding of wildlife's role in tourism.
The federal Conservation Reserve Program, which pays landowners to set aside marginal land, played a large role. Its original intent was to keep land from being mismanaged, but it was accompanied by an environmentally wonderful side effect: It created ideal habitat for wildlife in general, and pheasants in particular.
As the pheasant population grew, many landowners grasped the connection between birds and income. Aided by word-of-mouth marketing and national advertising campaigns, South Dakota became a destination, and the state cashed in. The South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks estimates that nonresident hunters spent approximately $179 million in South Dakota in 2008 alone.
But history shows that oil booms and gold rushes fade, and Blaalid is worried South Dakota's pheasant boom is headed the same direction.
"Everybody in here either owns their own business or knows somebody who owns a business that is impacted by pheasant hunting," Blaalid said during a recent speech to the Mitchell Rotary Club. "So keep in mind how big a deal this is. If you take anything from this presentation, it should be this: It's pretty simple. The less habitat we have for wildlife and pheasants, the less wildlife we're going to have, which means, potentially, we could lose our hunters. Our nonresident hunters are very important. If we lose that revenue, what happens? What happens to Mitchell businesses? A lot of us depend on that seasonal flush of nonresident hunters who come here and spend money."
If Blaalid sounds like a doomsayer, Davison County's pheasant-related statistics do tend to point toward a looming cliff, both for the pheasant population and the fiscal health of the region's autumn tourism industry.
* There were more than 1.55 million acres of CRP land in South Dakota in 2007. By 2010, South Dakota's CRP acres fell to 1.11 million acres. The acreage took a hit earlier this year, when another 117,000 acres came out of contract, dropping South Dakota's CRP total to about 980,000 acres. Between 2007 and today, South Dakota's amount of CRP land has dropped by approximately 579,000 acres. That comes to about 904 square miles, or a land mass 35 square miles larger than the combined size of Hanson and Davison counties.
* According to the state Department of Game, Fish and Parks, the pheasant population dropped from 11.9 million in 2007 to 6.6 million in 2011.
* Nonresident hunters spent approximately $9.6 million in Davison County in 2008, according to the GF&P. In 2011, the number was $6.6 million, down 31 percent.
* There were 66,175 pheasants harvested in Davison County in 2008, but by 2011, that number had steadily declined to 38,246 -- a drop of 42 percent.
* In 2007, there were 103,231 licensed nonresident pheasant hunters in South Dakota, but in 2011, the number fell to 95,077 -- a drop of 8 percent.
* In Davison County, 4,348 nonresident pheasant hunters purchased licenses in 2007. In 2011, the number fell to 3,404 -- down 22 percent.
* In 2007, the Mitchell airport reported 3,932 people arriving between October and December. In 2011, the number fell to 3,182 -- down 19 percent.
* Meanwhile, the price of corn has risen exponentially, from $3.22 on Oct. 1, 2007, to $7.37 on Oct. 1 of this year -- up 129 percent.
Blaalid said the similarities between Iowa's past and South Dakota's present are too real to deny.
In 2003, Iowa saw more than 140,000 hunters harvest more than 1 million pheasants. Those are respectable numbers and somewhat comparable to South Dakota's hunter numbers and average harvest the past decade. But earlier this month, Field and Stream magazine reported that "Iowa's pheasant numbers have been in free fall for the past five years due to cold, wet weather and habitat destruction prompted by high grain prices."
In 2011, Iowans harvested only about 109,000 pheasants -- just 10 percent of the 2004 harvest and the lowest total since the state began annual estimates in 1962. For comparison, consider this: In 2011, hunters in South Dakota harvested 103,000 pheasants in Lyman County alone.
A report titled "Iowa's Pheasants," penned by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, also places at least some blame on habitat loss. From 1990 to 2005, Iowa lost 2,500 square miles of CRP land.
"Iowa doesn't have much pastureland left. It's all broken up," Blaalid said. "In the 1990s, Iowa was shooting way more birds than us. Can you imagine Mitchell going from the six-million-odd dollars we made (in Davison County nonresident hunter spending) to next to nothing?"
From 1997 to 2010, Iowa endured a sharp decrease in pheasant-related spending. According to the Iowa DNR, 205,204 pheasant hunters spent more than $80 million in the state in 1997; in 2010, approximately 60,000 hunters spent $24 million.
When shown the downward-trending statistics, Mitchell Convention and Visitors Bureau Director Jacki Miskimins said "it's not a trend I'm excited to see."
"I definitely want to keep my eye on it," she said. "Pheasant hunting is critical to Mitchell's economy. It's a huge boost after peak tourist season. ... If numbers continue to decline, we'll need to formulate a wide-ranging response."
Miskimins' office annually works to attract hunters. For example, Mitchell is represented with a booth at the annual national Pheasant Festival, scheduled for Feb. 15-17 in Minneapolis. Approximately 6,500 mailers are sent to Minnesota hunters each year, touting Mitchell as a hunting destination.
It's not all doom and gloom.
Summertime brood counts showed an 18 percent increase in the state's pheasant population earlier this year.
Mike Scherschligt, manager of the Mitchell airport, said arrivals this year seem to be on par with years past, although he hasn't yet compiled seasonal totals.
And when The Daily Republic checked taxable sales in the Mitchell ZIP code's category of "sporting goods and bicycle shops," the newspaper found that sales have remained stable since 2008. In 2008, the reported taxable sales in that category came to $28,710,011. In 2011, the number was $29,710,135.
"So where are we headed?" Blaalid asked during subsequent interviews with The Daily Republic. "I don't have a crystal ball, unfortunately, but I am genuinely concerned that if we don't become more proactive instead of reactive, like Iowa is now, we could slowly become like Iowa."
Blaalid said it's tough to blame landowners, since farming "is a business, and you want to be profitable. They're making a lot of profits and I can't blame them."
But, he adds, "I think we need to start thinking big picture."
As executive director of the South Dakota Corn Growers Association, Lisa Richardson works out of a Sioux Falls office. Don't let her urban office location belie her staunch support of rural rights. Richardson is quick to counter any talk that blames landowners and farming practices for having a negative effect on the state's pheasants.
"Our population is growing," she said. "The world is hungry and the American farmer is adapting."
When a reporter called her office last week to ask questions about pheasants and farming, she let out an audible sigh and immediately produced numbers and statistics to make a case on behalf of South Dakota farmers. It's as if the data is kept in a nearby glass case, at the ready for such emergencies.
"The No. 1 thing that affects corn or pheasant production is Mother Nature," said Richardson, who as a youngster hunted with her father. "Pheasant numbers were up 18 percent in 2012 because last winter wasn't too bad and last spring wasn't too wet."
Richardson said there needs to be a "balancing act between feeding the world and recreation."
And she's not convinced farmers are as detrimental to pheasants as some believe.
She notes that in 1997, there were 3.6 million pheasants in the state and also that the number rose to 11.9 million in 2007, the highest number since the early 1960s. Although there was a dip down to 6.6 million in 2011, she notes that the number rose to an estimated 11 million again this year. And all this came as CRP numbers decline and corn acreage increases, she said.
"During the past decade, when our corn numbers rose dramatically, our pheasant numbers were the highest they have been in 40 years," she said.
Corn farmers take the blame when in reality it's more likely just a natural cycle, she said.
"The thing that's going to stink is this: We are having CRP numbers coming out. Let's say we have a terrible winter, with no cover and no food. They will die, OK? And then we have a super-wet spring and the hatches won't work. Regardless, Mother Nature plays a role in all this, just as she does with the corn crop."
Richardson acknowledges that more marginal land is being used for crops, but says greed isn't behind it. She said CRP acres are coming out of contract because technology has created corn seed that now will grow in formerly marginal areas. Drought-resistant seeds are being unveiled, and that means the corn range will continue to head farther into western South Dakota, driving up acreage numbers even more.
Meanwhile, some climate experts claim that climate change is prompting an expansion of corn country. Kansas farmers are harvesting fewer and fewer corn acres while corn production in Manitoba has doubled over the past decade.
Earlier this year, The Daily Republic published a Bloomberg News report that quoted John Soper, vice president of crop genetics research for Pioneer, as saying that corn-growing regions likely will continue to move northward while alternative grains will take corn's place elsewhere.
'Plow, baby, plow'
Lyle Perman, of Lowry, has a unique perspective on South Dakota's emerging agricultural landscape. He is a rancher and the outgoing chairman of the South Dakota Grassland Coalition. He raises cows, grooms lands for his pheasant hunting business and sells farmland insurance.
As he spoke to a reporter earlier this week, he looked out the window of his shop and watched pheasants frolic on his ranch, which is located between Pierre and Mobridge.
Perman said the issue is that landowners simply are seeking the best bottom line, and he doesn't blame them.
"It's all about habitat and economics. Where can I get the most return?" he said. "Pheasants and wildlife are not the best return. ... CRP rental rates are not keeping up with cash rental rates."
CRP contracts last from 10 to 15 years. Landowners who sign them promise to not farm those acres, for which they are paid by the federal government -- sometimes between $100 and $150 per acre, depending on the type of program and location of the land.
Perman's CRP land in the rough country south of Mobridge doesn't bring that much money. He has a CRP contract that pays him $63 per acre, but he says he could easily double that if he simply rented the land. If he rented the land, he wouldn't have to deal with the constant hassle of controlling noxious weeds on those acres.
Also, insurance guarantees have risen exponentially in recent years, Perman said, and many landowners feel they have nothing to lose by putting crops on former CRP land.
A report earlier this year, compiled by the Minnesota Environmental Partnership, outlined how rising insurance guarantees are contributing to the growing number of acres being used for row crops. The report noted a particular farmer who was guaranteed $166 per acre in 1997, yet saw that number rise to approximately $900 in 2011.
"Show me a CRP contract that is expiring and isn't being converted to cropland and I'll show you nine that are," Perman said. "CRP rental rates are not keeping up with cash rental rates and the other part of it right now is in our current farming situation, with crop insurance. ... As long as people are not discouraged -- due to crop insurance -- to convert CRP, they're going to do it."
It's hard to track how many acres of grassland -- not just CRP, but actual acres of grass -- have recently been tilled in South Dakota, Perman said. He suggests using state statistics on cattle instead.
According to the National Agriculture Statistics Service, there were 1.8 million beef cattle in South Dakota in 2001; today, there are about 1.6 million. Perman said the drop of about 200,000 animals is a good indicator that grassland has correspondingly been converted to other purposes.
Perman, who will speak in Mitchell at a Pheasants Forever event Feb. 10, asks landowners to take a "holistic" approach in their decision-making.
"In the end, on our ranch, we look at it from an ethical standpoint. We say that, yes, there is some land that could grow corn, but maybe we should leave it in grass because from an environmental standpoint, that makes sense," he said. "That is being lost by some decision-makers. It's 'plow, baby, plow' while we can."
Meanwhile, he cautions that to simply stop growing row crops could be harmful to the state's economy in several ways.
Perman reminds that implement dealers make their money by selling the tools and machines that turn the soil. That revenue then circulates through South Dakota's rural communities. Seed dealers and fertilizer salespeople are important to the state's economy, too.
And, he asks, "if we have to feed 9 billion people by 2050, how are we going to do it if we don't convert and plow up CRP?"
To find a solution would first require that all sides agree on whether a problem exists in the first place.
Blaalid, the wildlife biologist, says wildlife woes are on the horizon if things don't change.
Richardson, of the South Dakota Corn Growers, says corn farmers aren't necessarily to blame for decreasing pheasant numbers. She also says there isn't enough proof that bird numbers are truly in decline.
And Perman, the insurance agent and rancher from Lowery, said many factors are in play as the state's agricultural landscape changes.
Perman said a problem going forward will be that "government can't compete" with the economic realities of today's agriculture.
"It's a money issue. Farmers would keep land in CRP if rates were competitive," he said. "I wish there was some way that when the contracts expire, that they could figure out a way to encourage people to keep that land in grass. But there just isn't.
"Until the government provides an equal incentive for raising grass as it does for breaking it to raise other crops, (CRP and grassland) acres will continue to decline."
Blaalid said any solution will require a "cooperative effort."
It would help, Blaalid said, if Congress would be more aggressive and pass a new farm bill. The delay is only creating more uncertainty, he said.
He also would like to see conservation compliance promoted through legislation. Blaalid said that in the 1990s, the government unlinked conservation measures and insurance, meaning landowners could receive insurance payments without basic soil conservation practices being in use.
In the meantime, Blaalid is just grateful for opportunities to tell people that the industry he cherishes is, in his opinion, in trouble.
"I just think a lot of people don't realize this is happening," he said. "I don't think it hurts as much when it's gradual, but this is still a loss."