Soil Bank days gave kickstart to S.D. birdsWhen I was just beginning to hunt pheasants, the federal government offered a program called Soil Bank.
By: Terry Woster, The Daily Republic
When I was just beginning to hunt pheasants, the federal government offered a program called Soil Bank.
This was back when I was 12 years old or so, so it must have been about 1956. Dwight D. Eisenhower occupied the White House and a guy named Ezra Taft Benson was U.S. secretary of agriculture. From what I could gather listening to chatter at the Co-op in Reliance, Benson was to blame for every problem facing American agriculture in the 1950s. The men arguing farm policy as they bought fan belts and barn paint seemed fond of Ike, and they sure seemed to like the Soil Bank program around the opening day of pheasant season for the next several years.
I read somewhere that Soil Bank took maybe 10 or 20 million acres of land out of production. I didn’t pay any attention to that kind of stuff when I was a kid. What I knew about Soil Bank was that one of our neighbors enrolled one of his fields in the program. That field was just to the north of our mailbox, and it looked to me like it grew nothing but tall weeds and sneaky pheasants.
It was a tricky place to hunt; I don’t mind telling you that. The vegetation was tall, thick and rough — excellent cover for the pheasants as they scurried along the ground ahead of the boots of the hunters assigned to walk the field and drive the birds to the blockers at the far end. You came out of the field covered with stickers and cocklebur, scratches on hands, arms and sometimes face. But you usually came out to find that some people had gotten pretty good hunting while you were slogging your way through the wilderness.
Early in the season, of course, everyone in the hunting party got some shooting. The birds would spiral up ahead of the walkers, cackling like crazy and beating a path toward safety. After a few hunts, I guess the birds figured out that the ones that flew were the ones that didn’t return to the Soil Bank that evening, and sometimes later in the year I’d almost have to step on a crouching rooster before it would take flight. Those moments were so heart-stopping that even if I had a shot at the bird, I was too busy controlling my breathing to think about taking aim. Although nearly everyone I knew had experienced such a moment at some time during their pheasant hunting experience, when it happened to me, I cringed, because I knew the other young kids on the hunt would be laughing their heads off.
It’s hard to be James Dean-cool when you’ve just jumped four feet in the air in a patch of weeds and allowed a really nice rooster to fly merrily out of range across the township road.
As a young Associated Press reporter in Pierre, I wrote some stories about the decline of the pheasant population in South Dakota. One group was adamant that the problem was the fox. Too many fox were killing too many pheasants, especially the young pheasants, that group argued. They came armed with pictures of dead pheasants they assured me had been killed by fox.
Well, that made some sense to me, although back in Lyman County I hadn’t seen a fox in my life. I saw a coyote one evening, but no fox. But I didn’t doubt they were out there and probably in good numbers.
Another group said it was all about habitat. Pheasants needed cover, and fencerow-to-fencerow farming had pretty much taken away the cover. That made sense to me, too, and I figured out that the old Soil Bank land of my youth was actually habitat. That was an interesting surprise.
People don’t talk about the fox-pheasant studies so much these days. They don’t talk much about Soil Bank, either, although the current Conservation Reserve Program is a descendant of the 1950s farm policy, I gather.
I don’t know whatever came of the predator-habitat argument, but I know this: Whenever I drive past the piece of land just north of where our old mailbox sat, I think Eisenhower, Ezra Taft Benson and Soil Bank.
Terry Woster’s column appears Saturdays and Wednesdays in The Daily Republic.