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OUR VIEW: No easy fix for habitat loss in SD

It's difficult to pick sides in the stirring debate between crops and tourism, and more specifically, corn and pheasants.

Saturday, The Daily Republic told the story of Mike Blaalid, a Mitchell-based wildlife biologist, who openly worries that pheasant numbers will decline in the state as more of South Dakota's prairie is converted to cropland.

Blaalid says if we're not careful, South Dakota will become the next Iowa. From a pheasant and wildlife standpoint, that's not an enviable destination, since Iowa has planted corn in nearly every nook and cranny while seeing its pheasant population diminish to almost insignificant numbers.

How did it happen? That depends upon who is asked, but many fingers point toward changing attitudes about crops, rental rates, insurance and the Conservation Reserve Program, which pays landowners to leave alone marginal land.

It used to be that CRP acres were a good answer to poor market prices. Farmers could receive payment for CRP land without having to risk a crop on it. Meanwhile, that CRP sprouted pheasants, and many landowners grasped the connection between pheasants, pheasant hunters and the dollars those pheasant hunters bring with them.

But rental rates have outpaced CRP payments. The corn price has more than doubled in the past eight years and insurance programs offer firm safety nets for farmers whose crops fail.

We don't think this is necessarily a bad thing. We do not begrudge landowners and crop producers their recent windfall, because Lord knows history hasn't always been kind to farmers and agriculture-related businesses.

But we agree with Blaalid that current circumstances do pose a threat to South Dakota's pheasant population. And if our pheasants go the same way as Iowa's did, this state's autumn tourism industry will take a corresponding dive.

What are the solutions?

• First, CRP and related programs should be a high priority in future farm bills. We are convinced congressional delegates from the Dakotas understand the program's importance, but we have no confidence that urban lawmakers give a plug nickel for CRP. That's shortsighted and unfortunate.

• CRP rental rates should be raised. We realize that's a generality and also easier said than done, but the truth is that CRP just doesn't pay, especially considering what producers are getting these days for corn.

• Wildlife organizations must dive headfirst into the issue. It may be pheasant groups or even national organizations like the Audubon Society, but everyone with an interest must throw their support behind finding solutions -- or at the very least educating the public about habitat loss.

• Finally, don't blame farmers. This is their business, and agriculture is top dog in South Dakota with a much higher economic impact than hunting will ever have. Who are we to ask this powerful industry to reduce its revenue potential and overall strength?

The truth is that saving South Dakota's pheasant population doesn't have an easy solution without high cost and intense debate.

All we can ask for now is that people understand that troubles could be on the horizon, and pheasant hunting may already have reached its zenith in South Dakota.