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Governor announces pheasant task force

South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard speaks at the opening of his Pheasant Habitat Summit on Friday at the Crossroads Hotel and Convention Center in Huron. (Sean Ryan/The Daily Republic)1 / 2
Attendees fill the Huron Arena exhibit floor Friday during the Governor's Pheasant Habitat Summit in Huron. (Sean Ryan/The Daily Republic.)2 / 2

HURON — Concerned about the declining pheasant population and its statewide impact, Gov. Dennis Daugaard is mounting an attack.

Friday at the first-ever Governor’s Pheasant Habitat Summit, Daugaard announced the formation of a task force to find a balance between modern agricultural practices and wildlife-oriented land conservation.

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“I want to emphasize how important it is that we maintain the strength of our agriculture economy and that we maintain the heritage of our hunting tradition,” Daugaard said at the conclusion of the nearly seven-hour summit at the Crossroads Hotel and Convention Center in Huron. “Those are two very important things to South Dakota, and we want to keep both of them. We need to come up with ideas that help both of them, and we’ll get a win-win solution.”

The task force, or “work group” as Daugaard labeled it, has not yet been assembled. He said it could include lawmakers and will certainly include hunters and landowners.

About 500 people from all over the state registered to attend the summit, which included presentations from the state Department of Game, Fish and Parks; the South Dakota Corn Utilization Council; the consulting firm Strategic Conservation Solutions; and Pheasants Forever.

After the presentations, there were breakout sessions in which small groups of people were encouraged to discuss ideas to improve pheasant habitat across the state through federal, state, local and individual efforts.

Daugaard said the ideas will be reviewed by the task force, which will eventually recommend an action plan.

“Addressing the question of habitat is not a simple thing, but when you get landowners with sportsmen and policymakers on the state and local level, it’s a good thing, because communication is key,” Daugaard said. “Understanding one another is the first step toward agreeing on common supportive solutions.”

Daugaard called for the summit after the August preseason pheasant survey from the GF&P dropped by 64 percent compared to last year. The drop was the second largest in the history of the survey, which dates to 1949. It also means the state’s pheasant population probably dipped below 3 million this year after being as high as 12 million in 2007. South Dakota still has the highest pheasant population in the nation.

Through Nov. 25, hunters had purchased approximately 25,500 fewer South Dakota licenses tied to pheasants compared to last season. That equates to $2.375 million in lost license revenue.

On average, pheasant hunting generates an estimated $223 million in retail economic impact annually and an additional $111 million in salaries annually, according to the South Dakota Department of Tourism. Additionally, the state estimates there are 4,500 jobs linked directly to the pheasant hunting industry and related tourism.

A panel of experts Friday explained that global demand for food has led farmers to crop hundreds of thousands of additional acres in South Dakota during recent years. The conversion of that land from grass and dense cover is contributing to sharp declines in pheasant populations, they said.

The five-person panel consisted of Tony Leif, director of the Wildlife Division of South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks; Barry Dunn, dean of the South Dakota State University College of Agriculture and Biological Sciences; Bruce Knight, of the consulting firm Strategic Conservation Solutions; Dave Nomsen, vice president of governmental affairs for Pheasants Forever; and Jim Hagen, secretary of the South Dakota Department of Tourism.

Daugaard said any of the panel members could be good additions to the task force. He added that everyone at the event will receive updates and communication in the future about “short-term and long-term plans.”

“We’re going to continue to engage with you,” he said. “After we move ahead with you on some of these ideas, we want to continue to involve you.”

Leif opened the day with a history of how pheasant hunting became part of South Dakota tradition, explaining that for the past decade the state has harvested an average of 1.8 million pheasants per year.

He said the opening weekend each October results in 20 percent of the annual pheasant harvest, or about 360,000 pheasants harvested during opening weekend per year. He explained the rise of the federal government’s Conservation Reserve Program from the 1985 farm bill and how the land it protected from farming helped grow pheasant numbers. He showed that as acres of CRP rose in South Dakota, so did bird numbers.

“Where do we go from here?” Leif asked. “We’re going to spend some time later and look forward to your time and your ideas of where we go.

“Are we going to fluctuate around a mean of 2 million pheasants? Are we going to fluctuate around a mean of a million and a half pheasants? It all depends on that all-important habitat.”

Dunn, the SDSU ag dean, said South Dakota farmers have added 1.5 million acres of cropland since 1959, when farming acres totaled 44.5 million.

“From our very early days, we have had the underpinning that the wildlife of America belongs to the public, but that puts a huge responsibility on private land ownership,” Dunn said.

Knight, a former official with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and a Buffalo County farmer and rancher, explained each farmer fed 19 people in 1940, but said that’s changed to 155 people today, which is one of the reasons more grassland is being converted to cropland.

“The pressures on the South Dakota grasslands will continue, and there are no simple solutions,” he said. “Global population is a big driver of agri-industries.”

Dave Nomsen  Nomsen, of the nationwide 140,000-member-strong Pheasants Forever, started working for the organization in 1992. His main message was that pheasants and farming can coexist in South Dakota.

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

Nathan Sanderson, an aide to Gov. Daugaard, said South Dakota Public Broadcasting’s live video webcast of the event attracted 1,000 total viewers, and the maximum at one particular time was 275.

“Our average visit time was more than one hour, and we were impressed with that statistic,” Sanderson said. “People were interested in this all across the country.”

Capital Correspondent Bob Mercer contributed to this report.