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Summit aims to get farmers, hunters both on side of pheasants

HURON — Nathan Sanderson does not see Friday’s Governor’s Pheasant Habitat Summit as a battleground between landowners and hunters.

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Instead, he believes it will be a place to find common ground to help keep the state’s pheasant population thriving with help from both groups.

Sanderson — Gov. Dennis Daugaard’s policy adviser for the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department — said about 500 people are scheduled to attend the event, which starts at 9 a.m. at the Crossroads Convention Center in Huron and concludes at 4 p.m. A live webcast of the event will be available at

“Of the 500 registered, that’s citizens,” Sanderson said. “Certainly, I think the message from that is there are a lot of people excited and interested in this from the landowner’s and the sportsman’s side. I think it’s really important that we engage all of the stakeholders, and the attendance figures right now look to be pretty encouraging on that end.”

According to a report the GF&P released in August, the number of pheasants spotted during an annual statewide survey dropped 64 percent this year compared to last year. The drop was the second largest in the history of the state’s survey, dating to 1949.

After the survey, the governor’s office announced the creation of the Pheasant Habitat Summit, which will include panel discussions from experts and public input for exploring ways to maintain and enhance pheasant habitat in South Dakota.

GF&P Upland Game Biologist Travis Runia, who will be at Friday’s event, said one of the reasons for the drop in pheasant numbers in recent years is because of the rapid decline in pheasant habitat. The federal government’s Conservation Reserve Program, which pays landowners to set aside marginal land and not farm it, is known to be one of the best forms of pheasant habitat. This year is the first time in about two decades South Dakota will have fewer than 1 million acres of CRP, according to Pheasants Forever.

One of the reasons for the loss of pheasant habitat is because of the row-crop agriculture. Jeff Vonk, secretary of the GF&P, said landowners are tilling up rocky, erodible, native sod that’s never been turned and making it into cropland now more than in the past.

“An idea that I have is we examine modern agriculture practices,” Vonk said. “I like the notion of farm the best and leave the rest.”

Friday’s summit will have speakers from the GF&P, and speakers representing both hunters and landowners, including the South Dakota Corn Utilization Council, South Dakota State University College of Agriculture and Biological Sciences, Strategic Conservation Solutions, the South Dakota Department of Agriculture and Pheasants Forever, among others.

So, can farmers and hunters get on the same page so habitat is plentiful and pheasant numbers stay high, while farming stays profitable?

“I think the point is it’s really a symbiotic relationship,” Sanderson said. “Part of the reason we have a strong pheasant population historically is because they’ve had something to eat, and that comes from row-crop agriculture. At the same time, we all acknowledge pheasant habitat — the grassland areas and other types of small-grain crops that provide habitat — are important for pheasant production as well. I don’t envision any major kind of argument or show of conflict between the two groups. What I do expect is a very healthy discussion.”

Lucas Lentsch, state secretary of agriculture, agrees.

“The Pheasant Summit is a time for farmers and hunters to work together to benefit pheasant populations and allow agricultural production to grow in South Dakota,” he said in a written statement.

Pheasant hunting is important to the culture and economic wellbeing of South Dakota. The sport generates $223 million in estimated 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. South Dakota has the highest pheasant population in the country, even with the recent drop in numbers, and the Chinese ring-necked pheasant is designated as the state bird.

Still, the economic impact from hunting pales in comparison to the impact from agriculture, which is the state’s No. 1 industry with an estimated impact in excess of $3 billion.

Scott Simpson, GF&P administrative resources chief, said the summit will be a good starting point for landowners and hunters to come together and achieve the goal of keeping ample pheasant habitat in South Dakota. That way, the state can keep its title of “Pheasant Capital of the World.”

“Sure, it’s going to be difficult,” Simpson said. “If it wasn’t, we wouldn’t be having this kind of effort with these groups coming together, but I think there’s a lot more common ground out there than people are talking about.”