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State rolls out its first pheasant management plan

Hunters scare up a pheasant in South Dakota. (Photo by South Dakota Tourism)

Despite the ring-necked pheasant's status as the state bird and most lucrative game species in South Dakota, the state has never had a master plan to secure the future of pheasant hunting.

That will soon change with the development of the Department of Game, Fish and Parks' first-ever "Ring-Necked Pheasant Management Plan."

The draft version of the plan was released last month, and public comments will be accepted through Friday. The department hopes to update the plan every five years.

The plan includes five main goals supported by 12 objectives and 76 strategies, all aimed at a three-pronged vision: maintaining abundant pheasant populations, ensuring public access to hunting, and increasing awareness of the broad benefits of pheasant habitat.

The executive summary says the plan holds the potential, if implemented properly, to "help maintain South Dakota as a showcase for pheasant management and a destination for pheasant hunters across the nation."

The GF&P's Chad Switzer said there wasn't much need for a management plan in past years. Since the federal government's 1985 enactment of the Conservation Reserve Program, which pays landowners to convert marginal cropland to vegetative cover, pheasant numbers have soared and the state's pheasant-hunting industry has ballooned into a $200 million giant.

But now, according to the plan, "there could be significant issues and challenges ahead." Chief among those issues and challenges is the feared loss of CRP land.

"We've been riding the tide of habitat provided by CRP," Switzer said during an interview this week. "But we started to lose several hundred thousand of those acres over the last two to three years, and we owe it to the sportsmen and the landowners to put a good plan in place and be proactive in addressing some of those challenges that are ahead of us."

The loss of CRP acres began to occur in recent years as contract terms expired and it became more profitable -- due to higher crop and land-rent prices -- for some landowners to put CRP acres back into agricultural production.

There are numerous strategies in the draft management plan to preserve CRP acres. One of the plan's objectives is to maintain at least 1 million acres of undisturbed CRP grassland habitat in South Dakota each year through 2014, the last year covered by the five-year plan.

The CRP objective is part of Goal 1, which calls for partnerships with private landowners to conserve, restore and manage pheasant habitat on private land. In the other four goals, the GF&P says it plans to:

- Forge partnerships to conserve, restore, manage and preserve pheasant habitat on public land;

- Continue monitoring and researching population and habitat trends;

- Provide the public with access to quality pheasant habitat on public and private land;

- And inform and educate the public on pheasant ecology, management and research.

The CRP acreage target is among the more eye-catching objectives and strategies to be undertaken in support of the five goals. As of August, there were 1.255 million acres of CRP-enrolled land in the state. Contracts are due to expire on more than 100,000 acres each of the next four years.

In other notable objectives and strategies, the GF&P plans to:

- Enroll 100,000 acres of marginal cropland or expiring CRP land into a proposed new habitat program in the James River Watershed, which would pay landowners who install conservation practices and agree to allow public hunting access.

- Develop, by 2010, a Geographic Information System (GIS) using high-resolution, infrared photography to determine the composition and configuration of all land use and cover types related to pheasant-habitat management.

- Expand a partnership with Pheasants Forever and the Natural Resources Conservation Service to increase the number of "farm bill biologists" in NRCS offices from seven to eight by next year, and to 10 by 2011 (the biologists provide technical assistance to landowners who install habitat programs).

The management plan also contains every imaginable pheasant statistic dating back to the early 1900s, from pre-season estimates of the pheasant population to numbers on pheasant density per mile, number of hunters, number of pheasants harvested, number of shooting preserves, brood sizes and much more.

"This is a plan for all South Dakotans interested in the conservation of pheasants and pheasant habitat," says the plan's executive summary. "... With careful coordination among all stakeholders, we will be available to provide and support our pheasant hunting heritage for present and future generations."