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OPINION: Protecting our prairies, economy and way of life

Grasslands are the backbone of South Dakota's livestock, tourism and hunting industry. As a national leader in livestock production, South Dakota supports nearly 3.7 million head of cattle that generate over $2 billion in annual commodity cash receipts. Like cattle, wildlife also rely on healthy grasslands for survival, and hunting and outdoor recreation generate big business for our state. Last year alone, pheasant hunters contributed nearly $226 million to SD's economy. Rural communities depend on hunting and outdoor recreation to support local hotels, restaurants, bars and gas stations. Our prairies also serve as the primary breeding grounds and source of birds for waterfowl hunters across the U.S. - another multi-billion dollar industry that depends on SD's grasslands.

Unfortunately, these treasured natural assets are under tremendous threats today. According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, 1.8 million acres of SD's native prairie were plowed under between 1982 and 1997. From 2005-2006, SD lost an additional 100,000 acres, and at current conversion rates, nearly half of our remaining native prairie will be gone in the next 35 years - an alarming trend considering these areas have been intact for the past 10,000 years. Researchers cite high commodity prices, crop insurance programs and unintended consequences of federal farm policy as important factors fueling grassland conversion.

Thankfully, South Dakota's Congressional leaders are working on legislation that will hopefully help stem the loss of native prairie. As part of the 2012 Farm Bill, Sen. John Thune worked with his colleagues and across party lines to introduce a national " Sodsaver " provision that would base taxpayer-subsidized crop insurance on the productivity of the land versus incentivizing native prairie destruction via government programs. This free-market approach maintains landowner rights to convert native prairie, but bases those decisions on market drivers rather than federal subsidies that currently incentivize grassland conversion and place unwanted financial burdens on the backs of American taxpayers.

U.S. Rep. Kristi Noem has led a similar effort in the House to introduce companion legislation, which has also gained strong bipartisan support among her colleagues in Congress. This bill aptly named the "Protect Our Prairies Act" would help slow grassland loss, while saving taxpayers nearly $200 million over 10 years.

This year's catastrophic drought is a harsh reminder of how important grasslands are to our nation's livestock producers, food security and wildlife. Without these critical grass reserves, many livestock producers could be forced out of business or required to liquidate their herds, as consumer grocery prices continue to skyrocket.

In today's era of divisive, gridlock politics, it's refreshing to know leaders like Rep. Noem and Sen. Thune are working on common sense, bipartisan-supported legislation that will benefit South Dakota's economy, residents and way of life. South Dakotans should take the time to thank them for their leadership and encourage them to work with their colleagues to include a national Sodsaver program in the next Farm Bill.

Our ranching community, economy and hunting heritage depend on it.

Chris Hesla is the executive director of the South Dakota Wildlife Federation and is based in Pierre.