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Habitat group drafting recommendations

Attendees fill the Huron Arena exhibit floor during December's Governor's Pheasant Habitat Summit in Huron. (Sean Ryan/The Daily Republic.)

Tim Kessler readily admits South Dakota's pheasant hunting is at a critical point in state history.

"We're getting close to a tipping point in habitat going too far the wrong direction, and if we get too severe of a loss, our pheasant numbers will be too far down to rebuild," said Kessler, a member of Pheasants Forever's National Board of Directors. "We've lost 1.5 million acres of grassland in South Dakota since our height in the mid-2000s because of conversion to cropland. If we continue to have that kind of loss in grass, it will make it extremely hard to have the pheasants to come back."

Kessler, of Aberdeen, is one member of a 13-member group that was assembled by the governor and has been working to preserve the state's pristine pheasant hunting opportunities. Sometime before mid-September, the group will hand a report to Gov. Dennis Daugaard with several recommendations of ways to enhance the state's habitat for pheasants.

The panel, labeled the Governor's Pheasant Habitat Work Group, has met six times since late February and was assembled after Daugaard called a summit meeting in December to discuss how the state is rapidly losing habitat for wildlife, specifically for the state bird, the ring-necked pheasant.

Nathan Sanderson, the governor's policy adviser for agriculture and the Game, Fish and Parks Department, said recently that the report is "very much in draft form" and he declined to list any specific recommendations before the governor sees the report. But he said the group is on track to issue the report in late August or early September.

Sanderson also called the report "an informational piece and acknowledgement of all of the comments that we've received from the public."

After the report is handed to Daugaard, it will be up to the governor to decide how to implement the recommendations. It will eventually be a public document.

"I think all of the recommendations will be practical and implementable," Sanderson said. "The governor asked for things that we can legitimately do, so I expect the report to have a lot of pretty practical approaches to addressing pheasant habitat in South Dakota."

On its website, the GF&P has summaries of the group's first five meetings. The group met for the sixth time on Monday, but the minutes from that meeting were not online as of Friday morning.

A variety of topics have been covered, but there has been a discussion of "top ideas" that the work group used toward assembling its recommendations. Some of those top ideas include maximizing conservation from the new farm bill, educating pheasant stakeholders in conservation, finding a home for marginal acres, funding for habitat and conservation, discussing public road right of ways and discussing the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) and state lands management.

South Dakota Secretary of Agriculture Lucas Lentsch, a member of the work group, said Thursday that he's been pleased there's been an "all-lands approach" toward improving and enhancing habitat, but said funding is still a major topic of discussion.

One of the draft recommendations discussed and listed in the July 11 meeting's minutes is to establish the South Dakota Agriculture Foundation to house the South Dakota Conservation Fund.

Lentsch said the South Dakota Agriculture Foundation would be a long-term funding mechanism, according to the meeting's minutes. Lentsch told The Daily Republic that identifying tools available for funding habitat development, both in the short and long term, have been important.

"It comes down to finding a direction of how we assemble the resources, whether that be federal partners, federal agencies and state agencies," he said. "It's likely going to be a combination of public and private resources that come together in support of our state."

And while the work group's main duty is to assemble the recommendations, it also asked Daugaard to write letters to U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and South Dakota Farm Service Agency Executive Director Craig Schaunaman to aid habitat practices in the state.

In April, Daugaard sent a letter to Vilsack on the new Regional Conservation Partnership Program to have the Prairie Pothole region, which includes South Dakota, designated as a Critical Conservation Area. In early July, that request was accepted from the USDA and allows funding benefits for conservation activities.

In mid-July, Daugaard sent a letter of support of the state's USDA-FSA request to USDA-FSA in Washington, D.C., for an additional 50,000 acres to be used for CRP Habitat for Pheasants SAFE project. Those acres are already within the federal CRP program, but are more flexible for producers to enroll and also are designated to support wildlife.

The state already has enrolled 65,000 acres in the CRP Habitat for Pheasants SAFE project, exhausting its limit. That's why the letter of support was sent and why the state USDA-FSA is requesting additional acreage. Sanderson said the state is still waiting on a decision from the USDA-FSA in Washington.

Kessler, who served on the GF&P Commission for 17 years, expects anticipation from the public as fall nears and pheasant season opens.

"We're putting the finishing touches on everything," he said. "I'm excited to move the ball forward and see what comes next."

Travis Runia, GF&P's lead pheasant biologist, gave a presentation in May to the work group about 2013's harvest and population estimates. It estimated that 982,000 pheasants were harvested last season, which was down about 1.4 million birds from the previous year.

Runia said Friday that although anecdotal evidence suggests pheasant populations will increase this year, he's looking forward to seeing what long-term proposals the group recommends to help ease the decline in habitat.

He also noted the August roadside brood count surveys -- in which GF&P employees count the number of pheasants per mile -- will be available around Labor Day weekend.

Sanderson expects the recommendations to be issued close to the same time the brood count is released. Whether this year's bird total is up or down likely won't have any impact on the recommendations. This is about formulating a roadmap to enhancing pheasant habitat, he said.

"When we had initially talked about this not quite a year ago, we knew a lot of people would be interested," Sanderson said. "It's really been surprising to some degree, but also very, very assuring that a lot of the things we're doing people care about. As a result of that, I think the work group members have taken their charge very seriously."