This year’s pheasant opener was a unique one. In attendance was my 9-year-old son who took part in his first opener. During the last few minutes of the hunt, we found ourselves roadside, waiting patiently to shoot the last rooster of our daily bag limit. My son filled the last bird of our limit with a successful shot. I will be the first to tell you that nobody was wiping a smile off his face.

While growing up in South Dakota, hunting and fishing were traditions my family valued highly. I remember my grandpa picking me up from school on Friday so we could head straight to the pheasant camp. I would spend my entire week dreaming about the hunt.

This year, my son was absent from hockey so he could take part in his first pheasant opener. As my family and I are pulled in many different directions, I still value the traditions I grew up with, and I try to instill them into the next generation. Throughout this year’s opener, I couldn’t help but wonder, where are the hunters? It turns out, I wasn’t the only South Dakotan asking that very question.

The ring-necked pheasant was discussed at November’s South Dakota Game Fish and Parks Commission meeting. Travis Runia, a senior upland game biologist, presented many disconcerting facts regarding the South Dakota state bird. One of the most alarming facts was the decline in resident hunters. This year will likely show the lowest resident license sales since 1938.

Great declines in habitat and pheasants numbers are evident over much of our state. These are two important factors in the sharp declines in resident license sales. But it is my belief that lack of access to quality hunting land along with lifestyle changes have become the greatest factors, and hunting traditions are taking a back seat to other activities.

Many residents have completely quit hunting public lands due to bad experiences and are simply unwilling or unable to “pay to play” on private lands. The quality of public hunting land and the number of hunters using the same land are major factors in hunter satisfaction rates. To keep our hunting traditions alive, it is imperative that we continue to provide for high hunter satisfaction rates.

Ships turn slow, and right now it looks as if we are headed for an iceberg. With license sales down and the flow of outdoor enthusiasts’ dollars dropping, the financial impact to any of our rural areas will be extensive. The time is now to invest our license money in public lands and public access. High quality public lands and increased public access, paid for by the users, helps everyone in this state. Producers and stakeholders alike must recognize the economic importance of public lands to our rural economies.

Gov. Kristi Noem has built a great deal of momentum concerning habitat. High quality publicly accessible habitat is key to the South Dakota economy, heritage and hunting traditions. Public lands that offer quality recreational experiences for everyone sell licenses. If we build it, they will come.