feature By: Jodi Stemler | August, 19
“With a high rate of annual mortality, pheasants are a short-lived bird with the capability of high reproductive rates. The quantity, quality and distribution of season-specific habitats and weather conditions are the primary factors that influence pheasant populations. As a result, wildlife managers focus on the development and management of suitable habitat to meet the needs of pheasants throughout their annual life cycle.”
— South Dakota 2016-2020 Pheasant Management Plan
South Dakota is well-known for its challenging weather, and in recent years the state has experienced blizzards, droughts and flooding. With plenty of winter cover and food sources as well as quality nesting habitat, pheasant populations can survive and recover from bad weather years. However, without quality pheasant habitat, populations drop dramatically and take longer to rebound. The weather cannot be controlled, but expanding and improving habitats that pheasants need throughout their annual cycle are critical to sustaining both the pheasant population and the opportunity for hunting them.
Over the first 100 years of pheasant hunting in South Dakota, policies to encourage conservation and the creation of habitat have ebbed and flowed. Needless to say, sound conservation is an essential component in the plans for the second century.
“If we can’t save pheasants in South Dakota, we should get out of the business,” notes Dave Nomsen, vice president of governmental affairs for Pheasants Forever (PF). “There are lots of great places, but South Dakota is the flagship, the premier destination.”
According to data from South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks (SDGFP), there were three notable blocks of time with high pheasant populations over the last century. In the 1940s, the average estimated pheasant population was about 11 million birds annually. From 1958 through 1964, estimated populations averaged almost 10 million birds a year. And from 2003 to 2010, the average population was about 9 million birds. What do these time periods have in common? In general, there was more land out of production allowing for more quality habitat. However, it is also important to reflect on what happened between these pheasant boom times and those times when populations were low.
About the time the first pheasants were introduced in South Dakota and the first hunting seasons took place, agricultural production was increasing. Farmers were sodbusting native grasslands and planting crops to feed a growing nation and support the country during World War I. But then grain prices dropped because of the glut of commodities, and farmers needed to plant more acres of crops in an effort to meet their expenses. This resulted in even greater surpluses of grain. The plowing of the prairies followed by severe drought in the early 1920s caused the significant ecological damage of the “Dust Bowl” era and, coupled with the economic collapse brought about by the Great Depression, caused thousands of farms to fail. Eventually, through President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, federal programs helped stabilize agricultural lands, in part by setting aside marginal acres from production. During the 1940s, South Dakota and many other states established conservation districts that encouraged practices like planting buffer strips and shelterbelts to reduce soil erosion. These conservation efforts helped the state to realize its highest average pheasant populations in history.
As farms got back on their feet, there was a new push for production during the post-World War II era. The nation was economically stable again, families were growing during the Baby Boom and farmers responded to the demand. However, once again, overproduction of grains led to significant drops in commodity prices. To help provide more stability in prices, in 1956 Congress passed the Agriculture Act and created the Soil Bank to provide rental payments to farmers who voluntarily took land out of production. The Soil Bank idled 29 million acres across the country, and cost sharing helped establish 310,000 acres of wildlife cover and 10,000 acres of marshland between 1956 and 1964. Pheasants responded again to the increase in quality habitat with populations nearly doubling from the previous decade.
The most notable and long-term dip in the pheasant population occurred in the late 1960s through the 1970s. Much of this time is marked by the leadership of Earl Butz, U.S. department of agriculture secretary from 1971 to 1976. Butz advocated for increased commodity production, urging farmers to plant from “fencerow to fencerow” and to “get big or get out.” He eliminated government support programs, established international markets for grains and encouraged far wider use of grains in the food system. To keep up, farmers borrowed heavily to improve the machinery needed to farm huge swaths of land. Between 1969 and 1974 there was a nearly 19 percent increase in acres of harvested cropland in South Dakota. Pheasant populations tanked with average populations dropping to around 2 million birds.
By the 1980s, this policy of production crashed, causing the greatest farming crisis since the Great Depression. “Old timers” remembered the success of the Soil Bank program and encouraged development of another set-aside program for environmentally sensitive and highly erodible lands, and in the 1985 Farm Bill, the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) was born. The program had broad support from conservation organizations that remembered the wildlife heyday of the Soil Bank days as well as the agriculture community looking to stabilize the industry. Over a series of reauthorizations, CRP was expanded with an average enrollment cap of around 40 million acres in the 1990s, and additional Farm Bill conservation programs were created. Over time, the pheasant population rebuilt to the next boom seen in the early 2000s.
However, another agricultural push has taken place in the most recent decade. Between 2006 and 2012, about 1.4 million acres of grassland were converted to cropland. Nationwide there was a decrease of about 13 million acres enrolled in CRP between 2007 and 2016, and the Farm Bill of 2014 dropped the nationwide CRP enrollment cap to just 24 million acres. In South Dakota, CRP enrollment that had topped 1.7 million acres in the 1990s dropped to around 977,000 acres in 2017. At the same time, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2017 census showed South Dakota’s harvested croplands at an all-time high of 16.4 million acres.
There has also been a dramatic shift to growing more corn and soybeans – the production of each nearly doubling in the past decade – and significantly fewer acres of small grains like wheat. This is significant for two reasons. First, while pheasants certainly eat corn and soybeans, the smaller grains are more to their liking. Second, corn and soybeans are part and parcel of the “fencerow to fencerow” farming concept, meaning less interspersed habitat.
Finally, severe weather swings of blizzards at the end of 2016 followed by extreme drought in much of the state in 2017 created poor nesting conditions, and SDGFP’s 2017 estimated pheasant population (the most recent available) was just 4.6 million birds, the lowest recorded in the state in two decades.
Some lessons can be learned from the boom and bust cycles of both agriculture and pheasants because clearly there is a direct correlation. About 80 percent of South Dakota is privately owned, so ensuring the stability of farms and farmers in the state is essential to sustain pheasant populations.
Former secretary of SDGFP John Cooper states, “Hunters and conservationists need to understand the farm economy and what it takes to be a farmer. In the early 2000s, the incentive to conserve could not compete with the incentive to farm, and crop insurance treated all soil types the same. As a result, a lot of marginal land was farmed, and habitat conservation just couldn’t compete with production.”
PF’s Nomsen agrees, stating that working with private landowners and communities to implement conservation will be essential. In recent years, conservationists along with federal and state agencies have shifted toward habitat conservation on working landscapes to work in coordination with land set-aside programs. Though CRP acreage caps increased to 27 million acres in the 2018 Farm Bill, there were also increases to programs like the Conservation Stewardship Program and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program. These programs and efforts through USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to improve soil health through cover crops and no-till agriculture can also benefit pheasant populations. In addition, South Dakota Sen. John Thune created a Soil Health and Income Protection Program (SHIPP) in the Farm Bill, which will pilot in the prairie pothole region. These programs provide more flexibility for producers to implement conservation practices across their operation.
Another advancement supporting both conservation and farm income is precision agriculture. Using GPS mapping and evaluation of yields, farmers can specifically identify the least productive acres on an operation in order to, as the saying goes, “farm the best and conserve the rest.”
South Dakota State University (SDSU) recently created the first of its kind degree in precision agriculture. In addition, working collaboratively with the South Dakota Habitat Conservation Foundation and NRCS, SDSU launched the Every Acre Counts project in December 2018 in an effort to quantify how conservation of marginal lands will actually increase farm productivity and income.
“The primary focus for this project will be the optimal use of marginal lands impacted by wet conditions, saline or sodic soils and eroded areas such as hilltops,” stated Barry H. Dunn, SDSU president, when the project was launched. “Millions of acres of cropland across South Dakota are impacted by these challenges, with over 7 million acres impacted by saline conditions alone. The financial burdens of attempting to produce crops in these marginal areas can be negative to a producer’s bottom line. And, together, we want to change this.”
PF has joined in the effort through a unique program launched at the 2018 Pheasant Fest in Sioux Falls. Its Saline Soils Initiative, in partnership with the South Dakota Corn Growers, focuses on croplands in former wetland areas where water no longer moves up and down through the soil column creating a clay pan with calcium bicarbonate on the surface. The initiative pays landowners a one-time incentive payment to take these areas out of production and provides free seeds to plant the areas with salt tolerant native perennial vegetation. Matt Morlock, PF’s South Dakota state coordinator, notes that they have enrolled nearly 4,000 acres, and the contracts are averaging 40-acre blocks that typically tie in to larger blocks of protected wetland habitats.
All of these efforts fit within South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem’s Second Century Initiative, a program that was part of her campaign platform. The initiative recognizes the important impact that pheasant hunting has on the state and directs state engagement on habitat conservation programs like the Saline Soils Initiative, SHIPP, Every Acre Counts, working and private lands habitat programs and more; the initiative also includes a component to reduce nest predators. In addition, the state created a Habitat Pays website (www.habitat.sd.gov) which provides online resources to engage more landowners as habitat partners.
These partnership and outreach efforts are beginning to take root. Steve Halverson runs a diversified operation in Kennebec, southeast of Pierre. He raises cattle; harvests corn, soybeans and milo; and operates a pheasant hunting lodge. In addition, he is active with the South Dakota Wheat and Corn Growers and served on the governor’s pheasant habitat working group.
“Conservation and production agriculture can and do go hand in hand,” Halverson concludes. “Some don’t believe it, but the efficiencies of targeting marginal areas can reduce overall input costs while also improving habitat.”