Noem, Jackley pheasant plans embrace essential habitat work, but flirt with retro management failures

Last Updated by Kevin Woster on
Want pheasants? You need this stuff. Lots of it.

OK, let’s have a look, point by point, at the pheasant initiatives announced last week by Kristi Noem and Marty Jackley.

And first, give credit where credit is due: I’m using the synopsis of the plans presented by Seth Tupper in the Rapid City Journal. If I received any notice of the plans from the Noem and Jackley gubernatorial campaigns last week, I can’t find evidence of it in my emails.

So, thanks to Seth, and on to the fields of pheasant plans, which Noem and Jackley released during the National Pheasant Fest & Quail Classic in Sioux Falls.

Noem calls her plan the Second Century Initiative, because we’re coming up on the hundred-year anniversary of the state pheasant season, which began in Spink County only in 1919. It was a one-day season and each licensed hunter could shoot two roosters.

Kaboom. Kaboom.

We’ve come quite a ways since then, up and down in bird numbers and licenses sold and length of season and bag limits. And in good and goofy ideas about how to increase pheasants, which we’ll discuss a bit down below.

Because there's some of both in both plans.

For now, last year my springer spaniel Rosie and I started the season on the residents-only hunt on public land the second weekend of October, a week before the regular season opened. We finished up on the last day of the statewide season on Jan. 7, at Lacreek Refuge.

That’s a lot of hunting opportunity that didn’t exist in 1919. And most of it was on public land. More on that in a minute. But back to individual parts of Noem’s plan:

* A specialty license plate with proceeds going to habitat management. That’s good, because habitat is the key.

* Instruct GF&P to look into a Premium Guest Tag program reserving a limited number of nonresident hunting tags at premium pricing with money going to habitat. That’s good on the habitat side, but I don’t much care for people with big bucks getting special treatment.

* Asking the public for policy ideas through social media and waiving hunting-license fees for those with ideas that are implemented. Don’t like it. Ask for ideas.  Sure. Whatever. But the reward to the hunting public, if somebody comes up with a good idea, ought to be helping with the program, then paying their license fees to hunt like every body else.

* Working with counties on a possible bounty system on predators including foxes, skunks and raccoons in top pheasant-hunting areas. Don’t like it. Not at all. I thought we were done with all this goofy bounty stuff by about 1960. Cost a lot. Doesn't work. Puts more emphasis on predation than is needed or productive, when you’re talking about wild pheasants at least.

* Using Noem’s connections in Congress and the administration and elsewhere to benefit Conservation Reserve Program benefits. I have no idea what that actually means in practice. But if it produces more pheasant habitat, I like it.

* Recruiting new businesses to hunting lodges, preserves, restaurants and other enterprises across the state. We’ve got plenty of hunting lodges and preserves already. More might come. That's fine. But what we need is more habitat, and more wild pheasants.

 Oh, and did I mention exploring ways to provide more access to good pheasant hunting — on public ground or private land leased for walk-in public hunting, for wild pheasants — for the vast majority of hunters who can’t afford big bucks at pheasant lodges? Yeah, that, too, although it wasn't mentioned in Noem's plan.

Now on to Jackley and his plan:

* Create a Pheasant Restoration Blue Ribbon Commission representing groups committed to hunting, conservation, landowner concerns, tourism and economic development, local government and university systems. Oh, and the airline industry. Wait what? Airlines? What are they doing in there? How about the SUV industry? The pickup industry? The ammo industry. The hunting-boot industry. It’s getting crowded on this blue-ribbon group. But OK, sure, a group.

* Build public-private partnerships to raise money for habitat creation. I assume those partnerships exist. But partnerships are good. And this could be good for habitat, which means it would be good for pheasants and for us.

* Implement a pheasant-release program to build up populations by the 2020 hunting season. If you’re talking about a large-scale state pheasant-stocking program with pen-reared birds, this might be a goofier idea than the bounties on predators, and even more, uh, retro -- as in, once again, been there, done that, didn't work. (Marty, call me before you put out this kind of stuff so I can talk you down!) If it means GF&P professionals doing some targeted trapping and transferring of wild birds from a place with more to a place with less, and the places are open to public hunting, OK, sure. Whatever.  Won't make a big difference, but could help in spots. But I suspect that’s not what it means.

* A license plate much like Noem suggests to generate hundreds of thousands of dollars every year for habitat. Good. Habitat is the key.

* Promote next-generation hunting. That’s a priority for GF&P and sporstmen’s groups and has been for years. But it’s a good idea. Can't have too much of a good thing when it comes to young-hunter recruitment.

So, like the Noem plan, the Jackley plan is devoid of plans to promote, improve and expand public access, which is not quite as important as habitat. But it's pretty important.

I like the parts of each plan that have to do with habitat. That's the key. But I’d like to see more concern in both plans for the regular hunter and his or her kids and grandkids, and assuring they have meaningful hunting options for the state bird.

 I’m OK with “think-groups” or whatever Jackley's blue-ribbon thing might be. But as I read both plans, I wonder if anybody who helped write them read the report of the working group that came out of Gov. Dennis Daugaard’s 2013 habitat summit.

It was a logically designed, well-construction summit and the working group produced a science-based report, with clear emphasis — as the name suggests — on the single most important factor in pheasant management: habitat.

It also highlighted the declining habitat base in South Dakota, including 1.8 million acres of lost habitat from 2006 through 2012 because of grasslands (which are crucial to pheasant nesting) conversion to crops and former Conservation Reserve Program acres that expired, were not renewed and went back into production.

I'm old enough to have watched pheasant populations rise with the old Soil Bank program, and fall when it was eliminated. I watched the same thing happened as CRP acreages ebbed and flowed.

Each plan needs to get more specific about habitat work, how it will be handled and how to pay for it.

GF&P Secretary Kelly Hepler applauded the habitat recognition when I asked him, by email, for a comment on the Noem and Jackley initiatives.

"I really only have one comment regarding the pheasant initiatives:  I think it is positive that both candidates recognized the importance of pheasants not only to our economy but also our quality of life in South Dakota," Hepler wrote. "Also both candidates noted  how essential it is to  maintain and improve our habitat to sustain our long standing hunting heritage for pheasants."

I suppose if I were Hepler and the pheasant plans were coming from the two leading Republicans running for governor, I'd limit my comments to the parts I could praise without reservation, which he did. And while I don't know him well enough to say, I can guarantee you that other wildlife pros in GF&P did some eye rolling when they saw other parts of the plans.

Like the goofy parts I mentioned.

On other points, I support economic development tied to pheasant hunting. But I also know as a Lyman County guy who has hunted pheasants (with a loaded firearm) in South Dakota for 56 years (and with a bb gun for a couple years before that) and as a reporter who has been covering pheasant hunting since the 1970s  that economic development tends to take care of itself when it comes to cashing in on the gaudy rooster pheasant.

I’ve watched it do just that over my lifetime, which includes growing-up years in central South Dakota pheasant country where the likes of Clark Gable, Richard Widmark and, later, the ever-feisty Billy Martin and former President George H.W. Bush have shown up to shoot roosters. They were all wild birds when I was growing up, and just about everybody hunted for free. I still remember that day in the 1970s when I first saw a “Pheasant Hunters $10” sign nailed to a high-line pole on the road to our farm.

There was a lot more of that to come, at increasing prices.

As I recall, there were four pheasant-hunting preserves — private operations with longer seasons, liberal bag limits and mostly pen-raised birds — back around 1980 when I wrote my first story about preserves. Last time I paid attention to preserves there were more than 200.

When I grew up, I could hunt most of Lyman and Brule counties with a simple stop at a farm door. Now I’ve got a couple places left to hunt on private land. Pretty much everybody else with birds has gone commercial, to one degree or another. Almost all my hunting now is on public, which is OK with me.

Farmers only did what all the pheasant-hunting businesses had been doing for generations. They cashed in on the pheasants. And for many farmers I know, those hunting dollars have helped secure their operations or send their kids to college. So it's hard to criticize.

If there’s a dollar to make on pheasant hunting, people will figure out how to make it. And, boy, have they figured that out over the last 50 years. Some years more than others, as bird numbers rise and fall. We can mitigate those swings, but we can’t eliminate them. Not with wild birds, at least.

Before all the preserves and before farmers started leasing their land out or taking enough money to feel like they had to guarantee limits, most just charged a fee to hunt whatever happened to be out there. Most years in most places, that was quite a bit. Some years not so much. But more and more the pen-reared birds that were once pretty much limited to preserves have been purchased other farmers and landowners, so people who pay to hunt will feel like they got their money's worth.

I don't think that's been good for pheasant hunting. But it's been good for the bottom line.

Pen-reared birds have improved dramatically in quality over the last forty years. But they're still pen-reared birds. And there's a difference. Differences, actually, that include the reality that wild birds run more, fly harder, survive better -- against hunters and against Mother Nature. And you can't plan on wild bird numbers for your hunters like you can order pen-reared birds.

With wild pheasants you get all any bird hunter could want, and more. You also get population ups and downs.

Wild pheasants are down now, no question. I had my worst pheasant season in years, in terms of birds seen and bagged. That's notable when you consider how hard I hunted and how good my dog is. But CRP is down, essential habitat in other forms was further hurt by drought. And the weather for pheasants and especially for pheasant chicks in much of the state was terrible.

So I wasn't expecting a lot of birds.  Even so, I had some wonderful pheasant hunting this last season, hustling after smart, fast, wild roosters that are each and every one a trophy — and celebrated as such.

 And there were geographic pockets with good pheasant numbers here and there across the state, as there always are. And pheasants — wild pheasants, I mean, not the pen-reared versions — will come back, as they always do, when there’s enough habitat and decent weather. Give them great habitat and decent weather and  they’ll come back faster, re-populate in greater numbers and hold those levels longer.

Much of it depends on the weather, which we can’t control.  But some, an important part, depends on the things we can control, or at least influence:  habitat, especially. That means Conservation Reserve Program acres in particular, and the supplemental programs and projects at the federal, state, local and private levels that boost the available habitat that pheasants need during winter, spring nesting and summer chick rearing.

If you've got that, you've got pheasants.

No matter what else you put in your plan.


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The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of SDPB, Friends of South Dakota Public Broadcasting, or the State of South Dakota.