By Sen. John Thune
It would be a serious understatement to say pheasant hunting is one of the most highly anticipated outdoor traditions in South Dakota, and its roots go back an entire century. During the state’s first established pheasant season in 1919, which took place in Spink County, lasted just one day, and was actually set the year prior, President Woodrow Wilson was in the White House and Henry Ford’s Model T was racing off of the assembly line. For some additional perspective, when pheasant hunters first entered the fields in northeastern South Dakota, the state wasn’t even 30 years old.
While a lot has changed in the 100 years since this annual tradition began, many elements have stood the test of time. We might have fancier shotguns, better gear, and easier ways of getting around, but the tradition itself and the camaraderie that surrounds pheasant hunting are as strong today as they were in 1919.
That’s why I know I’m not alone in considering the third Saturday in October as an unofficial state holiday. Like so many other hunters, I have it circled on my calendar each and every year. I’m always eager to trade in my suit and tie for blaze orange and boots, and I’d take South Dakota’s fields, sloughs, and shelterbelts over Washington’s concrete jungle any day of the week.
Whether we leave the field with a bag limit or head home empty-handed, it’s the experience that matters the most. Creating memories and passing this tradition on to the next generation is what I most look forward to, which is why I’m extremely fortunate to be able to spend hunts with my family, including my dad, who, coincidentally, was born in 1919, the year of the first pheasant hunt.
It’s not only South Dakotans who enjoy pursuing our state’s roosters. Hunters from around the world gather in South Dakota for opening weekend, and with them comes hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue. Hunters buy licenses, stay in hotels and motels, purchase gear, and eat in restaurants and diners across the state. Many locally owned businesses depend on this annual investment in communities large and small.
The pheasants might be in South Dakota, but believe it or not, there are policies we can pursue in Washington that can help the population grow and thrive. The popular Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), an 80s-era conservation program, is widely credited for creating a good environment where pheasants can nest and raise their brood. It’s critical for pheasants to have a safe and viable nesting area, and I strongly support CRP for helping to accomplish that goal.
After a few roller coaster years marked by steep population declines and growth, it’s more important than ever to strengthen CRP by raising the cap so additional acres can be enrolled. I’ve proposed increasing the cap by as much as 25 percent and have also authored SHIPP, a new short-term conserving use program that would serve as an alternative to CRP. It was included in the Senate farm bill, and I’m fighting to have it included in the final bill, too.
In the meantime, I hope everyone who’s gearing up for this year’s opener has a safe and successful hunt. To those folks who cherish the sport, memories, and excitement as much as I do, I’d encourage you to share the experience with younger generations. It’s the only way we’ll keep this tradition alive for the next 100 years and retain our title as the “pheasant capital of the world.” Good luck to all!