Senator John Thune
Like many who enjoy the outdoors, I always look forward to the third Saturday in October, which has become an unofficial state holiday and time-honored tradition in South Dakota, our annual pheasant hunting season opener. This year, the South Dakota Game, Fish, and Parks forecast a 76 percent increase in the pheasant population over last year’s dismal numbers. This is great news for hunters looking to shout “rooster” as they walk through the fields with family and friends on opening day.
Although the Chinese Ringneck Pheasant is a resilient and hardy bird, shrinking nesting habitat and lack of cover from South Dakota’s harsh winter weather directly impact the number of pheasants we have to hunt each year. The most significant loss of pheasant habitat has occurred due to the decrease in Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) acres enrolled in South Dakota.
In 2007, South Dakota had approximately 1.5 million acres enrolled in CRP. As of October 1, 2014, South Dakota enrolled 883,000 acres in the program. Although new land has been enrolled and some expiring CRP land reenrolled, South Dakota has experienced a decline of more than 600,000 acres in CRP from its peak of 1.5 million acres.
Without a doubt, the habitat decline is responsible for the decrease in pheasant numbers over the past several years. Fewer pheasants also mean lost revenue for many small rural communities across the state that depend on business from the pheasant hunting boom.
While it is important to take the habitat decline seriously, I believe we have several reasons to be optimistic about the future of South Dakota pheasant hunting. I worked to make the 2014 Farm Bill Conservation Title more flexible to provide an attractive alternative to growing crops on less productive land. My Farm Bill sodsaver provision closes a crop insurance loophole, which will help preserve our remaining native grassland acres important to nesting pheasants, ducks, grouse, prairie chickens, and nongame bird species.
I also believe the Governor’s Pheasant Habitat Work Group, established earlier this year, has prepared several thoughtful proposals to encourage much-needed habitat increases. Pheasants Forever also launched a field office in Brookings to team up with South Dakota State University to enhance wildlife habitat and restore South Dakota’s pheasant numbers.While my favorite pheasant hunts have come from the memories made with family and friends, and not how many birds we killed that day, I have to admit that a sore shoulder from firing at multiple roosters always makes the hunt more enjoyable. I wish all hunters across South Dakota a safe and successful hunting season.