Wednesday, February 1st, 2023
Wednesday, February 1st, 2023

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Pheasant Summit delivers lots of hand-wringing, but how about results?

Rob DriesleinDean Bortz, editor of Wisconsin Outdoor News, attended the Pheasant Summit In South Dakota last week. You can read his complete report here or on Page 8 of the Dec. 13 print edition of Minnesota Outdoor News. A pheasant population decline of 64 percent from last year, which surprised no one in conservation circles, got the attention of politicians, so Gov. Dennis Daugaard had his people organize the event. Nearly 500 people attended in Huron last Friday, all wringing their hands while collectively declaring, “Something must be done!”

In the Pierre, S.D.-based Capitol Journal newspaper, summit speaker Bruce Knight, founder of Strategic Conservation Solutions (and a former undersecretary at the U.S. Department of Agriculture during the Bush years), called the summit a “bold, outstanding” move.

Pardon me, but that’s like saying Minnesota Twins General Manager Terry Ryan is making “bold, outstanding” moves for finally hiring servicable free-agent pitchers. After three straight 90-plus loss seasons, it’s neither bold, nor outstanding. It’s a too-little, too-late business decision necessary to try to stem the exodus of season-ticket holders.

Daugaard, the GM of South Dakota, had to hold his Pheasant Summit because of the declining number of nonresidents spinning hunting turnstiles this fall. The state sold 20,000 fewer pheasant licenses in 2013, and with the reports of lousy hunting this fall, that number probably won’t increase in the foreseeable future.

That lost revenue affects the South Dakota Game and Fish and Parks Department, which relies on those sales to fund its work on multiple species. Daugaard and his political allies probably can live with $2.75 million in lost license revenue between resident and nonresident sales. (Just charge nonresidents more next year.) What they can’t live with is less spending in small towns, not to mention lost sales taxes. I guarantee politicians across rural South Dakota are hearing from citizens concerned about the decline of nonresidents and the dollars they bring into their communities. 

Per Bortz’s story, Daugaard’s grand (and in my opinion, probably pre-determined) conclusion from the summit is to create a task force to scrutinize last Friday’s discussion. Next year, we’ll hear ideas from dedicated funding to coyote bounties to additional nonresident fees. North Dakota attempted a dedicated funding initiative that went down in flames, and a South Dakota version probably will, too. Ideas to boost pheasant numbers with any chance of passage won’t affect Big Ag’s pocketbook; in fact, it’ll probably fatten it – more tax breaks or nonresident stamps and fees headed directly to landowners who stop plowing marginal rangelands.

I spelled out obvious solutions in my print column a few weeks ago. They come down to the fact that if you want more pheasants, you need more grassland. The best way to secure those grasslands for the “future generations” that politicians and natural resource department officials claim to adore is via acquisition. Good old fee title public ownership. Lock it up for wildlife and public hunting so it’ll never go under the plow again.

I know them’s fighting words to the agriculture interests who own Dakota politicians (and most of Minnesota’s), but it’s the elephant in corner that most conservation groups recognize but about which refuse to speak aloud.

For decades, we’ve paid off agriculture with easements and walk-in area payments. subsidies on top of subsidies on top of subsidies. And how has South Dakota rewarded the federal taxpayers who finance many of these programs? With a $125 nonresident pheasant license. ($32 for residents.)

Read Doug Smith’s story in the Star Tribune on the Pheasant Summit, and you’ll see many of the solutions discussed at the summit involve sticking it to nonresidents even more.

As I’ve navigated through the steady stream of summit hot air moving eastward from South Dakota this year, I’ve wondered how my old friend and Outdoor News contributor Tony Dean would have reacted to it. Pierre-based Dean died in October 2008 at the too-young age of 73, and he was fearless in his conservation advocacy. (You still can read some of his columns here)

The Pheasant Summit probably wouldn’t have been necessary if Tony Dean were still alive. Everyone but Big Ag (and its political toadies) is losing in S.D. right now, though nobody in the state, including conservationists, has the courage to admit it. Tony wouldn’t have tolerated the landscape level changes that have drained wetlands, plowed rangelands, and turned the eastern half of his state into a corn field the past half-decade. He wouldn’t have tolerated a governor who, per Smith’s story, campaigned on a promise of imposing a moratorium on GF&Ps public land purchases.

But back to reality… Farm economies rise and fall, and ultimately that’s probably what will salvage pheasant hunting in the region. Commodity prices tank, land values follow, and conservation easement programs and fee title become more palatable to citizens and politicians.

Until then, pardon me for not believing Gov. Daugaard – despite the political theatre of the Great Pheasant Summit of December 2013 – will do anything tangible to create long-term wildlife habitat in his state.

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