The Sanford Pheasant

(Photo courtesy of SD GFP)

My home state of South Dakota is famous for its ringneck pheasant hunting. It’s a statewide tradition every fall that also brings in hordes of out of state hunters. In high school it didn’t matter what your interests were, nearly everyone took to the fields after class.

Pheasant hunting is also big bucks for small businesses like hunting lodges, restaurants and gas stations to the tune of $200 million annually. The once robust pheasant population was built on the federal conservation reserve program that paid farmers to return land to habitat. Taxpayers shelled out over $1.2 billion since 1995 to South Dakota landowners (including my family’s farm) in CRP payments.

CRP has incredible environmental benefits aside from generating habitat including carbon sequestration and helping clean water tainted by agriculture pollutants.

Sadly, South Dakota State University researchers have documented how corn ethanol mandates, crop insurance subsidies and increased global demand for meat raised the price of crops making CRP monetarily less attractive to farmers.

The result was a staggering and swift land conversion from grassland to row crops of 1.3 million acres in the Western Corn Belt, much of it in South Dakota. Combined with drought this habitat loss resulted in a 64% decline in 2013 South Dakota pheasant numbers.

So recognizing the disaster on their hands, the Governor’s office convened a Pheasant Habitat Summit in Huron that I attended in December of 2013. The summit resulted in the Governor’s Pheasant Habitat Workgroup. There are some good folks on the work group, but was also larded up with industrial agriculture interests, so it was hard to find something to be optimistic about.

On Tuesday, the 9th of September, the group released their final recommendations on how to reverse the downward trend of pheasants and habitat in South Dakota.

They are much worse than anything I could have dreamed up. Here’s why:

Most of the recommendations are pure lip service. But two stuck out.

The whopper is Recommendation #6: Petition the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Risk Management Agency (USDA-RMA) to include all South Dakota counties as eligible for crop insurance coverage on winter wheat.

–       Winter wheat is OK pheasant habitat. It is not a substitute for native prairie grass. Nothing is.

–       The SDSU researchers ID’s crop insurance subsidies as a culprit for land conversion. Now that’s the answer?

–       This is the fourth way in recent years taxpayers have been forced to pay for creation/destruction of pheasant habitat. First, when CRP was started. Second, when the corn ethanol subsidy VEETC helped spur demand, third through crop insurance subsidies for corn and soy and now fourth a proposed wheat crop insurance subsidy. I’m reminded constantly by the SD GOP and its candidates that South Dakota is a deeply conservative state yet this sounds a lot like federal welfare hamster wheel to me.

–       The same day the Workgroup announced their recommendations, a Government Accountability Office report urged Congress to cut crop insurance subsidies.

And recommendation #8: Support Congressional efforts to raise the federal Duck Stamp from $15 to $25. First, duck habitat isn’t native grass. It’s wetlands and prairie potholes. Sure it will help, and any new habitat is good habitat, but not much in the way that’s needed. Second, passage is far from certain.

Farmers are doing better and that’s a good thing. But South Dakota has been fundamentally changed – not for the better – in the process.

Crop insurance subsidies need to be drastically reformed so that taxpayers are on the hook with farmers who do the right thing for all of society. Make conservation THE incentive, not an afterthought.

Otherwise, its time to contact South Dakota’s wealthy philanthropist whose name appears on every other building in the state. Let’s ask T Denny Sanford if he’ll pony up the cash.

We’ll rename the bird.

Don Carr