The Dakotas are dying…

This tree line used to hold flocks of pheasants. I wonder if it's still there.
This tree line used to hold flocks of pheasants. I wonder if it’s still there.

My first trip to South Dakota was in 2000. I was stunned by the number of pheasants, grouse, and partridge I saw. In four hours of hunting we moved hundreds of wild birds – hundreds. I wonder if anyone will have a similar experience this fall.

Pheasant numbers are falling across South Dakota. While complex forces are behind this, the result is easy to understand: less habitat = less game. Across the upper mid west, thousands of acres of habitat are being dug up, dried out, and plowed under. Every time it happens, the future for wild gamebirds grows bleaker.

I’m not sure when The American Prospect published this piece, but I encourage you to click through and read all of it.

Plowed Under

By Jocelyn C. Zuckerman

Across the northern plains, native grassland is being turned into farmland at a rate not seen since the 1920s. The environmental consequences could be disastrous.

The Dakota's are Dying, quote from Plowed Under, The American Prospect
The Dakota’s are Dying, quote from Plowed Under, The American Prospect

“On a rainy Monday in mid-October, six middle-aged men in denim and camouflage sat bent over coffee mugs at the Java River Café, in Montevideo, Minnesota. With its home-baked muffins and free Wi-Fi, the Main Street establishment serves as communal living room for the town of 5,000, but the mood on that gray morning wasn’t particularly convivial. The state’s pheasant season had opened two days earlier, and the hunters gathered at the café for what should have been a brag fest were mostly shaking their heads. “You didn’t see anybody out there who was over the limit, did you?” a guy in a baseball cap asked with obvious sarcasm, to sad chuckles all around. The region’s game birds are in serious trouble.

The region’s game birds are in serious trouble. Driving across South Dakota the following afternoon with the radio on, I learned that Governor Dennis Daugaard had just announced an emergency pheasant-habitat summit. Last summer, the state’s Department of Game, Fish and Parks recorded a 64 percent decline in the number of pheasant broods from the already record low levels of 2012. Though a rainy nesting season and an early fall blizzard hadn’t helped matters, the region’s problems involve more than inclement weather—and extend far beyond the birds…”

Please read the entire piece now.

Read more about what’s going on in SD and across the upper midwest at these links:

South Dakota is Dying

You’re Killing off SD’s Pheasants. See how.

Habitat in crisis: Conservationists worry about factors driving grassland conversion

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13 thoughts on “The Dakotas are dying…

  1. How very sad to learn of so much virgin soil being put under the plough. We have a problem of increasing world demand for food and particularly from China not to mention satisfying the ‘green’ vote for alternative fuels to fire power stations. Ours is a tiny country by comparison where the best we can offer wildlife is by planting 6 meter grass margins around cropped fields to encourage ground nesting birds and game strips to provide added winter food.

  2. Consider the source. From the magazine’s own mission statement:

    The Prospect was founded in 1990 by Robert Kuttner, Robert Reich, and Paul Starr as an authoritative magazine of liberal ideas, committed to a just society, an enriched democracy, and effective liberal politics. The magazine’s founding purpose was to demonstrate that progressive ideas could animate a majority politics; to restore to intellectual and political respectability the case for social investment; to energize civic democracy and give voice to the disenfranchised; and to counteract the growing influence of conservative media.

  3. So you think this story is some liberal distortion of the truth? That all is really fine? And that all the other news sources that have reported on this are lying, too?


  4. Gregg,
    As you and I have discussed, this disaster has been coming for several years and with optimum conditions will not improve significantly for several decades. Ethanol is destroying the wild birds of the Dakotas.

  5. 2013 Pheasant hunt report. Eight experienced hunters, who have hunted the same private farms in Hand County SD for over 20 years and two very good dogs hunted 5 days of opening week on 20 sections of ground that we have hunted for many years. We hunted from noon until dark every day. I fired 3 shells all week and killed two pheasants. The total number of birds bagged by everyone for the entire week was 13! One hunter did not fire one shot all week.

  6. Gregg and all,
    Having lived in South Dakota for 48 years I can attest to the ups and downs of the populations of birds. As of late and I mean with in the last 15 years, several factors have impacted bird populations. 1. The increase of food for human consumption creating a demand and in turn making the land more profitable. Land has sky rocketed in price for this reason along with some folks in state and out of state building hunting preserves which made the land more lucrative even more. Nothing against this but their are foreign investors buying this land especially from China. The state also has several programs where individuals will come in to South Dakota from say England or Netherlands and get assistance for taking over or start a farming operation. These farmers then may not educated on pheasant habitat and remove current wind belts and CRP as needed.
    2. The next is weather which has played havoc on parts of South Dakota in the last 5 years and especially the last two years. The northeast has had rain soaked ground, hampering nesting and hatching of chicks.
    3. Third and lastly and again this is my thought, tho some farmers opt to remove the tree belts and cut the CRP, I believe most farmers and land owners will pickup the ball and run with this to insure the population rebounds. I was employed with the State from 2002-2008 and tho I don’t concur with the politics there, I do believe that the current Governor along with GFP will get a handle on this. I do need to mention foremost, if it was not for Pheasants Forever and the volunteers who make this sport what it is in South Dakota and elsewhere for that matter, we would not be having this discussion.

  7. Hi Dennis-

    Thanks for your comment. I hope things turn around. It will be shame to see the bird pops fall even further.


  8. Gregg and Friends,
    I want to add to what Dennis has to say; as he is very correct in most respects. I grew up in Iowa on a family farm on the far western edge, and attended the University of South Dakota. What is happening is a stark contrast to 10-15 years ago. When I was in high school it was common place to just walk out my door and a fellow could be pheasant hunting in minutes, with plenty of birds. I went home last winter and asked my Dad where I could get some hunting for Pheasant in; he said it’s pretty much all dried up? Why- several factors:
    1. The “Set-Aside Acres”/CRP program money is gone. It used to be that farmers were given an extra incentive/stipend by the government to NOT plant certain acres. It was thought of as a way the US Govt could help keep family farms in business, keep grain prices higher, keep folks employed, paying taxes etc. That money is gone now. So instead of getting paid (politics aside folks) for NOT planting certain sections- and those sections that we didn’t plant were inevitably great bird habitat-. Simple economics dictate that if I have 100 acres now that I could plant and I USED to get paid NOT to plant them, I’m going to plow them up and plant them. This has led to a lot of great bird habitat being plowed up and planted.
    2. The higher prices of corn/beans. Prices are up now compared to several years ago. I don’t agree with turning food into fuel when the world could use more food, but the ethanol business is using a lot of corn right now.
    3. More corporate farms, less family farms. Used to be we would leave a couple strips (rows) of corn for the birds/deer where we knew they lived. Leave them some food for the winter and a nice place to hunt. Corporations don’t care about that. Family farmers want to manage their ground for the next generation- a lot of Iowa/South Dakota farms have been in families for generations. I can remember hunting our ground with my Grandfather, and I’m 41 now. But with higher demand comes higher prices for land, and a fair amount of land is being bought up by large groups that don’t have these traditions.
    4. More predators. Being an outdoorsman all my life, in Iowa, I never saw a mountain lion or bobcat. The coyote numbers have skyrocketed, and now there are instances of mountain lion sightings (rare but confirmed) as well as more bobcat and other predators in Western Iowa.

    Not sure what the answer is to all these factors, but I can see the changes that have taken place over the years and hope to see some for the better. One hope is that organizations such as Pheasants Forever, the Natl Wild Turkey Federation, etc can encourage local farmers to leave some habitat for whatever species the group promotes. That may mean funding them- not all farmers hunt, but if they are somehow given an incentive (money) to leave some habitat for birds it may be one way to encourage population increases. Oh, and lets even the numbers and hunt some coyotes!

  9. Barrett-

    Thanks for the comment. I thought the Set-Aside Acres/CRP program was still in place. Is this not true?


  10. Gregg,
    Sorry for the delay, I was out of town a while. I called my Dad to confirm and yes, the CRP program is still in place; BUT the amount the gov’t pays for the CRP acres is significantly reduced from what it was years ago. The program now calls for farmers to “bid” on what they will accept for placing ground into the program. In effect the new “bid” system, coupled with rising prices, has made the program something many folks (at least in our part of Iowa) don’t even mess with. It’s still there, just not really a factor in the minds of many farmers like it used to be. (He said it’s just more trouble than it is worth and what they pay you is way less than what you could get for farming it with some minor changes- i.e. drainage upgrades, erosion planning, no-till, etc).
    He also said that the upgrades in GPS farming have made a big difference too. Planters are so hi-tech you can plug in the GPS coordinates and it will tell you right where to steer, so as it used to be there was a gap of a few feet between the rows and the fences (which always left some natural grasses and good bird habitat) now the corn/beans are right up to the fence.

  11. Thanks for the update. I appreciate the info, even though it sounds like bad news for pheasants and all the other wildlife that used to thrive out there.


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