Governor’s Habitat Work Group Report: A Synopsis Back »

In September 2014 the Governor’s Pheasant Habitat Work group made public their report to Governor Daugaard containing recommendations for eight conservation measures to be considered for improved pheasant habitat in South Dakota. The report came after nearly 9 months of work stemming from the December 2013 Governors Pheasant Habitat Summit which provided an opportunity for South Dakotans to give input and suggestions regarding the steep decline in pheasants and pheasant habitat in recent years, jeopardizing a marquee South Dakota industry.

S.D. Pheasant Habitat

Of central importance to the pheasant is habitat. As habitat goes, so goes the bird. However, the situation is infinitely more complex when we consider the collateral damage that habitat loss has on other wildlife and the ecosystem in general in regard to soil erosion, diminished water quality, and general reduction in quality of life for the recreationists and business owners who rely on the gaudy bird to provide hunting opportunity, social pleasure, or income.

Shortly after the 2013 Summit, the Governor assembled a team of persons from a variety of backgrounds and interests to gather public input and formulate reasonable recommendations for the future of South Dakota’s pheasants and pheasant habitat.

Changing Landscapes

The overarching theme of the report and its recommendations is the recognition of South Dakota’s dramatically changing landscape. Specifically, the report cites a recent SDSU study that estimates the overall conversion of grasslands to cropland in South Dakota between 2006 and 2012 was 1.8 million acres. The report also acknowledges the pressures that expanded row crop agriculture has placed on the ecosystem and the negative impacts that conversion of grasslands can have on soil health, water quality, and wildlife. Further, South Dakota has expired tens of thousands of acres of Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) grasslands over the last few years and although some of these acres were re-enrolled in the program or retained as grass, the net loss in overall cover has been dramatic, placing additional pressures on remaining grassland habitats.

Report Recommendations

The report contains a great deal of background information and a host of excellent ideas in need of further development. Here we list the eight primary recommendations made by the work group and we describe what opportunities might be in store for landowners to improve grassland habitats on their property. Some of the recommendations below are now actively being pursued.

1. Facilitate greater collaboration among conservation partners to better utilize available resources for improving habitat management.

  • Synopsis: Under this recommendation, the plan calls for improved coordination, implementation, and efficiency among state and federal conservation agencies when developing, marketing, and delivering conservation programs. One of the primary features of this recommendation is a centralized website where landowners could go for habitat improvement and management information. A second possibility discussed here is the creation of a digital mapping tool that would allow producers to evaluate the suitability of their farm or ranch for wildlife habitat.
  • Opportunity: If such recommendations are enacted, producers will be able to improve their conservation planning and align themselves to improve eligibility for conservation programs. In addition, having habitat information readily available in a simple-access format could make landowners more efficient through self-planning and reduction of inputs (time, energy) when making conservation plans….especially where stacked enterprises such as livestock production and hunting co-exist.
  • Currently: South Dakota Department of Game, Fish, and Parks has launched the Habitat Pays website for Conservation information for landowners.

2. Establish a long-term, dedicated conservation fund and appropriate $1 million in one-time funds to bolster private fundraising efforts.

  • Synopsis: This recommendation highlights the possible benefits of dedicated dollars toward habitat and wildlife conservation. The report calls for a start-up of $1 million in public funding while listing several options for sustained funding sources including recommendations on management and administration.
  • Opportunity: If implemented, a dedicated fund could provide wide-spread opportunity to develop new or innovative private/public partnerships or projects that benefit wildlife across ownership lines. In addition, the potential for a host of various game and non-game habitat benefits could be realized through enhancement of existing programs if adequate funding were provided.
  • Currently: The South Dakota Conservation Fund is now established, and several Conservation organizations have contributed resources to this fund and grants have been allocated for wildlife conservation programs.

3. Develop and implement the South Dakota Conservation Certification Program.

  • Synopsis: Simply, this recommendation would lay the foundation for a voluntary program that recognizes and encourages conservation stewardship efforts of South Dakota producers
  • Opportunity: If implemented, landowners receiving Conservation Certification status might benefit from preferences when applying for various conservation programs.

4. Create a multi-part “Habitat Pays” education and promotion series for inclusion in a variety of existing publications.

  • Synopsis: This recommendation features the concept of an educational and media promotional effort aimed at highlighting the importance that pheasants and pheasant hunting have in rural communities while challenging those industries that directly or indirectly benefit from pheasant habitat to understand the impacts of their industries and possibly entice financial support for other recommendations (see #2 above).  
  • Opportunity: Education of the masses is challenging.  Such a campaign may feature real-life examples as well as provide promotional opportunities for individual businesses. Farms and ranches with pheasant hunting interests would be well positioned to promote their services through this type of recommendation. 
  • Currently: South Dakota Department of Game, Fish, and Parks has launched the Habitat Pays website for Conservation information for landowners.

5. Revisit the current practices pertaining to mowing public rights-of-way.

  • Synopsis: This recommendation simply recognizes that while the majority of pheasant habitat occurs on private lands, public land habitat opportunities may not be fully realized, including road ditches. Alternative management of road ditches can provide yet another improved opportunity for pheasants to nest and raise broods successfully.
  • Opportunity: It is important to recognize that the Work Group is not suggesting radical changes to ditch mowing. Rather, the recommendation suggests subtle changes in mowing timing and intensity could improve nest success while retaining landowner opportunity to harvest road ditches.

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.

  • Synopsis: While not preferred habitat when compared to perennial grasslands, winter wheat can serve as an important nesting areas for a variety of upland birds, including pheasants. Currently, crop insurance is not available on winter wheat in 24 east river counties due to outdated information on winter wheat hardiness. 
  • Opportunity: If USDA-RMA would support winter wheat insurance in the eastern regions of South Dakota, producers would be afforded the opportunity to expand production of a relatively habitat friendly alternative cash crop with a reasonable insurance safety net.

7. Encourage the South Dakota Office of School and Public Lands to include a land management plan as a condition for securing a lease.

  • Synopsis: While not a central component to pheasant habitat range, as much of this land occurs in the western tier counties, State owned School and Public Lands (SPL) do harbor significant potential for a host of wildlife. This recommendation outlines the benefits of requiring producers to provide a land management plan prior to being granted a lease on State School and Public Lands. In addition, the recommendation continues with support of current policies that do not allow conversion of SPL grasslands to cropland.
  • Opportunity: If adopted, this recommendation may provide an opportunity for producers to more fairly compete for SPL leases. Producers willing to improve management or expand grassland acres and/or restore SPL lands may have additional opportunities under certain circumstances.

8. Support Congressional efforts to raise the federal Duck Stamp from $15 to $25.

  • Synopsis: Federal duck stamp revenue raises millions of dollars annually for waterfowl habitat conservation, including wildlife refuges and voluntary conservation easements.  When duck nesting habitat is conserved, many other species benefit, including pheasants.
  • Opportunity: Additional revenue in the federal coffers for duck nesting habitat will improve opportunities for South Dakota’s grassland producers in particular. Programs such as rangeland and pasture fence cost share, water development, and grassland/wetland easements are often funded through a combination of duck stamp revenue and other funds. Nearly doubling the duck stamp fee, while likely not deterring duck hunters from participating in the hunting season, will have a dramatic positive effect on the options landowners will have to partner with the US Fish and Wildlife Service on conservation programs, including planned grazing management.

In Conclusion

Overall, the conversation on the importance of pheasant habitat comes at a time when we are also discussing the importance of the livestock industry and the opportunities that lie ahead with retention of grazing animals and the forage base necessary to support them. The statewide forage base, while increasingly including such exciting options as cover and forage crops, still centers squarely on well managed grasslands for the bulk of our livestock operators. 

The great thing about modern grassland management is that we can mesh the needs of livestock producers with the needs of wildlife if we are willing to modify how we think about goals and objectives. A prime example will the opportunity for livestock producers to work creatively with landowners who hold expiring CRP contracts. Initiating such a partnership not only keeps land in grass cover, it also provides options for both the CRP owner to retain such things as income hunting while allowing the livestock producer an opportunity to retain or expand the livestock operation. Of course, all situations will be different. For tips and suggestions on integrating CRP and livestock grazing, view Planning CRP and Grassland Mixes for Future Grazing and Conversion Of Expiring CRP Acres To Pasture Back.

“No single entity or individual can take sole responsibility because the benefits of conservation – increased wildlife habitat, improved water quality, better soil health, greater and more diverse economic activity – benefit the entire state.” – Governors Pheasant Habitat Work Group – 2014

View the full Governors Pheasant Habitat Work Group report for more information.

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