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A Letter to Governor Noem

October 16, 2020 by

Dear Governor Noem,

First, let me begin by applauding your bold leadership in dealing with Covid-19 in South Dakota.  Your theme of trust and personal responsibility aligns with the freedom that the citizens of this state desire.

Secondly, we appreciate your video on “how pheasant hunters do social distancing in South Dakota”. We love that creativity and again, you’re bold leadership.

Thirdly, congratulations on attracting President Trump to our great Mount Rushmore monument to celebrate our nation’s independence.  We will need you to call on him for his support in our cause below.

To the matter at hand. This letter comes to you on the morning of the 2020 South Dakota pheasant hunting season opener. While we are optimistic about having a good season we have cause to believe it will be similar to the recent previous seasons that have not attracted many from around the nation to our great state. The reason for this is we know we have come up short on the acres we need to create the experience that South Dakota has become famous for.  Specifically I’m referring to federally funded conservation grassland acres.

My wife and I had the pleasure of meeting you at last year’s Pheasants Forever banquet in Mitchell South Dakota. I offered my assistance in any way and you suggested we could do a “pilot project”. With all due respect Madam Governor, with 100 years of pheasant hunting, and biological experience, in this state, we no longer need pilot projects to create the pheasant numbers needed to attract tourists to this state.  We know what needs to be done.  In the simplest of terms it will take a conversion of grain production cropland acres to conservation grassland acres. That is the only thing that has significantly naturally produced pheasants on the orders of magnitude scale that is synonymous with our pheasant hunting fame. Correlated to those eras, conservation grassland acres have come with the partnership of federally funded programs like soil bank and conservation reserve program (CRP).  The key word to focus on is ”produce”.  Below we will outline several focus factors where correct thinking will be required in order to cause the shift necessary to create the “good old days”.  It will take bold leadership to correct course and head us in a sustainable direction for the next 100 years.  In terms of Ag and Tourism.  Pheasant hunting seems to always have been conducted on Ag land.

Focus Factor 1Focus on natural pheasant production, not periphery activities.  Namely, the conversion of grain producing cropland to conservation grassland that is known to naturally produce abundant numbers of ringneck pheasants. The periphery activities that can distract us are marketing, pheasant pictures on license plates, habitat stamps, predator control, pheasant release, summits, raffles, gun sales and other activities that can distract us from significantly producing pheasants naturally.

Focus Factor 2Create an attractive grassland enrollment program.  The last CRP general sign up proves that the financial incentives were not attractive enough to cause the enrolled acres (only 70K acres) to approach the 1.5 million grassland acres we need to get to where we need to be.  President Trump has issued billions of dollars in aid in the form of MFP payments.  We suggest some of these monies begin to be issued in the form of conservation program payments to incentivize grain producing farmers to set aside production acres.  This has been proven to also be one of the great price support aids and gives farmers more security and control.  Strong program enrollments will only result when programs are competitive with local cash rent.

Focus Factor 3Stem the tide, of the roundup ready corn and soybean tsunami, from spreading west.  We have already seen the impact of this phenomenon in states to the east of us that have lost their natural pheasant production capacity such as Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Indiana, to name a few.  Dollars that flow through our grain production system, to large agricultural companies that are headquartered overseas, is a huge risk for our state. The industry of pheasant hunting tourism is a very strong cashflow engine that spends and invests the majority of its dollars local and spreads it out evenly among many businesses across the state.  The art of managing the whole of grain production acres and grassland acres in our state should be a leading tenet.  CRP enrollment is currently at its lowest since 1988.

Focus Factor 4Repeal/Modify SDLC 41-2-23 in an effort to truly strengthen private landowner partnerships.  Our guests, that now have to pay $25 for a habitat stamp, expect to see those dollars be spent towards habitat improvement on the private land that they hunt on when they are here. Due to SDCL above, that is impossible.  South Dakota outfitters generate hundreds of thousands of dollars in license sales and sales tax and are ineligible from receiving any habitat funding from the state or any state programs tied to state law 41-2-23.

Focus Factor 5Acknowledge what does not work.  The state is comprised of 83% private land and 17% federal or state owned land. The future will be determined by what happens on the private land acres.  The present situation is roughly a 2 pheasant per mile state average which is down from the 2008 high of 8 pheasants per mile and the all-time high of 16 pheasants per mile. To get back to the 8 pheasants per square mile, conservation grassland enrollment would need to be back up to 1.5 million acres and probably north of that to compensate for the change in modern agronomic grain production farming practices.  We also know that since the downturn of pheasant numbers the supplementation of pheasants through private release of pen raise birds has increased dramatically.  Additionally, the footprint of licensed preserves, public lands acres and public lands open access acres has not changed dramatically in the last two decades.  Neither has the quality of public lands changed.  The change impacting statewide pheasant numbers has largely happened on private land.  Poor road counts could also equate to poor road hunting.

Focus Factor 6Acknowledge what does work and create new incentives to do more of it.  The James River CREP program is an excellent implementation of conservation grassland that works. It is an open access program, but as you well know, that comes with a great big price tag. One of the limiting factors of federally subsidized conservation programs is they don’t have more partnerships at state and local levels.  There are opportunities to add shared small percentage partners to annual rents and cost share programs to incentivize private land owners to implement more of these conservation grassland programs.  Current overall incentives, to landowners, are way too low to create the conversion from grain production to conservation grassland. There should be a balance of open and closed access programs available to private land owners.

Focus Factor 7Dispel the myth that farmers are great conservationists.  I am a farmer, not a conservationist. I am a producer, and I can produce grain, beef, pork, hay or I can produce conservation.  We are producers.  We need to remember the Dust Bowl, which gave birth to our federal Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), due to an economic and environmental disaster caused by farmers overproducing on the landscape.  The recent merger of our states Ag and Environment departments is concerning.  This quote from Secretary Roberts, “South Dakotans know that farmers and ranchers are the best conservationists, and this department will promote our number one industry while we simultaneously protect our natural resources.”  While it sounds good in theory, practices shows us the most recent dust bowl near Dust Bowl Miller SD shows environmental disasters are only a market rally away.  Our producing neighbors to the east can show us our future as well.  Iowa and Minnesota both suffer dramatically from agriculturally produced nitrate pollution.  Dicamba drift is the latest threat.  In August, 2020, Minnesota begins its nitrogen fertilizer application restrictions to mitigate groundwater impairment issues.

Focus Factor 8Recognize the role conservation plays in mitigating externalized business expenses. While our grain products head out on barges to China, and our Ag product dollars head to companies in Germany, we are left with what we own, which is our soil. Our land. The great thing about the pheasant hunting industry is all the money that comes here stays here and it’s largely produced on account of conservation acres.  Nearly every business that exists has externalized business costs. Agricultural production’s externalized business cost is conservation. That’s a principle.  Look no further than Minnesota and Iowa to prove this principle.

SummaryGovernment has successfully worked with the private sector to address and solve systemic problems.  This is no different.  It’s simple. Convert corn and soybean acres to grass.  Bring back the industry that we all can benefit from.  Preserve our state bird and hunting heritage.  The South Dakota Ringneck Pheasant.  A monument and industry as large as Mount Rushmore.