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So You Wanna Shoot Pheasants Do Ya?

August 09, 2021 by

Hunter vs. Shooter

As a pheasant hunting outfitter, I have encountered many groups of guests over the years.  Our group leads, as we refer to them, are the hardcore “hunters”.  The ones who just want to walk the fields and watch their dogs work; these are the minorities in our groups.  The larger makeup of most groups are the people I refer to as the “shooters”.  They might not want to spend quite as much time in the field as the hunters, but want to get their limit and get back to the lodge to enjoy the fellowship and camaraderie.  But this requires a certain number of birds to accomplish.

Supplementation vs. Natural Production 

South Dakota has become famous for its pheasant hunting.  That’s also partly responsible for the success of its commercial pheasant hunting business industry.  More so than any other state in the union.  Yes, South Dakota’s famous pheasant numbers were initially responsible for this, but ultimately mother nature had to take over and create the rest of the story:  Lots and lots of pheasant shooting.  It wasn’t until recently when the pheasant hunting industry had grown and then bird numbers began to decline that the supplementation industry took off.  This state has a licensed preserve industry which has its own hunting license and well documented pheasant numbers.  Pen-reared pheasants are released on both licensed preserves which is well documented, and also on private land which is not well documented.  These entities have grown mainly because visitors like to have more pheasant “shooting” than pheasant “hunting”.  There’s unlimited pheasant hunting opportunities in this state, but in recent times the pheasant shooting can be hard to come by.   There’s never been more pheasant preserves and more pen raised pheasants released in this state.  And yet, we still have a massive shortage of gross pheasant numbers to return to the “good old days”.  Plain and simple, the supplementation industry will never solve the ecological shortfall of resources required to sustain adequate pheasant production.  Now we add on to our formula.  In order to shoot more birds, we must secure more bird producing acres of habitat. In order to secure acres, we must first convert acres.

Conversion vs. Loss

I think we would be better served to refer to the problem and solution with the correct terms and verbiage.  Many conservation organizations refer to the conversion of acres as “loss of habitat”.  Did we really lose it? Or did it really just get converted to a different use?  And is the solution to the problem to “find” the acres we lost or to convert the acres we need?  It’s important to understand the factors behind land conversion.  Nothing converts land faster than expiring CRP and $8/bushel corn.  That’s what happened in the last decade and also what is happening right now.  Ultimately, free markets drive land conversion more than anything else.   Most pheasants are found when there is the perfect balance of agricultural food production (crop land) and grassland.  I think society will need to find the right balance of food/fuel production and the environmental impact and the cost and benefits of each.   Yes, those pheasants we like to shoot are in the environmental impact of our current food & fuel (ethanol) production. 

“30 x 30” vs. Right to Farm 

The battle lines are being drawn between these two factions as we speak.  30 x 30 originated by an executive order signed by President Biden this year.  Many organizations are signing on in support of this even though it is not well defined.  Right to farm is simply the opposition to this order and many are signed on in support of this opposition.  30 x 30 is the government’s goal to put 30% of the US land and waters in conservation acres by the year 2030.  Shooting from the hip this certainly sounds like it would bring back the soil bank era pheasant numbers.  30 x 30 is somewhat of a pipe dream because we would need 242 million acres converted by 2030.  CRP would be a big part of this, but we can’t even keep 20 million acres enrolled right now let alone get to a dream enrollment of 50 million acres enrolled in the first place.  This will take a lot of work, time and money. 

Conservation vs. Production

The organization that is in opposition to 30 x 30 I would say is pro-landowner, pro-property rights, pro-producer and pro-farmer.  They recently did a presentation in our town and came out with the statement that “farmers are the original conservationists”.  And therefore, when farmers are producing crops on the land those acres are “conservation acres” and should be included in the 30 x 30 plan as conservation acres.  Gov. Noem recently merged the South Dakota Dept. of Agriculture production and conservation departments into one entity based on a similar slogan of “Our Farmers are the best conservationists”.  I know the Corn Growers, Soybean Growers and Wheat Growers organizations would echo the same thing.  The problem is that every day state pollution agencies are adding to their list of environmental impairments caused by production agriculture.

Farmer vs. Landowner

I wasn’t sure what to call this one but you’ll understand why as we get into this.  One could call this a glossary of terms or summary of definitions.  This is what I have learned in the last 20 years since 2002 when I began to work with my own agricultural ground.  As of this spring I have successfully converted 700 acres of prime agricultural land to various conservation producing acres mainly in the form of CRP program acres.  When I bought farmland in 2002, I became a landowner.  The landowner is at the top of the food chain as far as who controls the land or decision making in regards to the land use.  As I began to consider how I was to use the land, I soon became aware that I was not a farmer, not an operator, nor a producer, nor a grower.  I also found out that I was initially a passive entity and not active.  All of these designations are terms used by the IRS, USDA and other government agencies to determine who is doing what on the land.  What’s important to know here is that in the effort to convert acres the landowner is the decision maker who needs to be worked with.  The bottom line is that landowners are decision makers that look at cashflow for each acre whether it comes from grains sales or very competitive conservation program payments like CRP. 

Education vs. Concern 

It seems that many people are concerned about many things.  Education is the traction in moving beyond concern into the realm of proactivity thus effecting change.  I have recently started enjoying podcasts thanks to many hours in the tractor seat and unlimited data on my smart phone.  One such podcast was put on by a conservation organization talking about the droughts potential impacts on pheasant numbers in the Dakotas.  It was very interesting, speculative and enjoyable.  However, after years of farming for pheasants, I have learned there is nothing I can do about the drought (accept maybe install more habitat that can help mitigate its impacts).  What I would REALLY like to hear discussion about is the current baseline acreage allocations of various land use types in the Dakotas and how we are moving the ball on those acreages.  Examples would be total grassland acres, small grains acres, all other grain type acres and conservation program acres.  These acreage uses are something we can affect.


It’s time to put a wrap on this.  And there’s so much I have left out.  I can’t emphasize the value of partnerships enough.  It will take many strong alliances to accomplish the effort required.  Pheasant Forever, Farm Service Agency and Natural Resources Conservation Services have been the main partners I have worked with to accomplish what has been done on my farm.  The often immeasurable impacts of production agriculture need to be accounted for as we move forward.  The biggest things I have witnessed since 2002 is the disappearance of jack rabbits (SDSU’s Mascot), significant reduction of pheasant numbers (South Dakota State Bird), major soil erosion from cropland at the head of Lake Andes National Wildlife Refuge, and Dicamba herbicide drift issues in 2017 and now again in 2021. Maybe 30 x30 is the best thing for producers in the form of an acreage offset.  Preventing new regulations and new laws from impacting them like Minnesota producers are experiencing.