The Pheasant Wars

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Are we losing the fight for ringnecks?

By Tom Davis

 This past year, for the first time since 1992, South Dakota’s pheasant harvest failed to top the 1 million-bird mark. The final tally for the 2013 season was 982,679 roosters, down significantly from the 1.428 million harvested in 2012 and roughly half of the 1.83 million bagged just two years earlier. The average harvest per hunter this past season, 7.4, was the lowest recorded since 1989.

 Not that these numbers came as any kind of surprise. “It was about what we expected,” said Travis Runia, Senior Upland Game Biologist for South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks. “We knew going into the season the pheasant numbers were down, and hunting pressure, especially on our public areas, was noticeably lower as well.”

 As Runia and others close to the situation are quick to point out, South Dakota has suffered through several consecutive years of weather that, from a pheasant’s perspective, has been apocalyptically brutal. A scorching drought that struck in the summer of 2012 all but burned up that year’s crop of young birds (which had started out looking pretty good) and resulted in significant adult mortality as well.

 According to John Cooper, the former Secretary of Game, Fish & Parks who now sits on the South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks Commission, “We didn’t know how bad it was until we started getting reports from farmers who were finding dead birds in their fields. They’d literally cooked.”

 Then, as if they were playing a perverse practical joke, in 2013 the weather gods summoned one of the coldest and wettest springs in South Dakota history. The first hatch, according to Cooper, was “a complete bust,” so with recruitment depending entirely on re-nests—which by their very nature are less successful—everybody knew there’d be slim pickings come fall. This prediction was borne out by the Department’s 2013 brood survey index, which plunged 64 percent compared to 2012’s.

 Word got out, of course, and in direct response to the dismal forecast (corroborated by any number of equally dismal “from the field” reports that went viral on the web), nonresident-license sales dropped 21 percent—meaning that a lot of motels, restaurants, convenience stores and other small businesses took a serious hit. Pheasant hunting contributes an estimated $225 million to $250 million annually to the South Dakota economy, and while that figure may pale next to the billions generated by agribusiness, it’s still a significant chunk of change.

 Recognizing what’s at stake and wanting to put the brakes on this thing before it careens completely out of control, South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard hosted the state’s first-ever “Pheasant Summit” this past December. Held in Huron, one of South Dakota’s traditional pheasant hunting epicenters, the event attracted some 400 participants, while another 1,000 or so watched online. In the morning a number of speakers outlined the problems and challenges; in the afternoon attendees broke into small groups to brainstorm ways to respond.

 And, yes, Gov. Daugaard stayed all day.

 Now, there’s obviously nothing that can be done about the weather (although the specter of climate change hovers darkly over the future of pheasant hunting, as it does over the future of hunting and fishing in general). What the participants at the Pheasant Summit were really there to talk about was a deeper, more insidious and yet eminently reversible problem: the state’s eroding habitat base.

 In 2007 South Dakota had 1.6 million acres enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), which, for better or worse, has become the quantitative benchmark for measuring pheasant habitat. Today the state has less than half that amount, and it’s continuing to dwindle. During roughly the same time frame, South Dakota also has seen approximately 450,000 acres of virgin prairies plowed under and approximately 225,000 acres of wetlands and wetland buffers drained and converted to cropland.

 These problems aren’t confined to South Dakota, obviously. When you add North Dakota and Nebraska to the equation, the total loss of prairies swells to 1.3 million acres. Subtract Nebraska but add Minnesota, and you get 731,000 acres of lost wetlands and wetland buffers—and in the very heart of the “duck factory” too.

 So it’s easy to understand why “grassland/wetland conversion” has become the “four-letter word” of the moment among conservationists and wildlife professionals. According to those who’ve crunched the numbers, America hasn’t witnessed this kind of wholesale conversion of non-agricultural land to cropland since the 1920s. This is the worst possible news not only for pheasants but also for prairie chickens, sharp-tailed grouse, Hungarian partridge, bobwhite quail, snipe, waterfowl, countless non-game species and—why mince words?—the sustainability of ecological systems and the underlying health of the environment.

 As Aldo Leopold famously wrote: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”

 By this calculus, conversion of prairies and wetlands—some of our most productive and biologically diverse habitats—to fertilizer- and chemical-drenched corn and soybean monocultures is about as wrong as it can be.

 Why is this happening? What’s driving this massive transformation of the landscape that’s kicking pheasants and other wildlife to the curb and threatening the future of upland bird and waterfowl hunting?

 The short answer is record-high prices for grain—corn in particular but also soybeans. But there are a host of other factors at work: some economic, some technological, some political, some institutional and some that cut across multiple categories. The complexity is daunting.

 “It’s a little scary how world-wide and planet-wide pheasant management has become,” said Dave Nomsen, Vice President of Governmental Affairs for Pheasants Forever. “In today’s global economy, corn production and supply in places like Argentina and Brazil influence the price of corn in places like South Dakota—which in turn influences decisions on land use that impact pheasants.”

 When the fingers start pointing at the reasons behind these high commodity prices, they typically land on ethanol. Or, to be more specific, a federal law called the “ethanol mandate,” requiring that a gradually increasing percentage of our gasoline supply be comprised of domestically produced “biofuels.” The idea is to achieve a measure of energy independence, thus allowing the US to become less reliant on foreign oil—and less politically entangled with the countries that produce that oil.

 On paper the ethanol mandate seems like good policy, but the environmental consequences have been devastating. To be fair, this isn’t the only factor that’s driving up the price of grain—the appetite of the increasingly affluent Asian middle-class for corn-fed beef and pork from North America is another—but most agree that it’s the biggest one.

 The bottom line is that putting land in programs like CRP, or even practicing “good conservation” in general, is a hell of a tough sell, given the prevailing market conditions. Here’s an anecdote that helps put this in perspective. At the Pheasant Summit in December, John Cooper found himself in a discussion group with a large landowner he’d known and worked with for years, a man who, in general, had always been sympathetic to the goals and aims of Game, Fish & Parks. “What you have to understand, John,” the man said, “is that we only cooperate with you when prices are low.”

 In a sense, though, this is nothing new. Those of us with gray in our beards remember when Earl Butz, Nixon’s loutish Secretary of Agriculture, urged farmers to plant “fencerow to fencerow” in response to robust demand. They did, and suddenly a lot of pheasants and other wild critters found themselves homeless. Things got so bad in South Dakota that for four consecutive years starting in 1975 the daily limit was reduced from three roosters to two.

 It’s worth noting that this was also a period when there was no government-funded “set aside” program that gave farmers an incentive not to plow and plant marginal ground—ground that gave pheasants and other wildlife the cover they needed for reproduction and refuge. The old Soil Bank program had phased out in the early ’60s, and CRP wasn’t established until 1985 (and took several years to really ramp up).

 As someone who’s been on the front lines of the pheasant wars for four decades (he worked for the US Fish & Wildlife Service before he joined South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks), John Cooper has about as much perspective on this as anyone. “After 40 years,” he said, “I’ve come to the realization that free-market capitalism can be damn tough on pheasants. It’s hard enough to incentivize landowners to practice good conservation when prices are low, but when they’re high, as they’ve been recently, it’s virtually impossible.”

 But here’s the kicker: Thanks (or maybe no thanks) to the obscenely generous terms of the federal crop insurance program, modern agriculture has at best a passing resemblance to free-market capitalism. For one thing, the premiums are subsidized—to the tune of 62 cents on the dollar—by American taxpayers, i.e., you and me. For another, the program is set up in such a way that it virtually eliminates the element of financial risk. A farmer who has purchased crop insurance can break his prairies, drain his wetlands and plant marginal ground with complete impunity, knowing he can still collect up to 85 percent of the projected revenue from his established “baseline” yield.

 In other words, he can’t lose. Little wonder that critics of the crop insurance program—an assortment of unlikely bedfellows that includes right-wing taxpayers’-rights groups and left-wing environmental groups—like to say that modern agriculture is less and less about farming the land and more and more about farming the insurance.

 Little wonder, too, that perhaps the one item that groups like Pheasants Forever and Ducks Unlimited fought the hardest for in the 21/2-year struggle that culminated in the passage of the 2014 Farm Bill was “re-coupling” conservation compliance to crop insurance. Prior to 1996, farmers who purchased federal crop insurance had to comply with certain conservation restrictions (notably the “Swampbuster” rules protecting wetlands) in order to be eligible for payments. In 1996, however, that “linkage” was broken, and it’s been a huge enabling factor in the grassland/wetland conversion scenario.

 “Re-linking conservation compliance to crop insurance was a big win,” said Eric Lindstrom, Government Affairs Representative for DU’s Great Plains office, in Bismarck, North Dakota. “When that linkage was broken in 1996, it had the unintended consequence of giving landowners an incentive to practice bad conservation. By putting conservation compliance back in place, we can potentially protect as many as 1.4 million wetlands in the Prairie Pothole region alone.”

 Another Farm Bill “win” was the establishment of Sodsaver, a program that will help protect native grasslands in Iowa, Nebraska, Minnesota, Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota. Sodsaver sharply reduces the insurance subsidy for farmers who choose to break previously unplowed ground, and it disallows “yield transfer,” the boondoggle that allowed insurance claims to be made on the basis of the expected yield from a farmer’s most productive ground, not on the expected yield from the ground on which the claim actually was made.

 “With conservation compliance restored and Sodsaver in place,” said Pheasants Forever’s Dave Nomsen, “landowners are really going to have to sit down, put pencil to paper and decide whether it makes more sense to farm these marginally productive areas or to practice conservation on them.”

 Unfortunately, it’s pretty hard to identify any other unqualified wins in the rest of the Farm Bill—which, since the establishment of CRP in 1985, has become far and away the most important and impactful piece of federal legislation relating to private-lands conservation in the US. Just for starters, while conservation programs account for only 7 percent of the bill’s total funding, they suffered 20 percent of its total cuts.

 Feel free to draw your own conclusions from that.

 CRP, which currently is capped at 32 million acres (although only 25.6 million acres are currently enrolled), will be drawn down to a cap of 24 million by 2018. There is, however, a new provision that will allow up to 2 million acres of existing prairies—land with no “cropping history” —to be eligible, which should give landowners an incentive not to plow them under. In addition, payments for CRP acres will be updated to reflect prevailing rental rates for comparable farm ground, making the program, in Nomsen’s words, “a more viable and competitive option for landowners.”

 Nomsen also notes that increasing efficiencies in the way CRP is implemented—including requirements that landowners utilize “best of the best” management practices; a streamlined process for “rolling over” former CRP acres into other conservation programs; and the consolidation of a number of federal programs under the umbrella of a new entity, the Regional Conservation Partnership Program—will help mitigate the loss in total acreage.

 And while not a conservation win per se, the Farm Bill does authorize $40 million annually during the next five years for the Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program—aka “Open Fields”—which pays private landowners to allow public access to their properties. Montana’s Block Management Program and North Dakota’s PLOTS (Private Lands Open To Sportsmen) Program are just two of the popular initiatives that stand to benefit from this funding stream.

 Where this leaves us as sportsmen and conservationists is hard to say. And there are at least a couple of looming issues—issues that are a little under the radar at the moment but that won’t stay that way much longer—that have the potential to significantly influence the whole land-use discussion. One is the catastrophic impact that grassland conversion and the increasingly chemical-intensive agriculture that follows are having on pollinators: bees, butterflies and the other insects that play a critical (and frequently overlooked) role in the production of fruit and vegetable crops. The other is the impact that this same intensive agriculture is having on both water quality (from soil erosion and fertilizer runoff) and water supply (from center-pivot irrigation primarily).

 As John Muir observed, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”

 Again, it’s hard to know how these issues will play out. What’s clear, however, is that we can’t continue down this same path indefinitely. It’s simply not sustainable. As the saying goes: Something’s gotta give. If we want birds to hunt and prairies to walk and wetlands to wade and butterflies to show to our grandchildren, it’s incumbent on us to step up. Don’t just join Ducks Unlimited or Pheasants Forever or another worthy conservation organization; sweeten the pot with some extra bucks (and while you’re at it, buy an extra duck stamp too). Tell your congressional representatives that if they expect your support come November, you expect theirs when conservation funding is being negotiated in Washington. Stay informed on the issues, don’t allow yourself to be distracted by the rhetoric, and call out politicians who pay lip service to conservation but are nowhere to be found when push comes to shove.

 The stakes have never been higher. I hope I’m wrong, but I can’t help feeling that we’re on the brink of a tipping point—and with just a couple of more steps in the wrong direction, it could be game over.

 Tom Davis is an Editor at Large for Shooting Sportsman.

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Ed Carroll

Ed Carroll is Shooting Sportsman's Associate Editor.

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