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Working to preserve South Dakota’s pheasant hunting legacy

South Dakota’s landscape has significantly changed since the first block of native sod was turned over by a horse-drawn plow more than 150 years ago.

These changes include native grasslands converted to fertile croplands that can now produce more than 250 bushels of corn per acre; massive herds of bison replaced by cattle, horses, and sheep; and a population that has grown from a few thousand settlers to more than 840,000 people.

This winter’s bitter cold accompanied by gusty winds across South Dakota’s prairie landscape demonstrate how shelterbelts, crop stubble left standing in fields, and a patchwork of Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) fields offer protection to the land, humans, and wildlife. Noticeable to all of us is how much South Dakota’s landscape has changed just over the past few years. Many long-standing tree belts have disappeared and the number of CRP fields have grown smaller resulting in less permanent vegetative ground cover, habitat, and protection from South Dakota weather.

The loss of habitat coupled with the 60 percent drop in pheasant numbers last year spurred Governor Daugaard to call a pheasant habitat summit in Huron on Dec. 6. I attended this event and had the opportunity to visit with a large cross-section of South Dakotans who shared the common goal of reviving South Dakota’s pheasant population.

I was encouraged by the willingness of those who spoke and attended the summit to work together to preserve South Dakota’s pheasant hunting legacy. In attendance were city government officials, farmers and ranchers with both large and small operations, commodity organization representatives, as well as good friends from Pheasants Forever, Ducks Unlimited, National Wildlife Federation, and other conservation and agriculture organizations.

I believe that once again, South Dakotans will meet this new challenge with workable solutions to the dwindling pheasant numbers. What encouraged me the most was the spirit of cooperation among those who attended. Recognizing that South Dakota’s number one industry is agriculture, we must continue to keep South Dakota agriculture strong and vibrant and maximize its crop production potential while protecting the land and its inhabitants.

Much of the protection from South Dakota’s sometimes harsh weather has been placed on the land thanks to assistance from federal conservation programs. Tree planting, establishment of permanent vegetative cover, and conservation tillage, along with the technical assistance needed to ensure they achieve maximum results have all been authorized by Farm Bill Conservation Titles.

As a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee and an avid hunter, I have been very vocal in making sure my colleagues understand the critical importance of balanced Commodity and Conservation Titles in each of the Farm Bills. While South Dakotans continue working to rebuild the pheasant population in South Dakota, I will continue to do my part in Washington.