In a state best known for its 60-foot sculptures of former presidents, an upland game bird is grabbing a share of the spotlight. South Dakota's state bird, the Ring-necked Pheasant had all but disappeared in the 1970's. But its numbers rebounded in recent years and, thanks to pheasant hunters, the bird now pumps millions of dollars into the state's economy. But even as South Dakota capitalizes on the sport, increased demand for corn threatens to put much of the pheasant's habitat in the crosshairs of federal reforms. Andrew Batt reports on efforts to balance the Conservation Reserve Program with increased corn acreage demands.
In late fall, the wind-swept plains of central South Dakota leave little to the imagination. What may seem like a barren landscape to an outsider is home to one of the fastest growing resources the state has to offer. With help from food plots, switchgrass, and government-sponsored conservation programs, this resource is fueling an environmental AND economic boom.
The ringneck pheasant, best known for its colorful feathers and status as a premier upland game bird, is taking the state by storm. Millions of pheasants now inhabit the expansive cover provided by the conservation reserve program, or CRP.
The influx of out-of-state pheasant hunters into South Dakota has filled rural coffers and caught the attention of farm families looking to cash in on a lucrative business.
Cory Feistner grew up on a farm near Woonsocket, South Dakota. After graduating from high school, he quickly realized he would need to take a different career approach than his father if he wanted to stay near the farm.
Cory's Dad, Dennis, still runs the same modest livestock and row crop operation his family started generations ago. In the 1980's, Dennis began enrolling hundreds of the farm's more marginal crop acres into the CRP program. He credits the move with keeping his family close to home.
Dennis Feistner, Woonsocket, SD: "As Corey grew up and times had changed it was harder for two of us to make a living off of the acres we had. So, by starting the pheasant hunting business and using part of the farm for that, we were both able to stay here."
Over a decade later, Cory is the owner and operator of the Feistner Hunting Ranch - a pheasant hunting guide lodge used by hundreds of sportsmen annually.
Cory Feistner, Woonsocket, SD: "…we provide a guided hunt with lodging and all the accommodations that go along with it, dogs and guides and transportation in the field and there's also operations where they just let you go out and hunt on your own too."
The Feistners use a combination of preserve land and CRP to harvest thousands of pheasants every year. But they've heard rumors that their government-sponsored CRP acres could lose funding…and that rumbling can be heard everywhere from farm country to Washington.
America's unquenchable thirst for biofuels is sparking concern that more corn acreage is needed to produce more ethanol. Some agricultural groups, including the Iowa Farm Bureau, have said the logical place to grow more corn is CRP land. The Iowa Farm Bureau also claims young farmers need the ground to begin their careers.
Craig Lang, President – Iowa Farm Bureau: "I would say that the CRP program was designed in such a way what it did was it retired land and it retired farmers and retired farmers don't add all that much value back to the community. It's the young farmers that are our future."
Craig Lang, President of the Iowa Farm Bureau and a dairy farmer from eastern Iowa, has found himself defending the Iowa Farm Bureau's stance on CRP.
Last summer, IFB delegates voted to discontinue general farm CRP signups. While the move was merely a symbolic stance, wildlife and environmental groups questioned the Iowa Farm Bureau's motives. Some even accused the group of favoring dollar signs over environmental concerns.
But Lang argues that the Iowa Farm Bureau DID NOT vote against all conservation reserve acres. He says the farm group made a distinction between whole farm general signups – which are the entire farm, and continuous signup acres – which include buffer strips near environmentally-sensitive areas such as streams.
Craig Lang: "The continuous CRP acres will continue to be important, they are extremely important because we have seen the environmental protection that is has brought and our farmers do not want to change that."
Any potential change in farm country may come in the form of the 2007 farm bill. Debate in Washington will start soon on the omnibus spending package that includes everything from farm subsidy levels to conservation programs. Senate Agriculture Chairman Tom Harkin, a well-known proponent of conservation programs, hopes to marry the goals of ethanol production and wildlife habitat.
Tom Harkin, D – Iowa: "Let's say you have some fairly flat land that is in the CRP program. Maybe that land could come out and be put into an energy crop like switchgrass for example, which would be a good cover for birds and a good nesting ground for birds. You could still harvest it after the nesting season for energy production."
While Harkin named cellulosic ethanol as a potential catch-all solution for CRP acres, USDA Secretary Mike Johanns cautioned farm groups on the lofty expectations for conservation ground.
Mike Johanns, USDA Secretary: "There is this impression amongst some of you that you have all these acres in conservation and if you just shift them you get an acre per acre from conservation to corn production…you don't. We'll continue to look at it and try to decide what the best course of action is but today I think the gain would be quite small."
Back in South Dakota, any small gain for corn production is viewed as a big loss in tourism dollars. In 2005, South Dakota pheasant hunting generated $153 million dollars from mainly out-of-state sportsmen.
Dave Nomsen, VP Governmental Affairs Pheasants Forever: "…to lose CRP from this landscape nationwide would be a tremendous, tremendous problem for the future."
Dave Nomsen, the Vice President of Governmental Affairs for Pheasants Forever, claims CRP and upland game hunting is a major contributor to rural America's bottom line.
Dave Nomsen, VP Governmental Affairs Pheasants Forever: "You've also got a situation where the average guy from Iowa or from Minnesota, where I live, can jump in the car with your dog and perhaps your son, drive over and hunt public lands, stay in a local motel, eat in the local restaurants. So, you know, CRP is rural and community development at its finest."
The Feistners certainly agree that CRP has brought a windfall of pheasant hunting dollars into a region devoid of other economic development opportunities. And with the prospect of reduced government-funding for CRP, Cory wonders if his marginal crop land is worth putting back into production.
Cory Feistner, Woonsocket, SD: "…we've got some contracts that are just one or two years old so we will still have some ground in CRP but as the habitat goes away and the ground is turned back over to farming there's no doubt that the bird numbers will go down and that would just be something that we'll have to make a decision on whether we're going to go back to farming it or leave it in the habitat on our own."
For Market to Market, I'm Andrew Batt.