Ringneck bust ahead?

Ringneck bust ahead?

While visiting the Dakota Farm Show at the DakotaDome earlier this week, I must admit I didn't have amber waves of grain on my mind.

I was thinking, instead, of the pheasant hunting season in South Dakota that just concluded last Sunday. And how, after not picking up a shotgun for years, it would be nice to stroll on familiar ground near the farm where I grew up to see if I could flush up a bird or two.

Should I resolve, sometime in the future, to make pheasant hunting a priority in the fall, my chances may not be all that good.

That's according to Mike Blaalid, a Pheasants Forever farm bill biologist stationed in Mitchell. According to a recent report in the Mitchell Daily Republic, Blaalid said the landscape in farm country in rapidly changing in a way that's not good for pheasants.

Drain tile is being installed in rural fields. Wetlands are being burned away so they can be farmed. Rocky, erodible, native sod that has never been turned is being converted to cropland.

I was reminded of this trend while at the farm show Tuesday. A visitor to the show quickly becomes exposed to the most modern and most popular farm equipment available.

I was stopped in my tracks as I confronted this large, cage-like device that mounts to a Bobcat-type of machine, or other types of small, powerful tractors. On a monitor mounted next to the machine, a video played of it in action.

The thing works a virtual rock magnet. A single farmer could clear a quarter section of land of pesky rocks with ease. Such devices weren't around during my youth, when I regularly joined by brothers each spring for "rock picking sessions" in the fields of our family farm.

Clearing a field has become easy. And in this current era of South Dakota cropland fetching several thousands of dollars per acre, and strong commodity prices, despite the current drought, farmers are doing their best to make a profit. There are financial benefits, indeed, to clearing what was once idle property and transforming it to cropland.

Blaalid says that from a wildlife habitat standpoint, South Dakota is becoming the next Iowa, and that's not a good thing.

"We're not headed in the right direction, I can tell you that," Blaalid told the Daily Republic. "I hate to say it, but I truly believe we are headed for a worse place. It might be awhile until we get back in the right direction again."

There were approximately 2.1 million pheasants in the state in 1986, but the population jumped over the next 20 years due to changes in land management and a better understanding of wildlife's role in tourism.

The federal Conservation Reserve Program, which pays landowners to set aside marginal land, played a large role. It created ideal habitat for wildlife in general, and pheasants in particular. South Dakota became a destination, and the state cashed in. The South Dakota Department of Game, Fish & Parks estimates that nonresident hunters spent approximately $179 million in South Dakota in 2008 alone.

Blaalid is likely correct to be concerned about recent trends, but I realize there are other factors at work, too, that may determine future pheasant population trends. "The No. 1 thing that affects corn or pheasant production is Mother Nature," said Lisa Richardson, executive director of the South Dakota Corn Growers Association, who as a youngster hunted with her father. "Pheasant numbers were up 18 percent in 2012 because last winter wasn't too bad and last spring wasn't too wet."

I'm a bit relieved by that news. But I still worry. Pheasant hunting is big business in South Dakota. I hope Blaalid's concerns don't become reality. Should the pheasant boom end in our state, even for a short time, cash registers in sporting goods stores, gas stations, and motels may not ring as often as in Octobers past.

We South Dakotans love the richness of the natural resources our state provides. Our home will be just a bit poorer economically and in spirit if pheasant numbers decline.

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