A South Dakotan’s Field of Dreams
By Sen. John Thune
When South Dakotans picture opening day of pheasant season, they see unharvested corn and milo fields, sloughs, shelterbelts, and food plots lined with hunters – often friends and family, conspicuous in their bright orange clothing. Although shooting a limit of pheasants isn’t the mark of a successful hunt, the allure of the “Pheasant Capital of the World” is why hunters from across the United States gather in South Dakota every third Saturday in October to participate in this world-class event and renew or create family memories and traditions.
As you walk through the amply covered fields during your fall hunt, it’s important to think about what the surrounding landscape looks like in winter after the crops are harvested, snow covers the ground, and temperatures dive below zero. It’s also important to think about the spring nesting season when quality habitat is crucial for pheasants to hide their nests and offer protection to their young chicks. Most people probably assume that’s what the widely known and well-respected Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) is for, and they would be right.
Since its authorization in the 1985 farm bill, CRP has evolved into the cornerstone of federal conservation programs and has helped create a field of dreams for South Dakota pheasant hunters. CRP acreage in South Dakota peaked in 2007 at more than 1.5 million acres, and as a result of the nesting habitat and winter cover most CRP acres provide, pheasant numbers increased dramatically. Since then, CRP acreage has dropped, and unfortunately it’s only going to get worse. U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) reports show that over the next six years, nearly 580,000 additional acres will expire from CRP in South Dakota – that’s a 60 percent loss of our current CRP-enrolled acres.
The opportunity for South Dakota landowners to enroll more land in the most recent general CRP sign-up was significantly hamstrung when the USDA announced it had accepted just 107 of the more than 40,000 acres that South Dakota landowners had offered. In response, I wrote to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack and later had an opportunity to question him during a Senate Agriculture Committee hearing about the department’s disappointing decision and inappropriate CRP management practices.
As a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, I will continue to work with USDA officials and focus my efforts on making changes to CRP policy next year when we begin debate on the next farm bill to ensure adequate and equitable CRP enrollment and common-sense management of CRP in the future.
Keeping adequate acres enrolled in South Dakota will benefit everyone because it will help maintain our state’s nearly quarter-million-dollar pheasant hunting industry, which directly benefits our small towns and rural areas. Farmers will continue to protect and preserve soil health, and our state’s pheasant hunting legacy will continue for generations to come.