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A pheasant is shown in a field in this file photo. Forum News Service file photo

SD governor stands behind pheasant work despite declining numbers

MITCHELL, S.D. — Patience, pheasant hunters.

Despite a 45 percent drop in an annual pheasant survey earlier this year, Gov. Dennis Daugaard believes his habitat work group has been a difference-maker in South Dakota.

In December 2013, Daugaard hosted a Pheasant Habitat Summit due to concerns from the public over declining numbers in the species across the state that resulted in the formation of the habitat work group.

Since, South Dakota has seen two years with increased brood count surveys in 2014, 2015 and the following two years showed decreased numbers, including this year's second-worst preseason count since 1979. Although the past two years took a toll on pheasant numbers in South Dakota, Daugaard said the eight recommendations assembled by the habitat work group have "set the stage for important long-term habitat efforts."

"The Summit and the Pheasant Habitat Work Group's recommendations brought to light the importance of habitat efforts to sustain our natural resources," Daugaard said via email.

The annual statewide pheasant-per-mile report was released last month and showed a 45 percent drop from 2016, following an at-times disastrous drought that plagued much of South Dakota over the summer. This year's pheasant-per-mile index of 1.68 was slightly above 2013's preseason index of 1.52. Later that year, the habitat summit was hosted in Huron.

Less than a year later, the pheasant habitat work group issued eight recommendations in September 2014, many of which have been fully or partially instituted.

Among the successful initiatives completed includes a push to increase the price of the Federal Duck Stamp from $15 to $25. The funds from the stamp, which is required for most migratory waterfowl hunters, are allocated to conservation projects nationwide. Some of the other enacted notable recommendations are the ability for farmers to plant winter wheat and be insured, and the formation of the Habitat Pays website.

Since its launch, Daugaard said 15,669 visitors have viewed at least one session on the website.

Through the Habitat Pays website, interested parties have the ability to contribute to the South Dakota Conservation Fund. In 2014, the nonprofit organization Pheasants Forever donated $100,000 to the fund, and a Daugaard policy adviser said there was no set goal for the fund but used the word "millions" in hopes it would significantly grow.

Daugaard said during the establishment phase of the Conservation Fund, the state provided $350,000 in seed money to be matched by outside entities. Several individuals and entities have since provided approximately $387,750 match funds. He said 12 projects have been approved by the Conservation Board and are being implemented, including help from Pheasants Forever, Ducks Unlimited and local Pheasants Forever chapters. Daugaard said there is $190,912 in total assets and $55,894 available for distribution in the Conservation Fund.

Matt Morlock, acting director for Pheasants Forever in South Dakota, acknowledged the strides made to elevate wildlife habitat in the state.

"The recommendations provided an elevated platform to work from, but the work is far from complete," Morlock said. "And we — Pheasants Forever — are committed not just to working on those eight components, but all other programs and initiatives that can help establish upland habitat in South Dakota."

And while Daugaard says the work group's recommendations should be measured in the long-term, he recognizes weather will always play a significant role in pheasant numbers.

"Because weather can impact a single year, the true measurement of the (pheasant habitat work group) will be assessed through long-term numbers knowing year-to-year volatility will occur due to conditions which cannot be controlled," he said.

Daugaard also pointed to more-recent efforts in ways the state is attempting to improve habitat for pheasants. This past legislative session, a new incentive for landowners was created with riparian buffer strips, which are perennial vegetation along streams and lakes that helps protect that water body from adjacent land use. The program is eligible along 575 lakes and 11,000 miles of streams and rivers and its enrollment is open until Oct. 15.

"This new incentive for agricultural producers not only improves water quality, but it also creates great habitat for pheasants," Daugaard said.

Morlock said there's still work to be done for Pheasants Forever. He's focused on how the next federal Farm Bill shapes up, including the number of acres allowed in the Conservation Reserve Program.

"That has to change, and Pheasants Forever is working in the halls of Congress in that regard," he said.

He explained Pheasants Forever needs to "continue engaging landowners and continue building relationships with agricultural and commodity groups" and "develop community-led efforts that focus on maintaining and creating habitat on the ground while engaging Main Street."