By John Pollmann
The landscape surrounding Bridgewater, S.D., is one of manicured fields of corn and soybeans, but 50 years ago it was a veritable pheasant mecca.
Like much of eastern South Dakota in those days, the tiny town in McCook County was a place of brushy fencelines, dirty cornfields and areas of grassy cover where long-tailed roosters used to erupt from plum thickets and fill the sky like a flock of blackbirds.
That recollection isn’t my own, but my father’s, and based on the photos he has shown me of cars piled high with pheasants, I tend to believe his stories about the good ol’ days.
“We’d walk the railroad tracks outside of town for two or three miles,” he’s oft to tell me. “Push the grass on one side on the way out, and push it back on the other side of the tracks on the way back in. You could hunt just about anywhere. There were just that many birds back then.”
Times are different in 2017 around Bridgewater and the eastern half of South Dakota. Sure, pheasants can still be found in areas of good habitat, but the relative ease of finding roosters in every section of ground is certainly no longer the case.
South Dakota, as a whole, is witnessing a decline in pheasant numbers — a downward slide marked by seasons of harsh weather, like the drought conditions portions of the state are currently experiencing, but all of that is underlined by a diminishing base of quality habitat. Hope for the weather to turn around and hope for the pheasant population to rebound are ever-present, but the fact of the matter is the state’s pheasant population is still 65 percent below the 10-year average.
While the declining population is an alarming trend to many, it is a familiar narrative for pheasants in this state.
The late 1950s and early 1960s were good times for my father and others who hunted pheasants. Those were the heydays the of the Soil Bank Act, when a surplus of wheat and feed grains led to the government-supported program that paid farmers to idle acres of cropland in exchange for fields of grasses and other forbs. The pheasant population responded in kind.
Statistics from the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department show that at the height of the Soil Bank Era between 1958 and 1964 the average pheasant population in the state rested just over 9 million birds. At only two other periods of time has the state enjoyed a higher average of pheasants over a six-year period of time: from 1941-1946 (13 million) and 2003-2008 (9.4 million). Collectively, those three chunks of time represent the Golden Age of the pheasant in South Dakota, and, interestingly enough, they all reached an end in similar fashion.
Life in post-World War II South Dakota brought with it massive changes to the way farmers worked the land. Improvements to seed, machinery and fertilizer coupled with intensified land drainage meant bringing more acres into production and gaining more production from those acres.
The typical brand of farm began to change, too, from a diversified operation that included small grains, forage and livestock to those more specialized and refined in nature.
As agricultural production increased in rural South Dakota, the amount of habitat available for pheasants decreased. By 1950, the state’s pheasant population had bottomed out at just over 3 million birds, and hunters were relegated to a hunting season only 10 days in length. Slowly, the number of pheasants began to inch upward, but the Soil Bank Act of 1958 was the catalyst for the pheasant’s full return to glory.
Pheasant numbers rebounded in South Dakota seemingly overnight from 5.9 million birds in 1957 to over 11 million the next year. And South Dakota’s pheasants were not alone in their recovery. When at its peak of nearly 28 million acres nationwide in the early 1960s, the Soil Bank Act supported large populations of pheasants all over the country, and hunters everywhere basked in an abundance of gaudy roosters and heavy game bags.
Conservation Reserve Program
By the late 1960s, acres enrolled in the Soil Bank program shriveled to a near halt, and the cycle of intensified crop production — spurred on by then-Secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Earl Butz’s mantra to “farm fencerow to fencerow” — and declining pheasant numbers began all over again.
Help would return for South Dakota’s pheasant population in the form of the Conservation Reserve Program and the 1985 Farm Bill, but not before the state suffered through a decade of terrible pheasant numbers.
The population reached a modern all-time low, based on SDGFP estimates, at 1.4 million pheasants in 1976, a year when hunters averaged fewer than four birds harvested for the entire season.
To put those numbers in perspective, hunters have killed more than 1 million birds every year the past decade with the exception of 2013, when the harvest total was estimated to be just over 980,000 birds.
With the advent of the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), the amount of quality habitat increased across South Dakota, and the pheasant population began a steady ascent. Places such as Iowa, Minnesota, Kansas, North Dakota and Nebraska saw pheasant numbers rebound, too, but none reaching those consistent levels enjoyed during the era of the Soil Bank Act.
All except South Dakota, that is. Bolstered by a CRP acreage of well over 1 million acres, pheasants again maintained consistently high levels between the years 2003-2008, peaking at nearly 12 million birds in 2007.
The decline would come, again, as the demand for increased production from South Dakota’s landscape brought about a decline in those acres of grassland habitat. Currently, South Dakota has fewer than 1 million acres of CRP on the ground.
But it is not only a decrease in acres of CRP that is bringing about this most recent decline. The conversion of native grassland and decline of pheasant-friendly crops such as wheat and other small grains are also playing a role in establishing a downward trend in pheasant numbers.
The landscape of South Dakota is simply “neater,” for a lack of a better term, than it was 50 years ago. Fields of corn are cleaner, those grassy waterways (that haven’t met the shovel or tile plow) are mowed like a finely manicured lawn, cattail sloughs and shelterbelts are also disappearing, and ditches and other right-of-way areas are mowed, farmed or otherwise laid claim to.
It is a landscape that is undoubtedly more productive for producing food and fuel, but the loss of those little bonus chunks of cover — areas that don’t fall under the heading of CRP or native grassland acreage — are also contributing to the pheasant’s most recent downward trend.
All of which leads me to this: I don’t know if we will ever see pheasant numbers return to those historical highs of the 1940s, 1960s or early 2000s.
This is not a strike against agriculture, but more the reality for a state that has a growing footprint in terms of fuel and food production for the world — the demand for which is not likely to decrease during my lifetime. And to meet the demand, farmers are going to continue to spend more for land, equipment, seed and other inputs — costs that will make retiring that ground to enroll in a federal conservation program a seemingly impossible decision.
However, the decision to hunt in South Dakota is one that most hunters won’t have difficulty making. And there is a strong chance that we will shoot over 1 million pheasants again this year, far outpacing the other states in the pheasant belt, but below what we’ve grown used to since CRP came on the landscape.
Much like last year, harvest numbers dipped in those years after World War II and again after the Soil Bank era, but folks always found a way to bring them back up.
Only time will show if history will indeed repeat itself yet again, or as Yogi Berra once said, if it will be “deja vu all over again.”
About the Author: John Pollmann is a freelance outdoor writer from Dell Rapids, S.D. Follow him on Twitter @JohnPollmann.