Pheasant Fest a success, but conservation efforts need to keep evolving at the local level

Momentum gained during Pheasants Forever's signature event should translate into action on Main Street

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By Andrew Johnson, Editor of Outdoor Forum

Pheasants Forever’s National Pheasant Fest and Quail Classic drew 28,868 people to Sioux Falls last weekend, far exceeding the 20,000 attendees Pheasants Forever officials were hoping for leading up to the event.

The Denny Sanford Premier Center served as home base for the trade show, but hundreds of vendors also lined the floors of the Sioux Falls Convention Center and Sioux Falls Arena.

The giant fiberglass rooster pheasant from Wylie Park in Aberdeen made the trip to Sioux Falls and was popular at the Aberdeen Convention and Visitors Bureau’s booth during Pheasant Fest in Sioux Falls last weekend. Photo courtesy of Casey Weismantel

While many people were happy to talk bird hunting, dog training and land management over the course of the three-day trade show, two other conversations from Pheasant Fest should have more of a lasting impact on the future of pheasant hunting in South Dakota.

Community-Based Habitat Access Summit

On Feb. 16 there was standing room only in a conference room at the Ramada Hotel in Sioux Falls for a community-based habitat access summit. The summit stemmed from the groundbreaking success of the Aberdeen Pheasant Coalition, a new initiative spearheaded by the Northern South Dakota Chapter of Pheasants Forever.

The coalition is a group of local businesses and organizations working to raise money for additional sign-up incentives for landowners in Brown County. Incentives paid by the coalition are added to other one-time payments landowners receive when they enroll land into the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Conservation Reserve Program and the state Department of Game, Fish and Park’s walk-in area public hunting access program.

The coalition is nearly halfway to its goal, said Emmett Lenihan, a Pheasants Forever farm bill biologist who helped start the coalition.

“When we started we wanted to raise $100,000 to open up 4,000 acres,” Lenihan said during the summit. “We’re currently at 1,885 acres.”

Lenihan explained how the coalition took shape after the Brown County economy took a massive hit when pheasant numbers started dropping several years ago. He said Brown County took in $17 million from pheasant hunters in 2010, but by 2013 that number had dropped to $8.7 million.

Lenihan said “pheasanomics” — the business of pheasant hunting — follows a simple equation that resonates with local businesses and community leaders.

“More habitat means more pheasants, which means more pheasant hunters and more dollars,” he said. “The landowner wins with additional money per acre, businesses win with money coming back to the community, and Pheasants Forever and sportsmen win with more birds and more land open to hunting.”

Emmet Lenihan (left) and Casey Weismantel explained how the Aberdeen Pheasant Coalition formed and why it works during the Community-Based Habitat Access Summit during Pheasants Forever’s Pheasant Fest. Photo by Andrew Johnson

Other Pheasants Forever chapters and community leaders from across the state were in attendance, as were several chapters from out of state. They were all ears as Lenihan and Casey Weismantel, executive director of the Aberdeen Convention and Visitors Bureau, outlined the coalition’s approach to engaging the Aberdeen community. Future efforts are expected to use the Aberdeen Pheasant Coalition as a model to increase habitat and access.

For example, the Pheasant Country Chapter of Pheasants Forever in Mitchell is already in the beginning stages of starting its own coalition in and around Davison County and has pledged $150,000 toward the effort.

“People are paying attention nationally to what we’re doing here in South Dakota,” said Howard Vincent, president and CEO of Pheasants Forever, as he addressed summit attendees. “We’re hearing conversations about similar programs starting in North Dakota, Iowa and Nebraska.”

Vincent then challenged those listening to carry the conversation home to Main Street where the economic impact of pheasant hunting is seen and felt at the local level.

“It’s not just about pheasants, not just about hunting,” Vincent said. “It’s about community, and that’s what we’re here to talk about today. You have an incredible example in Aberdeen, but where can it go from here? You’re going to need to continue this evolve. Will there be challenges? Absolutely. But we have more opportunities.”

One additional opportunity Vincent announced during the summit is that the South Dakota Corn Growers Association committed $100,000 in matching funds for a Pheasants Forever saline soils initiative in the state. That’s huge news, as conservation and ag-based organizations have long been at odds on various land management issues. The new partnership is testament to the importance pheasant hunting has on the state’s economy.

“When I think about pheasants, the first thing I think about is partnerships,” said Kelly Hepler, GFP secretary. “There was a time when you’d say (South Dakota Corn Growers) would never do that in a million years, and I applaud them for doing that. The conversation is changing.”

Community-based initiatives and financial commitments from nongovernment entities are two innovative ways to increase habitat and hunting opportunities that do not solely rely on state or federal dollars. All the speakers at the summit said that’s important to bear in mind as a new version of the farm bill takes shape, in which multiple hands are all reaching for the same conservation dollar.

The farm bill is the largest federal source for conservation funding, and the current version of the bill expires in September. Under it, CRP covers 24 million acres nationwide, with close to 1 million of those in South Dakota.

Pheasants Forever has been actively seeking 40 million acres as a cap in the new bill, but Lynn Tjeerdsma, senior policy advisor for Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., said 30 million acres is more of a reality.

“We’ve set 30 million as a baseline, but we won’t argue if we get more,” Tjeerdsma said during the summit. “It’s going to cost a lot in changes to the program to get to 30 million acres — reducing rental rates, the cost-share of establishing cover on CRP acres. This is where community coalitions can really step up. We’re going to need nonfederal funding to help and make these programs work.”

Dave Nomsen, vice president at Pheasants Forever, followed up by saying that it’s also important to ensure CRP acres are reallocated to where they can have more of a dynamic impact on the landscape.

“There needs to be change on the front end of the program,” he said. “We have to change the sign-up process so the acres come back to South Dakota. I’d love to see a program similar to what we had from 1990 through 2010 where there were roughly 1.5 million CRP acres here in South Dakota. That’s our goal.”

It will be interesting to see if the momentum and inspiration gained during discussions like this will be carried by hunters, chambers of commerce members, tourism staff, business leaders and wildlife partners beyond Pheasant Fest and translate into action. If so, then the event’s initial success will be multiplied by efforts that see more habitat on the ground, higher bird populations and more hunter dollars injected into community economies.

South Dakota Showed Up

The largest takeaway from the event should be the fact South Dakota showed up to support the future of pheasant hunting. Sioux Falls is the smallest community to ever host the event, but it drew the third-largest Pheasant Fest crowd on record, falling just shy of the attendance totals from events in Minneapolis last year and St. Paul in 2008.

Pheasant Fest is held in a different city each year, and the hope is Sioux Falls becomes a regular stop in the rotation. Next year Pheasant Fest will be Feb. 15-17 in Schaumburg, Ill., a suburb of Chicago.

The Sioux Falls event did set one attendance record, though, as 1,500 people were on hand Feb. 17 for Pheasant Fest’s annual banquet. It was the largest banquet in Pheasants Forever’s history.

The banquet featured keynote speaker Steven Rinella, an avid outdoorsman, author, TV host and public lands advocate. He wound a historical narrative into his speech and gave examples of how the conservation model in the U.S. has evolved to provide and protect the vast amount of outdoor opportunities we enjoy.

Wildlife is free, Rinella said, and it’s important to keep it that way through responsible management, especially on public lands. Hunters, he said, are responsible more than any other group for the brand of hunting we have today, and they’ve also done the most to protect wildlife as a public resource.

To that end, he said conservation and access should remain at the forefront of the decision-making process going forward to promote — not limit — the country’s outdoor heritage and ensure it’s available for generations to come. State and community leaders from South Dakota and other states were on hand for the speech, and it should be every outdoors enthusiast’s hope that Rinella’s message did not fall on deaf ears.

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