O, that we might fly back to 1960s South Dakota, when gentle chirpy music played behind our pheasant hunts and stag parties at the Plains Motel.

South Dakota Tourism tweets this splendid promotional video, Pheasantland USA, produced in the 1960s by South Dakota Game Fish & Parks, the University of South Dakota, and the Conservation Department of Winchester-Western.

At 1:10, a couple of guys hop out their airplane, ready to hunt in their coonskin caps. The narrator says they've flown a thousand miles just to shoot a "wild chicken."

At 3:45, our state scriptsmiths craft the compelling narrative of young Tim, "taking his place in the company of MEN." Wise old Els hands Tim a booklet on hunting and tells him to pay close attention to the section on gun safety to get ready for tomorrow.

Tomorrow is a long time away when you're fifteen and waiting to go on your first pheasant hunt. This isn't just another rabbit hunt. This is a real bird hunt, a man's game played by men's rules. What's going to happen? Will we see pheasants? Will I get a chance to shoot? And will I be able to hit one of those roosters? If I can get a bird or two, what will Dad say? Well, Tim, we'll see. you never know what's going to happen out pheasant hunting [SDGF&P, Pheasantland USA, promotional video, circa 1960s].

The finest French cinematography comes at 6:10, the morning of the big hunt, as the camera opens from the night and lingers on a single frying egg, clearly a symbol of Tim's youthful existential isolation, as well as a subtle homage to the sustaining feminine id.

At 7:45, the film offers a conservation lesson that Governor Daugaard needed eight meetings and workgroup to figure out: pheasants need cover. The film attests to the farmer's conservation mission and the need to keep grassland for nesting cover and shelterbelts for winter habitat. "You don't get something for nothing," says the narrator, "and you can't raise game without cover" [9:20]. A bit later, the film turns a fine phrase, saying that if we "protect[] a few places from the cow, the plow, and the match" [12:22] we'll have pheasant hunting in the fall.

From there on, the film is mostly hunting wisdom and joy. After the "first action of the day" at 11:40, MEN sit on the ground by the tailgate of their International pickup truck and make white-bread sandwiches of ring bologna and longhorn cheese sliced by their own knives in the field. Never do men live as well as at this moment.

Around 16:00, the men deploy in a cornfield, with the dog crew driving the birds through the golden rows toward the stealthy blockers out by the fence. "It doesn't make much difference if the birds know that the drivers are there, but the presence of blockers should be a military secret."

And at 17:23, we get the sign Lee Schoenbeck has on his new desk in Pierre: "Those two retrievers can be the equal of several men."

This film is mirthfully dated, yet entirely up to date. This fifty-year-old film is exactly the reel playing in every South Dakotan's mind as we head out to the field to blast our state bird.

Related Viewing: Compare that 1960s entry with this amped-up, slo-mo rock-themed 30-second spot on South Dakota pheasant hunting:

As thanks to the country that sent us the wily pheasant, here's an official South Dakota Tourism video promoting our fair state... with Chinese subtitles.

21 comments

Big Ag crowds out pheasants. To restore pheasant numbers and protect South Dakota's shotgun tourism season, Governor Dennis Daugaard proposes more Big Ag, backed with more big government subsidies:

"Winter wheat is probably one of the best habitats for pheasants, and right now 24 counties in eastern South Dakota cannot get federal crop insurance on winter wheat crops," work group chair Pam Roberts said.

It's one of the first priorities Governor Daugaard plans to address.

"If all of Montana can qualify for crop insurance, why should eastern South Dakota, no more susceptible to freeze-outs than Montana, surely, why can't we?" Daugaard said [Jared Ransom, "Conserve Pheasant Habitat, Increase Pheasant Population," KELOLand.com, 2014.09.09].

I can hardly stifle the giggles. Governor Daugaard has as much trouble with his vaunted "South Dakota self-reliance" and his buddy Mike Rounds has with "South Dakota common sense." We need more pheasants, so we need Uncle Sam to hand out more free money for growing crops that may not grow.

By the way, Pam Roberts, SDSU research says pheasants are 2.5 times more likely to nest in grasslands than in winter wheat. If you're going to throw ideological consistency overboard and seek more government handouts, why not ditch subsidies for Kristi Noem's husband and instead get Rep. Noem to undo her cuts to the Conservation Reserve Program to promote more pheasant-fostering grasslands?

14 comments

Farmer and pheasant-hunt host David Gillen opines in the Pierre Capital Journal that the Conservation Reserve Program is bad for pheasants and South Dakota wealth:

Full 160-acre tracts of CRP are not that desirable for young chicks. After a couple years of CRP that is not cut for hay, the amount of plant growth present is too thick for the young chicks to move through. If we get a cold, wet rain or heavy dew when the chicks are small, they get too cold from all the wet plant material around them. The hen will try to move them to an open area for sunshine, but in the large CRP fields, sometimes it is too far to an open area to get warmed up from the sun.

...Pheasant hunting and profitable agriculture creates new wealth in this state for all of us to prosper. CRP destroys wealth by taking tax dollars from people that generate income and pays landowners to idle land that could create new wealth through agriculture [David Gillen, "What You Should Know About CRP: A Farmer's Perspective," Pierre Capital Journal, 2013.12.23].

Gillen serves as a manager at Prairie Ethanol, and he's been president of the South Dakota Corn Growers Association and a board member of the American Coalition for Ethanol. Gillen defends an industry that has done enormous harm to the prairie with its voracious push for ditch-to-ditch, stream-to-stream cultivation of every acre a tractor can reach.

But let's counter Gillen's industry-boosting anecdote with scientists and research. CRP means more pheasants:

More than 800,000 ha of Iowa farmland were enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) from 1986–1991. I evaluated the relationship between CRP enrollment and ring-necked pheasants (Phasianus colchicus) in Iowa and how cropland and weather affected that relationship. Six percent of the land area in Iowa was enrolled in the CRP between 1986 and 1991. Pheasant numbers increased 30% during the first 5 years of the CRP compared to a similar period before the program began (P = 0.026). Numbers increased 34% (P = 0.018) in counties with >70% cropland and 26% (P = 0.12) in counties with 50–70% cropland. I did not detect increases in counties with <50% cropland (P = 0.71). Pheasant numbers were positively related to the CRP, but this function was also influenced by percent cropland and cumulative snowfall [Terry Z. Riley, "Association of the Conservation Reserve Program with Ring-Necked Pheasant Survey Counts in Iowa," Wildlife Society Bulletin, Vol. 23, No. 3 (Autumn, 1995), pp. 386-390].

CRP means more than just pheasants for Gillen's customers to pay to shoot at:

"Goodness, there's thousands of species that live in grasslands, including several hundred species of higher plants," says Carter Johnson, an ecologist at South Dakota State University in Brookings, S.D. Plus, permanent grass cover keeps soil from washing away.

"With those deeps roots that grasses have, and thick thatch, the water has a hard time getting a hold of the soil," says Johnson.

So more land in CRP means cleaner streams, less fertilizer runoff and more carbon stored in the soil [Dan Charles, "Grasslands Get Squeezed as Another 1.6 Million Acres Go into Crops," NPR, 2013.12.22].

Additionally:

In the central USA, more than 90 bird species were documented using CRP plantings during summer breeding periods, with direct evidence of nesting by more than 40 species. Direct comparisons of crop and CRP fields revealed no differences in total number of species occurring in the two habitat types. But CRP fields supported from 1.4 to 10.5 times the number of individual birds as did crop fields. Nest abundance was from 8.8 to 27 times higher in CRP fields than in crop fields. Nest success of songbirds was slightly higher in CRP fields (40%) than in crop fields (36%). Overall, CRP fields produced about 14 times as many songbirds as did rowcrop fields. Several assessments suggest nongame bird populations increased because of the CRP. Duck nesting in cropfields is uncommon. Duck nest densities in CRP fields were similar to those occurring in habitats managed for waterfowl. Duck nest success in CRP fields was equal to or higher than that on lands managed by public agencies for waterfowl. Ring-necked pheasant numbers were three to five times higher after CRP plantings were established. The success of pheasants nesting in CRP fields was greater than that necessary for population growth [Mark R. Ryan, Loren W. Burger and Eric W. Kurzejeski, "The Impact of CRP on Avian Wildlife: A Review," Journal of Production Agriculture, 1998. 11:61–66.].

Gillen's anecdote sounds plausible—wide tracts with dense ground cover may not be ideal for pheasants in wet conditions—but the research seems pretty clear that CRP acres increase bird numbers.

12 comments

Larry Kurtz is right: Governor Dennis Daugaard's Pheasant Habitat Summit in Huron yesterday was an exercise in absurdity. Daugaard spent time and money gathering hundreds of South Dakotans to fret and stew over the decline of a non-native species caused largely by his own industrial agricultural policies.

Strategic Conservation Solutions logoThe logo of the consulting firm brought in to speak to the issue says it all: one little sprout of green struggling up amidst rigid lines of row crops and pavement.

Larry links and adds his links to an excellent Iowa Public Radio report explaining how the decline of pheasants is all our fault:

As farmers across the Midwest have simplified the landscape and plowed up grassland to grow more corn and soybeans, habitat for pheasants, quail and other grassland birds has become increasingly scarce and their numbers are falling. In Nebraska, wild pheasant concentrations have fallen 86 percent since their peak in the 1960s. The pheasant harvest during hunting season in Iowa is off 63 percent from the highs reached in the 1970s. In areas that used to be overrun, you’ll struggle to find a pheasant now. [Grant Gerlock, "Pheasants Losing Habitat to Farmland," Iowa Public Radio, 2013.12.03].

Not hard to figure out, Dennis. Promote huge monoculture farms and ethanol over small, locally sustainable agriculture, and you're going to have fewer pheasants. And I didn't have to spend any tax dollars to come to that conclusion.

17 comments

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