Gov. Kristi Noem has expressed a high level of enthusiasm about a new program implemented not long after she took office in Pierre. One of her selling points? It will encourage kids to abandon their video games in favor of the great outdoors.
“On April 1, we launched the nest predator bounty program that will focus on increasing trapping. Although this is a new program, trapping predators during nesting season has been practiced in South Dakota for decades,” she states in a recent press release. “I’m excited to implement this plan to get our kids outside – away from the x-box and into the live box. This program will be extremely beneficial in enhancing duck and pheasant nest success.”
What Gov. Noem is talking about is South Dakota’s new nest predator control program.
The South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Commission unanimously approved, with little discussion, an administrative rule regulating the state's new program on April 5 after holding a public hearing on the proposed program on Thursday, April 4.
What’s happened, basically, is the state has put a bounty on the heads of certain varmints in hopes that fewer varmints will eventually mean more pheasants.
State officials use a bit more polished language to describe what’s going on.
“The South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks is focused on increasing participation in trapping from all ages while at the same time, reducing localized populations of nest predators as a way to enhance pheasant and duck nest success,” states a GF&P web page about the program. It also notes that this is a new program, but just like our governor, the state info sort of pooh poohs that by stating “we’ve always done this.” (Those are my words by the way, not the state’s).
“While the nest predator bounty program is a new incentive based program, the activity of trapping nest predators during the nesting season has been a utilized management technique for decades,” according to the state’s release. “Trapping is central to wildlife management, conservation and sustaining our state's outdoor traditions for the next generation.”
I grew up on a farm – granted, that was a while ago, but I never heard older folks issue a battle cry each spring to us kids to “go out and trap some varmints.”
There really wasn’t a need to worry about them, at least in terms of the pheasant population. There was no need to put a bounty on the heads of raccoon, striped skunk, badger, opossum, and red fox, because pheasants had lots of natural habitat in which to live all through the Midwest, including South Dakota.
It all started with the Soil Bank that was introduced by the Eisenhower Administration at about the time I was born. The Soil Bank got its start 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.
It was a philosophy in ag management that persisted through my younger years. The federal government established programs to pay farmers to keep some of their land out of production.
It created a veritable pheasant mecca.
Long-time South Dakotans remember those days. It was a time of brushy fencelines and areas of grassy cover where ring-necked roosters used to erupt and fill the sky like a flock of blackbirds.
Statistics from the state GF&P show that at the height of the Soil Bank Era between 1958 and 1964 the average pheasant population in the state rested at 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.
According to the Outdoor Forum, agriculture production increased after World War II and 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.
It wasn’t foxes or raccoons or other predators that were the direct cause of dropping pheasant numbers. It was lack of habitat and I’m guessing that’s the same situation we’re in today.
An article published by the Federal Reserve of Minneapolis notes that the number of acres enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) – which is sort of today’s version of the Soil Bank – has been declining.
CRP was initiated in 1986. Its goal was to pay farmers a modest rental fee to take marginal, highly erodible land out of production to reduce erosion and improve soil health and wildlife habitat. It also targeted acreage around water – like riparian buffers, grassed waterways and contour grass strips – in more productive fields to prevent sediment and nutrient runoff and to protect water quality.
The program proved popular with farmers, quickly ramping to 35 million acres nationwide by 1993. By 2007, CRP acreage peaked at almost 37 million acres nationwide.
But then commodity prices began to rise. Corn and soybean prices, for example, more than doubled from 2006 to 2012, thanks to increasing corn consumption from ethanol and higher exports for soybeans.
Starting in 2007, farmers began pulling acreage out of CRP and returning them to production as 10-year contracts expired. By 2017, total CRP acreage in the Federal Reserve’s Ninth District states declined by 52 percent, with individual district states seeing drops between 37 percent (South Dakota) and 60 percent (Montana and Wisconsin).
To put it bluntly, there’s your problem regarding pheasant numbers.
The Federal Reserve notes that commodity prices have since fallen significantly and, unfortunately for farmers, reversing course again on CRP enrollment won’t be easy. When prices were rising, Congress responded in the 2009 farm bill by lowering the national cap on enrolled acres from 40 million to 32 million (over four years) in hopes of reducing program expenditures without hurting farmers.
Then in 2014, according to the Fed Gazette, with the ag economy still relatively strong, the next farm bill again ratcheted the cap lower (over five years) to 24 million acres.
Last August, CRP enrolled acreage stands only a shade below its cap and farmers looking to get land back into the program face numerous hurdles. For one, more enrollment emphasis is placed on environmentally sensitive acreage (land near water, for example) as well as re-upping those acres already in the program when contracts expire.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture offers new enrollment for nonsensitive lands (so-called General CRP) only when deemed necessary to meet policy goals. This last occurred in June 2013. General CRP contracts are also competitively negotiated, which means that, depending on application demand, there is no guarantee of a CRP contract even if or when another general sign-up period is announced.
Sagging commodity prices aren’t Gov. Noem’s fault. But she was in Congress, working on farm bills over the past eight years that ultimately lowered the CRP cap that encouraged putting more land into production and, in turn, destroyed pheasant habitat.
Will trapping predators help the pheasant population? It’s likely.
Pheasants Forever, an organization that promotes ringneck hunting throughout the Midwest, notes, however, that predator removal is a small scale remedy.
Trapping, it notes, is effective for small areas but are dependent on three important factors.
Trapping efforts must reduce nest predator populations during the key period of recruitment—beginning prior to, and continuing throughout the entire pheasant nesting season (approximately 100 days).
Trapping needs to extend beyond the boundaries of the controlled area. Most nest predators have large home ranges and if trapping efforts fail to account for this, predators from surrounding areas will still negatively impact nesting success within the controlled area.
Most importantly, a successful removal program is a professional, full-time effort. The occasional removal of individual animals by hunters has very little impact on predator populations and trapping efforts that rely on bounties are destined to fail.
“It is important to understand that sustained trapping efforts tend to stimulate reproduction by predators (compensating for artificially low densities) and create populations with proportionately more juveniles that wander more across the landscape thereby increasing the chances of encountering pheasants,” the organization writes in an article entitled “Effects of Predators” on its website.
It ends the article with this summary: “While predator removal and exclusion methods can increase nesting success on small areas, these methods are too expensive for use on a landscape basis and do not significantly increase the number of nesting birds over the long term. Through the addition and management of habitat, we not only decrease the impact predators have on existing nests, but also increase the number of nests and population size in an area. Predators will continue to eat pheasants and their nests, but weather and habitat conditions will drive population fluctuations.”
As I write this, an April blizzard is raging across much of South Dakota. An organization called SD Habitat Pays notes that “large emergent wetlands like cattail sloughs can perhaps be the most effective winter cover available. Strategically placing other habitat components such as grass planting, food plots, and woody cover plantings near emergent wetlands will amplify the benefits of winter cover, increasing survival of pheasants on your property.
Woody cover in the form of shrub and small tree plantings serve to provide thermal protection for pheasants in extreme winter weather such as blizzards and ice storms. For pheasants, wide, blocky tree planting of 9+ rows are needed to provide adequate winter cover. Narrow tree plantings fill with snow and provide little winter habitat for pheasants.”
Pheasants are tough birds, but it’s likely that better habitat, not a scattering of traps to capture predators, would help them the most right now and likely into the future, too. I don’t know if it’s possible for the state to step in and help enact some CRP-like programs to help farmers idle some acres.
It appears, however, that a strategy to boost ringneck numbers that improves habitat is more effective than trapping predators.