Photographer: Brad Nading/AP Photo

Crop-Price Plunge Helps Hunters as Pheasants Fly in South Dakota

  • Farmers planting fewer corn fields means expanded bird habitat
  • As flock expands, so do sales of hunting gear, licenses, guns

The longest U.S. corn slump since the 1980s has turned into a bumper year for South Dakota’s $220 million pheasant-hunting industry, the nation’s biggest.

Low prices for the No. 1 crop in South Dakota have encouraged growers to leave more land fallow, which helps expand habitat for the speckled game birds that are the official symbol of the state. The Game, Fish & Parks department is forecasting the biggest wild flock in at least five years. At SoDak Sports in Aberdeen, sales of hunting licenses topped last year’s total with a month left in the season.

“We’ve been busy selling gear, lots of ammo, guns,” said SoDak Sports owner A.J. Hoffman, whose sale of hunter orange gear this season has put his store in the black. “People buy guns for their kids, their grandkids.”

While an exact flock tally for this year isn’t available, a state survey indicated 42 percent more birds per mile than last year. Milder winters helped, allowing more pheasants to survive to spring. But so have corn prices that are now less than half their 2012 peak and down for a third straight year, the longest slump since 1986.

Corn farmers in South Dakota, the sixth-largest producer in the U.S., reduced acreage by 11 percent this year to the fewest since 2010, and soybean planting was cut by 1 percent, government data show. The two account for half the land devoted to the state’s principal crops and more than two-thirds of its crop revenue.

Poor Habitat

Corn stalks are a poor habitat for wild birds, and the rise of corn monocultures, with little crop mixture, also reduces animal numbers, said Lisa Schulte-Moore, a land-management professor at Iowa State University in Ames.

With less land being cultivated, wild pheasants are reclaiming the territory after the population plunged during a period of record-high crop prices and expanded planting. The flock declined 48 percent to 6.2 million in 2013 from 11.9 million in 2007, state data show. Last year, it rose to 7.5 million birds and is forecast to rise again this year, said Travis Runia, a state game biologist.

During the plunge in the pheasant flock, the number of out-of-state hunters coming to South Dakota dropped 28 percent over a decade, government data show. With data for the season nearly complete, out-of-state licenses rose 7.1 percent from a year earlier, according to the state.

“This is better than the last five years,” said Christopher McKenzie, 32, who hunts on land his wife’s family first homesteaded in the late 19th century near Aberdeen, in the eastern part of the state.

Converting Grassland

The rebound in the pheasant population comes after years of decline, when corn and soybean prices surged to record highs. Federal policies ranging from ethanol requirements in gasoline to crop-insurance plans that compensate for poor harvests encouraged a build-up over the years, said Dave Nomsen, vice-president for governmental affairs at Pheasants Forever, a St. Paul, Minnesota-based advocate for hunting and habitat.

From 2008 to 2012, about 5.7 million acres of U.S. grassland, an area about the size of New Hampshire, were converted to cropland, much of it on the Great Plains, according to a University of Wisconsin study published earlier this year. South Dakota had its biggest corn crop ever in 2013, at 813 million bushels from 5.6 million acres harvested, USDA data show.

Meanwhile, attempts to help conserve land from cultivation have been under attack. National enrollment in the Conservation Reserve Program, a federal program that offers funds to farmers for setting aside land, involved 25.4 million acres across the country last year, the fewest since 1988 and down 31 percent from its 2007 peak.

Less Conservation

A farm bill enacted last year may further crimp habitat, limiting the amount of acreage allowed in a program popular with conservationists to levels not seen in a quarter-century. The farm bill ratchets down the cap on the program to 24 million acres by 2017.

Corn and wildlife have co-existed for generations and will continue to do so, said Chip Bowling, a Maryland farmer who is president of the National Corn Growers Association and hunts pheasant every year in South Dakota. Bowling disputed research tying habitat loss to corn, saying that farmers can create healthy environments with the right mix of crops and rotating acreage away from corn rather than growing it year after year.

The farm-bill caps make a full return unlikely to the glory days of 2007, when pheasant totals were the highest since the 1940s, Nomsen said. And a return to high prices for commodities could easily erase progress for the birds -- land moved into small grains can easily go back into corn, and in the end the market beats the birds, Nomsen said.

“Once farmers and landowners start making money again, they don’t want to talk about conservation,” he said.

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