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Research Biologist Larry Fredrickson of the South Dakota Department of Game, who has studied pheasants for the past several years, recently looked through some slides taken in Brookings County in 1959. "I had forgotten what the area looked like 10 years ago," he says. "It was a literal jungle. But then the sloughs were drained, the ditches were mowed, the weed patches cleared. One look at the changes in the land 10 years have made and it's obvious what has happened to the pheasants."
It has not, unfortunately, been obvious to the farmer. Nor has he had the vision to see that beyond the wheat and the rye and the cattle his most valuable crop might well be the pheasant. The farmer has not been alone in failing to recognize the pheasant for what it really is—a highly marketable resource to be cultivated. Most South Dakotans share his blind spot, just as they share his fundamental frontier philosophy. Hunting is basic to it, as is the belief that the game belongs to the people.
The fences are few and far between in South Dakota, and NO TRESPASSING signs are as scarce as mountains in this flat land. It is a free, friendly place where strangers are still invited to come in for coffee and clerks in the country stores smile when they make change. The concept of farming game as one farms any other crop and then charging for the privilege of harvesting it is foreign to such philosophy.
"If I had to pay to hunt pheasants," commented one South Dakotan, "I would not hunt." But the fact is that unless he pays there may eventually be no pheasants for him to hunt.
The future of the pheasant on the prairie depends first upon a change in the attitude of the people. The bird can surpass even its heyday if the farmer is willing to modify his present methods of farming to provide the cover the birds need. But, to offset the reduced yield of his land, there must be economic incentive. The hunter is the logical person to provide such incentive. By paying for the privilege of hunting on the farmer's land, the hunter would be contributing his fair share to the cost of supplying cover for the game. He would also be guaranteeing the future of his sport.
The system works. It is practiced in many parts of the country, with perhaps greatest success in Texas. Hunting leases sell there for anywhere from a couple of dollars a day on a short-term basis to several thousand dollars for the season. The game prospers under such a system. So, too, does the community.
In 1963, the last big pheasant year in South Dakota, some 68,000 out-of-state hunters paid more than $1.7 million in license fees. They spent an additional $14 million on lodging, meals, shells, gas, guides and other services. There is no way to estimate their public-relations and tourism value which certainly added a substantial boost to the economy of the state.
There is enough land in South Dakota to provide birds and sport for many times 68,000 hunters. In only a few years the state could boast the finest pheasant hunting anywhere in the country—better even than in the legendary '40s and '50s. What happens in the '70s should be decided now.