From the number of guns that came off Flight 796 into Aberdeen, S. Dak. a couple of Friday nights ago, one might have thought the town was under siege. It was, in fact, being invaded—by a battalion of hunters. They came in on other flights, too—from both coasts, the South, the North and as far away as Mexico to spend opening weekend of the pheasant season tramping through wheat fields and alfalfa in search of the big bright-feathered birds. But, where this year a battalion ventured forth, 10 years ago an army would have roamed the state.
By almost any but South Dakota standards the pheasant shooting was not bad. Admittedly it has been better in other years but, even so, most hunters willing to walk and work for their birds managed to fill their limits. The trouble with South Dakotans is that they remember when pheasants were everywhere in numbers so thick that it was difficult to drive down a road without running over them. That was in the early '40s and '50s and as recently as 1963, when, depending upon which estimate you believe, there were anywhere from 11 to 30 million pheasants in the state. Today there are just over three million.
What happened and why has caused almost as much controversy in South Dakota as the war in Vietnam. The one fact in all the furor on which everyone agrees is that the birds have indeed declined. What keeps the arguments going into the night is whether the decline is the result of predators, pesticides, weather or lack of habitat.
The answer, of course, is that all have been factors, with lack of habitat being the most important. But the basic reason is not any of these. Nor is it a reason that very many people—-layman or expert—have considered or explored. The pheasant has declined on the prairie purely and simply because of the attitude of the residents toward the bird.
A pheasant is much more than a pretty creature to grace the roadsides and provide the hunter's sport. It is a valuable resource in the overall economy of this region. But few people have realistically appraised its role in their lives and community. Some have tried—notably members of the state Game Department and Pheasants Unlimited, a Sioux Falls organization dedicated to restoring the pheasant to its former peaks—but most efforts at convincing others have failed. The pheasant should and could be as important a commodity in South Dakota as wheat and white-face cattle. That it is not, in this era of enlightened game management and increased leisure, is indefensible.
No game bird imported into the U.S. has bred as successfully as the Chinese ringneck pheasant. The bird has been here almost 100 years and in that time has spread through 34 states. It is a people bird, prospering with cultivation rather than wilderness. Diversified farming and pheasants go hand in hand.
In the '40s pheasants were so numerous in the Dakotas that a single coolie or bottom might produce as many as 500 birds. Most farms were rich with shelter areas then. With slow, old-fashioned equipment and many young men away at war, today's "clean" farming was not possible—and the birds thrived. When the war ended, farming began to change. Equipment improved, the men returned and the cover began to go. So did the birds.
But in 1956 there was a reprieve. Soil banks were established throughout the grain belts, providing a form of subsidy for the farmer and lebensraum for the pheasant. Under the soil bank program the Federal Government remunerated the farmer for not farming a portion of his land over a five-to 10-year period. Such "retired" land nurtured weed and sweet clover, sunflower and bromegrass. The land also grew lush with pheasants. The abundance of food, nesting and winter cover on soil-bank land produced birds in phenomenal numbers. By the late '50s the pheasant population had increased spectacularly throughout the prairie.
After the soil-bank era all the land was turned back to cultivation, and "progress" came to the prairie It came in the form of even more improved machines, one of which could do jobs in a day that previously took several machines many days to perform. Such equipment drastically changed the agricultural pattern of the area. Brush stands, draws, shelter belts all disappeared as modern methods and equipment enabled the farmer to utilize even his most marginal acres. Potholes and sloughs were drained for crops. Fields once left in stubble until spring were fall-plowed. As farming intensified, most cover disappeared. There was no place for the pheasant to hide.
In a given year pheasant mortality is 70%. Under normal conditions the 30% carryover is more than enough to both replenish the loss and provide a healthy increase. Even under adverse conditions—drought, flood, severe snows—it is generally enough to pull the population through to a better year. Pheasants recover from such temporary setbacks remarkably well. A single cock with a harem of 10 hens, for example, can produce as many as 75 birds in a season. At even half that rate of reproduction, a badly decimated population can rapidly renew itself. But there must be adequate cover.