No phase of South Dakota life is, directly or indirectly, unaffected by the rise and fall of the pheasant population, and in recent times these ups and downs have occurred with alarming frequency. Nor has anyone been more acutely aware of the bird's importance to the economy of the state than former Governor Richard F. Kneip, who left that office only this summer to become ambassador to Singapore.
Three years ago, after the pheasant population took another sharp downward turn, Kneip called together representatives of 165 state organizations spanning pheasant-related interests from agriculture to tourism to land management to hotels to restaurants. He commissioned this Pheasant Congress, as it was called, with the job of studying the population patterns and coming up with a means of stabilizing them.
The congress concluded that the most significant factor in the pheasant's downward trend was changing land-use patterns: intensified agriculture, new and improved equipment that leaves fewer uncultivated margins, increased grazing, more sophisticated farming methods, the end of federal soil-bank programs, higher taxes and inflated land values. The congress proposed that the state legislature adopt the Pheasant Restoration Act, to be funded jointly by the state and hunters, with 80% of its appropriation to be used for the creation and improvement of habitat, 10% for restocking and 10% for predator control. The act was passed in 1977.
The state legislature allotted $125,000 for the program, the first time in the memory of most sportsmen that funds other than hunters' money have been appropriated for wildlife. Also a $5 Pheasant Restoration Stamp was tacked on all state small-game licenses. For every $5 collected, the Federal Government will put up another $12.
Last year, under one of the provisions of the act, some 180 landowners agreed to plant cover crops and to protect pheasants from grazing or disturbance other than hunting. In return, each farmer received up to $25 an acre per year. The three-year goal is 20,000 compensated acres, but as more and more farmers come to understand the importance of habitat to wildlife, it is expected that that figure will be exceeded several times.
John E. (Matt) Sutton Jr. of Agar has always understood. His long years of wise land management are reflected in the numerous coulees, breaks, shelterbelts and tree stands on his 4,600-acre property. All kinds of game—deer, grouse, rabbits, squirrels—find cover and sustenance there. Pheasants thrive on his land and always have done so, even when their numbers plummeted in other parts of the state. In 1976, for example, when drought made severe inroads into pheasant populations, Sutton's birds were unaffected, thanks to an extensive irrigation system that pumps water up out of the Oahe Reservoir of the Missouri River to his land.
Sutton's ranch, principally a commercial cattle and farming operation, also boasts the oldest privately owned herd of bison in the nation. It dates back to 1909, when Sutton's grandfather founded the herd with three animals. Along with everything else on the property, the buffalo have prospered. One of the ancillary delights of pheasant hunting on the ranch is the unexpected sight of the great humpbacked animals silhouetted against the sky. In this land of vast expanse where one is forever awed by the sensation of being able to see three days ahead, this is a vision of another kind, a glimpse back into the roots of the country.
That such a sight exists at all is the result of continuing public and private restoration efforts that date back to the end of the last century. The bison's swift and shocking decline from more than 75 million animals to a pitiful handful was as unexpected as the pheasant crash. That the bison did not disappear entirely is a result of combined efforts of the state and local citizens who stepped in then, as they have now, in the case of the pheasant. Today more than 60,000 American buffalo are scattered across the country and at least two individual herds, one privately owned and one in Custer State Park, number in the thousands.
It is too soon to determine whether efforts to restore the pheasant in South Dakota will be as successful as those that have replenished the buffalo herds, but there is reason for optimism. After only one year, there is noticeable improvement in cover wherever the Pheasant Restoration Plan has been in operation. In spite of a winter so harsh that deer sought shelter in barns and wandered up and down the main streets of towns, pheasant brood stocks appeared unaffected. They were further aided by late spring rains that delayed mowing, thereby permitting the birds a long and beneficial period on the nests.
Official counts of current populations are conservative—principally because exceptionally heavy cover has made accurate counts impossible—but unofficial estimates are more enthusiastic. The Game Department, in fact, seriously considered increasing the daily bag limit from two to three birds this season. Although it finally rejected that idea, there will be two extra hours added to the shooting day when hunting begins on the 21st of this month.