Saturday, December 4, 2021

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Pheasant Season

It’s finally feeling like fall here in Vermillion. Dark-eyed Juncos—those little tuxedoed harbingers of winter—are everywhere, but for the first time since March the “vulture tree” south of town, where throughout the summer upwards of 25 vultures roosted at night, was empty. I put away my hummingbird feeders for the year. The flocks of Yellow-rumped Warblers that were passing through last week have headed on further south. And all over town, you can hear the distant pop of shotguns. 

October also marks the beginning of pheasant season. 

When I first started birding over twenty years ago, I assumed there was a pretty clear line between hunters, who only cared about killing birds, and birders/conservationists who wanted to save them. After all, I’d read the phrase “hunted (nearly) to extinction” over and over again. 

As I’ve learned more about birds, I’ve learned that it isn’t nearly so simple. I’ve also learned that pheasant is quite tasty.

In columns this week, South Dakota politicians wax sentimental about the deep-rooted traditions of pheasant hunting, reminding us of the millions of dollars it brings to the state every year, and extolling the public/private partnerships and conservation efforts that make it all possible. I don’t completely disagree. According to the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks, pheasant hunters spent a total of $291.7 million ($129.6 million by non-residents) in 2020, money the state definitely needs. 

But this isn’t the whole story. When politicians commend the public/private land partnerships, it would be nice to hear them acknowledge that they are on the ancestral lands of South Dakota’s Native nations. And even as hunters and conservationists join forces to protect wetlands and other habitats crucial to the survival of pheasants, geese and other waterfowl, climate conditions such as the current drought and an overall decline in habitat continue to take their toll. According to the Mitchell Republic, South Dakota pheasant populations are in a steady decline. Even the Game, Fish and Parks literature notes that this year’s pheasants are older and wiser and might be more tricky to hunt, a sign that this brooding season wasn’t great.

Hunting is vital for the survival of some species. The Snow Goose, for example, has seen a population explosion. Pushed off their normal wintering grounds in the South as marshes were drained, they discovered that farm fields contained a veritable smorgasbord of food, and now they are threatening to overwhelm and destroy their Arctic breeding grounds—and this threatens the survival of sandpipers and longspurs and other species that share them. Hunting is one solution, but as more and more hunters kill only what their families will eat, they’re not having enough impact to control the population. Light goose season started on September 25 and runs through January 7 with a daily limit of 50.

Any work in conservation is good, but it seems like we might need to work harder to find global climate solutions if South Dakota’s hunting traditions are to continue. And while we pay attention to big moneymakers like pheasants and other hunting favorites, we need to care just as much about birds that aren’t bringing in millions. 

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