- Associated Press - Monday, January 20, 2014

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) - The harmony among farmers and ranchers, conservationists and sportsmen that prevailed at Gov. Dennis Daugaard’s pheasant habitat summit in December in Huron provides a valuable foundation for the work group the governor appointed after the event, say several of its members.

The diverse, 13-member group is charged with developing a strategy for the state to stabilize and rebuild pheasant numbers that declined 64 percent in the past year and are down an even steeper 76 percent from the 10-year average.

The work group is supposed to report its findings by late summer or early fall, the Argus Leader reported (http://argusne.ws/K3cxiE ).

“The great thing about the Huron meeting is I loved the tone established by the governor and (Department of Game Fish and Parks) Secretary (Jeff) Vonk, that this isn’t about agriculture and hunters being opposed,” said Jan Nicolay of Chester, a work group member, former legislator and conservation advocate.

Some group members see the challenge as primarily financial. The fundamental solution, they say, is to secure a stable and sufficiently large revenue source for the state to replace a significant portion of more than 500,000 acres of federal Conservation Reserve Program grassland that farmers have converted to crops in the past half-dozen years.

Others look at the problem from landowners’ perspective and seek to advance proposals that would entice farmers to leave land in grass and to adopt farming practices that benefit wildlife.

Congress is stalled in its effort to pass a new farm bill with a conservation title, and “we all recognize the amount of money that has come from the federal government probably is not going to be there in the amounts they have been in the past,” said John Cooper, South Dakota Game Fish and Parks commissioner and retired GF&P; secretary.

Cooper said he thinks money focused on watershed improvements in the federal Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program still will be available in a new farm bill, and it will provide opportunities to improve pheasant habitat adjacent to waterways such as the James, Big Sioux and Vermillion rivers and their tributaries.

But he said the key is to find a steady $7 million to $10 million annual revenue source devoted to pheasant habitat. He suggests a dedicated sales tax might do it. Cooper also pointed out that hunters and anglers already contribute when they pay federal taxes devoted to wildlife programs on guns, ammunition and sporting equipment and when they buy hunting and fishing licenses. But retailers who are major beneficiaries of the $200 million annual economic effect of pheasant hunting in South Dakota don’t contribute proportionally.

“Very few people on Main Street and in high-end box stores such as Scheels and Cabela’s have really paid an equal, fair share,” he said.

Nicolay agrees states that are successful in stabilizing wildlife habitat have a dedicated source of revenue for the purpose. The source differs from state to state, she said, and it will be part of the committee’s responsibility to find what works for South Dakota.

Steve Halverson, a Lyman County farmer who also offers premier wild pheasant hunting through his Halverson Hunts, said he thinks the Legislature can have a substantial effect on reversing the loss of grassland by changing the way the state taxes agricultural land. Now, it is taxed at the highest potential use, which is often as cropland.

“That’s the driver that has led to more ground being broken up than anything,” he said.

If land were taxed on what it is actually used for, Halverson said, more landowners would be willing to keep it in grass.

“For a lot of these guys, their taxes have tripled on some of their grasslands.” Halverson said. “At some point, a farmer said, ‘I just can’t keep it in grass anymore.’”

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