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Notes from the South Dakota Governor’s Habitat Summit 2013

December 12, 2013

habitatsummitOn Friday, December 3, in Huron I attended the South Dakota Governor’s Habitat Summit 2013. It was an interesting event and as a conservationist I felt it would be an important event for the state.  A video of the speakers can be viewed on the SD Game, Fish & Parks website. This post has some random notes I took at the event; along with some of my opinions thrown in. This post is NOT a comprehensive examination of the event, rather it is some key points I think are important so I can potentially draw on for future posts.

  • Opening Remarks – Jeff Vonk – Secretary, South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks
    • Vonk remarked that an event of this type had not been held since the mid-70’s for a pheasant congress.
    • Vonk said the intent of the summit was to focus purely upon habitat. This is important because it became an issue later in the small group I attended.
  • Opening Remarks – Dennis Daugaard – Governor
    • Daugaard asked the question of how does agriculture co-exist with pheasant hunting. Since any answer to the habitat problems in South Dakota must involve farmers I believe this is the most important question asked… One which has no simple answer.
  • History of Pheasants in SD – Tony Leif – Director, Wildlife Division of South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks
    • There have been 95 pheasant seasons in South Dakota. I found it interesting that the first pheasant season in 1919 was in Spink County, had a bag limit of 2, and lasted only 1 day. It is hard to imagine that today. I recommend watching his whole presentation for a good history lesson.
    • Leif mentioned a mixture of grassland and cropland is perfect for pheasants. Any solution going forward must balance multiple types of vegetation.
    • Leif said there are two main factors that control pheasant numbers.
      • First weather impacts pheasant numbers in the short-term.
      • Second habitat impacts pheasant numbers in the long-term.
    • In 1947 out-of-state hunters were banned. Luckily two years later hunting for out of staters was restored.
    • The ’85 farm bill CRP allowed a 10-15 year period of cropland being turned to grassland.
  • Barry Dunn, Ph. D. – South Dakota Corn Utilization Council Endowed Dean, SDSU College of Agriculture and Biological Sciences
    • My favorite line from Dr Dunn was when says climate change is a topic “no one understands”. I agree completely. I feel both sides of the climate change debate have focused too much on junk science and ideology. This is not likely to change anytime soon in my opinion.
    • Dunn also mentioned that wildlife is ‘publicly owned’. I would actually like to discuss this topic with Dr Dunn some time in the future. I think it would be interesting to find ways to reconcile private property rights and public wildlife access. That is a topic that needs more open and honest discussion going forward.
    • “Precision Agriculture”. That was a great phrase Dunn used. Using sub-optimal land for crops makes no sense. Farmers would be better seved using prime land for ag, and using less prime land for conservation.
  • Bruce Knight – Principle and Founder, Strategic Conservation Solutions, LLC
    • Knight noted diets are changing worldwide towards meat. That will change the very of nature of agriculture moving forward; both worldwide and locally.
    • Knight had another great phrase similar to Dunn’s “Precision Agriculture”; he used the term ‘sustainable intensification’. If I understand the concept correctly it means getting the greatest amount of production from farmland while balancing the needs of the environment.
    • Knight supports crop insurance as a risk management tool.
    • Knight also mentioned that any solution on habitat must include ranchers. This is even more true due to the nature of diets changing worldwide.
  • Dave Nomsen – VP of Governmental Affairs, Pheasants Forever
    • The best part of Nomsen’s presentation was the idea that every farm and ranch has pieces of land that can be used for conservation. That may mean being creative. Literally this may mean thinking ‘outside of the box’ (my words, not his).
  • Jim Hagen – Secretary, South Dakota Department of Tourism
    • Honestly didn’t pay too much attention here… Our out-of-state marketing campaign just isn’t that interesting to me. I believe out-of-state hunters is important for South Dakota tourism.. its just not a topic I have an interest in.

After each speaker there was a panel discussion. The discussion was interesting. But I felt it was almost painfully obvious that any true discussion of the downside of the Farm Bill’s incentive to remove conservation land was avoided. The lowering of CRP funding was mentioned as a factor in reducing habitat land. However the subsidies that create incentives for farmers to plow sub-prime land was not really touched on in any detail. Without looking at the bad sides of crop subsidies in the Farm Bill I don’t think the conversation is truly complete. Right now I believe the Farm Bill as it is encourages bad conservation practices.

Knight also mentioned during the panel discussion that ranchers are challenged by property taxes being based on soil type instead of use. I agree. If land is going to be taxed based upon potential instead of its actual use that will create incentives for ranchers to get the most value out of their land in terms of money.

The small group I was in after the panel discussion focused mostly around CRP and the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of the Game, Fish, and Parks. An interesting idea brought forward was having a state-level CRP program. However there was very little confidence within the small group as to the GFP’s ability to manage such a program. There were multiple examples brought forward of GFP (and School & Public Lands to a lesser extent) resources being managed poorly. Almost every member of the small group also seemed to think there was no communication or coordination within the GFP. Many of the attendees I spoke with feel the GFP does not work with farmers; rather anytime a farmer deals with the GFP they feel as if the GFP is acting against them. This is an issue the GFP has to fix before farmers will work with them on a long-term solution.

My small group also had someone walk out saying “When will we even attend a summit focusing on predators”. That attendee had a point. Any time predators were mentioned it was shot down almost immediately. Yet at the same time I feel the current predator problem is actually habitat related. With reduced habitat’s it will cause the predators to use more habitats that were used by their prey.

Personally I don’t think anything will come directly out of this summit. First, any solution coming from the state would likely involved GFP, and there was a large proportion of the crowd that had little or no trust in the GFP’s ability to implement anything. Second, the Farm Bill is federal. It is unlikely anyone at the state level can actually do anything about that. Third, it would require a lot of money for any state program to be funded. In retrospect the $30 million Daugaard set aside for Building South Dakota could make a good start for a state level conservation program (I am usually opposed to expansion of government, but such a program if run well may have benefits that outweigh the negatives).

I believe Daugaard will have this summit again next year. I look forward to seeing what, if anything, is done over the next year.

On a side note I am working with some others who are looking at a private solution to a conservation program. More coming on that later this winter if something develops.

  1. Merlyn Schutterle
    December 12, 2013 at 2:35 pm

    I found your remark that Daugaard will have this summit next year interesting. You probably have accepted the fact that he will be governor next term too.

    The naturalist need to remember pheasants are a foreign species that have destroyed the prairie chicken’s habitat.

    GFP has too much power already. I am not allowed to keep the deer from coming into town and destroying my garden while the warden sleeps.

    • December 12, 2013 at 2:37 pm

      Next year is an election year, so next fall would be part of his current term.

      I agree the pheasant is not native. But the battle to keep pheasant habitat will help other environmental issues we have in South Dakota. For me basically it is a good way to start the conversation about good conversation practices.

      I don’t think expanding GFP is the way to go. But it was brought up a lot in the summit.

  2. Merlyn Schutterle
    December 12, 2013 at 2:50 pm

    If he doesn’t win, he will likely let the new governor decide. As I understand things, the summit was recently. That isn’t fall. Change of command would be within a few weeks. If he holds one after losing the election, he shouldn’t. I don’t believe he is going to lose either. I am ready to put some money down on that one and Rounds will win as well. Any takers? I know how stupid voters are.

    Unless we let everything go back to nature, there will never be a good conservation plan. As I look out my window here in Rochester or drive on West Circle Drive and look at the huuuuuge amount of dirt they moved to make a new Manard’s and Hyvee store, ideas about us and conservation fly out of my mind.

  1. December 31, 2013 at 10:10 am
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